The Legacy of Heorot

The Legacy of Heorot

infobox Book |
name =
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author = Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes
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language = English
series =
genre = Science Fiction & Fantasy
publisher = Simon & Schuster
release_date = 1987
english_release_date = July 15, 1987
media_type = Print ()
pages = 368
isbn = ISBN 978-0671640941
preceded_by =
followed_by = Beowulf's Children

"The Legacy of Heorot" is a science fiction novel written in 1987 by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes. Noted reproduction and fertility expert Dr Jack Cohen acted as a consultant on the book, designing the novel life cycle of the alien antagonists, the grendels.

This is the first book in the Heorot series. It concerns the establishment of the first human colony on Avalon, fourth planet of Tau Ceti.

Plot summary

Two hundred colonists arrive on Avalon to found a new community, having made the 100-year journey from Earth in suspended animation on the starship Geographic (the expedition is funded by the National Geographic Society). The colonists, all selected for their outstanding physical and mental attributes, make a terrible discovery: though the suspended animation technology permitted them to survive the journey worked well enough, it had unforeseeable side effects due to the unprecedented duration of its use. Their intelligence and reasoning skill are damaged. Some are only mildly afflicted, while others have severe mental retardation. One of them was once a great physicist, but now has the mind of a prepubescent child. Eight of the colonists could not be reanimated at all. The book opens with the colonists learning how to live without the sharp and nimble minds they all once had.

At first all seems well, as the colonists build a town on the small island of Camelot and begin growing crops and stocking the nearby waters with terrestrial species of fish to complement the "samlon", a local aquatic species. The island seems like a paradise, and the colonists quickly become overconfident in their security, much to the frustration of the expedition security officer (and only former soldier), Cadmann Wayland.

But then unsettling events begin to happen: missing animals, fences torn down, etc. The colonists' impaired minds prevent them from properly analysing what is going on, and in a panic Cadmann is blamed, accused of deliberate sabotage to further his agenda. However, when a baby and its mother are killed while Cadmann and his only supporter are away on a hunt for the creature he believes is the cause, the colonists become increasingly irrational. When he returns alone (His companion having been killed during the hunt), badly wounded, and with a chunk of burnt tissue that the colonists determine to be samlon meat, he is drugged and restrained - completely helpless when the creature attacks the camp in revenge.

Despite the colonists' advanced weapons (fully automatic machine-guns, slug shotguns, even flame-throwers) and larger numbers, ten people are killed just to drive the lone, gravely wounded creature away. This proves to all the colonists that there is a deadly and efficient predator native to the island. Cadmann, however, is now completely unwilling to assist the community that mocked, demonised, and finally left him helpless to be killed by the creature.

He leaves the colony to set up a homestead on a bluff further up the mountain that forms the basis of the island, hunting the island's only large animal life for food, and spending the rest of his time in wallowing in despair, hatred and moonshine liquor. He is completely disillusioned with committees and short-sightedness, and when a woman joins him in the hopes of persuading him to return, he demands her fealty as long as she stays - every kind of fealty a man can possibly get from a woman. She stays, and after she conceives his child, he has an epiphany: the colonists may have brutalized and betrayed him, but their children are innocent, and deserve to be protected. Thus she is the reason he decides to return and lead the fight against the Grendels.

He makes it clear that he is not interested in the day-to-day workings of the colony, only its defence. If the colonists want his assistance, they will have it only as long as they accept it - if they reject it even once he will leave and never return. The deal is made, and preparations for conflict begin.

The colonists are confounded by the ecology of the island, as there does not seem to be a sufficient food source for the Grendels to inhabit it. Nonetheless, weapons are built - poisons that can sterilize entire rivers, armor-piercing spear-guns with explosive tips. These, along with Cadmann's tactics, enable the colonists to kill their first "grendel".

The autopsy leads to terrifying revelations. They are crocodilian in appearance and behaviour, complete with jaws that can crush steel. Their bones are significantly stronger than those of humans, as they are not based on calcium. They have a sense of smell better than a dogs. Studying its brain shows it is not fully sapient, but that it is not far off, and is at least as smart as a gorilla. Its claws are not just weapons, but exert enough traction for the creature to "sprint" up rocky cliffs. Though it is not a true amphibian - it cannot breathe water - it does possess an integral snorkel enabling it to move undetected beneath several feet of water. Its cardiovascular system and musculature give it strength and stamina far beyond that of humans, and that is without its primary evolutionary advantage: "A super-oxygenated blood supplement".

A grendel can, on demand, release a chemical supercharger into its blood that does to it what NOS does to internal combustion engines - enable short bursts of speed in excess of a hundred miles per hour. This is the primary trait makes the Grendels so dangerous - and the key to their destruction. The supercharger, when used, generates large amounts of waste-heat that warm up their bodies so rapidly they effectively "cook themselves" and "will die" after using it if they do not immediately return to the water to cool off. With this knowledge added to Cadmann's tactics, combined with the colony's weapons and technology, the colonists are able to wipe out the Grendel population within several months, making Cadmann a hero to the people who previously turned on him.

But the glory is short-lived. Despite the periodic updates from the colonists, Earth is abandoning the colonization program. There will be no new ships, no new colonies. Avalon is unique.

