LARRY NIVEN 1938-
FOR LARRY NIVEN science fiction is primarily a literature of scientific ideas, an exercise in imaginative speculation in which sophisticated experiments in narrative voice, point of view, symbolism, or Joycean allusiveness would be awkward and pointless. Writing in a period when New Wave contemporaries like Samuel R. Delaney and Harlan Ellison are dazzling their readers with verbal pyrotechnics, Niven eschews stylistic innovations; and, in prose notable for its deliberate simplicity and utility, he seeks, as he puts it, "to train my readers to play with ideas for the sheer joy of it." While castigating the New Wave movement as "a seductive approach, a fine excuse for bad writing and not doing one's homework," Niven sees his own work as a continuation of "an old tradition-namely, the extrapolative story, in which ideas are tracked to expose their implications for the future and their effects on human society" (quotes from "Interview with Larry Niven" in The Science Fiction Review [July 1978]).
Niven's extrapolative stories and novels are always
built around what has been known traditionally as the "What if?" proposition,
a scientific or visionary hypothesis from which the writer extrapolates
conclusions that ideally should be as logical as they are mind-boggling.
For example, Niven's 1968 short story "All the Myriad Ways" (nominated
for a 1969 Hugo award) has this for an opening paragraph:
were timelines branching and branching, a megauniverse of universes, millions
more every minute.... The universe split every time someone made a decision.
Split, so that every decision ever made could go both ways. Every choice
made by every man, woman and child on Earth was reversed in the universe
next door. It was enough to confuse any citizen, let alone Detective-Lieutenant
Gene Trimble, who had other problems. Gene Trimble's "other problems"
in this story concern a mysterious rash of suicides that has come in the
wake of the invention of "Crosstime travel," and the solution to the mystery
represents for the reader the logical consequence of the scientific premise
laid down in the first paragraph. This kind of opening propositional paragraph,
presenting a straightforward subordination of characterization and style
to scientific speculation, recurs throughout Niven's mature work and shows
him to be a writer who has remained remarkably true to his roots in "hard"
On the other hand, it is also clear that Niven's work, although always fascinating at a purely intellectual level, has grown in narrative power through the years. Niven gives his friend and frequent collaborator Jerry Pournelle much credit for teaching him how to supply a complicated background of political and social institutions for his future histories, a background that makes the actions and motivations of his larger-than-life heroes and heroines seem more interesting and believable. In any case, his mature work of the 1970's and early 1980's is a deft blend of brilliant scientific extrapolation and rich social texture. There is, for example, his short story "Inconstant Moon" (1972 Hugo award, for best science fiction short story of 1971). It simultaneously invites us to solve a scientific puzzle based on the evidence available to his characters (did or did not the sun go nova?) while immersing us in the lives of a California couple of the near future who must first solve the problem of how best to spend their last eight hours alive (making love? drinking rare brandy and eating imported cheese? stealing jewelry?) and who then must shift into a hoarding frame of mind as it begins to look like the holocaust might not be total after all.
As a thinker Niven quite often arrives at curiously conservative conclusions. Although he seems to be deep down a believer in reason over feeling, in the ultimate value of science, and in the possibility of human Progress, his fiction tends to sound a warning against an overreliance on technology in achieving that progress.
Nevertheless, as a writer Niven is incurably romantic, delighting in the portrayal of exotic aliens, bizarre natural phenomena, giant technological artifacts, strange alien cultures, and especially in the daring quests of his heroes and heroines. This might explain in part why Niven, whose name became synonymous with hard science fiction in the late 1960's and early 1970's, has been writing more and more stories and novels in the fantasy genre.
It is interesting to compare the fantasy stories in his Warlock series with the science fiction stories of the Known Space series that first made him famous in the 1960's. The Warlock stories, which culminate i in the novel The Magic Goes Away (1978), postulate our prehistoric past as being true to our mythology: an era first ruled by gods, then by magicians, and finally by warriors as "mana," the nonrenewable resource of niagic, is slowly used up. The Known Space stories, in contrast, extrapolate from plausible scientific hypotheses in postulating the first millennium of our future history as an era in which the human race has colonized the stars by virtue of one technological innovation or theoretical breakthrough after another. Radically different in tone and texture, the two sets of stories are equally rigorous in the development of their logical premises; and viewed together, they demonstrate that Niven, as Sandra Miesel has observed in the After- word of The Magic Goes Away, "can extrapolate equally well from possible or impossible premises." Viewed together, they also demonstrate the ways in which Niven has given a much freer rein to his spirited imagination as he has learned to hold his readers' belief and interest by the sheer force of narrative texture.
