Interview with Larry Niven

Joshua Sky interviews legendary author Larry Niven.

Interview with Larry Niven

OMNI had the opportunity to sit down with LA native, and legendary author, Larry Niven. He is the recipient of five Hugos, one Nebula, and four Locus awards. Larry has written and co-written such works as Ringworld, Mote In G-d’s Eye, Lucifer’s Hammer, Footfall and much more.

JS: First off, thanks so much for sitting down with OMNI.

NIVEN: It's a pleasure. I dealt with OMNI when it was a magazine.

JS: Your career started out in a really interesting way. The first story you sold was to Frederick Pohl in 1964, it was called "The Coldest Place." The story was scientifically accurate when you completed it, but wrong by the time it was about to be published. It presented Mercury’s dark side as the coldest place in the solar system, which turned out to be inaccurate.

NIVEN: That's right.

JS: But Pohl still bought it.

NIVEN: Yes.

JS: One of your goals as a writer is to continuously publish science fiction that is at the cutting edge of science. Is that still the case?

NIVEN: Yes, Fred (editor of If and Galaxy magazines at the time) gave me that goal, because I was already doing it, without quite making it a goal. He in fact suggested me writing stories and he finding scientists to write articles alongside the stories on the same subject, and we never got that far. I think he must've found that to be too much work.

JS: Is your process that you check the news, read the latest discoveries in science, and then write a story based on your findings?

NIVEN: That was my goal. In fact, I never really managed it.

JS: Is it difficult to keep track of the latest developments in science?

NIVEN: That's easy. That's a hobby. Doing your research for fun, and hoping it generates stories. Sometimes it does.

JS: I know you wrote for Star Trek the Animated Series. Talk about your experience.

NIVEN: Dorothy Fontana suggested that I write for the Star Trek cartoons. And I tried a few scripts, each of them wrong in retrospect, until, it might've been Dorothy, but it might've been someone else suggested that I turn "The Soft Weapon," a short story I already published, into a Star Trek script. I did that, and they accepted it.

JS: One of your alien races, the Kzinti are a part of Star Trek canon now. 

Kzinti - as depicted in Star Trek the Animated Series
Kzinti - as depicted in Star Trek the Animated Series

NIVEN: They're calling it canon, I suppose, but they don't use it. They might be afraid of getting sued, or they might just want to do their own background work.

JS: You have a knack for creating made up words, from "Kzinti" to "organlegger," you coined a lot of terms in sci-fi, and I know you've written essays about creating names and concepts. Is there a specific word you made up, but haven't gotten a chance to use yet? Maybe something really dirty?

NIVEN: Let me think. I've used "Rishathra" of course, and "Rishathra" is an interesting concept, it's sex outside your species, but within the hominoids. And its important in trade relations on the Ringworld. But a word that's dirty, that I haven't used, why no.

JS: So, on the subject of having sex outside your species, you're saying if you were single, you might charm a green lady from Orion?

NIVEN: Uh, I'd have to see her first. I'd have to talk with her first. I'd have to be unmarried first.

(laughter)

JS: Here’s a random question: Have you smoked pot before?

NIVEN: I have smoked marijuana before, and it usually gives me headaches.

JS: Did you ever find it creatively helpful, or not really?

NIVEN: It gave me horrible headaches. So I stopped. I only did it two or three times.

JS: In your book N-Space, you mentioned that one of your greater challenges has been writing truthfully and emotionally. Do you think you've made great progress in that endeavor?

NIVEN: I hope so. Also, well, these days, most of what I do is collaborations. So, I've learned more about the human race by collaborating with various writers. And of course, the book will gain a greater dimension from the collaborators and me.

JS: On the topic of collaboration, what are the benefits you've encountered with someone else working with you, what are the challenges? Do you ever miss working alone? Or, after collaborations, you're through with it?

NIVEN: I work alone when I can.

JS: You prefer it that way?

NIVEN: I prefer both options. Working in a collaboration, it's less lonely. If a story grips me, it'll probably be a short story, if I work on it alone. Stories expand when you talk them over.

JS: How do you feel about the state of modern science fiction? Are you enjoying a lot of what you read, and do you think the overall quality is improving, or diminishing due to things like the self-publishing E-market?

NIVEN: I haven't been keeping good track, but I believe the stories have been improving. The New Wave happened about the time I got into the field. The good part of the New Wave, was the concentration of other ways of telling stories and characterization.

JS: What are you working on now?

NIVEN: I’m working on a third book in a series called the Legacy of Heorot. An alien planet that was settled by our first colony, with a danger that turned out to be terrible. The Grendels are alien protagonists and their main feature is that they can move as fast a race car.



JS: Are there any short stories you're working on?

