Shaun Farrell interviews Larry Niven Special thanks to Mysterious Galaxy bookstore for their support of this column. To learn more about their exciting collection of signed first editions, please see our links page. Larry Niven is one of
the most decorated and celebrated science fiction authors of the past three
decades. His books include Ringworld and several
sequels, Lucifer’s Hammer, The Mote in God’s Eye,
Neutron Star, and The Magic Goes Away.
His ongoing collaboration with Jerry Pournelle is famous throughout the SF
world. Mr. Niven’s latest book is The Draco Tavern,
and he discusses that and much more in the following email interview.
Special thanks to Mysterious Galaxy bookstore for their support of this column. To learn more about their exciting collection of signed first editions, please see our links page.
Larry Niven is one of the most decorated and celebrated science fiction authors of the past three decades. His books include Ringworld and several sequels, Lucifer’s Hammer, The Mote in God’s Eye, Neutron Star, and The Magic Goes Away. His ongoing collaboration with Jerry Pournelle is famous throughout the SF world. Mr. Niven’s latest book is The Draco Tavern, and he discusses that and much more in the following email interview.
Shaun Farrell: Mr. Niven, let’s start by discussing your new book, The Draco Tavern. In the introduction you say you “wanted a format to deal with the simplest, most universal questions.” Can you talk about the freedom you had to explore philosophical issues through vignettes versus novels?
Larry Niven: For a writer, the freedom is always there. The question was whether I could do it well. When I started writing, it seemed obvious that the shortest stories would be easiest to sell. They’d fit better into the empty spaces in a magazine. It took me awhile to realize that even the shortest stories still had to be stories, not implied stories, not notes for a story…
And I learned how to make it work.
SF: The vignettes take place within a frame device as patrons enter a bar called Draco Tavern. I love that name. What was the inspiration behind it?
LN: “Draco” is easy: it’s a presumed constellation, a galactic arm with the solar system in it. The spaceport tavern is an old concept, and the fantasy bar is even older. It seemed to me that I could fit a lot of stories into that background.
SF: Are you a fan of works that use a frame device of this nature, like The Canterbury Tales? What appeals to you about them?
LN: No, not a fan, exactly. The story frame is sometimes useful: it leads to a compressed story. Other times it’s a mistake: the story should be experienced directly.
SF: Let’s talk about some of the themes you explore in The Draco Tavern. “Grammar Lesson” is an interesting story in the book, and you speak to the fact that human beings define themselves through language, that our culture grows out from our linguist understanding of ourselves. How big a role does this linguistic self-identification play in the conflicts among different cultures?
LN: The scientists are still working that out. Doctorates are shaped by the conflict. Try Jack Vance’s “The Languages of Pao” for an older view.
SF: “The Schumann Computer” is such a wonderful tale. It explores the idea that too much knowledge causes boredom and even suicide. How likely is it that human beings will ever reach a point where our knowledge is so vast we stop asking the important questions, and what has to happen for us to evolve to that point?
LN: Longevity is such a burden…yeah. How will we tolerate it? That will always be an individual conflict, an ongoing survival test. We might have to worry about suicide bombings. Some of us will keep ourselves entertained, will retain our sense of worth…or some of you. At 68, I may have missed my window.
The point was, a computer goes through all that much faster than an organic brain.
SF: “The Wisdom of Demons” warns against the accumulation of knowledge without earning it for yourself. How dangerous is this concept in the information age?
LN: It’s not yet a problem, but—I once wrote an article about “Instant Education”. Faster, deeper education is an ideal, like teleportation or immortality: a thing we’ve sought for all time, and will until we find it. In the ideal, we could swap minds. An old man could impose his mind onto a younger fool or student or victim. Being able to record a mind (and maybe store it as a computer program) is half the battle, and we can see that as a possibility already.
SF: Of all the themes you examine in this book, which one is closest to your heart?
LN: They all seemed important or interesting or ingenious or amusing. I like the notion in “Storm Front”, that the Gaea hypothesis applies to inhabited stars. “Did you think that the steady weather in your sun was an accident?” I liked showing why the Draco Tavern is needed, in “Playground Earth”. I liked playing with contemporary scientific questions, in “The Missing Mass”, and getting fully weird in “The Convergence of the Old Mind”.
SF: Since we’re talking about big questions, I want to ask you about the possibility of humanity ever reaching Mars. Science fiction writers and readers, for the most part, would love to visit the red planet, but conflicts here on Earth keep us from the stars. How long do you think it will take the nations to put aside their differences and start exploring the truly interesting questions of the universe? What will it take to stretch out into the solar system?
LN: I thought we’d be there now: domed cities on the Moon and Mars. It’s been disappointing, although the flow of information from the Moon, Mars, and the universe has been wonderful.
SF: When did you first create Rick Schumann, the narrator for The Draco Tavern? Did you ever suspect he would become the anchor of a book?
LN: I built the Draco Tavern as a story frame and it shaped Rick Schumann. I didn’t know they would shape this many stories. But my agent, Eleanor Wood, was sure the Draco Tavern stories could become a book. I wrote many of these at her urging.
