3:9: Interview: Larry Niven

3:9: Interview: Larry Niven

Since the 60’s Larry Niven has been at the top of the Hard SF tree and with the release of his latest novel, Ringworld’s Children, he continues to demonstrate why. We managed to catch up with him during its release and ask him a few questions.

Robert D. Rowntree & Lisa Negus: Larry, thanks for taking time out to talk to us. Huge constructs or detailed and realistic cosmological environments are iconic statements of your writing and have become synonymous with the name Niven. Modern astronomy discovers more each day, yet in recent novels (Destiny’s Road, The Burning City, Saturn’s Race) you’ve gone for more character-driven stories. Do the wonders of the cosmos still hold their interest?

Larry Niven: I always did my best with my characters. They’ve always deserved my best. I’m getting better at that, I hope. But the cosmos grows more interesting and more detailed every day.

R&N: Your latest solo novel is Ringworld’s Children. What inspired you to return to Ringworld, a place you first introduced over 30 years ago?

LN: I lurked in the larryniven-l website on advice of my agent. They were asking questions I thought I could answer, and they had answers that were just a little bit off. They got me off and running.

R&N: In The Integral Trees, Smoke Ring, and Ringworld’s Throne, you gave some of your characters illnesses and complaints which you’ve experienced yourself. Has the process of writing about these things been cathartic?

LN: Yeah. Writing my problems into my books makes them more bearable. I hadn’t realized it at first. It’s not a habit I want to encourage; the story really should come first.

R&N: In your novel, Oath of Fealty (written with Jerry Pournelle), you predicted the arrival of gated-communities. Do you foresee a situation where education, policy and welfare are dictated by a two-tier society?

LN: Societies that try to be two-tiered always wind up multi-tiered, until almost everyone is enslaved to someone. Freedom is fragile. I vote Libertarian.

R&N: You were involved in The Space Defense Initiative, which culminated in the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union. Are you or have you been involved in other similar schemes?

LN: Not until lately. I’m involved, a little, in Spacewatch and trying to keep the planet safe from giant meteoroid impacts. Civilization has matured enough that we can, and should, act to protect the Earth. Mind you, the goal is large, my involvement is small.

R&N: Can you give us more detail on your involvement in The Space Defense Initiative?

LN: Basically, Jerry [Pournelle] put it together; we met at my house; our intent was to bring the human race into space.

The SDI was a logical consequence. Jerry had to make all our papers coherent and ready to present to Reagan’s Science Advisor. It ate into a lot of his life. We pushed and kept pushing, and the Soviets were driven bankrupt by a science fiction story developed at the Niven house, not to mention the consequences of their own socialist folly.

R&N: Privacy and its erosion are close to the heart of SF writers. David Brin has written extensively about it, and in a recent interview you said, ‘Privacy may be a passing fad.’ Is this a positive or negative step for society? Do you think society can handle the transparency?

LN: Society can certainly handle the loss of privacy. It is a recent concept, a few hundred years old. Kings and peasants never expected privacy in the old days. In small societies, people used to be expected to meddle. The trick to individual survival is to keep your pride when everything interesting about your life can be known by anyone.

This puts many politicians at a horrible disadvantage. Our election system is going to have to adjust.

R&N: With the Berkeley SETI program still active, and many of us participating in their screen saver search for signals, have you got a stance on extraterrestrial intelligence?

LN: The star-travelling aliens become less likely the harder you look. In a 13.7 billion year old universe, any intelligent tool user might be a billion years advanced beyond Earth. If they existed, they should be more obvious and they should be more powerful. I’m willing they shall prove me wrong.

But SETI is looking for leakage of a signal; for inefficiency. Our broadcasting of our presence in the universe is about to disappear as our systems grow more efficient. The aliens don’t get cable.

R&N: Your support of space exploration is well documented. Do you see bureaucracy as a major problem in national and multi-national space efforts? Or, as with Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites forging ahead with its White Knight/Spaceship One project, does the future of space exploration lie with private enterprise, tourism and industry?

LN: Beats me. I’ve spent a lot of my life supporting private spaceflight as best I could. Response, until the X-prize was announced, was sluggish.

Some of us are going to try to generate some goal-oriented X-prizes.

R&N: You have written many collaborations over the years — was moving towards collaborations a conscious decision?

LN: I tried it with David Gerrold. I was trying everything in my novice days. Collaborating turned out to be fun. Sure it was a conscious decision. I greatly admire Frederik Pohl’s collaborations with Cyril Kornbluth, Jack Williamson, and other golden age greats.

R&N: It’s not to every author’s taste. What do you find the benefits are?

LN: Collaborating is less lonely than solo flights. They’re also more work, by around 60%, which means that the finished product has to be 60% more valuable to be worthwhile. And of course I need a collaborator who will do 80% of the work…as I do.

