Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers

From Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers, by Noelle Watson and Paul E. Schelliger, St. James Press, Chicago & London 1991

by William Laskowski, Jr.

When the New Wave began to flourish in the mid-1960's, a writer appeared whose work embodied the genre conventions that movement was rejecting: SF as technical problem-solving, faith in the efficacy of science, and a belief in humanity's ability to overcome any obstacle. Larry Niven quickly became regarded as the leading practitioner of "hard" SF. "The idea is truly the hero" -a reviewer's praise for a later novel-aptly sums up both his greatest strength and weakness.

Like Heinlein and Asimov, Niven constructed a future history, Known Space, a series of related stories later codified into a chart. Unlike his predecessors, his schema included an elaborate million-and-a-half year prehistory and several varieties of aliens. It has become a popular mythology, with other writers contribut- ing tales to the period of Man-Kzin wars, which Niven neglects, admitting his lack of expertise about military subjects.

Niven's most celebrated talent is his ability to create grandly sealed worlds that dwarf their inhabitants. Ringworld is the most famous: a hundred-thousand-mile-wide ribbon revolving around a star at a distance of one A. U. Not only is this hard science fiction on an epic scale, but Niven's most appealing characters travel against this backdrop. Unlike many recent SF novels arti- ficially swollen to require sequels, Ringworld was satisfying on its own terms, but Niven acceded to fan pressure and wrote The Ringworld Engineers, a grand, unifying coda to Known Space in which all loose threads are gathered up and connected. Some readers found it unsuccessful, perhaps because the characters seem to be shadows of their former selves, and some of the unification forced. Yet read together, the novels furnish a fitting capstone to one of the most popular series in recent science fiction.

Niven has created other future histories, such as the Leshy Circuit, which includes A World Out of Time, a Stapledonian journey into the far future in which humans have evolved into immortal, spiteful boys and girls, and the far more successful pair of novels about the possibility of life without a planet within the gas torus surrounding a neutron star, The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring. Once again Niven's world-building is immense, with the only danger being the characters' becoming literarily-as well as literally-swamped by the intricacies of the construct.

Like Heinlein, one of Niven's favorite imaginative spurs is to postulate a technical improvement and project its impact on society. "New technologies create new customs, new laws, new ethics, new crimes." Such are the series of stories on teleportation, or those about the organ banks and the psychic detective, Gil "the Arm" Hamilton. However, these stories reveal a strange contradiction in Niven's work, given his reputation as a hard SF writer. One of his favorite aphorisms is Clarke's: "Any suffi- ciently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Niven's technology, despite the scientific apparatus, often does seem like magic. Some plots, like those of World of Ptavvs or A Gift from Earth, hinge on psionic powers. Indeed, Niven has written several series of what might be termed "hard" fantasy, in which the magic is as strictly regulated as the science in an Analog story. Niven has entitled one of his collections Limits in recognition of this need.

Since the mid-1970's, much of Niven's work has been collaborative. His most famous partner is Jerry Pournelle, and their work describes universes more inimical than Known Space, while also prosletyzing more overtly for science ("to proxmire" becomes a pejorative verb), and continuing to present aliens who are dangerous, yet sympathetically depicted. The Mote in God's Eye was eagerly awaited, and carried Heinlein's extravagant blurb, "Possibly the finest science-fiction novel I have ever read." A novel of first contact, its suspense rides on whether humanity will realize the Moties's danger. The phrase "genie in the bottle," often used to describe the perils of unleashed science, here describes the possibility of the Moties emerging from their own system. Lucifer's Hammer, at first a typical disaster epic of the 1970's, carries the insistent subtext that technology-in this case the atomic power plant-will save humanity after such a disaster and allow it again to "control the lightning." Footfall is another novel of firsi contact, or rather conquest, in which a herd race bent on dominating the Earth of the near future is confused and defeated by humanity's lack of a surrender ritual and its penchant for individuality. Once again the atom-in this case the bomb-provides salvation (with science-fiction writers, including the easily recognizable "Robert Anson," giving crucial ad- vice). The Legacy of Heorot is a breathless combination of elements from Beowulf, The Thing, and Zulu as an isolated human colony must defend itself from supercarnivores. Probably their most interesting work is Inferno, on the face of it-a retelling of Dante by two hard SF writers-a sure recipe for disaster. Yet it is humorous, as a deceased SF writer tries, with the panache of a Heinlein hero, to devise technical explanations for and escapes from hell, as well as thought-provoking, providing a plausible theological reason for a supposedly merciful deity's construction of a place of eternal torments.

Niven's other principal collaborator is Steven Barnes. Their work also glorifies the possibilities of science while solving a life-threatening technical problem, as in The Descent of Anansi. Their most interesting work depicts a theme park that offers actual fantasy role-playing games. Particularly satisfying in Dream Park and The Barsoom Project is the unexpected use of the myths of primitive people (Melanesians and Inuit) reacting to and controlling modern Western technology.

Niven burst on the scene with a series of compelling and appealing myths in the late 1960's and early 1970's. The only way he has perhaps failed to live up to his promise is in setting such an initial high (and prolific) standard for himself. His lasting achievement (to paraphrase Wagner on Brahms) is to show what can be done with old forms in a new time.