Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 23
The Hanged Poet
by Jeffrey Lyman
Into the West
by Eric James Stone
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Larry Niven
    by Darrell Schweitzer

SCHWEITZER: What do you think is the most fruitful area for science fiction speculation right now?

NIVEN: I'd have to say exoplanets. Mind you, I don't dig very deep into medical speculation, or other areas of science. I prefer astrophysics. Exoplanets keep turning up and they're wonderful.

SCHWEITZER: I think there are now over a thousand of them known. What I wonder is why more science fiction writers don't seem to be excited about them. You'd think we'd be seeing an explosion of outward-looking, space-oriented SF, and we're not. Any ideas?

NIVEN: I've done a little of it. There was speculation in one of the magazines about other Earths. It seems that Earth is at the lower end of the range of possible masses. Earthlike environments will be on planets two or three or four times the size of Earth. Some of them will have formed out where water is frozen, and they will have water shells tens of miles thick with exotic forms of ice at the bottom.

SCHWEITZER: Not very useful for human colonization.

NIVEN: No. It doesn't sound like they'd have land masses. But that's easy enough. I'd give them a life form that forms floating coral islands.

SCHWEITZER: Are you writing anything like this?

NIVEN: I did that in a short story, but I could do more of it. There's lots of room.

SCHWEITZER: There seems to be a malaise over science fiction today. A lot of SF writers seem to be losing interest in other planets and outer space at precisely the moment when these are the most exciting. I am wondering what is going on.

NIVEN: I wonder what is going on too, but the truth is I can't read everything, so I have no reason to think that what I am reading is representative. I read collections of the best short stories of the year and keep up that way. There are some good writers out there. There is some speculation on planets, although the really ambitious writers seem to go right to the end of the universe.

SCHWEITZER: I wonder if the public might not be just taking space travel for granted. How old do you have to be now to remember when there were no spaceships?

NIVEN: I think you've almost put your finger on the solution, that space travel is being taken for granted. It is the immense expense that is being taken for granted, the loss of the ability to visit other planets as human beings. Writers have to go through too much planning and thinking and research to come up with something that would even make the trip. There's less story left in the end.

SCHWEITZER: Isn't that essentially the writer's job? Where is the new Hal Clement, who would be doing all this at vast length?

NIVEN: A writer's job is whatever he will accept as his job. The writers of today are choosing from wherever the inspiration comes from. They don't plan out where they are going, most of them.

SCHWEITZER: In a conversation with a magazine editor who will remain nameless, I remarked that he needed more explicitly science-fictional imagery on his covers. How about a spaceship? He replied that he didn't want people to think the magazine was devoted to nostalgia, as if the future is behind us now. So, is the culture itself losing its interest in the future?

NIVEN: The culture itself is facing the fact that spacecraft cost tax money. Too many boondoggles already. We have lost faith that we can search the universe easily. That is, some of us have. The rest, they go as far as we went, and then keep on going. There is a speculation, a lot of science being done on the beginning and ending of the universe. If you go far enough, you find yourself facing the expansion of the universe, dark energy increasing our expansion rate. Some writers are very ambitious, and it will take that kind of ambition to do realistic interstellar travel.

SCHWEITZER: I wonder how we can encourage this. Maybe it is a sign of my age, but a lot of science fiction seems less exciting now. I have a feeling that a lot of people are quitting, turning their backs on the possibilities precisely when they shouldn't. I don't see as much space advocacy either. I might reasonably ask whatever happened to the L-5 Society.

NIVEN: I believe you're right. We're losing our urge. And yet the reasons to go to space have become more by one. Meteorite impacts are a certain threat. Stopping the next giant meteor is very likely to require men in space. We don't know exactly what we're going to find.

SCHWEITZER: It used to be argued that you could go into space and get rich.

NIVEN: I think somebody is going to go into space and get rich. What I really think is that somebody needs to demonstrate that it can be done within the next few years. Up to now it is certainly true that the only people who have gotten rich out of space are the people who build the spacecraft. That's not the way you got rich off voyaging to the New World.

