Interview with Larry Niven

A while ago, I wrote about Larry Niven and his novel Ringworld for Kirkus Reviews. In doing so, I interviewed Mr. Niven, and he was kind enough to answer my questions about the genesis of the book. Here's our conversation:

Andrew Liptak: You're well known for your 'Known Space' stories. What prompted you to link them together as you wrote, and how did this affect the stories as you wrote them?

Larry Niven: Heinlein and Anderson and others had done linked stories. It seemed an obvious labor-saving move. Equally obvious: if the story idea didn’t fit my universe, build another for it.

Often the effect was that a story written for its own sake generated more stories.

Lately the various series are generating stories in other minds. AL: How did you come to open up Known Space to other authors?

LN: James Patrick Baen suggested doing that. I told him that Known Space was mine and I wouldn’t share. Five minutes later I was saying, “We could open up the Man-Kzin Wars. I don’t do war stories.” It all derived from that: fifteen volumes of the Kzinti, and then five written with Ed Lerner.

AL: Ringworld is arguably one of your best known novels: what can you tell me about how this story was conceived and written? What was the writing, submission and publication process like?

LN: I was gearing up to terminate the Known Space series when I thought of Ringworld. I think I did the obvious but at this late date I’m no longer sure. The obvious: take the equator out of a ping-pong-ball Dyson sphere—the only useful part—spin it up and terraform the inside.

I was visiting bibliophiles when I borrowed a text and got the formula for spin gravity. Otherwise I’d have used bad math to write bad scenery.

I was at Madiera Beach at the Knights’ writers conference, when I thought of the Eye Storm. I tried to describe it to Betty Ballantine. Maybe it got through.

I wrote the ending as quick as I could. It felt like the book was getting huge. That cover was done from my sketch, but by someone who just didn’t get it. I’ve seen much better Ringworld illos since.

AL: How did your background in mathematics help you with writing and describing the book and Ringworld?

LN: I don’t think the math helped as much as the mathematician’s way of thinking. Building logic towers from premises wrung out of thin air. Mathematics is a game.

AL: Ringworld won the Hugo and Nebula in 1971, Ditmar in 1972 and placed 1st in the Locus poll that year: what was the winning streak like for you?

LN: Unique. I haven’t won a Hugo since 1976. I only won the one Nebula. You should know that I worried about Ringworld. I was afraid it would be laughed off the stage.

AL: What do you think appealed to readers for such a reaction for the book?

LN: The Ringworld is a wonderful mental plaything. THE INTEGRAL TREES is better science fiction, but it’s not as easy to play with the ideas.

AL: You note in your introduction that you never planned to continue the Ringworld story, but fans prompted you do continue. How did you go about putting together Ringworld Engineers from there?

LN: It kind of shaped itself. Beginnings are difficult; I started Louis Wu at the bottom of a lost career, the opposite of Ringworld. I’d been ignoring the hominid races; I began building them. It ran from there.

AL: Do you have any future plans for Ringworld?

LN: No.

AL: Your novels are considered to be 'Hard Science Fiction', and I've heard stories about your first published story, Coldest Place in reaction to that (regarding Mercury). Who were your influences when it came to writing in this particular style?

LN: “Hard” science fiction was pretty soft when I started writing. FTL, psi powers, teleportation and many other notions were fair game. These days I try to hew closer to what we think we know. My influences were Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Fritz Leiber…all the greats of that era.

AL: Were there any real-world influences (such as the space race) on Ringworld or the Known Space books? How do you think the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions impacted Science Fiction as a genre?

LN: I was pretty ignorant of the facts of daily life, politics, history. I didn’t get into those matters until I started collaborating. So reality didn’t have much effect on my writing early on.

AL: What can you tell me about the Galaxy Magazine pro/anti war ad?

LN: They made me decide. I chose to win a war we were already fighting. The truth may be more complicated, but they wouldn’t let me sit it out.

AL: Can you tell me a little more about this? Who made you decide, the magazine? What was their motivations for placing such an ad?

LN: Damon and Kate Wilhelm Knight gathered writers to a mutual criticism circle, once a year. One year they invited the conservatives to stay out while their like minded colleagues formed that first list advising an end to the Vietnam War. I did not appreciate being treated so, and when Poul shaped a counterattack, I joined it.

AL: What was your relationship with the Dangerous Visions anthology? (Aside from publishing a story in it - I saw that you were thanked in the acknowledgements).

LN: I loaned Harlan money. (It was paid back.) And I wrote an early story.

AL: Ringworlds have become popularized artifacts in science fiction: are you pleased to see this idea take off? Where did the idea of a Ringworld come from?

LN: Sure I’m pleased to have influenced the field, that way and others. Sometime the whole field looks like an ongoing conversation covering centuries.

The Ringworld derives from Dyson (Dyson sphere) via SF writers (who took it for a ping pong ball 93,000,000 miles in radius, with a star at the center) to the notion that you can’t have gravity generators, so you have to spin the thing, but now the air and water all cover just the equator…

AL: Are we ever going to see an adaptation of Ringworld on the big or small screen? I saw that SyFy had announced it last year, almost a decade after they originally announced it.

LN: SyFy has cancelled again.

AL: That’s a shame. Do you hope to see an adaptation made?

LN: I might not live that long.

AL: There's a critical essay out there that compares Ringworld to The Wizard of Oz. Are these comparisons accurate or intended? Was Oz an influence for you?

LN: That critic convinced me completely. Yes, I loved the OZ books when I was in grade school, but I didn’t realize I was using the plot line. It just felt right.

AL: When did you first come across science fiction? Why have you remained a reader and writer in the genre?

LN: First there were fair tales (including the OZ books.) Then, Heinlein and a bunch of other writers of juveniles.

AL: Were you a magazine fan at all, or part of Fandom before you became a writer? If so, where there any authors that were a particular influence, stylistically?

LN: I was a magazine and anthology fan, but I’d barely heard of Fandom. When I knew I wanted to become a pro writer, I tracked them down.

AL: A friend of mine who's working on her PhD in soil ecology has two questions: In Bowl of Heaven, human intentions and behavior are misunderstood by the other sentient creatures they encounter, leading to conflict that could have been avoided if both species better understood one another. Do you think this also happens here on Earth, and if so, what implications does it have for efforts to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity? How could environmentalists and policy-makers benefit from reading Bowl of Heaven? How could the ideas explored in Bowl of Heaven help set research agendas for scientists studying animal behavior?

LN: Misunderstandings have caused conflicts through the ages, but less often today. Communications are better. Today conflict arises from real differences. Biodiversity and ecosystems should be preserved…but won’t be until someone can make that economically feasible.

Reading Bowl of Heaven will make smart people smarter. The lessons are in there. Research agendas in animal behavior? I’m not sure. Ask Greg Benford.


There's been others championing Ringworld - Lev Grossman recently published a great look over at Time.