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Larry Niven & Steven Barnes (The Moon Maze Game) – interview
Today, I have the privilege of interviewing the science fiction great Larry Niven and the very talented rising science fiction star Steven Barnes, who together authored the Dream Park series. Their latest novel in the series (the fourth) has just recently come out at the stores. The Moon Maze Game is another fantastic addition to the series, about, among other things, the first live action role playing game set on the Moon at the Heinlein Station, within the crater Botanica. It’s filled with action and political intrigue and very interesting, three-dimensional characters. Let’s get on to the questions!
Douglas R. Cobb: Larry and Steven, this first question is for both of you. Who were some of your influences, and are there any recent science fiction/fantasy books you’ve read that you’ve been especially impressed with?
Larry Niven: The Old Guard were my influences: Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, Arthur Clarke, and so forth.
I like Neil Stephenson (Snow Crash, etc.) and Baxter (the Seelee stories.) I’m mightily impressed by some of the Man-Kzin Wars contributors like Kingsbury and Harrington. My problem is with names: by the time I know a name, he/she isn’t a new writer any more.
Steven Barnes: I think I was specifically thinking of Robert Heinlein working on Moon Maze Game game…he was certainly a huge influence on my early reading, and I have nothing but respect for the way he combined solid research and high adventure. My own reading in recent years has been largely non-fiction.
I have not by any means read all of your novels, Larry, nor, as yet, any that you’ve written, Steven, though I’ve heard that you have written some very good ones, and I would like to check them out. But I have read and really enjoyed immensely three novels Larry coauthored with Jerry Pournelle, Lucifer’s Hammer, The Mote In God’s Eye, and Inferno. I’d like to ask you a few questions about these books before I go onto questions about The Moon Maze Game, but first I was wondering if you feel it’s been any different collaborating with Steven Barnes than with Jerry, and how the whole process works–like, do you and Steven alternate chapters, or write each chapter contributing ideas as you go, or one sends the other ideas through e-mail back-and-forth, or what?
Larry Niven: With Jerry we alternate, not chapters, but areas of expertise. With Steven, he does most of the first drafting unless I get inspired and jump in. I rewrite. In every case, we talk it to death, until we both (or all three) know where we’re going.
Earlier writers (like Pohl and Kornbluth) alternated chapters. To me that would be a stunt.
Steven Barnes: Larry and I work out an idea, research and speculate on it, and then design an outline, and discuss it until the outline makes story sense to both of us. I write the first draft, but then Larry dives in and expands it, and the rewrite process bounces back and forth between us. An on-line word processing program called “Buzzword” allows collaboration at a distance, which is just great, because we can’t always be in the same room at the same time.
Larry, apologies for not having yet read your Ringworld series of novels. You’re probably best-known for having authored these classics, and I’d like to read them some day, but I was very impressed when I read your collaborations with Jerry Pournelle many years ago that first introduced me to your style and made me a fan ever since.
If you recall, Larry, was it you or Jerry who came up with the idea to write a book about a gigantic comet slamming into the Earth, a notion that became your classic novel, Lucifer’s Hammer? Which one of you came up with the idea to use the Nietzsche quote at the start of it: “Against boredom, even the gods themselves struggle in vain”?
Larry Niven: Quotes are usually Jerry’s. It might have been Gleason’s.
Robert Gleason, our sometime editor, suggested to Jerry that we write a novel of invasion of Earth. (And I laughed and would have told him it’s been done.) We looked that over and found that the invaders’ best weapon is an asteroid. When Gleason read our outline, he said, “Do just the giant meteoroid impact.” That became Lucifer’s Hammer. The invasion became “Footfall”. Gleason edited both.
Lucifer’s Hammer has a fairly large cast of characters, kind of like some of Stephen King’s books, like his apocalyptic novel The Stand. The first hundred or so pages, you and Jerry introduce the multitude of characters, and set up the extremely riveting rest of the novel, when the Hammer literally comes down, in pieces, slamming into countries all around the Earth. People have to resort to cannibalism to survive, an aspect of the book that still remains controversial to this day. Was it you, Larry, or Jerry or decided to set much of the book in California? Which one of you decided to include the cannibalism aspect to the novel, and did you think at the time it would be all that controversial?
Larry Niven: I would never write that large a cast without a collaborator. “Ringworld” had six characters.
I grew up in California. “Write what you know.” Jerry indulged me there. But Thera was mine too, and I’ve never seen the place, just heard Jerry describe it.