NIVEN: Yeah, I'm working on a short story I haven't touched in a while, because they're collaborations. How do I put it – I got old. And, there are various suggestions for how to not die, and one of them is being recorded as a computer program. I'm writing a story about a guy who got recorded as a computer program and is getting bored.

JS: That's interesting. In the event you died, would you want to be brought back?

NIVEN: Yeah, I think so. There's another story I didn't get very far with, and its too personal to collaborate with. Because its the dead guest of honor speech. The guest of honor, who has been brought back from the dead, as a computer program, at a world science fiction convention. I'll get back to that sometime.

JS: Do you believe in religion, or the afterlife, or any of that stuff?

NIVEN: I do not believe in the afterlife as a part of today's patterns. I think you have to make an afterlife. I think you would have to make a G-d.


JS: You mentioned that if you could be resurrected, you would. Don't you think the prospect of being alive forever, could be just as frightening as being dead forever?

NIVEN: Yes. I'm playing with that notion now, in that short story I attempted to describe that hasn't been finished.

JS: In the event something happened to you and Pournelle, which would be terrible – would you want someone to take up the mantle, and continue the stories and the worlds that you've written? Ala, David Brin continuing the Foundation series after Isaac Asimov's passing, or Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson taking over on the Dune saga?

NIVEN: The idea bothers me a little, but Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes and I are writing a sequel to the Legacy of Heorot series. I think Steven could finish the novel, Jerry and I are working on, if a meteor hit us both. As for Ringworld, and so forth, I have opened up Known Space to Edward Lerner, he did five volumes. We're finished, but he did five volumes of Known Space wrap-ups.

JS: I guess you're okay with the notion, so long as you guys handpick the writers?

NIVEN: Yes. If I'm dead, I don't get to do that.

JS: In the future, hopefully long, long from now, do you plan on selecting writers to take up the mantle in the event of your passing?

NIVEN: Yes.

JS: Are there any universes and worlds that you would like to create, that you've already thought of, but didn't have the chance to write yet?

NIVEN: Oh, yes. I have a wonderful idea, that my skills aren't up to yet.

JS: Can you tell me about it?

NIVEN: I've told others about it, why not you. The idea is based on the premise that one man could rule the world today. The equipment exists, it couldn't exist in Alexander's time. At this point, you could know anything, and information is very hard to destroy, given its so easy to replicate. These things in mind, I setup a situation in which a Waldemar the First conquered the world, took over as the secretary general of the United Nations that pays only him. Leave that for a while, then pickup his eleventh descendant. Waldemar the 11th as a kid who discovers 1900 and 2000s space program and becomes persuaded that we could've conquered the solar system, for about the price of ten years of the cosmetics industry. His cosmetics industry died for lack of money. He's in a poverty stricken world, he figures; he can start a bootstrapping space program, by using the money that's keeping Australia and New Zealand comfortable. And he controls news. Information is impossible to destroy, but he can control new information. Nobody need ever hear of this, if he stops money flow to Australia and New Zealand, and uses it to build a series of solar power satellites that can be used to launch more space craft via lasers. And eventually, through the solar system.

JS: Do you have other universes beyond that, which you haven't had the chance to write?

NIVEN: In a pretty much sense, I've used them all. That was an exception. Waldemar the 11th.

JS: Is that the name of the universe?

NIVEN: Yes.

JS: Do you think humanity will make it? Do you think we'll colonize other worlds, or destroy ourselves?

NIVEN: I think we'll conquer the solar system in the intermediate future. I think we'll go interstellar.

I don't know whether we'll be taking planets. Planets don't seem to happen accidentally, as being habitable.

JS: Do you think there might be a real Ringworld out there?

NIVEN: I am persuaded by Freeman Dyson. I sent him a copy of Ringworld, once upon a time. His response was, he didn't see why they didn't build a lot more of them smaller. You get the same surface area if you build thousands upon thousands of Ringworlds, a million miles across. Of course, you don't have a sun at the center. In fact, you get seasons because they're turning when you put them in orbits. And the 24-hour spin gets you one gravity. So there's some convenient things about the size.

Freeman Dyson - Theoretical Physicist
Freeman Dyson - Theoretical Physicist

JS: I know you wrote a story bible for DC Comics for Green Lantern, and that you're a comic fan in general. Is there a specific character you wish you could tackle, or a specific work of yours that you wish you could see adapted in the medium?

