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Achilles' Choice
by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes
Tor, $15.95 , 214pp
Published: March 1991

If I'm counting correctly, this was the eighth novel published with the name of Steven Barnes on the cover but the fifth with Larry Niven's name there as well. Obviously, Niven, who had won the Best Novel Hugo for 'Ringworld' over a decade before they first collaborated, was the bigger name but this is the first of those collaborations that reads to me like Barnes's name should be listed first. That's because it feels like it's fundamentally more his work than Niven's and for the first time.

While his Author Guest of Honor appearance at CoKoCon has been delayed from 2020 to 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic prompting cancellations of the majority of events this year, I'm eagerly looking forward to asking him how they divvied up the work. What did each of them bring to the table? How did they combine their contributions? Did Niven write some scenes for Barnes to develop with his expertise and vice versa? Who came up with the core ideas?

For instance, my reading of Niven suggests that he's an idea man who likes a grand concept but then grows that concept by throwing characters into it. On the other hand, my reading of Barnes suggests that he's a character man who grows his characters by throwing ideas at them. Niven looks outward at where we can go, while Barnes looks inward at what we can do.

This book, for all that it contains a whole slew of ideas, many of which are even more topical today than in 1991, feels more about looking inward. Like Adam Ludlum in 'The Kundalini Equation', this is about one individual person trying to master their body through the application of science. Ludlum does end up using other methods but Jillian Shomer sticks to science. Also, while the term "sports medicine" does appear in that earlier book, Ludlum has very different reasons to Shomer to use it.

Shomer's reasons are much closer to what we might expect today, because she is training to compete in the Eleventh Olympiad, a new kind of Olympics for a new kind of world. This is a world without war or disease, for two things; because the people in charge are now the best of the best, with a seat among their number part of prize to be won at the Olympiad, not just with physical dominance but mental dominance too. For instance, Shomer's events are judo, fellrunning and fractal art.

While this is a skimpy book, only just sneaking past two hundred pages in my Pan paperback edition, that background power structure is carefully evolved and access to it comes with massive risk, hence the book's title.

During the Trojan War, Achilles was given a choice of two possible futures. One would see him abandon the war, return home and live a long, happy life with a loving wife and a string of descendants, but soon forgotten by the world at large. The other would see his name immortalised for his deeds, but he would die young after a short and brutal life, having never returned home again. He chose glory, of course, and we still know his name today.

Shomer and her fellow competitors have a similar choice here. As capable as they all are on their own merits, the only way to viably compete for gold is to Boost. That's not just the steroid injection you might imagine but a full operation to increase mental and physical capability. And the cost is death, quickly and surely, as, after an initial performance spike, everything shuts down within a scant few years. Shine very brightly indeed and then burn out.

That is, unless you win, because winning comes with connection to the Link, the information network that runs the world, and the Link is the only thing that stops that side effects of the Boost. If you're thinking that that's an overly convenient result, you'd be spot on, because this could be a dystopia as much as a utopia and we explore that through Shomer's questioning of it.

'Achilles' Choice' runs through a few segments.

Initially, it's a sf take on a sports story, with Shomer doing her intensive pre-Olympiad training at the Rocky Mountain Sports Medicine Facility, trying in vain to be as good as everyone else without Boosting. This is surely the best section, because it has direct connections to questions we're asking of sport today. As with previous books, Niven and Barnes extrapolate forward in surprisingly successful fashion. They're really good at this.

Gradually we learn more about Shomer's particular future and how everything functions as a society. Some of this is personal to her: what it means to be in her position, what's really at stake for her and why she'll have to Boost to achieve her goals. That's not a spoiler, by the way, because it's never in doubt; what's important here is why she comes to the inevitable decision she does. However, much of it is broader and the broader it gets, the less successful it is to my thinking.

As we learn these things, the novel moves slowly but surely away from sports as the focus and further into what I'll phrase as conspiracy theory. Shomer gets a couple of glimpses behind the curtain, so to speak, and attempting to answer questions only gets her blocked from being able to do so, which means more questions.

I liked this novel but not as much as I thought I would.

The early sections are most fascinating to me, because sports medicine does exist today and there are deep, philosophical questions about what can be done to the body and mind to build its performance. Inevitably, these come down to the age old sf pondering on what it means to be human. Some people suggest that we just ditch the drug tests and lists of prohibited substances and let athletes do absolutely anything they want to boost, word very much intended, their performance, whatever the physical costs. The very idea is the heart of this novel.

And the heart is the best part. I wasn't entirely sold on the viability of a future like this and the acceptance of it by the masses, because it seems to be overly complex to implement and overly complex to maintain, hardly viable in the timeframes given. Maybe if the novel had been longer, there would be have been more time to explore that side of the novel, which does engender interest, but I think that the result would have been a less readable story, so the authors chose well.

At the end of the day, unlike 'The Barsoom Project', their previous novel as co-authors, this title is highly appropriate because it really is about one woman and her own personal choice, though it does also pose the question as to whether we would do the same thing in her hi-tech running shoes. Should Shomer (or you, yes you), settle for a long and hopefully happy life outside the spotlight or give all of that up to make a difference in the world? It's a good question.

Perhaps the biggest reason why this is a short novel is that the particular scenario really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. Sure, we can go with the Boost and the Link and the ruling elite of this future, but they really serve as one of many possible wrappers around the same question. This choice applies just as much for us in our world today and it'll apply just as much in whatever world we create tomorrow. It's the time-honoured choice of the hero and the revolutionary and, frankly, without them, the history of our planet would be very different. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Steven Barnes click here
For more titles by Larry Niven click here

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