The cannibal army was Jerry’s. Yes, we knew it was controversial. Writers don’t get penalized for that.
There are so many questions I could ask you about The Mote In God’s Eye, Larry, but I will limit myself to just two, so I can get on to questions about The Dream Park series and The Moon Maze Game. First, The Mote In God’s Eye is set in the distant future. Was the basic idea and setting for it more Jerry’s idea than yours? (I ask this because I have read that he had written a series of books about the First and Second Empire of Man, the CoDominium series, and that this book was related to it). Also, for readers who don’t know about this book, could you please briefly describe who the Moties are?
Larry Niven: The Second Empire of Man was Jerry’s. I saw that I could introduce an undiscovered alien race right in the middle of it.
The Motie Engineer variety was an alien I had designed for a novelette that failed. We spent a wonderful night expanding that shape into a dozen varieties and a million year history.
The Motie shape derives from two assumptions. First, vertebrae are a bad idea; a Motie’s back is three big bones with complex joints. Thus the skull has a handle. Second, she’s asymmetrical: two fine-tuned arms on the right, one massive arm on the left. Lopsided skull with knobs on one side. The most important thing about her: she changes gender. Male, female, pregnant, male, female, pregnant. If she doesn’t have a child in time, she dies. One hell of a population problem.
What are some of the limitations of the spaceships in The Mote In God’s Eye that you and Jerry wrote about, and what are Alderson Points and the Langston Field? Also, I’m going to cheat and add another question here–could you get into how plasma beams are used to terraform worlds like New Scotland in the New Caledonia system?
Larry Niven: Jerry went to the late Dan Alderson (Jet Propulsion Labatory’s “sane genius”) to design the Alderson Drive and the Langston Field. What he wanted was a situation resembling naval strategies of the Napoleonic Era. As for the details, they’re complicated. I’ll let the books speak for me. As for terraforming and plasma beams, I’ve never been sure.
With Inferno, Larry, you and Jerry wrote a twisted but brilliant take on Dante’s Inferno that I loved to read, as I am a fan of Dante’s as well as science fiction. Why did you both choose to have Benito Mussolini act as sciece fiction author Alex Carpenter’s Virgil to guide him through the Underworld?
Larry Niven: We were looking for a damned Virgil. Jerry suggested Mussolini, not quite seriously, and when we argued it out, he was perfect.
How much of Alex Carpenter’s experiences interrelating to his fans at SF conventions mirrors your own and Jerry’s experiences? Have you ever sometimes drank beers with fans after conventions?
Larry Niven: We used to drink with fans at conventions. Carpentier’s memories resemble ours in many ways. But—he wasn’t as good a writer as we are. We made him average.
Okay, on to the Dream Park series! Most of the following questions will be about The Moon Maze Game, but I was wondering if you both ever thought LARPing would ever take off as it has when you wrote the first book in the series, Dream Park? Have either of you ever participated in LARP games before?
Larry Niven: There were surprises.
A group in Colorado borrowed our terms, with permission, and founded a LARPing group, the International Fantasy Gaming Society. Ten years later we were their Guests of Honor at their first convention. I was amazed at how good they looked: athletes every one.
Yes, we’ve gone LARPing with them, though never together. I got a lot of stories about running games from the POV of the actors (NPGs.) These stories (and songs!) worked their way into later stories.
LARPing is a whole subculture, and we had our hand in founding it.
Steven Barnes: We participated a bit AFTER the original Dream Park came out. While the Society for Creative Anachronism existed prior to DP, as far as we know there was no organized Larp-ing prior to Dream Park, and the Colorado group calling itself IFGS (International Fantasy Gaming Society) actually formed based on rules and concepts we created. Kind of fun. In the aftermath, however, I’ve participated in about five LARPs of various sizes.
Which book in the series has been the biggest seller so far, and did it surprise either of you that the books you have written about LARP games have become games themselves?
Larry Niven: I suspect Dream Park was the best seller, but that’s a guess. Steve?
The game would have surprised me, were I not an egotist. I love the fallout from my stories. I was delighted when Dream Park became a game. It eats my liver that it hasn’t become a movie.
Steven Barnes: That would be the original Dream Park. Yep, it was quite a pleasant surprise.
