Interview: Larry Niven - SciFiNow

Interview: Larry Niven

SciFiNow sits down with the creator of the Ringworld series.

Published in 1970, Ringworld proved to be a hugely successful novel. Focusing on protagonist Louis Wu and the titular construct, a slimmed-down Dyson sphere that is wrapped around a star, the book won the Hugo Award in 1970, followed by the Nebula and the Locus in 1971. It’s proved to be hugely influential in science fiction, appearing in and influencing other authors and stories, such as Eric Brown and Iain Banks, and providing the central inspiration for the enormously popular videogame series Halo too.

“I keep using the word ‘homage’ and feeling flattered. It’s easier than telling myself I’ve been robbed,” Niven told SciFiNow, when asked how he felt about his creation appearing in such wildly disparate media across the genre spectrum. “Just kidding. The whole science fiction field is a gigantic dialogue, ideas passing back and forth endlessly. I love it. Besides, if I could copyright spin gravity, Halo and I would both be paying off [rocket scientist Wehrner] Von Braun’s heirs.”

Recently, in collaboration with author Edward M Lerner, Niven has been delving back into the past of his Ringworld series, with a sequence of five books. Betrayer Of Worlds, the fourth instalment, is on shelves now. “Ed has been exploring Known Space, looking at stories I’ve been writing for 45 years and then expanding background details. The alien Gw’oth are his invention, and so is the sixth world of the Fleet, human-occupied and now escaped from the Fleet,” said Niven, on the new title. “Betrayer Of Worlds tells of the rising Gw’oth menace and the Fleet’s involvement. It’s a complex tale of alien politics – and it’s Louis Wu’s first involvement with the Fleet, decades before he reached the Ringworld. The ending will surprise you.”

As well as his solo efforts, Niven is known for his collaborations with other authors. His most famous to date, Lucifer’s Hammer, was written with Jerry Pournelle, and was nominated for the 1978 Hugo. Over time he’s also worked with Steve Barnes and Brenda Cooper as well, a process he describes as being unique each time. “Every collaboration is different. Ed Lerner is doing all the first drafts; Steven Barnes does the same, but with lots of interaction. Work with Brenda Cooper was a training exercise. Jerry and I trade scenes and choose characters, and so forth.” His process of working with Lerner on the new novels, however, started relatively simply. “Ed Lerner prompted all of this,” Niven recalled. “One day he popped up in my email with some suggestions for the Fleet and Pierson’s puppeteer history. We ran with those. The second book covered Sigmund Ausfaller’s life; he was the agent who put a bomb in Beowulf Shaeffer’s ship, in ‘Neutron Star’. The third book covered the Protector war, which I left hanging. The fourth covers early Louis Wu. We’re still running.”

Outside of Ringworld, Niven has also been active both politically and socially. As a member of the Science Fiction Writers Of America, he was part of a group that purchased adverts in science fiction magazines that voiced opposition to the Vietnam War. He was an adviser to Ronald Reagan during the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative (known more commonly as the ‘Star Wars’ project), and more recently, he was involved in Sigma, a group of science fiction writers that advise the government as to future trends relating to security and other subjects. “It sounded like a good, virtuous idea,” said Niven on the subject of Sigma. “Also, Jerry Pournelle wanted me to interact with bureaucrats, for our next novel. At present it looks like I’m not one of the valuable ones. Not current enough, maybe not paranoid enough.”

His work has also taken him outside of science fiction novels. Niven has written scripts for television shows such as The Outer Limits and Land Of The Lost, but perhaps most famously Star Trek: The Animated Series, to which he also donated his Kzin alien species, from the Ringworld novels. In comics, he has also written for the Green Lantern character. Despite this wide experience outside of the genre, though, Niven is still best known for his hard science, and perhaps taking a contrary stance to other hard SF authors who have recently decried the lack of science in science fiction, Niven still believes that it’s a functioning genre. “Au contraire,” he replied, when asked if he thought the science aspect of the genre was being neglected in current fiction. “The hard SF stories get harder and harder, paying ever more attention to plausibility and recent advances. That attitude had nearly died out, in favour of the New Wave, when I started writing. But fantasy is much easier to write, and there’s much more of it.” Indeed, asking him about current SF authors worth reading, it’s hard to pin him down, with the author admitting that he doesn’t keep up, but he cites Stephen Baxter and Gregory Benford as two worth looking at.

In terms of modern advances, as well, Niven is realistic about recent events that have made headlines. On the rapidly expanding eBook market, he believes there will be a time in the future when the digital format becomes standard for novel releases. “It’ll happen, I think. My fear is that eBooks are so easy to steal. Writers may not be able to make a living, but we’ll have vastly more readers.”

Betrayer Of Worlds, by Larry Niven and Edward M Lerner, is out now through Tor.