Time Travel Tuesday: Larry Niven’s “Leviathan”

Larry Niven

This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story comes from the pen of Larry Niven, Nebula Award-winning author of the much-loved Ringworld novel and its sequels. “Leviathan” first appeared in the August 1970 edition of Playboy (see, some people really did buy Playboy for the articles and interviews).

Niven set his story in a dystopian world in which the United Nations Secretary General is the most powerful man in the world. The man’s behavior is a little reminiscent of what we have seen in more recent decades from North Korea’s Kim Il-sung and his even crazier son Kim Jong-Il. The Secretary is a collector of extinct species who has the power, money, and means to make sure that he has a one-of-a-kind collection. Not content with collecting living, breathing creatures from the past that exist no place else, the man is now on a quest to capture the largest creature that has lived on the face of the earth within the last four hundred years – the time limitation in either direction of current time travel technology.

Svetz (on-the-ground hunter) and Ra Chen (time machine coordinator), the two men tasked with the job of keeping the Secretary happy about his collection’s progress, know that they are walking a fine line when it comes to staying alive. If the animal they go after doesn’t kill Svetz as he attempts to capture it, the Secretary is liable to order both their deaths at any time if Svetz fails to bring back what he has ordered them to capture.

The Secretary, it seems, is a reader of children’s books, but not a very discerning one, and because he often cannot tell fiction from fact, he has been known to send Svetz out to capture creatures that he reads about in novels like those of Jules Verne. To the surprise of Svetz and Ra Chen, those fictional creatures sometimes do turn up in the real world – and that makes it ever more likely that the men cannot possibly survive their mission for much longer. It is only a matter of time before the odds catch up with them and something goes terribly wrong.

And when Svetz goes back four hundred years to capture a Verne-like “leviathan,” it seems as if that time has come – until Svetz turns the mission on its head only seconds before he runs out of time by capturing an extraordinarily huge example of another extinct animal: the sperm whale. Svetz and Ra Chen are a little disappointed to see that they have captured an albino example, and a rather grizzled one, at that, with one eye and numerous harpoons still stuck in its hide. But after a little bit of whale-cleanup, they will try to make do with what they have.

Now all they have to do is convince the Secretary that this is the largest animal ever to live on earth – and keep him from reading more children’s books.

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