Typically, the task that confronts Niven's characters is to understand the world with which they are confronted, whether it is the plausible future or the mythical past. In both his hard science fiction and his logical fantasies, Niven's characters usually embark on a quest of discovery, seeking the source of the mysterious powers that transcend and threaten them, whether those powers are the products of advanced technology or of magic. The great theme underlying all of Niven's fiction seems to be the need to discover what Arthur Koestler calls "the ghost in the machine," whether we understand the word "machine" literally or metaphorically as representing the laws and processes of nature. In The Roots of Coincidence (1972) Koestler observes that the deeper scientists probe the mysteries of nature, the more "occult" their theories become, to the point where "the hunting of the quark begins to resemble the mystic's quest for the cloud of unknowing." An overview of Niven's career suggests that Niven has come to share Koestler's notion of machines as oddly organic and nature as ultimately supernatural. It is this insight that seems to have made possible Niven's gradual shift away from old-fashioned, formulaic science fiction toward more daring forms of extrapolation in which physics blends with metaphysics and technology becomes, in Arthur C. Clarke's words, "indistinguishable from magic."
Just as Niven began his career with no intention of ever writing fantasy, he began his college studies in mathematics and the sciences with no apparent intention of ever writing fiction at all. Born in Los Angeles on 30 April 1938, of wealthy parents and as an heir to the Doheny oil fortune, Lawrence van Cott Niven grew up in Beverly Hills and attended an exclusive boarding school for boys in Santa Barbara. In 1956 he enrolled in the California Institute of Technology and later earned a B.A. in mathematics (with a minor in psychology) from Washburn University, Kansas (1962). After one year of graduate work at the University of California, he quit in 1963 to devote his energies to learning how to write science fiction, enrolling in a writing correspondence course during this period.
Niven lived off the proceeds from a trust fund and collected rejection slips for most of the following year before selling his first story, "The Coldest Place," to Frederik Pohl for If magazine. Niven sold several more short stories and his first novel to Pohl in quick succession, and his first big break came when his story "Neutron Star" won the 1967 Hugo award as the best science fiction short story of 1966. His first novel, World of Ptavvs, was nominated for a Nebula award the same year, and Niven's career was safely launched.
Eight stories from Niven's Known Space series were collected under the title Neutron Star in 1968. These stories are notable for their subtle charm and intriguing science, and the volume was a science fiction best-seller. But it was Niven's novel Ringworld (1970), a continuation of the Known Space saga, which established his reputation as one of our finest practitioners of hard science fiction; this novel won both the 1970 Nebula and the 1971 Hugo awards for the best science fiction novel. Niven's biggest critical success since Ringworld has been the first novel he coauthored with Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God's Eye (1974); it is an entertaining and fascinating space opera and was nominated for a Hugo award.
Niven's Known Space is the "little bubble of stars thirty-three thousand light years out from the galactic axis" that contains the home planet of the human species. Most of the Known Space stories are set in an era seven hundred to eight hundred years in our future, and Known Space at this time is about sixty to seventy light years in diameter. Earth's population has been stable at around eighteen billion for hundreds of years, thanks to the rigorous policies of Earth's Fertility Board. Technological wonders of the period include transfer booths, which make travel on Earth and on other planets instantaneous; organ-replacement banks and "booster spice," which make immortality possible for anv human who is not accident prone; hyperspace drive, which has made interstellar trade with alien species practical; terraforming, which is the rebuilding of planetary systems to meet human life-support needs; and stasis fields, which stop time from passing. (The stasis field is the invention of the Slavers, a species extinct now for a billion and a half years but who once ruled the whole galaxy; World of Ptavvs is the story of a Slaver released from stasis into human time and space.)
The most intriguing of the extraterrestrial aliens who inhabit Known Space are the supremely advanced but instinctively cowardly Puppeteers, who were given this name because they resemble "a headless, three-legged centaur wearing two Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent puppets on its arms." In "At the Core" (1966) the Puppeteers blackmail a human adventurer named Beowulf Shaeffer into piloting an experimentally fast hyperpace ship to the galactic core, where he finds that millions of suns have gone supernova in a giant chain reaction. Radiation from the explosion, which will not reach Known Space for thirty thousand years, will eventually make the whole galaxy uninhabitable. The frightened Puppeteers, who never take any chances, begin immediately to move their home planet at sublight speed toward the outer edges of the galaxy and beyond.
