INTERVIEW: Larry Niven

Republibot 3.0
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Today we’re interviewing science fiction author Larry Niven. Mister Niven has been cranking out the tales since his first short story was published in 1964. Since then, he’s won Ditmar, Hugo, Locus and Nebula awards, as well as becoming more-or-less the grand master of mega structure-based SF, such as the Ringworld series and the current Fleet of Worlds series. Without question, the author to have had more influence over my own tastes and talents than anyone apart from Philip K. Dick. I’m an unabashed fan. Mister Niven, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us today.

NIVEN:
No sweat. Electronic interviews are a lot easier than writing.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
You invented the Kzin back in 1966. They’re arguably the most archetypical uber-sexists in the history of speculative fiction. They are fierce meat-eating predators, they all act like alpha males, the females of their species are non-sapient sex kittens, and their government is--by definition--an Old Boys’ Club that they have the temerity to openly call “The Patriarchy.” They’re just as bold as brass about that, too. Something I’ve wondered about for years: Were the Kzin intended as a parody of the Radical Feminist view of men? If so, it’s a really sly dig because nobody seems to notice it until I point it out to them.

NIVEN:
The Kzinti evolved over many years. I started with a story that needed a villain. I used them in several subsequent stories, and they took on detail. By now there are a dozen volumes of THE MAN-KZIN WARS, stories mostly written by folk other than me, and four RINGWORLD volumes. Some of what has become of the Kzinti has surprised me.

But I did definitely intend to see what would happen to a sapient race with only one functional gender. Yes, it was all deliberate. If I’d chosen a sapient female instead, Ghod knows what the feminists would have done to me.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
As long as we’re talking about sex: There’s a hell of a lot of it in your Known Space stories. When I first read these as a teen, I didn’t think about it twice because free love is kind of a staple of SF, and has been since HG Wells. I just skimmed over whatever offendeth my virgin eyes at the time, no biggie. In the last couple years, I’ve come across some fans who’ve argued fairly convincingly that the 24/7 orgies were actually a political statement. They say that earth was basically a dystopia, and that the government was keeping people in check with bread and circuses. Was this what you had in mind at the time, or just something people have kind of read into it as morals have drifted over the decades?

NIVEN:
The Pill was new. Panels argued at conventions: was this new freedom a major change in human nature? I assumed failsafe birth control and victory over disease. Sexual freedom would be pretty much a given. You see a lot of heterosexual activity in my futures because homosexuals, given perfect freedom, don’t breed (enough for replacement.)

I tend to write flawed utopias, or futures as a work in progress.
But also, you don’t know a character until you know his/her sexual proclivities.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Expanding from tht idea, an inherent assumption of your work is that Technology Changes Morality. This seems self-evident to me, and is really fascinating, yet no one really touches on it much excepting yourself and John Varley on a less overt level. I’ve used your arguments on Republibot a few times, and generally been shouted down, so I guess it’s kind of a hard idea for some to really accept.

NIVEN:
Yes! Technology alters morality! What you and your neighbor/enemy can do changes what how you must respond.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Why do you think it is that some people seem so opposed to the concept?

NIVEN:
It’s not a pleasant idea for anyone who teaches. Teachers would rather see absolutes in morality. But—example. Was it moral to fight total war against the Axis in WW2? Sure. You’re rescuing whole subcultures from extinction. And in the Cold War, when the weapons could have wiped out humanity? Then, no.

Another example. Hitler and Stalin murdered around 18,000,000 each. (Not counting war, and the numbers are arguable.) Now is assassination moral? But those numbers would be impossible without 20th century levels of organization and communication.

Another: condoms and the pill. Dante would never have understood our attitudes toward sex.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Known Space is exotic. You’ve got the coolest, most original aliens. You’ve got Canyon and Silvereyes and Plateau and Jinx and We Made It and a bunch of other arresting marginally-habitable worlds, not to mention the Ringworld and the Fleet of Worlds. And of course there’s Harlequin’s Moon and Svetz’ version of Mars, and the Smoke Ring in your other work. One of the reasons I keep coming back to it again and again over thirty years is that your places feel like places, not just “Planet California, with an extra moon.” What drives this? Why do you feel it is that so few authors have an interest in a sense of uniqueness and place in their fictional locations? Do you feel location drives the social evolution of a people? Are there any neat concepts for worlds that you’ve come up with, but never really got around to using in a story?

NIVEN:
“It was raining on the planet Mongo.” Lots of SF feels claustrophobic, as if planets were all about the size of a village. It makes the storytelling easier for a lazy writer.

I like my planets big and various.

There were rules in DOLE’S HABITABLE PLANETS FOR MAN. Poul Anderson wrote articles on how to design planets; some writers were shocked, preferring a more poetic approach. I looked for the exceptions to Poul’s rules. Jinx was the first prolate spheroid in SF, and the variation emerged naturally.

Then if I get lazy, I only follow about six characters—and if I want six billion, I write with Jerry Pournelle.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Speaking of which, will we ever see more of the planet Silvereyes? You used it in your story, “The Color of Sunfire,” but it still feels tantalizingly offstage to me. Is there anything you can tell us to flesh it out a bit? For instance, I get that it’s a water world, but what are the humans settlements built on?

