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
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
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
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
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
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
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.]