Larry Niven

Laurence van Cott Niven was born on April 30, 1938, in Los Angeles, California, and spent his childhood in Beverly Hills, "excluding two years (ages six to eight) in Washington, D.C., serving his country."

In 1956 he entered the California Institute of Technology, only to flunk out a year-and-a-half later after discovering a bookstore jammed with used science-fiction magazines.  Larry finally graduated with a B. A. in mathematics (and a minor in psychology) from Washburn University, Kansas, in 1962, and completed one year of graduate work in mathematics at UCLA before dropping out to write. He made his first sale, "The Coldest Place," in 1964 for $25.

Niven's love of science drove him to write stories on the cutting edge of scientific discovery throughout his career. Neutron stars were a newly-described phenomenon when Niven first wrote about them in 1966, and the modern-day theories of "dark matter" inspired him to write "The Missing Mass" in 2000. ("Neutron Star" netted him his first of five Hugo awards, and "The Missing Mass" earned an award from Locus, continuing his streak into the 21st century.) In between, he wrote stories about quantum black holes (following a talk with Steven Hawking), solar flares, and the "real" reason Saturn's rings appeared twisted in Voyager I's imagery.

Larry's first published story, "The Coldest Place," appeared in the December 1964 issue of Worlds of If. It was set on the dark side of Mercury, then considered the coldest place in the solar system; unfortunately, scientists discovered that Mercury does indeed revolve with respect to the sun just about the same time that "The Coldest Place" saw print. Undeterred, Niven continued writing about the wonders of the universe for the next four decades, and shows no signs of stopping.

Some of his contemporaries, like David Brin, have jokingly accused Larry of mining out the territory so completely that there's nothing left for other writers to explore! There can be no doubt that hard-sf writers dominant in the 1980s, like Greg Bear, and some of those reaching for eminence at the turn of the century, like Paul J. McAuley, Roger MacBride Allen and Stephen Baxter (one of Larry's own favorites), owe much to the scope of Larry's inventiveness and that genre-defining sense of wonder that's firmly anchored in the real-world setting of science and technology.

The Early Years

Originally, Larry never set out to write an epoch-spanning future history. Of his first 11 published stories, only two featured returning characters (the solar-system-exploring team of Eric the Cyborg and his human partner, Howie). Two more stories contained themes and concepts that would later be incorporated into Known Space (including the hyperspace Blind Spot, the police force known as the ARM, boosterspice, droobleberry juice, and several planet names including Canyon, Jinx, We Made It and Wunderland) but don't fit into the future timeline that was eventually molded by later stories.

In his 1990 essay "Playgrounds for the Mind," which serves as the foreword to the anthology N-Space, Larry writes "I knew what I wanted when I started writing. I've daydreamed all my life, and told stories too: stories out of magazines and anthologies, aloud, to other children. One day my daydreams began shaping themelves into stories. I wanted to share them. Astrophysical discoveries implied worlds wierder than any found in fantasy. I longed to touch the minds of strangers and show them wonders. I wanted to be a published science ficiton writer. I wanted a Hugo Award!"

By 1966 it was already clear that Larry Niven's daydreams stretched far beyond the covers of his books. World of Ptavvs, for example, is about the revival of a stranded alien, the last member of a species that's been extinct for 3 billion years. Niven brings the long-dead Slaver civilization to vivid life, and turns Kzanol loose in a future version of our solar system that's just as fully realized. He created a richly-populated universe with a past and a future, and endless story potential. It's probably no surprise that it lured its author back again and again.

Right around this time in Larry's newborn career, his friend and publisher Fred Pohl started suggesting science-based stories to him, pointing Larry towards the "odd pockets of the universe." Larry took the idea to heart and soon created one of his most endearing and enduring characters, an out-of-work space pilot and born tourist named Beowulf Shaeffer, who visits neutron stars, antimatter planets and even the core of the galaxy in the course of his adventures. These stories also introduced the Pierson's Puppeteers, a quirky, cowardly race of two-headed, three-legged opportunists who would turn out to have a deep impact on future Known Space stories even when they didn't appear directly.

(Fred Pohl also introduced Larry to a fan named "Fuzzy Pink" who became his wife, but that's another story.)

