Review of Destiny’s Road by Larry Niven
I first discovered Larry Niven through a friend’s father, who leant me Ringworld, which I loved so much that I eagerly borrowed Ringworld Engineers and Protector upon finishing it. These, too, I immensely enjoyed. So I happily grabbed Destiny’s Road for pleasure reading after finishing David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole.
Niven, as always, does an excellent job with world building: he creates not only a visually compelling natural environment but also an intricate, commentating social context for his characters. I felt immediately familiar with Spiral Town and its inhabitants, the alien vermin and fauna, and the difficulties faced by this small, struggling colony on the planet Destiny.
The major environmental difficulty faced by the individuals revolves around a plant product called speckles, which is their only source of potassium. Without it, they go mad and eventually die. Their supply of speckles is controlled entirely by the caravans of merchants that come at regular intervals.
Jemmy Bloocher grows up in Spiral Town asking questions about the huge road the caravans take to come to the town, wondering where it leads, where the caravans go, where they get their speckles. These questions, along with some random and somewhat unfortunate events, spur Jemmy to seek answers to these questions.
Yes, Niven delves into socio-political commentary, the ethics of scientific research, the influence of economy on society, and the importance of shared knowledge in technological growth and development. He argues against oppression of a people for mere use as a control group. He demonstrates that economy can produce a class division and power dynamic that oppresses certain people groups. He asserts that security of scientific and historical knowledge and the corresponding ignorance of those forbidden this knowledge produces an information gap and an ability to oppress the uninformed. Niven makes excellent points along these lines through his vivid world.
However, the plot is lacking. Very lacking. There is no motivation, no prominent conflict other than Jemmy Bloocher’s questions about the Road and its merchant caravans. I struggled to finish the book simply because I felt no compulsion to see something resolved. And while Jemmy does find answers to his questions, they are somewhat predictable answers and left me with no catharsis whatsoever.
In the last few pages of the book, Jemmy seeks to end the power dynamic and oppression of the control group. This would have made for a compelling plot if Niven had drawn this out and raised the stakes. There was such potential in this! But no. The usually creative and compelling Niven seems to get tired of the book by the end and simply lets the whole plan succeed without failure in the course of a few listless pages. I was so moved by Jemmy’s efforts here that I took a nap before reading the last few pages.
Don’t get me wrong, Larry Niven is usually great. But please, read Ringworld or related books—forget about Destiny’s boring road.