Grendel’s galactic mother

Cetus, Perseus and Andromeda, from a Corinthian vase (Wikipedia Commons)
Cetus, Perseus and Andromeda, from a Corinthian vase (Wikipedia Commons)

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes
The Legacy of Heorot
Sphere Books 1988 (1987)

A recent skim through this — I first read and reviewed it in 2001 — confirms what a rich novel this was, from its maps by Alexis Walser to the apt literary quotes as chapter headings, and from its scientific premises to its broader and occasionally more dubious environmental messages. As always there is so much one could say, but a short review will have to focus on a few points that particularly intrigued me.

At twelve light years from our solar system Tau Ceti (or τ Ceti) has long been of astronomic interest in that it is known to have similarities to Earth’s sun Sol and therefore the likelihood of exoplanets orbiting it. Given that this novel first appeared well over a quarter of a century ago it’s significant that recent research has proposed up to five planets in the Tau Ceti system, with one of these being possibly in the habitable zone (though a widespread debris disk may well have disposed of or reduced any evolving life forms).

The Legacy of Heorot, in common with many other SF novels such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, is set on one of the star’s planets; here it is Tau Ceti IV, the fourth from the sun. The novel centres on a group of pioneers which, after a century of travelling in suspended animation, has just established itself on Avalon, as they call the planet, humankind’s first interstellar colony. But, disastrously, that artificial prolonging of their lives has come at a cost to their mental capabilities.

What makes The Legacy of Heorot particularly memorable is its rehandling of themes from other fictions and traditions, mixed in with the hard SF. The plot is a conscious reworking of (as you might guess from the title) Beowulf, set on a landmass the size of New Guinea. The colonists have named both the island and their settlement Camelot, and Avalon’s moons Merlin and Nimuë. (There are even episodes invoking the Arthurian themes of the Fisher King, the Wounded King and, in Cadmann, Lancelot.)

As well as Arthurian legend, other literary strata have been mined: the river that runs through Camelot is called the Miskatonic which, in effect, makes the settlement another Arkham, a concept borrowed from the H P Lovecraft canon of horror tales. As the authors of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places note, “Travellers visiting the city [Lovecraft’s Arkham] do so at their own risk but they are warned that the consequences of such a visit may haunt them for the rest of their lives”, a fitting description too of Camelot Island and the gripping action that takes place there.

What is it that threatens the human colony? Well, if Heorot, the hall attacked by the water monster Grendel and later his mother, hasn’t already alerted us then the constellation Cetus, from which Tau Ceti derives, gives the game away: commonly translated as a giant fish or whale (‘cetacean’ refers to marine mammals), Cetus is also the sea monster from whom Perseus rescues Andromeda, for example. The colonists, to protect their fish stocks from Earth, have hugely wiped out the water-based samlon which prey on the Earth fish. However, the samlon are the male juvenile forms of the larger female cannibals that they grow into, and it is these, unchecked, that turn to preying on human prey, and which fittingly are termed grendels from the monster that terrorises Heorot.

How the colonists cope with these horrific carnivores besieging them (think the Alamo, or Rorke’s Drift, or even Starship Troopers) and the increasing crises they are met with is down to a former outcast, Cadmann Weyland. This survivalist hero, with Welsh ancestry and a name that speaks of a combined Anglo-Saxon and Celtic heritage, is the means by which the struggling fortunes of these terrestrials are changed, using offensive defence, scientific analysis and inspiration from mythology.

So much for the trappings. What of the human aspect to this story? Are there characters whom we empathise with, relationships we admire, individuals we respect, villains we despise? Well, yes, but be warned, The Legacy of Heorot is largely a veneration of Cadmann as the Strong Man of Avalon, and we mostly see everything through his eyes, his thoughts, his philosophies. There is a large cast of secondary figures, mostly token foils for the hero. But if you don’t agree with the frontier politics (put crudely, in some ways this is a Western in space) this novel is still worth seeking out for sheer thrills as well as its mythic resonances. There is a highly readable sequel too — Beowulf’s Children, or The Dragons of Heorot in the UK — in which an environmental Ragnarok on Avalon’s mainland sees a second generation colonist playing Mordred to Cadmann’s Arthur.

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