The Birth of Known Space

It was while writing about the era of Beowulf Shaeffer that Niven began to daydream of a bonfire made of stage trees—the trees with solid-fuel cores grown as rocket boosters by the Slavers in World of Ptavvs. "In a previous life I expect I was a pyromaniac," Larry jokes. The story that evolved was called "A Relic of Empire"; by tying the world of Kzanol and the other characters in "Ptavvs" to the world of Puppeteers and Beowulf Shaeffer, it became the lynchpin of the future history that quickly came to be called Known Space.

With only a few exceptions, the next twenty or so of Larry's stories and books fell into various slots on the "Known Space" timeline. Known Space became populated with brilliantly-realized aliens such as the Kzinti, Trinocs, Outsiders and Kdatlyno. Vivid descriptions of far-off worlds like Jinx, Plateau and Down brought the universe to life. Fans ate it up, little realizing how close they came to losing Known Space entirely...

In early 1968, Larry's friend Norman Spinrad, a fellow SF author, suggested that Larry should blow Known Space up, write a story that destroys it completely. "I never did ask why," Niven writes. "Norman and I think alike in some ways." Larry went so far as to draft the outline of a story called "Down in Flames," which would have shredded Known Space beyond all hope of redemption.

"I never got further than that," says Larry. "Along about April, I ran into an idea called a Dyson sphere. It gripped my imagination, and I designed a compromise structure which is in some ways superior: the Niven ring. It is the basis for a story called Ringworld."

Warlocks and Time Travelers

In between the spring of 1968 and the publication of Ringworld in early 1970, Larry published a remarkable variety of stories that were every bit as rich in scope and scale as the Known Space stories that had come before. "The Organleggers" (Galaxy, January 1969), like 1968's "The Jigsaw Man" before it, explored organ-transplant technology and the futuristic crime of organ theft in a remarkably prescient way, and also gave the world Gil "the Arm" Hamilton, a unique detective who tracks down organ smugglers. Gil would return in four more stories, while Niven's readers began flooding his mailbox with real-life news stories of organ theft in India, China and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Larry turned his fertile imagination loose on some other conventions of contemporary sci-fi and fantasy:

"Not Long Before The End" (Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1969) explored the world of swords and sorcery through the lens of hard science fiction, creating a unique internal consistency and another of Niven's memorable characters, the Warlock. The Warlock's legacy continues today: The latest "magic" novel, Burning Tower (co-written with Jerry Pournelle), was published in 2005.

"Get a Horse!" (later retitled "Flight of the Horse," Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1969) took a similarly reasoned look at the time-travel genre. Niven decided that there was only one possible explanation for the vast internal inconsistencies that such stories presented: Time travel must be fantasy. Unfortunately, hapless time-traveler Hanville Svetz doesn't know that, and bumbles his way through five more stories, encountering unexpected critters from the world of fantasy, including unicorns, rocs, Moby Dick and the Martians of H. G. Wells.

In December of 1969, Knight published Larry's popular and controversial essay "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex," an intimate and scientific examination of the disastrous implications of Superman's sex life. The article is often quoted but almost never illustrated, thanks to DC Comics' legal department.

One Ring to Rule Them All

When Ringworld saw print in early 1970, it took the sci-fi world by storm with its combination of outlandish characters and mind-boggling location—coupled with Niven's trademark writing style that invited readers to immerse themselves in such exotic locales with surprising ease. Readers familiar with Known Space were delighted to see some of their "old friends" again, including quixotic, world-weary Louis Wu and mad Puppeteer Nessus, while new readers were quickly caught up in the vast reaches of Niven's imagination. The novel garnered Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Ditmars awards for its author and sealed his reputation as a master of hard science fiction.

Ringworld also seemed to be the end of the Known Space cycle. For the next three years, Niven's stories were largely stand-alone works, or sequels for Svetz, Gil Hamilton or the Warlock. One of the few Known Space stories to emerge during this period, "Cloak of Anarchy," only peripherally ties into the larger KS framework.