R&N: Is there any truth in the rumor about some future work with Gregory Benford?

LN: Greg has a big structure, on the order of Ringworld size. We’re writing around that.

R&N: Brenda Cooper is another of your collaborators, and we believe there’s a novel on the way, Building Harlequin’s Moon. Are you giving anything away on that project?

LN: Used to be Creation Myth but our editor said that sounded like a religious tract. It’s about a terraforming project, taking place in the wrong solar system, using the wrong tools.

R&N: Your new Ringworld novel created a buzz of anticipation as its publication date drew closer. Do you like to get out and about among your fans? Any major dates lined up for this year to promote the new Ringworld novel?

LN: I’m booked as Guest of Honor at way too many conventions this year. Whether that helps promote the book, I’ve never quite known. I do it for fun.

R&N: Your fans obviously mean a lot to you. You went so far as to put them at the center of the action in Fallen Angels (written with Jerry Pournelle and Michael Flynn) and you regularly take part in online chats. Has your readership has changed over the years? Many fans have written to you regarding your invented locals and suggested alterations–plot holes and mistakes plus their remedies. Is this something you encourage?

LN: Sure, I encourage the game of picking holes in the author’s story and rebuilding around them. It’s fun. It sometimes generates stories.

Has my readership changed? They grow up. Some grew old; some tell me I got them interested in generating scientific careers. As for “Fallen Angels”, we did it for them: a gift to fandom as well as a civilization saver. It’s been way more successful than we expected.

R&N: Science Fiction fans are sometimes viewed as a nerdy bunch, who’ve spent a lifetime cultivating acne whilst barely setting foot out of doors in daylight hours. How would you sell SF to someone of that opinion? What do you believe it has to offer that mainstream fiction or other genres don’t?

LN: I can’t sell books one at a time. There are certainly people who won’t read science fiction; some of them are librarians, and that’s a pity. I once spent time persuading a few hundred librarians that 1984 and Brave New World are science fiction, and I believe I failed. The best I can do is to tell stories as well as I can.

As far as that goes, I don’t read only SF. Do I need to persuade people to read? Those who read will rule. Learning to read does something important to your brain structure.

R&N: If you could recommend one really great read to that person, what would it be and why?

LN: Lucifer’s Hammer. I’ve become convinced the giant meteoroid impact is a real threat that we really could do something about. Also, it’s as good a story as I’ve ever told.

R&N: There are many future projects listed at one of your fan sites. Can you tell us about some of them?

LN: Turned in: Ringworld’s Children, June 04; Burning Tower with Jerry Pournelle, January 05; The Magic Goes Away Omnibus, also January 05; Building Harlequin’s Moon with Brenda Cooper; The Draco Tavern Stories.

I’ve been working on almost nothing. I’ve written short stories, and I’ve played at outlining novels with collaborators, which may jell into bigger projects.

R&N: Recently the SciFi Channel announced plans for a miniseries based on the Ringworld novels. Are you involved with the project?

LN: Nobody has attempted to involve me in any way. I hope it’s real.

R&N: Are there any other motion picture/TV projects in the pipeline? Can you tell us a little of your involvement in this type of medium?

LN: I’ve written a Star Trek cartoon and three Land of the Lost episodes, long ago. Land of the Lost is now available on DVD, with commentary by authors and by the story editor, David Gerrold. “The Slaver Weapon” I last watched with German voice-over, at a convention in Germany.

R&N: We often hear of genre critics touting their own definitions of science fiction, but what about from a writer’s point of view, how would you set about defining the genre?

LN: First, don’t go to a librarian.

Second, SF stories sprawl all over the map. They only have one thing in common, and I had to search hard for it. This is the universal presumption: There are minds that think as well as yours does, but differently.

R&N: How do you respond to claims that science fiction often lacks imagination with regard to narrative technique, as opposed to its imagination with regard to ideas?

LN: I try to write better than that. Even so, Sturgeon’s Law holds: 90% of everything is crap.

R&N: Fantasy is also often dismissed by the critics as ‘impure’ and for its heavy reliance on folklore, yet it maintains an avid audience. Fans of science fiction are not always fantasy fans. As some of your own novels are classified in the fantasy genre, how do you reconcile differences between the two genres? What can a fantasy novel offer that a science fiction novel cannot?

LN: Sometimes I too want to play tennis without the net. What good fantasy usually offers are universals. If you’re telling a story that could never have happened, past, future, or sideways, then you’d best be telling a universal truth.

R&N: What does science fiction mean to you, and why do you think it remains so popular with readers?

LN: Science fiction is fantasy with borders. If you like to stretch your mind, you’ll read science fiction. You’ll read fantasy too, when you feel like playing tennis without the net.

R&N: You once said that your characters were all tourists. If you were a tour-operator in the universe of your published fiction, which five destinations would you recommend? And why?

