Lord of the Ringworld: In Praise of Larry Niven

The quintessential—yet underappreciated—"hard" science fiction writer deserves another look

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(Lev Grossman writes about books here on Wednesdays. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)

You know how it is with your literary heroes — you never want to stop crapping on about how great they are.

(“Crapping on” is one of my wife’s expressions. She’s Australian, and at this point I no longer know which idioms are American or Australian anymore. So in case that one needs explanation, it basically means “refusing to shut up.”)

And I can crap on with the best/worst of them about Joyce and Woolf and Kafka and whoever else, but there’s already been plenty of crapping on about them. You know who I don’t hear enough about? Larry Niven.

I think it’s fair to say that Niven is the quintessential “hard” SF writer. He was born in 1938 and fits into that generation in between Golden Agers like Bradbury and Asimov and Heinlein and the cyber-info-punks like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. Hard SF — as I choose to define it, irresponsibly, with no reference to or knowledge of how other people define it — is SF that takes its science and engineering seriously. There’s a school of science fiction where the writer decides where they want the story to go and then makes up a world or a technology or a branch of physics that will get it there. This is not that. Hard SF works the opposite way — it allows its stories to be shaped by what we know about technology and the universe and how they work. With a hard SF writer like Niven, the story emerges out of the world: the world and its rules and laws are what generate and drive and constrain the story.

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Which isn’t to say that Niven is constrained by what we now know to be possible. The “Known Space” stories and novels, for which he’s probably most famous, are far-future affairs that posit hyperdrives and nigh-invulnerable spaceship hulls and transfer booths (teleportation) and so on. But he allows this technology to be limited, or at least shaped and articulated, by actual physics. He is a great respecter of reality. (Point of interest: Niven has a degree in, I believe, mathematics.)

For example: you can teleport, but if you go from one elevation to another you’ll have to account for the change in potential energy. (He imagines the extra energy getting thrown off as heat.) A traditional laser battle isn’t rigorous enough for Niven. There’s a marvelous sequence in Ringworld in which he gives us a quick primer on how real-world laser combat would work. For example: don’t point it at a mirror; if you point a green laser at someone wearing a green shirt, not much is going to happen; and so on.

Niven wrote a story in 1973 called “Flash Crowd,” extrapolating from the existence of teleportation a world in which mobs of people instantly converge on the site of any newsworthy event. This more or less actually happens now, though it’s the information that moves fast, not the people. As far as I can tell that Niven story is the source for the currently fashionable term “flash mob.”

This is a game for very smart and very disciplined writers only, and Niven is the master of it. The “hardness” of his stories gives them a magnificent plausibility and solidity and a deceptive power. They make sense. He’s not a showy writer — he’s not a stylist — but his prose has that creamy, smooth consistency that you often get with top-flight genre artists, simply by virtue of the fact that he doesn’t use cliches, and he never stops or even slows down. His prose gets out of the way of the action; you look through the words, not at them.

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A lot of Niven’s work explores interesting astrophysical exotica: neutron stars, black holes, supernovae, solar flares, the dark side of Mercury, and so on. Places where physical reality — and often emotional reality — get subjected to cosmologically maximal forces and conditions. (He has a magnificent setpiece — in, I think, World of Ptavvs — about a rocket trying to land on Pluto; Pluto’s “atmosphere,” consisting partly of frozen oxygen and nitrogen, turns out to be flammable and catches on fire.) His cast of sentient aliens is large and varied, from the pathologically aggressive tigerlike Kzinti to the cowardly, cerebral, defiantly-un-humanoid Puppeteers. In each case he builds up the species from scratch, procedurally: the aliens’ environment shapes their biology, and their biology shapes their psychology, which shapes their technology, which shapes their environment … lather, rinse, repeat.

The novel generally (and correctly, I think) considered to be Niven’s masterpiece is Ringworld, which is largely set on an artificial planet in the form of a narrow ribbon encircling a sun. Centrifugal force substitutes for gravity. The habitable surface area is millions of times greater than that of a spherical planet — Niven crunched the numbers. There is a sublime poetry to a structure that vast, and Niven revels in it. He excels at mastering dizzying disparities of scale and then rendering them in pleasant, clear prose. It would not have occurred to me that over time people who lived on a Ringworld might come to believe that they lived on a flat planet with an arch overhead. But they probably would.

I’ve heard Niven’s work dismissed as callow and escapist — I’ve been laughed out of conversational circles at parties for defending it — but I still don’t agree. It’s somewhat louche at times, and, undeniably and disappointingly, it doesn’t have a lot of great roles for women (though whoever plays Teela Brown will have some good moments coming to her if they get as far as making The Ringworld Engineers). (Also, this may merely prove that I go to the wrong parties.) But it’s got big themes and big ideas in it, about freedom and technology and addiction and life and death and narrative itself, even if Niven doesn’t shout them from the rooftops. They’re there if you want them. Look at Ringworld‘s opening scene: we’re on Earth, and it’s the 200th birthday part of one Louis Wu, whose life, like everybody else’s, has been vastly extended by a drug called boosterspice. Death is for outliers; Louis’s principal antagonist at this point is boredom. He idly teleports from city to city, Beirut to Resht to Budapest to Munich, keeping ahead of the dateline, thereby extending his birthday hour by hour as long as he can. It’s a bravura demonstration of technology and psychology both playing off and feeding back into each other. This feedback loop — so fundamental to great science fiction’s power — is at the heart of Niven’s work: we create tools, and our tools shape the world, but they also shape us, in unintended and unexpected ways.

Niven dabbles in fantasy too, and to extraordinary effect — his Warlock stories posit a world where magic is a natural, unrenewable resource that is slowly and irreversibly being consumed. Niven was ahead of the fashion there: nowadays a lot of fantasy writers are interested in this kind of rule-based, resource-dependent magic — the physics that governs it and the theory that underlies it and the social effects that it gives rise to. The Warlock stories have certainly been a massive influence on me as a novelist. “The Wishing Game,” about two sorcerers in a duel of wits with a genie in the last age of magic, when the world is almost entirely denuded of the fantastical, is one of the saddest stories I know in any genre.

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(The one time I met Niven, at a bar during a science fiction convention, I apologized to him for swiping something from his Warlock story “The Magic Goes Away” — specifically a sequence in which a character has a pentagram tattooed on his back that serves as a storage facility for a demon. Niven was pretty nice about it, considering that I was drunk and he had no idea who I was or what I was talking about. In my defense, it was an absinthe bar.)

He’s in no danger of going out of print, God knows, but neither Niven nor hard SF in general is particularly trendy now. His work has never, to my knowledge, been filmed, though Bungie’s Halo games owe an obvious (and acknowledged) debt to Ringworld. Maybe it’s all the special effects you’d need to build Known Space; maybe it’s just the absence of huge, surging, Promethean themes. But Niven’s oeuvre is a master class on both the social and psychological effects of technology, and on taut, disciplined, immersive storytelling, take your pick, and either way it’s more important and influential and simply brilliant than it gets credit for. I’m reminded of its greatness every time I see or read an overblown, overfunded work of science fiction that’s full of loopy technological gaffes and has no viable third act. If you’re tired of that stuff, you should probably go out and read Ringworld. You’ll feel better.

And if you’re planning on teleporting anytime soon, you should definitely read it.