NIVEN:
All I know about Silvereyes is that there are maybe five patches where Slaver sunflowers have taken over. I used Slaver sunflowers in WORLD OF PTAVVS and then in Ringworld, after drawing one in a math class. I don’t need to show Silvereyes again.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Ah, nuts. I was hoping you might revisit it since you’ve revisited a lot of your old characters in the last ten or twelve years. People who’ve been on the shelf for quite a long time - Nessus, Beowulf Schaeffer, Svetz - of these, the most pleasant surprise was Svetz in “Rainbow Mars,” because he just felt spot-on perfect. It didn’t feel like it had been thirty years since you’d written the last book in that series, it didn’t feel like it had been more than a month or two since you’d used him last. Is it hard to recapture the voice of these older characters?

NIVEN:
I can’t speak for all my older characters. As for Svetz, I wrote five stories about him, then—I never stopped thinking about an orbital tower as the legendary Beanstalk. The tale didn’t get off the ground until I thought of setting it on Mars. Then, wow, the possibilities multiplied without limit.

I’m glad you found Svetz unchanged. Or amplified. He’s an easy character to write with.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
As your talents have gotten defter over the years, do you find there’s something you can bring to them that wasn’t there before? Is this what causes you to bring them out of retirement?

NIVEN:
Yes, I’ve learned enough to add depth to older characters. More to the point, I sometimes find more to say on the subject. I don’t want to be caught retelling an old tale unless there’s more to be told.

You didn’t mention Carpenter in ESCAPE FROM HELL, but he’s a perfect example. It was Jerry who kept thinking about the theological implications—and I had a wonderful opening.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Speaking of Dr. Pournelle, you collaborate more than any other genre author I’m aware of. Just off the top of my head, I can think of about twenty-four or twenty-five books you’ve co-written, and I’m sure I’m lowballing that by quite a bit. That’s the kind of thing that non-writers assume is really easy - “Hey, let’s split the work!” - but having spoken with a number of different authors, all of them confirm that it isn't. It’s really, really hard. Far harder than simply writing a story solo.

So the question is: What do *you* get out of it? Obviously you like it, despite the extra work load it presents, and obviously you’re really good at it. What is it that draws you to collaboration?

NIVEN:
Collaborating is less lonely.

Even so, it’s about 60% more work. You each go in expecting to do 80%. You shouldn’t do it unless you’re expecting a much better book. In the main, I’ve written books collaboratively that I couldn’t have handled solo.

And I’ve been really picky about my collaborators.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
I don’t know your politics. I infer that you’re a somewhat right-of-center Libertarian, but that’s just a random guess on my part.

NIVEN:
Yes, I’m sort of right-of-center Libertarian. I want a government for things like roads and bridges. Beyond that, the govt has been growing like kudzu, once an ornamental garden plant.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
In “Scatterbrain,” you made at least three really overt and positive references to President Reagan, and bemoaned the fact that he basically ended the Cold War, but gets no credit for it. This drives me nuts as well. Why is it popular to ignore the old guy, and why do you appear to like him enough to defend his reputation? You met him a few times, didn’t you? In an official capacity?

NIVEN:
I never had that honor. However, my text appeared in his speeches, via the Citizens Advisory Council for a National Space policy. I like him personally via stories told by Pournelle.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
A lot of our readers don’t realize it, but you were actually part of the Strategic Defense Initiative back in the ‘80s. It actually started in your kitchen, as I recall. Could you tell us how the whole thing came about, and your thoughts now that it’s basically been sidelined forever.

NIVEN:
SDI went through our kitchen, yes. Four weekends during the Reagan years, and then through Reagan’s Science Advisor, who was Jerry Pournelle’s best student. But this has been written up in N-SPACE and some newspapers, and the reports were published in full by Baen Books.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
No point in rehashing it then, if the info is so easy to find. Last question: our space program has been in the crapper for twenty or thirty years now. The shuttle was, in retrospect, a huge disappointment. Thanks to the cancellation of the Constellation project, we effectively don’t have a manned space program anymore, and we’re unlikely to have one in the next decade. The Russians are operating at capacity, and the Chinese are barely able to squeeze out one launch every three years. These are dark days for space. As a long-time advocate, what would you advise? What can we, as voters, do to further the manned space program, and what, in your opinion, should America be doing in space as a whole? Basically, if you were the President, if you were in a position to fix things, how would you go about it? What would ‘The Niven Plan’ be?

NIVEN:
Go Libertarian.

I’ve been persuaded that the way to go is with awards. Award so much money for solar power in space, demonstrated. So much for a handful of men on the moon for a handful of weeks or months or years. So much for a man on Mars. We set free enterprise loose on the problems.

If nothing happens, it costs nothing. Nothing gets paid until there are actual accomplishments.

And—if I’m President, I know who to call on. I’m surrounded by geniuses, and I typically call for help when I need it.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
I’ve got a zillion more questions, but that’s all we’ve got time for today. I’d like to thank Mr. Niven for talking with us today. Thank you once again for your time. If there's anything we can do to reciprocate, we'd be happy to do it. Are there any charities you'd like us to plug? Anything you'd like us to link to in the article? R3 tells me you're really into the Boy Scouts of America. If you'd like us to tie that in somehow, we'd be glad to. Basically, if there's anything we can do for you, just ask.

NIVEN:
Reason Magazine deserves anyone’s support. Give them a plug for me. Thanks.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Will do. Hey, everyone, "Reason" is a libertarian magazine that's been in circulation since 1968. They're well regarded, award winning, and their official website is online here: http://reason.com/
They've also got a Blog: http://reason.com/blog
And they do some webcasting and original video: http://Reason.tv

Check it all out!

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