Neutron Star (short story)
"Neutron Star" is an English language science fiction short story written by Larry Niven. It was originally published in the August 1966 issue (Issue 107, Vol 16, No 10) of Worlds of If. It was later reprinted in Neutron Star, (New York: Ballantine, 1968, pp. 9-28, ISBN 0-345-29665-6), and Crashlander (New York: Ballantine, 1994, pp. 8-28, ISBN 0-345-38168-8). The story is set in Niven's fictional Known Space universe. It is notable for including a neutron star before their (then hypothetical) existence was widely known.
"Neutron Star" is the first to feature Beowulf Shaeffer, the ne'er-do-well ex-pilot and reluctant hero of many of Niven's Known Space stories. It also marked the first appearance of the nearly indestructible General Products starship hull, as well as its creators the Pierson's Puppeteers. The star itself, BVS-1, is featured in the novel Protector (1973), where it is named "Phssthpok's Star". A prelude to the story is also included in the novel Juggler of Worlds.
Beowulf Shaeffer, a native of the planet We Made It and unemployed for the last eight months due to a stock market crash, is contracted by a Pierson's Puppeteer, the Regional President of General Products on We Made It, to pilot a General Products-hulled starship, in a close approach about neutron star BVS-1. The Puppeteers want to determine why two previous researchers, Peter and Sonya Laskin, were killed during the previous attempt on a similar mission. Shaeffer has no intention of even attempting the dangerous mission, but agrees anyway – he has other plans. He has the Puppeteers construct what he dubs the Skydiver to his precise specifications, supposedly to ensure he survives to return with the relevant data: an advanced sensor package, a high-powered thruster – and a high-powered laser. It is thus the only warship ever constructed by the cowardly and paranoid alien race – a prize beyond value and a perfect means of escape. However, he is forced into compliance by an operative of the U.N.'s Bureau of Alien Affairs, Sigmund Ausfaller, who has had the Puppeteers install a bomb somewhere inside the Skydiver. Ausfaller informs Schaeffer that if he does not attempt the mission he will be sent to debtors prison, and that if he attempts to escape in the ship the bomb will be detonated within a week – well before he could even reach another planet, let alone find a buyer for the ship. Shaeffer, realizing he is trapped, agrees to fly the mission.
The Skydiver reaches the neutron star, and the ship's autopilot puts the Skydiver into a hyperbolic orbit that will take 24 hours to reach periapsis with BVS-1, passing a mile above its surface. During the descent Schaeffer notices many unusual things: the stars ahead of him began to turn blue from Doppler shift as his speed increases enormously; the stars behind him, rather than being red-shifted, were blue too as their light accelerated with him into the gravity well of the neutron star. The nose of the ship is pulled towards the neutron star even when he tries to move the ship to view his surroundings.
As the mysterious pull exceeds one Earth gravity, Shaeffer accelerates the Skydiver to compensate for the unknown X-force until he is in free fall (though the accelerometer registers 1.2 gees). Shaeffer eventually realizes what the X-force is: the tidal force. The strong tidal pull of the neutron star is trying to force the ends of the ship (and Shaeffer himself) into two separate orbits. Shaeffer programs the autopilot in a thrust pattern that allows him to reach the center of mass of the ship in effective freefall, though he nearly fails to do so. The ship reaches perigee where tidal forces nearly pull Shaeffer apart anyway, but he manages to hold himself in the access space at the ship's center of mass and survives.
After returning to We Made It, Shaeffer is hospitalized (he has received a sunburn by starlight blue-shifted into the ultraviolet) for observation at the Puppeteer's insistence. While explaining tidal forces to the Puppeteer, Schaeffer realizes the alien had no knowledge of tides, something that would be elementary for a sentient species living on a world with a moon. The Puppeteers are extremely cautious when dealing with other races, and keep all details about their homeworld secret. When Schaeffer mentions that he can tell reporters the fact that the Puppeteer's world has no moon, the Puppeteer agrees to give Shaeffer a million stars (a fortune in galactic currency) in return for his silence. Shaeffer asks the alien how he likes being blackmailed for a change.
- In the story "Ghost", including as framing story for the Crashlander collection, Schaeffer is told that the Puppeteers were well aware of the tidal effect. The actual motive for them paying for Shaeffer's silence was that if they did not, he would realize this. By paying him, they could both shut him up and disseminate false information about the Puppeteer homeworld.[dubious ]
- In the "Afterthoughts" section of the Tales of Known Space collection, Niven writes: "I keep meeting people who have done mathematical treatments of the problem raised in the short story 'Neutron Star', .... Alas and dammit, Shaeffer can't survive. It turns out that his ship leaves the star spinning, and keeps the spin."
- Robert Bly, James Gunn (2005). The science in science fiction. BenBella Books, Inc. p. 197. ISBN 1-932100-48-2. "The first science fiction story to feature a neutron star is Larry Niven's "Neutron Star", published in Worlds of If, October 1966."
- Westfahl, Gary (2005). The Greenwood encyclopedia of science fiction and fantasy: themes, works, and wonders. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 751–752. ISBN 0-313-32952-4. "Neutron stars are featured in a number of science fiction stories. These are the small remnants of supernovae, a few kilometers in diameter, which are made up exclusively of neutrons. Larry Niven's "Neutron Star" (1966) describes the dangers of flying a spaceship too close to such an object"