Inconstant Moon

Inconstant Moon is a science fiction short story collection by American author Larry Niven that was published in 1973. “Inconstant Moon” is also a 1971 short story that is included in the collection. The title is a quote from the balcony scene in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The collection was assembled from the US collections The Shape of Space and All the Myriad Ways.

Known Space Universe stories in the collection

Becalmed in Hell, 1965
Death by Ecstasy (Organleggers), 1969
How the Heroes Die, 1966
At the Bottom of a Hole, 1966

Becalmed in Hell

Short story by Larry Niven with story placed in the Known Space Universe. First appearance in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 1965. Republished  in several collections: All the Myriad Ways (1969, coll), Inconstant Moon (1973, coll), Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven (1975, coll), Playgrounds of the Mind (1991, coll), Three Books of Known Space (1996, coll)

A ship with a two-man crew, a normal human Howie and Eric – a disembodied brain of a previously injured man taking the part of ship’s computer, is exploring the upper atmosphere of Venus, using the empty fuel-tank as a dirigible device.

About to return to Earth, Eric reveals that something is wrong with the ramjet that propels the craft, necessitating a landing in order to fix the problem. When Howie can find nothing physically wrong with the system, he can only conclude that, disturbingly, the problem is with Eric. He believes Eric has a psychosomatic disorder preventing him from operating the ramjets, using the analogy of a traumatized soldier that can no longer feel his hand and pull the trigger of a gun.

After revealing his theory to Eric, Eric admits it is a possibility but insists that Howie keep inspecting the ship, reasoning that Howie is the only one that can check for mechanical problems. Howie agrees, but secretly has convinced himself that the problem is truly with Eric.

In an effort to cure Eric using a placebo, Howie creates buckets of ice-water using the ship’s freezer, and dumps it into the wiring panels on the wings, telling Eric that the heat and pressure of Venus might be affecting the ships function. Eric regains the use of the ramjets and the pair manage to escape from Venus and back to Earth.

On the trip back, Howie reveals his ruse to Eric. Eric insists that the cause was mechanical, and challenges Howie to a $5,000 bet that the problem will be found back on Earth. Howie accepts the bet. Back on Earth, the mechanics determine that, indeed, it was a mechanical problem due to the pressure of Venus’s atmosphere.

The Organleggers

First appearance in Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1969 (as “The Organleggers”). Later published in collections The Shape of Space (1969, coll), Inconstant Moon (1973, coll), The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton (1976 collection), Flatlander (1995, coll.) Renamed to Death by Ecstasy when published in Inconstant Moon and that title was used from that time on.

Asteroid miner Owen Jennison is found dead in an apartment on Earth, apparently of suicide: He was a Wirehead, directly stimulating the pleasure center of the brain, and starved.

Gil Hamilton, an operative of the United Nations Police (and friend of Owen’s) must solve what appears to be a classic locked room mystery: he does not believe that Owen was the type to turn wirehead or commit suicide, so the death must have been planned by somebody else.

His investigations lead him to names associated with organlegging – the illicit handling and sale of spare body-parts. Eventually, he comes into contact with a West-Coast organlegging gang where his psychokinesis – in the form of a phantom “third arm” – becomes very useful.

Death by Ecstasy has been adapted as a graphic novel by Bill Spangler, Terry Tidwell, and Steve Stiles in 1991.

Gil Hamilton-stories

Novels and collections

The Organleggers (Death by Ecstasy) (1966)
The Defenseless Dead (1973). Published in 1973 in the Roger Elwood anthology Ten Tomorrows.
ARM (1976)
The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton (1976 collection)
The Patchwork Girl (1980)
Flatlander (1995, coll.) (Death by Ecstasy (Organleggers) 1969, The Defenseless Dead 1973, ARM 1976, Patchwork Girl 1978, The Woman in Del Rey Crater)


A.R.M. (1990, Adventure/Malibu Graphics), 3-issue mini-series, B&W. Based on the short story, “Death By Ecstasy” by Larry Niven. Written by Bill Spangler. Art by Terry Tidwell and Steve Stiles
“Death By Ecstasy” (September 1990, #1)
“The Organ Leggers” (October 1990, #2)
“Heart Attack” (November 1990, #3)

A.R.M.: The Defenseless Dead, (1991, Adventure/Malibu Graphics), 3-issue mini-series, B&W

How the Heroes Die

First appearance in Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1966. Republished in the collections The Shape of Space (1969, collection), Inconstant Moon (1973, coll), Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven (1975, collection), Three Books of Known Space (1996, coll)

The 15-man team setting up the first base on Mars experience tragedy when a murder is committed. Carter, the murderer, in the process of escaping on one of the transportation buggies crashes through the plastic bubble which holds in the base’s atmosphere in an attempt to kill everyone else; however, it fails, and he is soon chased by Alf, the brother of the victim on another buggy.

The lethal chase, with the two combatants in constant radio communication, slowly reveals the community stresses which resulted in the murder. Alf wants to kill Carter in revenge for his brother, while Carter wishes the same and to try once more to destroy the base …. but with limited oxygen in their tanks, the two men must ensure that they have enough left to return to base.

At the Bottom of a Hole

Short story first published in Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1966. Republished in several collections: The Shape of Space (1969, collection), Inconstant Moon (1973, coll), Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven (1975, collection), Three Books of Known Space (1996, coll)

A sequel to “How the Heroes Die”. Muller, a smuggler with a cargo of precious magnetic monopoles, attempts to use Mars (the ‘hole’ of the title; to spacers, planets are merely gravity wells to be avoided if possible) as a means to whip his ship to a new orbit that will enable him to escape the customs authorities who are chasing him. His plan fails, and he crashlands, close to the now-abandoned base. Over the next few days, he explores the ruins and finds out the terrible story of what happened. Unfortunately, he himself suffers the same fate as the original colonists – all of which he commits to his log, which is later recovered.

The two Mars stories do belong to “Known Space” and they are specifically referred to and to some degree influence the plot of “Protector”, which takes place a long time later. Also, the failure of Mars colonization as depicted here contributes to the generally-held opinion in that future history that planets (at least in the Solar System) are virtually worthless and it is asteroids which are the truly desirable real property.