Thursday, November 8, 2007

Larry Niven's "How the Heroes Die": Troubles of an all-male expedition to Mars

This story is set as a sequel to Niven's "Eye of an Octopus", where the first human expedition to Mars digs up a grave & finds evidence of local intelligent life. This story's second expedition is dispatched to make contact. A ship has dumped the 15-member crew near the site of first landing; another one will later take them back.

Because of a crime plot, momentum carries you through the story. No boredom.

Story summary.

Explained as due to the long journey & all male crew - Lew Harness makes homosexual advances towards John Carter. In the ensuing trouble, John ends up killing Lew. Expedition includes Lew's brother, Alf Harness.

While chased by other crew members, John escapes by running his Marsbuggy through the walls of the camp ("bubbletown") - starting a major oxygen leak & endangering the life of all crew members. No one is killed, leak is fixed, & he is chased by Alf & Rufus Doolittle.

Leader of the expedition, Lieutenant Major Acchael Shute, doesn't like the idea of all 3 Marsbuggies they have away from camp; he calls back Rufus. Alf doesn't leave the chase.

Most of the story is of Alf chasing John, & their conversations over radio. Running out of fuel is not a problem; buggy is "powered by a Litton battery holding a tenth as much energy as the original Hiroshima bomb". But limited stock of oxygen is a problem.

John is carrying 13x4 hours oxygen supplies, two 4-hour tanks more than Alf. John is relying on Alf turning back at a time where he can get safely back to camp before his oxygen runs out; he then plans to sneak behind him, destroy the bubbletown of camp to kill the crew while securing his own oxygen supplies, & await next ship from earth with a made up story of an accident: "how a meteorite had touched down at a corner of the dome, how John Carter had been outside at the time, the only man in a suit."

Only, Alf has something else in mind. His halfway point has run out, & he is not giving up the chase! Then the plan is revealed. One of them will have to kill the other; other will then have enough oxygen between the two vehicles to safely go back to camp!

As part of climax, John ends up killing Alf. Only he also will die on his way back. Alf had hidden 3 tanks where he could find them again - just for this eventuality! So John will not have enough oxygen for return trip. But John's vehicle will reach the camp with his dead body.

In between the chase, we get glimpses of local Martians. And a reassertion that oxygen is poison for them.

See also.

  1. Arthur Clarke's "Breaking Strain": Another story where only one of the two men can live because of limited oxygen supplies. But everything else about the plot is different.

Fact sheet.

"How the Heroes Die", short story, review
First published: Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1966.
Rating: A
Series: "Eye of an Octopus", "How the Heroes Die" (A), "At the Bottom of a Hole" (B).


Anonymous said...

I just re-read this story today for the first time since I was a teenager, although I like the story, I found it to be pretty homophobic, which I must have missed when I was younger. This surprised me as Niven usually seems extremely liberal in his depictions of the future...

Anonymous said...

I agree. The mention of Decency Leagues and Sammy Davis III and the Berlin Nazis football team threw me for loop as well. I was wondering if this was some sort of alternate history/parallel universe story

DK said...

This story and the one it follows are among my favorite niven works. As for being homophobic, and although i don't know the man, i don't think he was afraid of homosexuals. You don't have to be afraid of homosexuals to detest having one proposition you. It is absolutely ok to disapprove of someone else's sexual behavior towards you. That is not what makes one homophobic. One can even dislike everthing about a particular culture without being a bigot as well (although it helps). Isn't labeling people and name calling one of the things everone is supposed to be against these days?