SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > Larry Niven
Author Guest of Honor Tribute
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2001 by Robert J.
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
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
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
More Good Reading
Other convention book tributes:
Robert J. Sawyer's Guest of Honorships
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