During this time Larry won another Hugo with the short story "Inconstant Moon." And his habit of universe-building wasn't totally dormant, nor was his remarkable prescience. His short story "Flash Crowd" became the first in a cycle of stories that explored the implications of the introduction of teleportation to modern society. Years later, the real-life groups that suddenly formed and disbanded at random (often cued by e-mail and text messages) were dubbed "flash mobs."

Return to Known Space

Of the 1973 novel Protector, Niven writes: "My premise was a cute one: that every symptom of aging in man is an aborted version of something designed to make us stronger.... Once I accepted that premise I was in deep water." Protector rocked Known Space in several ways. The first half, called "The Adults," had been published in Galaxy in June of 1967. In that story, Niven describes an alien race - the Pak - who are the ancestors of humanity. The Pak live a third stage of life (after "infant" and "breeder") called "protector." At a certain age, the breeder gets a craving for the taste of a certain yam-like root, which then triggers the drastic transformation into a super-strong, hyper-intelligent, fiercely warlike protector. Homo Habilis is our name for a Pak breeder, and in fact Earth was colonized by the Pak once upon a time, but their root didn't grow right and the protectors faded away, leaving the breeders to evolve unchecked.

This premise by itself was a fun one for Larry to play with, but it didn't have a far-reaching impact on Known Space until Protector hit the shelves and gave us the second half of the story. In part two, "Vandervecken" (named for the captain of the Flying Dutchman), the lone human who survived part one - who'd become a Protector himself after exposure to the root - discovers that the Pak are still out there, and heading our way from the core of the galaxy. The story that details their arrival hasn't been written yet, and after Protector Niven again stepped away from Known Space, leaving fans wondering what would happen next. The full implications for Known Space wouldn't become apparent for a few more years.

Crime and Collaborations

Larry Niven's career, already dynamic and creative, exploded in new directions after Protector. His Known Space story "The Soft Weapon" was adapted as a script for the animated Star Trek series, featuring Spock in the Puppeteer role. Fans today still debate the existence of Niven's alien races in the Star Trek universe.

"The Hole Man," published in Analog in January 1974, earned Niven another Hugo award. "Out of five Hugo awards, this is the only one that surprised me," Niven recalls. "I always think I earned it; I'm always half-sure I'll take it home; except this once. 'The Hole Man' is a straightforward crime story rendered distinctive only by an unusual murder weapon." The weapon in this case is a quantum black hole; Niven learned about them from Steven Hawking, who generously granted an interview to Larry and his new friend Jerry Pournelle. Niven wrote a second story involving a quantum black hole, the Hugo-winning "The Borderland of Sol" (Analog, January 1975), before Hawking reconsidered his theories.

Niven's next published story, "$16,940," was a straight crime story with no sci-fi elements at all. It was published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, in February 1974. Meanwhile, Niven was working with his friend David Gerrold (scribe of the famous "Trouble with Tribbles" episode of Star Trek) on three scripts for the TV series Land of the Lost.

October 1974 saw the release of The Mote in God's Eye. This ambitious novel of first contact with an alien race was to become the first of many successful collaborations with Jerry Pournelle. Even while keeping up with their own writing projects the duo put out novels at a steady pace, including Inferno (1975), Lucifer's Hammer (1977), Oath of Fealty (1981) and Footfall (1985). Their collaboration continues to this day. They've done science-fiction, fantasy, and even some outlines for a continuation of the old Buck Rogers series.

The list of Niven's collaborators continues to grow. Larry teamed up with Steven Barnes to create Dream Park (1981), a futuristic theme park that employs the latest holographic technology to bring dreams and fantasies to life. Dream Park spawned two sequels with a third in the works. Other collaborations with Barnes include The Descent of Anansi (1982), along with Achilles' Choice (1991) and its prequel Saturn's Race (2000). Most recently, he's written several short stories and a novel with up-and-comer Brenda Cooper. Click here for more on Niven's collaborative works.