As Ringworld opens, the Puppeteers have been absent from Known Space for over two hundred years. A Puppeteer named Nessus, who is considered insane by other Puppeteers for having once displayed humanlike courage, returns to Known Space in Shaeffer's experimental ship to enlist the aid of a two-hundred-year-old human named Louis Wu. The Puppeteers want Louis and Nessus to investigate the life-support potential of an artificially constructed "ringworld" that Puppeteer scouts have discovered in an area far outside Known Space.
This ringworld is spinning on its axis, for artificial gravity, at almost eight hundred miles per second around a yellow-dwarf sun. It is ninety-three million miles in radius, equal to that of Earth's orbit, and its inner inhabited surface is a million miles wide and six hundred million miles long. Nessus and Louis are accompanied on their mission by a huge alien called Speaker-To-Animals, a member of the fierce, catlike kzinti species, and by a young human female named Teela Brown, the descendant of six generations of winners in Earth's birth lotteries, who is brought along on the theory that natural selection has provided her with the kind of luck they will all need to survive their mission. They crash-land on the inner surface to find an Earthlike environment of staggering dimensions and a fallen human civilization that has shrouded the technological origins of the ringworld to religious superstition and has continued to worship the memory of its long-dead class of "engineers," the Builders. Setting off for the rim, which is five hundred thousand miles away, they find themselves on a quest to discover not only a way off the surface but also the mysterious cause of the civilization's technological decline.
With this novel, Niven seems to have added a corollary to Arthur C. Clarke's proposition that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" - specifically, that any sufficiently advanced technology can also be indistinguishable from nature itself. To the primitive superstitious ringworlders, the lasers and flycycles of Puppeteer technology are indistinguishable from magic, and the ringworlders conceptualize the giant ring that looms over their sky as an "Arch" raised by the divine Builders, as a "sign of the Covenant with Man." Ironically, even Louis, who has seen the entire ringworld from space at a godlike perspective, has trouble resisting this interpretation of the phenomenon. And, owing to his persistent tendency to view everything on the ringworld as the product of nature rather than mankind, he fails at first to recognize a volcano for what it really is, a giant meteor puncture in the ring's base material.
In The Ascent of Man (1973) Jacob Bronowski observes that a machine, whether as simple as a hammer or as complex as a fusion reactor, is nothing more than "a device for tapping the power in nature." Louis Wu and his companions discover, likewise, that a machine as sophisticated as the now battered ringworld is a Pandora's box primed to destroy its inhabitants because it taps into powers that scientists cannot even comprehend, much less control. And Niven seems to be suggesting that such is the magnitude of the ringworld's powers that they should only be approached with piety and religious awe. So, the noblest and finally the wisest of the characters in the novel seems to be a ringworlder of mythic proportions named Seeker, who is on a holy quest, significantly at a right angle to the direction of Louis' group, to find the base of the Arch.
There are many ironic references in the novel to the folly of using technology to "play god"; and, toward the end of their quest, Louis, Speaker, and Teela discover that the Puppeteers have earned their name through the centuries by tampering with the natural selection processes of human and kzinti evolution. In their mania for leaving nothing to chance, the Puppeteers have finally outsmarted themselves. Centuries before, they had fixed Earth's birth lotteries in order to breed humans having luck as powerful as Teela's. But now Nessus discovers that in doing so his race upset the laws of probability and inadvertently subjected the whole galaxy to a select number of infallibly lucky humans. So, for example, they were destined to crash-land so that Teela would meet Seeker, the man she was "born to love." Nessus, Speaker, and Louis finally discover a way off the surface, leaving the immortal Teela and her lover (with her luck, nothing can kill them) to pursue an endless quest around and around the inside of the ring, safe from the galactic core explosion since the dense material of the ring lies in the plane of the advancing energy wave.
Niven's fans virtually forced him to produce a sequel. In The Ringworld Engineers (1979) Louis Wu returns some twenty years after his first adventure to find that the ring's orbit has become unstable. The novel is well done but less compelling than the original because the plot seems designed mostly as an excuse to expose Louis to one technological discovery after another. For instance, we learn the cause of the fall of the floating cities, the surprising source of a superconductor-eating bacterium, and the fact that the ring has attitude jets and a spillpipe system. The novel is perhaps best thought of as an example of the sophisticated game that writers of hard science fiction often play with their readers. In his dedication to the novel, Niven says that people have never stopped writing to him about "the assumptions, overt and hidden, and the mathematics and the ecology and the philosophical implications" of the ringworld itself. It is for the small group of science fiction purists who treat the ringworld as "a proposed engineering project" that this sequel was written.
