Larry Niven, The Draco Tavern (Tor, 2006)
Appropriately enough, I am writing this review about a set of stories set in a spaceport tavern on my iBook while sitting in the Green Man Pub listening to several members of the Neverending Session spin tales of life on the road as working musicians. The Pub as a setting in fantastic literature has long and interesting history. There's The White Hart in Arthur Clarke's Tales from The White Hart, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon in a series of novels by Spider Robinson, the unnamed recreation station aka bar in Fritz Leiber's The Big Time, Munden's in Orstrander's Grimjack series, Cowboy Feng's Space Bar & Grille -- which Steven Brust created in his novel of the same name, Tolkien's the Inn of the Prancing Pony, Gavagan's Bar in a series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, the Gaff and Slasher Inn as depicted by Peter S. Beagle in The Innkeeper's Song and Giant Bones, and many, many more. Hell, two anthologies, Tales from the Spaceport Bar or Another Round at the Spaceport Bar (both edited by George H Scithers and Darrell Schweitzer) have been published!
Even video fantastic storytelling has its share, such as Ten-Forward, a recreation area in the starship Enterprise-D, and Mos Eisley in the first Star Wars movie, several less than reputable bars shown in the Firefly series, not to mention the Nightmare Cafe on the very short-lived series of the same name. Bars make great settings to bring folks together to tell and hear tales. And the fight scenes can quite amusing as well!
Now we can add to that list a new Larry Niven collection, The Draco Tavern, which collects all of the previously printed Draco Tavern tales, with a few new pieces thrown in for a bit of value added like all the extras we get on DVDs these days. Draco Tavern is a rather unique place, as it was constructed after humanity's first contact with the technologically advanced alien race called the Chirpsithtra, who look like very large lobsters (sort of). Draco Tavern is owned and operated by Rich Schumann, who invested in a bar built at Mount Forel Spaceport where the Chirpsithtra first came to Earth. (The fortune he used was from developing something a Chirpsithtra told him.) This bar's a mecca for both humans and aliens alike. A costly mecca, as food, drinks and other intoxicants -- such as sparklers for the Chirpsithtra -- are not cheap. But still the Chirpsithtra come to drink in the bar and apparently to tell tales. Humans, in turn, come to drink at the bar to see the aliens, hear them tell their tales and (sometimes) to do business with them, if possible. And everyone, particularly the proprietor of this cafe, Rick, will always listen to a good story.
Start off your reading of The Draco Tavern by paying close attention to Niven's introduction, as it is one of the best such creatures I've ever encountered. I like introductions, but rarely are they well done. Niven, in a smidgen over three pages, tells you everything you need to know about this series, with even a few tantalizing hints about possible future stories to come. One wishes all such introductions were this well-written!
Like Patricia McKillip's Harrowing the Dragon collection, which we reviewed a while ago, there is very little new here, but you won't really care about that, as everything here, previously published or not, is excellent. (One wishes for a novel set in the Draco Tavern, even if it was short like the aforementioned The Big Time novella, as seeing Niven expand on some of his ideas would be cool.) Some, such as 'Assimilating Our Culture, That's What They're Doing', verge on the chilling, while one piece, 'One Night at The Draco Tavern', (published in 1991's Playgrounds of the Mind) was the script of a skit done at the WorldCon Masquerade in Los Angeles in 1984. (Yes, Niven has been playing around with the Draco Tavern for a very long time: the dedication in this book says 'I have been writing these stories nearly as long as we've been married. This book is for Marilyn.') It's silly and fun and is largely an excuse to get many of Niven's characters -- and Niven himself -- into the same space: Wunderlanders, Grogs, Machine People, Moties, Kzin, Puppeteers, and so forth. All in three pages of script!
(Robert Heinlein used a similar plot device in his coda piece of The Number of The Beast. His is entertaining and sprawling whereas Niven's is economic and wistful, as I'd love it to have been longer.)
It is worth noting that all the stories here are fairly short, as there's twenty-six entertaining tales in a tad over three hundred pages of text. They're perfect for savoring one at a time, or for reading all of them on a cold winter's night in your favorite chair while the storm rages outside. (I reread them during one of our not terribly unusual November rain and sleet storms, with a gale wind blowing outside.) I certainly enjoyed getting to read them in the order which they were written, as there's a very obvious evolution of both the Tavern itself and the complexity of the stories being told.
My favorites? All of them. Seriously. This is one of the best single author, single series collections that I've had the pleasure to read. I like the premise, the characters are interesting, and Niven uses both to tell great stories. What more could I want? Well, there is that Draco Tavern novel. . . .