Attitude Problems

Larry Niven's fans are a varied and creative lot. Even as he continued publishing new stories, novels, collaborations and even comic books, his fans dove deeper into the details of his stories. No other single work of his generated as much interest, analysis and debate among fans as Ringworld. Many times Niven has recounted the stories of fans who sent him redesigns and upgrades for the Ring, and of the convention attendees who chanted "the Ringworld is unstable!" in the halls of Niven's hotel. Finally, in 1980, The Ringworld Engineers answered their cries. The biggest design issue: the Ring is not technically in orbit. When Louis Wu and his motley crew return to the Ringworld, they find it to be noticeably off-center, and embark on a frantic quest to activate the attitude jets that will nudge the Ring back to a safe distance from its sun

Here's where Protector's true impact is felt. In the course of his adventures, Louis Wu hypothesizes that the Ringworld was built by the Pak, humanity's own ancestors. Indeed one of Louis' original companions, Teela Brown, reappears in Protector form and engages Louis in a battle to the death over the fate of the Ring. Debate among fans over who really built the Ringworld continues today.

Meanwhile, the sheer size of the Ringworld kept generating new stories. Ultimately Niven wrote two more sequels, The Ringworld Throne (1996) and Ringworld's Children (2004). Ringworld's Children was inspired directly by conversations with fans on the larryniven-l e-mail list. And future sequels haven't been ruled out, either. Of the Pak who built the structure, Niven writes: "They must have found some way to cooperate, just to cross 30-odd thousand light years of space at sublight speeds. The protectors who reached Ringworld space must have been significantly altered from classic Pak... but that's a tale I haven't told yet. I have notes."

Rumors of a Ringworld movie persist, as well.

Blowing Smoke

Other than the Ringworld sequels, the majority of the novels that Larry has published in the later part of his career have been collaborations, including three triple collaborations: The Legacy of Heorot (1987) and its sequel, and Fallen Angels (1991). Two notable exceptions are The Integral Trees (1983) and its sequel, The Smoke Ring (1987). In his most ambitious vision since Ringworld, Niven created a massive, naturally-occurring free-fall environment orbiting a neutron star and populated it with more of his dynamic characters. He first encountered the idea of a "gas torus" in a description of Saturn's moon Titan during the Voyager I flyby (for details, see the essay "Blowing Smoke" in N-Space). With his typical bravado and imagination, Niven extrapolated an extreme case: a gas giant trailing its atmosphere in a ring around a neutron star. Humans can live in that atmosphere, untethered by gravity. The Integral Trees follows the descendants of the Smoke Ring's first explorers as they learn to survive in their fantastic but primitive new home. The Smoke Ring is about the founding of a civilization in the Smoke Ring's stable Trojan points.

Two story collections of note hit the shelves during this era. The Magic May Return, published in 1981, was the first book of stories set in a Niven universe but written by other authors (including Fred Saberhagen, Dean Ing, Steven Barnes and Poul Anderson). The Warlock's era was ripe for storytelling, and Niven finally swung the gates open to a select few of his friends. It was a two-way street: He'd already adapted one of his stories for the Star Trek animated series and done some work with Jerry Pournelle revamping the Buck Rogers franchise (though others eventually wrote books based on the outlines Niven & Pournelle developed). In 1982 he worked with writer Sharman DiVono and artist Ron Harris on "The Wristwatch Plantation," a comic strip set in the Star Trek franchise, which appeared in the Houston Chronicle from March to July. And in 1983 he published "a Teardrop Falls," a rousing story set in Fred Saberhagen's "Berserker" universe.

Ultimately, Niven would open up a limited section of Known Space to other authors--a decision that's led to the publication of eleven "Man-Kzin Wars" anthologies and counting. "I was hoping the new stories would inspire me," Niven says. "It's worked." Niven himself has contributed several new stories to the Man-Kzin Wars series.

The other significant book from this period is Niven's Laws, a small hardbound collection of Niven's stories and essays published by the Owlswick Press for Philcon, a 1984 SF convention at which Niven was the principal speaker. This rare collectible was the first to honor Larry Niven in this way (but not the last: in 1993 San Francisco Science Fiction Conventions published a Guest of Honor book called Bridging the Galaxies that's also prized among collectors). For the first time, readers had access to several of Niven's non-fiction writings, including essays on cold fusion, modern warfare and the future of the space program. Niven's non-fiction has become almost as popular as his fiction, and his insights into the sciences and the world of SF are highly prized. The collection's popular title essay has been updated several times to include new observations from Larry about the mysterious workings of the universe (example: #2. Never fire a laser at a mirror). He's reviewed books for the New York Review of Science Fiction and in 2000 he published several essays on the web site space.com.