SCHWEITZER: But there was something in the New World which you could immediately steal, that is to say Aztec gold. We don't have the equivalent of that for space. You'd have to voyage someplace else and then work for it.

NIVEN: Right. Nothing to steal on the Moon, and nobody to stop you from taking anything you like. Getting water on the Moon is another matter. I was told this for my sense of proportion. If you were to find concrete on the Moon, it would be worth mining the concrete to get the water out of it.

SCHWEITZER: Only if you were living on the Moon. This gets back to the question of why you are living on the Moon.

NIVEN: I've been writing for forty-odd years and trying to tell people how wonderful space could be. If I've failed to do that, then maybe we don't get there. We still need a space program that will take out the next giant meteorite impact, and identify it first. Maybe it can be guided into orbit around the Earth, though I think maybe we would be stopped by various hysterics. Putting a rock in orbit around the Earth has a dangerous sound, and it probably is dangerous. You'd have to be quite careful.

SCHWEITZER: I think this gets back to the political aspect of it. All that tax money being spent on something that might happen in the next ten thousand years? How would you convince a politician of that?

NIVEN: Do you think politicians are what's standing in the way of the future?

SCHWEITZER: For funding purposes, yes.

NIVEN: Yeah. I think that's likely enough. It's our present political system, and maybe everybody's present political system that is stopping us from getting there. And yet that seems insane once you think about it. We have gotten from here to other places. We have taken the New World. The politicians weren't any brighter or less selfish then than they are today. We haven't seen an improvement in human nature. We haven't seen a degradation in human nature. Do you think that the Christian, Catholic Church is the key to having conquered the New World?

SCHWEITZER: I think the three things that made the conquest of the New World work were, first, stealing Aztec gold for the ready cash, then making colonies like Virginia pay by growing tobacco, which they did not have in Europe, and the third thing was that it was a great place to dump your religious dissenters.

NIVEN: Catholic gold I might admit. But if you're sending a lot of gold to the New World and hoping to bring back more, you're also hoping to convert some souls to Christianity. You're that kind of fanatic. That may be part of the impetus that gets ships to the New World.

SCHWEITZER: If we were to discover an extraterrestrial civilization, do you think our first impulse would be to evangelize it?

NIVEN: Somebody would certainly preach to the heathen. I am also thinking of the Chinese treasure junks, which could have conquered the New World, North and South America. Politicians got in their way. Actually bureaucrats burned the treasure junks in order to make life simpler in their books. That didn't happen to the Catholic missions.

SCHWEITZER: There are many science fiction angles in this. People have also written about what happens when the extraterrestrials try to evangelize us.

NIVEN: Yes, they have.

SCHWEITZER: On the subject of religion, I also note that you and Jerry Pournelle have recently come out with a sequel to Inferno. [Escape from Hell, Tor, 2009.] Why did it take you so long, to produce a sequel? Why did it take you over thirty years?

NIVEN: Forty years ago, when Jerry was trying to get me to write a second book called Oath of Fealty, I remembered that I had daydreamed of fighting my way through the Inferno without benefit of angels. I remembered that Jerry keeps lecturing on religion whether I ask him to or not, and I raised the subject with him. As I say, that was around forty years ago. I made him write that book. I mean the first one, Inferno. But we kept on thinking after we had written that book. It took him this long to come to various conclusions on religion so that he could persuade me. I already had a wonderful opening, and he picked up a co-star to participate in it. It just took that long. Some books take a long time to germinate.

SCHWEITZER: If you're going to make it a trilogy, I hope we don't have to wait another forty years.

NIVEN: I think you can safely say that it won't be a trilogy. I don't have much more to say. Jerry might, for all I know. I'd be surprised though.

SCHWEITZER: It seems that these books were driven by your daydreams and his theology. Could you describe how this collaboration worked?

NIVEN: As I say, I was the one who wanted Inferno, and I pushed him into it, and eventually he loved it. He was the one who wanted this second volume, Escape from Hell. Eventually I loved it. What more would you like to know?

