Larry Niven Interview
with Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Article: ISBN 0765301377 PubDate: 08/01/03
Ernest Lilley: Can you tell us a bit about Scatterbrain? How did it come about? What are you trying to say through it?
Larry Niven: Scatterbrain is the third retrospective collection from TOR Books. The first were N-Space and Playgrounds Of The Mind, in 1989 and 1991. Tom Doherty and Bob Gleason worked hard on those.
Scatterbrain includes essays, excerpts from novels, every short story I couldn’t stand to leave out, and a stack of email generated by me and Brenda Cooper while we were working on a short story. We included that as a lesson in how to collaborate via email.
I should add: there are only two Draco Tavern stories in this book. My agent (Eleanor Wood) and I have sold a collection of all the Draco Tavern stories under separate contract.
EL: What else are you working on?
Niven: Burning Tower is a sequel to The Burning City, both novels written with Jerry Pournelle. We’re covering proto-Americans in an age when magic was running out. I’m also writing Creation Myth with Brenda Cooper. The story covers 60,000 years of a terraforming project carried out in the wrong solar system using the wrong tools. Both books are nearly finished.
EL: Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy? Do you remember the first SF you read?
Niven: First SF novel was dreadful, a juvenile set on Mars involving sapient carrots and onions. First Heinlein was Rocket Ship Galileo. Hooked me.
EL: Why did you get into writing in the first place? Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?
Niven: Sure I wrote as a child. I first tried to sell stories because I’d run short of options, in my 20s, and the daydreams were taking more coherent shape.
EL: How did your first sale come about?
Niven: I kept sending stories out until Frederik Pohl bought one. He was editing three magazines: he needed material.
EL: How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day?
Niven: I usually know the ending before I start. I write almost every day, no set schedule.
EL: It seems to me that short stories are better suited to SF because they’re the right length for trotting out and idea or a puzzle and getting off the stage.
Niven: Yes, short stories make better SF. Also, when it’s working, I’d rather write short stories: the rewards come quicker. Short stories keep me tight, so the novels don’t sprawl all over the place.
EL: What is it about collaboration that you like most…and least?
Niven: Least: lack of control. Most: It’s not as lonely as working alone inside my head.
EL: I just got a copy of The Integral Trees, which has its sequel, The Smoke Ring, in it.
The Integral Trees set is still the best hard science fiction novel I’ve ever written. (One novel, two lobes.) Ringworld may be a more universal intellectual toy, but it also needed more unjustifiable assumptions. Destiny’s Road may be the best novel, but it doesn’t have the reach.
EL: It seems to me that you managed to escape SF’s New Wave obsession with character at the cost of plot, and the darkness of Cyberpunk as well. How did you react to those movements?
Niven: When I got in, I was the only new writer who wanted to write like Poul Anderson. And Jack Vance, and a host of other hard SF writers. I don’t neglect characters—hell, I live through them—but I usually let the story generate them. As for darkness, it generally creeps in via implications in my story line, even when I’m trying to write optimistically.
EL: Hard SF has come back, and with it, a new life for your sort of science-adventure story. What do you think of the new crop of authors?
Niven: They’re terrific, all of them. I wish I had Baxter’s or John Barnes’s reach. People have started calling me a minimalist: I confine my stories with boundaries so I don’t run beyond what I know.
EL: Ringworld has to be your best known, and probably most popular book, is it your favorite? Do you have favorites?
Niven: Yes, Ringworld is my favorite. It’s got me the most feedback, and I enjoy that. But the feedback is often due to possibilities I didn’t see! That’s what I meant about The Integral Trees: good SF, but less useful as a mind-toy.
EL: In Oath Of Fealty, you coined the “bumper sticker” phrase “Think of it as evolution in action”, which probably deserves credit for inspiring the “Darwin Awards”. Though I’m sure that’s mostly a frivolous comment, do you think that evolution is in action?
Niven: Of course we’re still evolving. My “bumper sticker” had a political thrust: too many damn lawyers were (and still are!) acting like there’s no such thing as natural death.
EL: I was listening to NPR recently and heard about the “Flash Mob” phenomenon, which immediately made me think of your 1973 short story: Flash Crowds. Though the web culture had already co-opted your term to describe sudden server flooding, the current fad seems closer to your vision. While we don’t have teleportation, we’re still getting sudden crowds.
Niven: Real flash crowds happen because automobiles plus freeways plus instant news coverage are close enough to teleportation to make it work, but “flash mobs” are deliberately contrived. That’s as I described them in “The Last Days of the Permanent Floating Riot Club”.
EL: Now that were in the “Next Century” what do you think of it? Do you think like one of those long lived aliens that spend their lives looking our for the species (Protector, 1973)
Niven: The future was supposed to start around 1970, as some SF writer pointed out, and it did. We’ve all been a bit breathless ever since.
Yes, I always did think a bit like a protector. For all these years I’ve been trying to give warning wherever I saw something coming. Once it was the organ bank problem: civic law allowing executions for the purpose of harvesting organs. It now looks like China etc. beat me to it. Now it’s…well, I think the speech is in SCATTERBRAIN.
EL: If a Puppeteer were to shanghai you the next time you stepped into a telephone booth, and said he’d be happy to drop you anywhere in known space…where would you like to go?
Niven: I’d talk him into a tour. Failing that…no question about it. Shasht/Fafnir in the Beowulf Shaeffer era!