The Draco Tavern

Niven's Laws also contained a batch of short stories set in Draco Tavern, a fictional bar that serves a wide variety of aliens. In his collection Playgrounds of the Mind Niven looks back: "What I was looking for was a way to deal with the universal questions, the thorniest and murkiest and most painful questions, at vignette length." The colorful and iconic image of exotic aliens bellying up to the bar became the perfect setting for Niven's brief looks into the very deepest "odd pockets of the universe." Niven's Laws contains ten Draco Tavern stories, including five that hadn't been collected previously, dealing with human evolution, sentient computers, virtual reality, torture, and the existence of God, all in about five pages or less.

As the 20th century approached its climax, Niven continued to build on the vast legacy of stories he'd created, while simultaneously continuing to branch out in new directions. His award-winning story "Inconstant Moon" was made into an episode of "The Outer Limits" in the mid-1990s. He continued to collaborate with Jerry Pournelle, Steven Barnes and others. He wrote two military-SF stories with David Drake for Drake's shared universe "The Fleet." He wrote a graphic novel, "Ganthet's Tale," a story of DC's Green Lantern with art by John Byrne; resurrected Charles Dickens in a short story about the importance of imagination and exploration; and penned new adventures for Beowulf Shaeffer, Gil Hamilton, and even Hanville Svetz, while continuing to share his insights in non-fiction essays, book reviews and convention diaries.

"Greg Benford has challenged me to return to short stories," Niven wrote in the August 2002 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction. "I've since done ten, including three with Brenda Cooper." In fact, as of 2006 the new collaborative relationship between Niven and Cooper has produced six stories and a full-length novella. As for the other short stories? Most of them are set in Niven's beloved Draco Tavern. Between 2000 and 2005 Niven published an average of two new Draco Tavern stories every year, in amongst all of his other projects. The entire collection of vignettes, spanning almost 30 years of his career, was finally published in a single volume in January 2006. Simply titled The Draco Tavern, it includes all 22 stories that had seen print up to that point (including the award-winning "The Missing Mass") plus four brand-new stories and a script entitled "One Night at the Draco Tavern," a brief, lighthearted look at the variety of otherworldly beings that inhabit Larry Niven's myriad universes.

What's Next?

A look at Larry Niven's Work-In-Progress page reveals that the Grand Master has no intention of slowing down. Future novels with Jerry Pournelle, Greg Benford, Ed Lerner, Steven Barnes and Michael Flynn are in various stages of completion. Readers can keep up with his latest exploits by checking out some of the letters he's written to friends, family and fans, reprinted here with his permission. Larry has also served as one of the judges for the Hubbard Writers/Illustrators of the Future awards almost continually since 1986. His interests outside of writing include backpacking and hiking, science-fiction conventions, supporting the conquest of space, and AAAS meetings and other gatherings of people at the cutting edge of the sciences. Readers who want to keep up with the state of the art would be well advised to watch the shelves for the latest work by Larry Niven.

Awards

Niven was awarded the Skylark Award in 1973 (Officially the "Edward E. Smith Memorial Award for Imaginative Fiction"), given annually by the New England Science Fiction Association, for significant contribution to SF in the spirit of the writer E.E. "Doc" Smith. In 2005 he and Jerry Pournelle were given the Robert A. Heinlein Award, which was established in 2003 by the Heinlein Society to honor outstanding published works in hard science fiction or technical writings that inspire the human exploration of space.

NEBULA:

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Ringworld (1972) and Protector (1973) also won Ditmars, an Australian award for Best International Science Fiction.

Fallen Angels also won the Prometheus Award in 1992 for Best Novel and the Seiun Award (from Japan), for Foreign Novel in 1998.

The Locus Magazine website contains a very thorough list of all award nominations for Larry's works.

References
  • Grolier's Science Fiction Encyclopedia
  • The Craft of Science Fiction, edited by Reginald Bretnor
  • Larry Niven Biography - Limits
  • Locus Magazine Website
  • N-Space
  • Playgrounds of the Mind