LN: Oh, I’d just bounce around. Most of my domains are flawed paradises, highly scenic. I’d certainly want to visit Fafnir/Shasht, the Draco Tavern, Hovestraydt City on the Moon, Mount Lookitthat after the revolution, and the House of the Patriarch’s Past on Kzin (given proper reassurances).

R&N: Which other authors impress you and why?

LN: John Barnes, Stephen Baxter, Bruce Sterling: the more recent hard science fiction writers are way out there. I’m a Terry Pratchett fan. I loved Lonesome Dove, though it’s a straight western. I read anything by Tim Powers. Brin’s Earth was a great read.

R&N: Which piece of your own work means the most to you?

LN: I don’t have a favourite work. They all seemed worth writing. Footfall got the biggest advance, Lucifer’s Hammer and Ringworld get the most feedback, The Integral Trees is probably the best science fiction and Destiny’s Road the best novel. “Man of Steel/Woman of Kleenex” has gotten me the most giggles.

R&N: How much influence, have editors and agents had on your finished work?

LN: A great deal. Editors and agents are your friends; listen to them.

R&N: What are your current biggest influences in your fiction writing?

LN: I’m still waiting to find out. Maybe the info that comes in via the Internet. It seems there are people who want to keep me up to date on the subjects my books have tackled. My wife Marilyn tears the most interesting stuff out of various magazines for me. It always takes some time before some bit of data sparks an idea.

R&N: How have those changed over the years?

LN: They haven’t, not really.

R&N: Sticking with your early years as a writer, how did you get started on what was destined to be a hugely successful and prolific career?

LN: I wrote, and I bothered editors, until I sold something. I also took a correspondence course. An actor has said that most of becoming a success involves just showing up.

R&N: What are the biggest literary changes you’ve seen since you started publishing? Do you think that there has been any variation in publishing standards over that time?

LN: Hard to say. I haven’t had trouble selling my work since the beginning. I’ve always heard that the middle ranks are in serious trouble and so are the publishers. Details vary. Congress has passed some tax laws that make the backlist (the books you wrote when you were younger) far too expensive for publishers. The book distribution system has been vandalized.

The Internet has changed things a lot. In particular it’s become easier to collaborate with someone who doesn’t live next door.

R&N: And how about yourself? How have you changed as a writer during that time?

LN: I like to think I’ve gotten better and more versatile. I’m still a bit of a dilettante: I have to wait for inspiration, or somehow dig it up.

R&N: When some authors get up in a morning, they have a structure to their day – like working a regular job. Others hit the keyboard as soon as inspiration strikes. One (very successful) author that we’ve spoken to admitted that when about to embark on a new novel, he will do anything rather than write. What makes up a typical Larry Niven day?

LN: I get breakfast, and then go to my computer. Then my email sucks me in and wastes my morning. I have to exert myself to begin writing. Maybe there’s a hike, maybe there’s a yoga class. Evening, we probably go out to dinner. I should work at night, maybe, but I usually don’t.

R&N: We all know how tough it is for a rookie to find publication with a decent magazine – any advice for the dreamers out there?

LN: My first sale was to Worlds of If, which boasted a novice writer in every issue (the up side of an editor having no money.) That’s no longer an option. But it’s still true that the editorial address is published in every issue of every magazine. Just keep sending in the stories, trying the decent magazines first.

R&N: When you sit down to write a new novel, what kind of process do you go through from the germ of an idea to a full blown text; for example, can you take us through some of the major steps involved in putting Ringworld’s Children together.

LN: With Ringworld’s Children, Eleanor Wood led me to a website that studies my works. They were arguing about whether Teela Brown could have had a child, and what you’d get if you cloned a protector. Their answers were a little off. Otherwise I’d have had nothing to say.

I took off from there and started outlining. I added in everything I’d been wanting to say about the Ringworld, Ringworld design, Ringworld societies, evolution, a lot of leftover uncertainties from known space. After I’d written a bit, I turned it over to my agent to sell. And kept writing.

It came out shorter than I expected. That worried me a little. I’d rather give readers a bargain. But everything turns concise and under-redundant when I’m thinking like a protector.

R&N: Larry, you’ve written many novels and short stories in the science fiction and fantasy genres–which type of fiction do you find the most rewarding to write?

LN: I seem to like them all. I go where inspiration pops up.

R&N: How about to read?

LN: Again, I seem to like them all, though I mostly read science fiction.

R&N: You maintain a steady output of short fiction – how do you fit this in around the novel writing?

LN: Stories come in their own lengths. Nobody should give up short stories: they keep my writing tight, even though the money is in novels.

R&N: We would like to thank Larry Niven for his time. Ringworld’s Children, ISBN 0-76530167-9 is published by Tor and available from all good retailers.

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