Author interview conducted in August 2004
(via e-mail) by Aaron Hughes
Larry Niven photo (left) by Zachary W. Green
from book dust jacket
Larry Niven (LN): By learning new things about it. Often the germinating idea has come from someone else. A flood of suggestions for redesign generated The Ringworld Engineers. Barbara Hambly's phone call generated The Ringworld Throne. Ringworld's Children started with Email on a website built to study my work. The book doesn't happen unless I'm inspired.
FR: Ringworld spawned the entire "Big Dumb Object" subgenre, stories of the discovery and exploration of incredibly huge artificial constructs. Later examples include Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama and sequels, Bob Shaw's Orbitsville trilogy, John Varley's Gaean trilogy beginning with Titan, and Greg Bear's Eon and Eternity. Do you take particular pride in being the first in such a distinguished group? Is there anything your successors have done with the concept that you wish you had thought of?
LN: What I felt was apprehension. I could have been first to be laughed out of the field for writing of "the enormous big thing", as David Gerrold puts it. My subsequent books show that I thought I'd made mistakes and left things out, and was ready to correct them.
FR: In Ringworld's Children, humans and other races are so bent on obtaining the Ringworld's technological secrets that they don't seem to care if they wipe out the Ringworld's trillions of inhabitants in the process. Do you believe people (and non-people) would actually be that thoughtless?
LN: I see them on my television set, constantly. Will we ever get enough moral and financial support to do something to repel giant meteoroid impacts from our own Earth? Too many individual interests have their own best use for fervor, money, and time.
FR: Without giving matters away, the ending of Ringworld's Children wraps things up pretty well. Have we seen the last of the Ringworld?
LN: I have thought I was through with the Ringworld, each time I finished a Ringworld book. I think so now - I don't see any path to take from here - but I've been surprised before.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Your Known Space future history goes all the way back to your first story, "The Coldest Place." What would you have said if someone had told you in 1964, when that story was first published, that forty years later you would still be building on the vision of the future you introduced in that story?
Larry Niven (LN): Yay! Cool! (But I would have been even more pleased if told that I would generate other universes for other stories. A writer should be versatile.)
FR: The Ringworld series and your other Known Space books include some of the most well-known and adored alien species in science fiction, including the aggressive, catlike Kzinti and the cowardly puppeteers. In the words of John W. Campbell, these aliens think as well as a man, but not like a man. How do you go about creating your alien races? Do you have a personal favorite from among your own aliens?
LN: I liked John Campbell's challenge and have done my best to meet it. Among my aliens I have many favorites, mostly the ones who keep reappearing. Kzinti, puppeteers, Moties, Chirpsithra...and the fithp, who only appeared once, and are too complex for short stories.
FR: You have often written in collaboration. In particular, the work you have done with Jerry Pournelle (The Mote in God's Eye, Lucifer's Hammer, Footfall, and others) must rank the two of you as among the most important collaborative teams in the history of science fiction, alongside Pohl & Kornbluth and Kuttner & Moore. What is the key to working in collaboration, and why do you think there are so few successful collaborative teams?
LN: The key: mutual respect, and learning to talk the story out until you know it by heart.
The best writers aren't necessarily suited to do collaborations. Some visions of the universe are too individual.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): We've been told to expect a sequel soon to The Burning City, your most recent collaboration with Pournelle, and we've heard a rumor that there will be a collection of your "Draco Tavern" space bar stories. What other projects, solo or in collaboration, are you working on now?
Larry Niven (LN): Burning Tower and Tales of the Draco Tavern are scheduled, yes. An omnibus of the Magic Goes Away stories is due from S&S about the same time as Burning Tower. Brenda Cooper and I have a novel with TOR: Building Harlequin's Moon. I don't know when it's due.
FR: Of all your acknowledged classics of the science fiction genre, such as Ringworld, The Mote in God's Eye (with Pournelle), The Integral Trees, "Neutron Star" and "Inconstant Moon," is there one that you're most pleased with? Conversely, is there a lesser-known work of yours that you thought deserved a little more attention?