Then catastrophe. A disturbing discovery has been made - the Grendels' primary food source. The Grendels and the samlon are actually the same species. Their life cycle is similar to that of terrestrial frogs - the herbivorous samlon are in fact the juvenile form of the carnivorous Grendels. Like certain species of frogs, they change gender over the course of their lifetimes. The juvenile samlon are male. The adult Grendels are female. Interaction is unnecessary as the Grendels continually lay their unfertilized eggs in the water for the samlon to fertilize. And like "many" species of frogs, they are cannibalistic - if no other prey is present, "they will eat their own young".

At some point in the recent past, most of the prey animals on the island were destroyed by an unknown cataclysmic event. (It's is up to the reader to draw their own conclusions as to what actually happened. Over predation by the Grendels is subtly hinted at). Among the few surviving species on the island were the samlon, and thus the Grendels. Cannibalism became the rule instead of the exception. Only the fastest juvenile samlon survived predation by Grendel females to become adult Grendels themselves, and this drove the species to evolve at an immensely accelerated rate. This resulted in the incredible predatory abilities of the Grendels.

When the colonists introduced terrestrial fish into the ecosystem, "they provided the Grendels with an additional food source". Where once there were only one or two Grendels on the island at any given time due to their territorial behaviour pattern, dozens of samlon became Grendels. This is why the attacks began in the first place.

The colonists have just exterminated the adult Grendels. There is now "no" check at "all" on the samlon population. Within a very short period of time, they all become Grendels. Instead of a few dozen Grendels, there are now "thousands". The fight between the colonists and the Grendels is no longer a hunt - it is a "war".

Cadmann again asserts control. The Grendels cannot hunt away from water. This is why there are larger animals (about the size of rabbits) on the higher reaches of the mountain. The colony's pregnant women, children and essential specialists are evacuated to the Geographic. The rest of the colonists go to Cadmann's mountain hideaway on the bluff, now a well-stocked and well defended retreat.

Combat is joined. At first, the colonists' technology and tactics serve them well. The laser-based welding tools and plasma-based drilling equipment are used as weapons. Whatever liquid hydrogen can be spared from the shuttles is used to fight the Grendels as well. Cadmann observes mass Grendel behaviour and discovers that packs of Grendels can be sent into a shark-like feeding frenzy by spraying them with blood taken from dead Grendels, especially if it is laced with traces of the "supercharger" chemical extracted from the organ that secretes it, as this chemical triggers an immediate "fight" instinct. Tracer bullets are also used to ignite the supercharger gland in their bodies.

But as the Grendels numbers fall, their individual strength rises - every dead Grendel is food for the rest. Eventually, all that remain are full-grown Grendels, and the colony itself must be abandoned for a last stand at Cadmann's Bluff. But before this is done, they discover and utilize a new tactic - they harvest supercharger from dead Grendels and spray it over the Grendel horde with crop dusting equipment, driving hundreds of the into frenzying, killing many of those remaining.

Unfortunately, a mistake is made - upon their arrival, a Grendel is killed in the river next to Cadmann's Bluff, and it's blood enters the river, drawing the rest right to them. However, this is realized immediately, and preparations are made. As the horde approaches, they are sprayed with more supercharger, sending them into frenzy once more. When they begin climbing the Bluff, Cadmann sets off an avalanche, killing even more.

And then it is over. The Grendels, though not as smart as humans, are smart enough to learn, given time and "lots" of experience. The remaining colonists are not worth dying to reach, not when there are other Grendels to kill. The humans have defeated the Grendels. Camelot is theirs.

A year later, the Grendels are being driven to extinction. Now that the Grendel life cycle is known, the colonists continue the hunts, but this time the samlon are targeted as well. New tactics - supercharger spraying and recorded Grendel challenges - make them almost a chore. The terrestrial fish are gone, and will not be introduced, forcing the Grendels to drive their own species into extinction. Soon the Grendel threat will be eradicated.

Now rebuilding can begin, and this time, they will not be caught unaware. The mainland is being carefully explored, and the colonists have high hopes. Communications with Earth were cut off by the Grendel Wars. Now that it is over, perhaps the story of their battle will inspire Earth's population to new adventures, to restart the colonization program. If suitably motivated, they might come to Avalon, a known inhabitable world. New colonists would be welcome, and new equipment would be invaluable. But they can survive without it.

The colonists came to make Avalon a new home for humanity, and have survived a great test. Now they understand that if they wish to survive, they cannot become complacent. Camelot is just one corner of a vast world. Who knows what lies in store?


The story is largely concerned with the struggle for supremacy between humans and grendels, and more generally with the relationship between humans and our natural environment. The Avalon colonists inadvertently worsen their own predicament with their first attempts to rid the island of grendels, because they failed to fully understand the grendels' role in the local ecology. The book demonstrates that nature is a complex web of interdependent species, which human intervention can easily disrupt with unpredictable results. This is a theme also explored in "Jurassic Park".

The book also draws from some of Robert A. Heinlein's work involving the adage "if you desire peace, prepare for war," in exploring the conflict between the civilian leadership of the colony who see no danger, and the military advisor who believes that danger always exists in the future. Cadmann is successively treated as crackpot, savior, scapegoat, and hero as the needs of the colony for his talents change.

Finally, the book explores the social dynamics of a situation where nobody can trust anybody else’s judgement, not even their own. The eventual outcome of this is more fully detailed in the sequel, "Beowulf's Children".

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