NIVEN: I would be pleased to see such adaptations. I'd be pleased to be paid for it. There's a Ringworld graphic novel out there, two parts. The money went to the guy who bought my movie rights, long, long ago. (Pause) It was fun to play with Green Lantern, I had thought of something that no one had thought of in decades. Green Lantern is fighting other Green Lanterns; they've got the same powers, the same weakness -- yellow. Hal Jordon flies away as if he's fleeing the fight, picks up enough speed to do a light-shift, a redshift, fires his green beam back at them, it arrives as pure yellow and knocks them senseless.

JS: Is there another character you'd love to do your take on?

NIVEN: I've tried the Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex routine, on various super characters, and found they'd been better thought out than the original Superman. The flaws weren't there.

JS: Would you want to write a story bible for X-Men, or an X-Men comic, or other characters? Or do you prefer your own universes? You'd rather stick to those, strictly?

NIVEN: Some day, with a lot of free time, I'll try something like that. I'm a little too well known to be playing in someone else's universe without their permission.

JS: The hypothetical is if they paid you. If DC / Marvel said, here's money -- which character would you want to do?

NIVEN: The Green Lantern is the entire universe up until now, in DC Comics. It started with the Big Bang. I've dealt with Marvel to no profit. Marvel hired me to write a story, all I had to do was get the contract and the check. And we waited, and we waited, and we waited and uh, presently the editor was fired. I'm reluctant to try anything more with them.

JS: What's your current relationship with DC?

NIVEN: Every so often, I get a phone call from DC. It hasn't happened in a while, but when they were gearing up to do something with a concept like the Sun Eater. They didn't know what the Sun Eater did, so they phoned me. So I said, the Sun Eater eats energy, the sun turns black. This was the Darkest Night storyline, the Sun Eater had come to Earth – yeah, I followed it.

JS: Do you still follow comics? Modern comics?

NIVEN: Not enough. Not enough to be really up on anything.

JS: What about modern sci-fi mags like Analog, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Galaxy's Edge and stuff like that?

NIVEN: Galaxy's Edge, I sold to, and I sold a story to Analog recently. I don't subscribe to Analog because the print is too small.

JS: Your stories have so much realism, and you have such a strong understanding of science, do you get annoyed when you read other sci-fi, that's not hard science fiction? Do you prefer hard sci-fi?

NIVEN: I love hard science fiction, but I'm perfectly willing to read science fantasy – I'm a great admirer of books in that department. So long as they take you on a ride. Take me on a ride and I'm yours.

JS: Well, I've got my car right here, Larry.

(laughter)

NIVEN: No, I'm being metaphorical.

JS: Why haven't you made a greater effort to push your work in Hollywood?

NIVEN: I don't actually want to write scripts. I did a little bit of that when I was much younger, and saw the flaw. It's involuntarily collaborators. They can ruin your precious prose.

JS: When it comes to your body of work, what do you want to see most adapted for the television or movie screen?

NIVEN: The Integral Trees and the Gil the Arm stories, and yeah, I'd like to see Ringworld on film, I've waited for that for thirty or forty years.

JS: You're always learning as a writer, and you've had, and continue to have a great career. But what are you learning now, that is a big lesson that you wished you knew earlier?

NIVEN: I'm trying to keep track of Pluto. Pluto is fascinating. I've done early Pluto stories, and need to keep track of it. I've done early Mars stories too, but others have occupied that territory.

JS: What about narrative technique, or the craft in general?

NIVEN: I can't think of anything that I've learned recently about how to tell a story. I think I've learned all that stuff pretty early.

JS: Outside of Outies, written by J.R. Pournelle, Jerry’s daughter, will there ever be another installment to Mote In G-d's Eye and the Gripping Hand written by you and Jerry?

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle at the 84' WorldCon
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle at the 84' WorldCon

NIVEN: I think you can put that aside as unworkable, Jerry can't write as easily these days, he had a tumor in his head that was burned away by lasers, or radiation beams. Uh, then he had a stroke. So at this point he's got no sense of balance and typing is difficult. He found a type writer with bigger keys. He's still writing, his brain is working fine, in terms of collaborating with me and Steve.

JS: Coming up in you career, now that they're gone, who do you miss most?

NIVEN: Jim Baen, James Patrick Baen, who founded Baen books. Jim was joyful and adventurous.

JS: Do you have any thoughts or advice for new sci-fi writers?

NIVEN: The novice always has it hard, and he's got it harder now, because the old guys have backlogs, and a reputation already developed. So they're making money off of stories they wrote fifty years ago. And you're still competing with Poul Anderson and Robert Heinlein, which is tough.

JS: Thanks. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview.

NIVEN: It was my pleasure.


Read next: I Was Needed 
Joshua Sky
Joshua Sky

Originally from Maui, Hawaii, Joshua is a multi-award winning writer based in LA. He has written for Marvel, SciFutures, Motherboard, Geeks and is represented by Abrams Artist Agency.

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