In The Mote in God's Eye, as in Ringworld, the plot revolves around the way in which a technologically advanced future human civilization blunders into opening a Pandora's box that, once opened, threatens a holocaust. In the year A.D. 3017, a space vessel of the Second Empire of Man intercepts an alien space probe that has entered human space from the direction of a yellow-dwarf sun located inside that mysterious "nebular mass of dust and gas" known as the "Coal Sack." The superstitious followers of the "Church of Him" on the planet New Scotland believe the Coal Sack to be the face of God; a red-giant star at its center gives it the appearance of a huge, glowing eye (the yellow dwarf is the "Mote" in the eye) looking out from the dark hood covering God's enormous head. Two ships of the Empire make the jump across hyperspace (in zero time, thanks to the most significant invention of their civilization, the Alderson drive) to the Mote, where they confront the strange but technologically adept aliens the Empire humans come to call "Moties." Moties are furry creatures with two thin right arms and a massive left arm, the only asymmetrical species in the known universe. They are the product of a peculiar sequence of engineered mutations that has caused the race to evolve in a number of directions simultaneously.
There is something mysteriously wrong with the Motie civilization. Although highly advanced, it seems to have undergone "thousands of Cycles ... of collapses back to slavery." What the humans do not discover until they have actually brought Motie ambassadors back to human space is that, owing to the vagaries of their evolution, fertile Moties must breed to stay alive - a fact that puts enormous pressure on the limited resources of their solar system. It also puts life-or-deach pressure on each succeeding civilization, since each must race to expand its technological capacities before its ticking population bomb explodes. So far, no Motie civilization has won its race against time, and sane Moties accept with stoicism the inevitability of the natural cycles. From time to time, though, a Motie goes "Crazy Eddie," acting "as if the impossible could be achieved," as did the one who launched the probe the humans intercepted and their aspirations only make things worse.
By this definition, of course, the whole human race is "Crazy Eddie," and the humans now discover that they are faced with a moral dilemma they cannot solve. Once the Moties know of the existence of hyperspace, they will use their superior technological instincts to develop an Alderson drive of their own, making every uninhabited planet in human space a place to dump excess Motie populations. It seems that the only way the humans can avoid being overrun is by exterminating the entire Motie civilization immediately. But, before this is done, the Motie ambassadors devise an ingenious solution to the problem, providing the "Crazy Eddie" Second Empire of Man with a morally acceptable way to put the lid back on a box that neither a sane Motie nor a reverent member of the Church of Him would have been foolish enough to open in the first place.
Niven and Pournelle have since collaborated on three other novels - Inferno (1976), Lucifer's Hammer (1977), and Oath of Fealty (1981) - and they are reportedly working on a sequel to The Mote in God's Eye. Inferno is a modern version of Dante's Inferno; it seems to be predicated less on its authors' recognition that their novel is a fantasy and more on the conceit that Dante's work was really science fiction. Allen Carpentier, a famous science fiction writer, falls to his death while showing off for his fans at a "sci-fi" convention and wakes to find him. self in the Vestibule of the Hell envisioned by Dante.
A guide named Benito (Mussolini, as we subsequently discover) assures Allen that "the route to Heaven is at the center of Hell"; and, as they pursue their quest through one torture after another, Allen discovers that he can "quit looking for justice in Hell" where "there was only macabre humor." It is his ironic fate as a science fiction writer to be looking always for the technical apparatus that underlies Hell's marvels. He develops the hypothesis that Hell is actually an "Infernoland," part of an extravagant amusement park built by an advanced civilization whose technology is to him "indistinguishable from magic." To this Benito replies, "Yours is the most curious delusion I have yet encountered here." But, ironically, this hypothesis is not too far from the final revelation that Hell is actually "the violent ward of a hospital for the theologically insane." It is a testing ground engineered by God as a "last attempt" to get the attention of human beings too proud of their technology and too self-centered in their humanism to accept the reality of an eternal, omnipotent, ghostly Presence in both technology and nature. Humbled, Benito observes: "Remember there is a way. Downward, accepting everything-."
During the 1970's Niven wrote a series of science fiction mysteries that are not as ambitious in theme as his major works of fiction but demonstrate many of his most engaging qualities. The stories concern the adventures of Gil Hamilton, an agent of A.R.M. in the twenty-second century who solves his cases with the aid of an imaginary, psychic "arm" (see The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, 1976).
In The Patchwork Girl (1980) Hamilton solves a murder mystery on Earch's moon colony. The plot is shaped by two propositions that are quintessential Niven. The first proposition is that the capability to rebuild humans with organ transplants will create a need to supply the organ banks, and that this in turn will necessitate capital punishment, even for minor offenses. (See also Niven's 1967 short story "The Jigsaw Man," collected in All the Myriad Ways, 1971.) The second proposition is that the human species will differentiate in terms of both physique and value systems as various colonizing groups adapt to the harsh, demanding environments of the solar system. Niven's portrayal of our near future is tantalizingly real, and he gives us convincing impressions of everything from the way asteroid-belt miners decorate their pressure suits to the trials and triumphs of low-gravity sex. Basically, though, The Patchwork Girl is an interesting refinement of an old story form, not a work in which Niven breaks any new ground.