SCHWEITZER: Well, we could address the whole topic of how a hard science writer writes fantasy.

NIVEN: A science fiction writer writes fantasy by laying down some laws for how the universe works. They are of course going to be pure fiction, but they are going to be consistent and plausible if you close one eye and squint a little.

SCHWEITZER: In that approach to fantasy, ultimately nothing is very mysterious. You can understand it all.

NIVEN: Yeah. Fritz Leiber was quite different. Fritz wrote science fiction, but he wrote real pure-quill fantasy, and a lot of his science fiction resembles real, pure-quill fantasy. Making the rules was an optional thing for him.

SCHWEITZER: Isn't there something to be said for, say, Lord Dunsany's edge of the world? It is a great image, but hard to justify in terms of physics.

NIVEN: I spent a night reading Dunsany once, and then wrote an edge-of-the-world story, with a dragon hovering at the edge of the cliff. You can get as fantastic as you like, as long as it's plausible and consistent, and the plausibility doesn't have to be very great. It's when you change the rules in the middle of the story that you look like a fool.

SCHWEITZER: Do you find that fantasy has the same appeal for you as science fiction, or is it a totally different activity?

NIVEN: I think it has a different appeal, and there is a different appeal for detective stories. I think all of us read detective stories in addition to science fiction and fantasy, don't we? Most of us will try to write some detective or crime fiction. I wrote five Gil the Arm stories, but I also wrote one which is present-time, about a hijacker trying to take a car away from a driver.

SCHWEITZER: You mean it had no fantastic element?

NIVEN: Right. There was no fantastic content.

SCHWEITZER: But if you wanted to become a detective story writer, could you make a career out of it, or are your strongest talents elsewhere?

NIVEN: Starting from now I don't think I could become a successful detective story writer. Starting from forty years ago, I might have gone that route and made it work. I think it's more lucrative to be a science fiction writer, though. We sell for longer. Our stories don't go out of date. Detective fiction goes out of date as soon as too many people know what the secret was.

SCHWEITZER: But doesn't detective fiction turn into period pieces? Science fiction can also go out of date. An old book that I read with interest recently was Heinlein's The Door into Summer, which starts in the future, 1970, and moves to the far future, 2000. It still reads wonderfully, but it's a very different experience than readers must have had when the book was first published.

NIVEN: Lucifer's Hammer is obsolete in the same sense. It took place around 1975, I think, before the Space Shuttle got going. We're back to no Space Shuttle. So some of it could be written now, without changing very much, but it's obsolete.

SCHWEITZER: It seems to me that the "future" a science fiction writer writes about is a dissociation from the present-day world, but it doesn't have to be ahead of us chronologically. The "future" of The Door into Summer is now behind us, but it's still appreciated in the same way. So in what sense is that, or Lucifer's Hammer obsolete, other than that they didn't happen in the years stated? I point out that The War of the Worlds didn't happen in 1898 either, and we still read it.

NIVEN: And Nineteen Eighty-Four didn't happen in 1984. There are still people complaining that it's the way we're going.

SCHWEITZER: So, does science fiction actually need an element of prediction? Nineteen Eighty-Four says eternal things about totalitarianism, which were true when it was written. There is nothing in it that Stalin wasn't doing, except maybe some of the stuff with television.

NIVEN: A story doesn't need to be an accurate prediction, or even an accurate description of reality. It has to be plausible enough to get you through the story. The shorter the story, the more implausible you are allowed to be. But it's got to hold the reader, or it will vanish. It's got to make the anthologies. It will never wind up on somebody's shelf for fifty years.

SCHWEITZER: One can write a "future" science fiction story which is set in the past. If you wrote Lucifer's Hammer now, it would be alternate history. Have you ever felt any desire to write alternate histories?

NIVEN: I wrote "The Return of William Proxmire," and that was alternate history.

SCHWEITZER: It was also political satire.

NIVEN: And political satire, and a paean to Robert Heinlein. Of course a story can be many things. Yeah, I have written that one, and probably other alternate history stories. I did a short story in which you follow all of the futures in which the timeline is split.