LN: I thought every one of them should have won Hugos and Nebulas and been made into record-shattering movies. Jerry and I got the most money for Footfall, which is one way of keeping score, and I've had the most feedback from Lucifer's Hammer and Ringworld, which is another way. But I do have a personal favorite. The Integral Trees was my best science fiction. I'd like to see it being taught in Physics courses; and I wish I could do that again.
FR: You are known as a "hard" science fiction writer. What do you do to stay current with the latest scientific theories?
LN: I read a lot; and various friends and strangers seem intent on keeping me up to date in the most interesting fields. I get a lot of email. My wife Marilyn tears anything interesting out of Science and other newsmagazines.
FR: You popularized many fanciful scientific speculations, such as stasis fields, teleportation (before Star Trek's transporters), even genetically determined luck. Which of your strange ideas do you think stands the best chance of becoming reality some day?
LN: Execution via organ banks almost beat me into print. I like this one: automated taxis that can be commandeered by a police officer's credit card.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): I have the original edition of Ringworld, in which it gets earlier in the day as Louis Wu teleports eastward, an error you've been endlessly teased about even after correcting it in every subsequent edition. How did that ever get past your brilliant scientific mind?
Larry Niven (LN): I figured it out once, wrong, and never looked at it again for the next two years.
FR: Who were the writers who had the most impact on you prior to and early in your career?
LN: Robert Heinlein. Arthur Clarke. Ray Bradbury. Fritz Leiber. Ursula Le Guin. Jack Vance. Poul Anderson. Randall Garrett. The usual suspects.
FR: What do you read for pleasure these days? Do you keep up with the latest generation of science fiction, and if so, who impresses you?
LN: It's a character flaw: by the time I know a writer's name, he's no longer a novice. I was tipped off to Stephen Baxter early on ("writes like Niven"). I also like Snow Crash and Mother of Storms and Brin's Earth.
FR: Are you pleased or concerned about how the field has developed since you first got into it? There is some concern that the science fiction readership is aging - What do you think science fiction needs to do to attract new readers?
LN: Write better books. (Mind you, they've gotten really good these last decades. But that's still the only drawing power we have.)
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Do you think the popularity of fantasy, spurred on by the success of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings films, helps or hurts the science fiction genre?
Larry Niven (LN): I think these works can do nothing but good for us. Teach the kids to read, make them love it, and they'll find the right books in time.
FR: You have occasionally written fantasy and science fantasy, for example The Magic Goes Away, and you recently had a new fantasy short story, "Chicxulub," published in Asimov's. Any plans to write more, now that the fantasy genre is so hot?
LN: I've been writing fantasy because that's where inspiration struck. I've been slacking off lately because inspiration has been scarce. I'd love to write a good "Gil the ARM" story.
FR: I've met many an SF reader who still chuckles over "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex," your tongue-in-cheek examination of how dangerous it would be for Superman to ever win the heart of Lois Lane. (The phrase "gutting her like a trout" still stands out in my mind.) How can we get you to write more humor?
LN: Again, where inspiration strikes, I'll write funny. I'm working on a few things that might serve.
FR: Many of your works have been interpreted as advancing a conservative or libertarian viewpoint. Is that deliberate, does it just slip through, or have the critics got it all wrong?
LN: Nothing wrong with the critics. I've been voting Libertarian since Bush Senior raised taxes.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): You are a vocal advocate of space exploration. Is President Bush correct to direct NASA to focus its energies on a manned expedition to Mars?
Larry Niven (LN): He didn't finance anything so ambitious, and any reasonable timescale would have him long out of office before anything has to happen. I can't guess if he's serious...but what he hell, he's saying the right things. Me, I'd throw all my weight into defending the Earth against asteroid impacts...and figure I'd bought the human race some time.
FR: What's your favorite dessert?LN: I seem to love all kinds of ice cream. In restaurants I'll order baklava or crème brulee.