By contrast, Dream Park (1981), coauthored with Steven Barnes, is a novel that might be described as science fiction wrapped around a fantasy. it mixes the Infernoland concept of Inferno with the proposition of Ringworld that any sufficiently advanced technology is not only indistinguishable from magic but also, and more important, from nature. Dream Park is set in a southern California amusement park sometime in the middle of the twenty-first century. Each of the park's "games" immerses its players in imaginary settings taken from literature, myth, and history. The use of holograms, human actors, computerized robots, and full-scale sets offers an almost perfect illusion of reality. The Dream Park is a Disneyland raised to the nth power, with a technology closer co our own than that of the ringworld Builders, though no less magical.
Each game tests the skills of the players in ; roleplaying situation, usually a romantic quest against high odds and in an exotic setting. The games themselves are part improvisational drama, part sensory illusion, and part intellectual puzzle. Regular players soon become fantasy junkies; in fact, to be good at a game, a player most accept the fantasy as real.
When one of the park's security guards is murdered by a deranged game player, the park's security chief, Alex Griffin, goes undercover as a player of the South Seas Treasure Game, which is set amidst the Cargo cult of New Guinea in the 1950's. This is a primitive, brutal world in which native magic works and the monsters of Melanesian mythology are real and dangerous. A tough, emotionally restrained cop, Griffin is nevertheless finally hooked by the emotional intensity and the physical and intellectual challenges of his game. The highly charged action of the fantasy makes his everyday life seem by comparison pale, unsatisfactory, and ultimately unreal. His intellectual struggle to keep things in perspective exhausts him more than the physical obstacles of the game, but although he knows the game is just a cunning illusion, he also knows that it stimulates his imagination and purges his repressed emotions in a way that nothing in the highly regulated real world ever could.
The novel's theme is reinforced by its story-within-a-story structure, and most sympathetic readers will have as much trouble as Alex remembering that the engrossing life-and-death struggles of the South Seas Treasure adventure are just elaborate illusions. Niven and Barnes wish to demonstrate that we read their novel for much the same reason that the players play the games; we are drawn into it by something inside ourselves, something primitive and powerful, something balancing on the thin edge between terror and exhilaration. Thus we cannot help but identify with Griffin's reaction when he is placed face to face with a projection from our own nightmares, a fearsome mechanical zombie: "Once again, something within Griffin, something logical and cool, died without protest. In its place rose a red shadow that yearned to kill" (chapter 27). And it is this red shadow, a Pandora's box of unconscious fears and desires, that we ought not to tease and bait with advanced technology, at least not for the sake of mere amusement.
Niven's theme in such works as Ringworld and Dream Park is not the evil of technology but the misuse of technology, not the inevitable clash of technology with nature but the need to harmonize them by bringing human aspirations back into balance with natural imperatives. This is also the theme of Niven's lyrical fantasy novel The Magic Goes Away.
In The Magic Goes Away the great magician Warlock enlists the aid of other great magicians and of a nonmagical warrior, Orolandes, in his quest to find enough mana to make magic the ruling force on Earth again. The time is 12,000 B.C., magic is fast dying out, and Warlock knows that he will have to kill one of the last of the sleeping gods (most have become "mythical") to get the mana they need. But Warlock realizes at last that the maintenance of his own power has become more important to him than the issue of how best to use it for the preservation of Earth and its people. And in a noble act of self-sacrifice he destroys the god's power rather than steal it. In so doing, Warlock implicitly turns over the maintenance and potential exploitation of nature to the emerging warrior civilization - our civilization - represented by the heroic Orolandes, and fated to dominate Earth someday by force of technology rather than magic.
Niven's thematic point here is that it does not matter finally which of the two forces we use as a mediator between ourselves and out environment, since magic and technology, ritual and experimentation, religion and science are simply different means to the same end. The only important thing is that we use with care and humility whatever force nature cares to lend us. Like most science fiction writers, Larry Niven would remind us that, as Warlock puts it, the world either "belongs to the gods or it belongs to men" - which means that no human being can back away from the moral responsibility assumed when our ancestors chose to live with and by technology, rather than solely at the whims of the perverse ghost in nature's imponderable machine.
- Richard Finholt
- John Carr