SF: You write both science fiction and fantasy. What appeals to you about each genre?
LN: When I’m feeling lazy I write a fantasy.
SF: So, writing fantasy is much easier for you. Why is that?
LN: As a general thing, the scale of a fantasy is usually smaller, and I find that comfortable. Background requires less explanation. Then again, in fantasy I have to work to achieve internal consistency.
SF: What are the greatest limitations you face with each genre, and how do you circumvent those limitations?
LN: It’s not really an issue. Writers don’t place a story in a genre; that’s for someone else. Our task is to tell a story.
SF: You’ve been publishing for over forty years. How is the publishing industry changed now from when you first started?
LN: I don’t see major changes yet. In the 1960s we put up with thieves: publishers in every country who published without paying, particularly in Israel and the Soviet Union. In the 2000s the thieves publish online without payment or acknowledgement. But they’ve got it much easier these days, and that’s the trend. The publishing industry will collapse if writers can’t sell their work. Then we’ll get something else; because people will write anyway.
SF: What do you predict for the future of science fiction and fantasy publishing?
LN: Maybe it’ll be patronage. Picture Stephen King writing for Coca-Cola. Disney sponsoring children’s stories. Romance novels supported by charity solicitations to a billion housewives.
SF: writers who have had long-term success, like yourself, have one book or one series that defines their careers and outshines most of what they write for decades. Certain books just become timeless, and I think it’s safe to say that Ringworld fits that description for your career. Would you agree with that, and how does that make you feel?
LN: That’s almost fair. I would like to be honored for what I’m writing now—I think I’ve actually gotten better at it—but that’s all right too. The Ringworld series wrapped up nicely, ending with Ringworld’s Children, if you see it as the four volume history of Teela Brown.
Then again, many readers know me only through A Mote In God’s Eye or Lucifer’s Hammer, collaborations with Jerry Pournelle, or through Dream Park, written with Steven Barnes, or through short stories.
SF: I always ask the writers I interview about collaborations, but you may be the first master of the art I’ve had the chance to ask about this. You’ve written books with Jerry Pournelle, Steve Barnes, Michael Flynn, and Brenda Cooper. How do you approach collaboration, especially with novels? What is the secret to doing it well?
LN: Universal rules are scarce here. Every collaboration is different. That said—there must be mutual respect, and one of you has to have the veto power. Else you’ll hare off in different directions.
SF: When you look at your collaborations, which was the most difficult?
LN: The ones that failed. Jerry (Pournelle) and I wrote a fantasy based on Wendy All’s characters. She, an artist, was to do the illustrations. They never happened.
SF: Tell us about the Man-Kzin Wars series, which you edit for Baen. These books originated from your Known Space novels and stories. Who came up with the idea of inviting other writers to contribute to this universe, and how does the process of creating each volume work?
LN: Jim Baen suggested we open up the Magic Goes Away universe for Ace Books, and we did that.
Later: my wife Marilyn was driving us to a Nebula Awards weekend in Long Beach. Jim suggested opening up the known space universe. I told him that was my private turf. Thought it over, then suggested we could open the Man-Kzin War period. I’m not very good at war stories.
We invited the best writers we knew, and they came through. Some of them went the extra mile and began shaping that universe. Donald Kingsbury did that, and wrote a shocking tale of a Kzin coward. Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Sterling tackled Kzinti and Slaver family life. At this stage the writers seem to be inviting themselves in, and if they’re good enough, it works. And if the story’s compelling, I’ll work on the writing myself.
SF: Is there anyone you would still like to collaborate with?
LN: I’m still collaborating. I hope the story I’m writing with Greg Benford works out. I admire a lot of writers; some might find we can collaborate.
SF: Can you tall us about what you and Mr. Benford are working on?
LN: Greg has invented a structure comparable to a Ringworld, with a fascinating background history. To tell more would ruin several surprises.
SF: You’ve written some massive novels (the Ringworld books being good examples), and a detailed future history. How do you keep it all straight?
LN: It doesn’t stay completely straight. Sometimes I’m caught in mistakes, inconsistencies.
SF: What are you most proud of in your writing life?
LN: Hard to say, among sixty-odd books.
SF: What are you most proud of in your non-writing life?
LN: The Soviet Union was driven bankrupt by a story evolved at my house in Tarzana. There were about fifty of us involved, led by Jerry Pournelle, during the Reagan era. It came to be called Space Defense Initiative, or Star Wars if you didn’t like it. The crucial point was that the Soviets couldn’t afford to keep up.
The science fiction writers were crucial: we could translate for the other guys, astronauts and engineers and military and businessmen and a lawyer.
SF: Who are some of the writers that have inspired you the most?
LN: Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, John D. MacDonald, L. Frank Baum, the writers of EC Comics, Jack Williamson, and many others.
SF: What can your readers expect from you in years to come?
LN: Upcoming: two novels by me and Ed Lerner, set in known space and the puppeteer Fleet of Worlds. A second sequel to Dante’s Inferno by me and Jerry Pournelle. A fourth Dream Park novel with Steven Barnes, this one set on the Moon. Beyond thatI’m sort of a dilettante: I follow inspiration.