[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Author Guest of Honor Tribute

Larry Niven

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2001 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

I wrote the following profile of Larry Niven for the Program Book of Albacon 2001, at which Larry was Guest of Honor.

Every year, my buddy Joe Berlant tries to get me to attend Albacon. And although I did come once before, and had a good time, it's usually a hard sell for Joe: Albany is just too darn far from Toronto for a comfortable day's drive, plus the convention is on the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.

But this year was different. This year, Joe said the Author Guest of Honor would be Larry Niven. I immediately told Joe I'd be there for sure.

It's not that Larry and I are friends; I've only met him a few times, although he's always been kind and warm when I do run into him. But without Larry, I and every other hard SF writer of my generation would be doing much-less-powerful work.

Larry defined our subgenre in the 1960s and 1970s (and continues to do some of the best work in it today). Hal Clement had shown in the 1950s that physiologically an alien must be a workable product of its environment, but Larry substantially upped the ante. Sure, he said, aliens will look different from humans, and, to prove the point, he gave us a tour de force of creature-building with his Pierson's puppeteers.

But more than that, said Larry, an alien's environment would influence its thinking. Long before the current scientific vogue for "evolutionary psychology," Larry was mapping out how a creature's adaptations to a pre-civilization environment might end up being maladaptations in a technological world.

Whereas Hal's Mesklinite Captain Barlennan in 1954's Mission of Gravity was, underneath his exoskeleton, an old salt that any New Englander would recognize, Larry's puppeteers thought differently than humans — but, unlike the much older Tweel of Stanley G. Weinbaum's 1934 "A Martian Odyssey," the puppeteers weren't just bizarre, contrary, and ultimately unfathomable; rather, there was, quite literally, method in their madness.

In Larry's 1970 novel Ringworld, we learn that the seemingly counterproductive instinct that causes Puppeteers to turn their backs on danger in a cowardly fashion is really an ancient adaptation freeing up their powerful hind leg and letting their two heads triangulate on a target so that an attacker's heart could be kicked out through its spine.

Likewise his kzinti and the Moties from his 1974 masterpiece with Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God's Eye, are as much psychological prisoners of their evolutionary ancestry as . . . well, as are you or I. We owe the idea of well-rounded aliens, of logically extrapolated biology and psychology, to Laurence van Cott Niven.

I know exactly where I was when I first had a real chance to talk with Larry. It was Saturday, April 27, 1996, and he was sitting on a couch in a party suite aboard the Queen Mary. I had just won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award for Best Novel of 1995 for my The Terminal Experiment. I knew I'd never forgive myself if I didn't sit down next to Larry, and comment on a coincidence. For twenty-five years ago that night, Larry had won the Nebula Award for Best Novel of 1970 for Ringworld. Although we'd met in passing before, I re-introduced myself and commented on the fact that we'd won Nebulas a quarter-century apart. Larry smiled that shy, wry, wise smile he has, and said he hadn't read my book — he, like most of us, was way behind in his SF reading.

I said that was just fine. It didn't matter, after all, if Larry Niven ever read me; what mattered was that I had read him. And that's the absolute truth: we honor Larry this weekend because we all — every single one of us who writes this stuff for a living — have read, and been influenced by, and admire the hell out of him.

The last time I ran into Larry, I asked him what he was up to. He quipped, "Waiting for them to invent boosterspice" — referring to the drug from his Known Space series that conferred immortality. I hope he gets it . . . but, truth be told, he doesn't really need it. Thanks to his work, Larry Niven is immortal already.

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