SCHWEITZER: I am sure you don't believe that science fiction is running out of possibilities. My own feeling is that it is about to renew itself. Every time you start hearing critics saying that science fiction is finished, something explodes. A new trend or movement happens.

NIVEN: I believe you are right. I have faith. I expect that I will see it myself. I will keep my ear to the ground and see if I can't get on top of this new trend we don't see happening yet.

SCHWEITZER: Alexei Panshin once came up with an elaborate theory of why science fiction is obsolete. There had been a paradigm shift and we could no longer live with the old assumptions, etc. Therefore science fiction could no longer be written. He explained it to me at great length about 1983, and William Gibson arrived the following year. Then everything was different.

NIVEN: In Europe now, they say Cyberpunk and they mean science fiction. Most of the science fiction they mean is Cyberpunk.

SCHWEITZER: Do they talk about Niven-style stories?

NIVEN: The people I am thinking of, don't. Last year I went to France and Spain for conventions as one of the guests of honor. They know my stories. They know them well.

SCHWEITZER: I suppose that ultimately if we try to define a Niven-style story, we come back to Ringworld, which is the story of the Very Big Thing which is carefully extrapolated. I have to admit that the opening of Ringworld reminded me of the opening of The Lost World by Conan Doyle. It's about a bunch of people getting together and saying, "Hey there's a great adventure out there. Let's go explore this." Maybe this is a spirit we need more of.

NIVEN: Maybe that's the problem. The spirit of "let's go explore something" runs up against needing a lot of preparation. Also there is far too much news about the dangers of where you are going. You don't just go to Guadalajara these days. You read up on it and see whether there are riots happening, or whether there's a rash of kidnappings.

SCHWEITZER: Indiana Jones will just get in a biplane and go. We have a sense you could do that in the 1930s, but not now.

NIVEN: As if there were a loose Concorde around. Wouldn't that be convenient?

SCHWEITZER: There isn't any place left on Earth that is all that remote anymore. If you were on an expedition to the South Pole and you were injured or sick - you wouldn't be on such an expedition in the winter - somebody could fly you out of there in a helicopter in a few hours. There isn't any place that is too far away. Maybe interplanetary travel will restore that sense of the adventurer being out there on his own.

NIVEN: Yeah, and vast amounts of time spent getting there. It doesn't take months to get from Guadalajara to Seattle, but it takes months to get to Mars, however you do it.

SCHWEITZER: Maybe a lot of Americans are just too comfortable and the Chinese will go to Mars.

NIVEN: The uncomfortable people are often too poor to mount a space expedition. Science fiction writers need to work on that. The new revolution may be - Oh hell, I don't know where it's coming from.

SCHWEITZER: What we want is a revolution in which the older writers will be able to continue. Maybe what we don't want - for selfish reasons - is a another Campbell revolution, which put all the major writers out of business, with a few exceptions.

NIVEN: Did it?

SCHWEITZER: Yeah. Think of David H. Keller, Stanton Coblentz, Neil R. Jones. A lot of people who were big names in 1935 were really finished by 1945. John Campbell blew the whole field out of the water.

NIVEN: But he greatly improved the field. He improved the readability and the educational level of what of he was publishing. We all have the missionary urge. Science fiction writers and readers have the missionary urge. We want to improve civilization. We want to train people to run the world better. The educational factor of science fiction is impossible to ignore. Maybe that is what we are losing. If all the educators think that it's not really possible to conquer the Moon again . . .

SCHWEITZER: I wonder if it isn't that after too many Star Wars movies a lot of people think that going into space is just one more kind of fantasy.

NIVEN: They no longer believe in the ships any more than they believe in the power of the Force. It's all the same fantasy.

SCHWEITZER: It's the same as Harry Potter.


SCHWEITZER: Gregory Benford has commented on this a good deal. He thinks that our society is losing touch with science. I argue that what we need is more compelling science fiction to lure the readers back.

NIVEN: Okay. I'm doing my best.

SCHWEITZER: Thank you, Larry.

[Recorded at Eeriecon, April 30, 2011.]

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