I really loved reading about the idea of the first LARP game on the Moon being based on a H.G. Wells novel. Also, the characters you both came up with are very interesting, realistic, three-dimensional ones. Which of you came up with the idea to base the actual Moon Maze Game on the Wells novel? As far as the characters go, did you both work together dreaming them up, or separately, then fine-honed them together, or what? Like, specifically, Scotty Griffin’s and Prince Ali Kikakya’s characters, and that of the bald-headed gamer Xavier?
Larry Niven: All of these things emerged from long hours of discussion. Luck happened too. The prince emerged during a discussion with another fan. I happened to have Wells’s two Little Wars books as gifts from a publisher. Scotty was Steve’s; Xavier was Steve’s. Note that we integrated many of Wells’s books, even The Invisible Man.
Note that every book has needed a Game, and every Game has needed a fantasy premise. Cargo Cult, Inuit magic, Voodoo were basic to the first three books. For the fourth we chose Wells. I think that was Steve’s idea.
Steven Barnes: The H.G. Wells idea evolved after several different approaches to the story dead-ended. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was Larry’s idea, but frankly I don’t remember. I sketched out ideas for characters, but nothing ever happens unless we both “layer” them with interests and characteristics. Xavier may have been Larry’s, but as you can see, we don’t really keep track: too much evolves in bull-sessions.
What role does Cowles Industries have in creating the Moon Maze Game, and what do they stand to gain by establishing LARP games set on the Moon?
Larry Niven: Oh, Cowles works its way into everything.
Steven Barnes: Cowles owns lunar infrastructure, and is of course financially interested in the success of lunar tourism.
How would you say that the upcoming election for the title of Chief of Operations between Kendra Griffin and Toby McCauley affect the plot of the novel?
Larry Niven: It allowed the authors to peer deeper into the souls of various characters.
Steven Barnes: The question of lunar independence complicates the legal response to a kidnapping, and makes Kendra’s position more precarious. There is no “correct” response to her problem, once political concerns are factored in.
Politics play an important role in The Moon Maze Game, especially the growing movement among the Moon colonists to seek independence from the Earth. How’s this and the terrorist plan to kidnap some of the LARPers relate with each other and influence the plot? Did you come up with the idea to make terrorists a large impetus of the plot together?
Larry Niven: The terrorists were basic from the beginning: a Game interrupted by reality. As for the politics, we’re not the first to write of a lunar civilization breaking loose from Earth’s dominance.
Steven Barnes: I believe that that evolved together. The decision was made to structure this more as an adventure than a mystery–a straight-forward exploration of a unique crime, with lunar and Earthly politics scrambled together, and our gamers in the middle.
I was intrigued with the concept of what you call the Fit/Fat fashion craze. Who came up with that, and how is it used as an important plot element? Would you say Adriana Vokker, the chocolate heiress who gets kidnapped while under Scotty’s protection, is a good example of someone who is an adherent of the Fit/Fat fashion style?
Larry Niven: Fit/Fat is Steven’s, phrasing and all. Steven is a fitness nut; he doesn’t let his friends get sick. I got him to write off a Fat Ripper Special game (a fitness training exercise) in The Barsoom Project.
Yes, Adriana is fit/fat.
Steven Barnes: That was fun. The idea being that it is possible to be BOTH “fat” and relatively healthy, and that it might become a special kind of luxury to walk that balance. And yes, Adriana Vokker is heiress and poster-girl for the lifestyle.
There are lots of other questions I’d like to ask you both about, but I’ll just ask a couple more. I really appreciate your both taking the time to answer them! First, why does the character Xavier quote Picasso, and then why do you have Kendra follow that up by quoting Dr. Seuss back at him?
Larry Niven: Those lines were Steven’s. (But I loved them.) Xavier was being pretentious and got caught.
Steven Barnes: Oh, it was just a fun bit of one-upmanship.
Do you both have plans to continue the series? How many books do you foresee that it might last, and do you have a definite conclusion yet in mind for it? Also, are you both currently working on other novels you’d like to mention for our readers?
Larry Niven: There won’t be more Dream Park stories soon, at least. We’re working on two other projects. “The Legend of Black Ship Island” is a novella set between “The Legacy of Heorot” and “Beowulf’’s Children.” We’re writing it with Jerry Pournelle. The other, not yet titled, is a heroic fantasy.
Steven Barnes: Moon Maze Game is probably it. We took it as far as I can imagine. There are limitations, because gaming is going into cyber-space rather than real space, and cyber-space just isn’t as much fun to work with. I don’t want to flog a dead horse, and hopefully, if this is the last one, we went out on a high note. That was certainly the intent.
Thanks again to both of you, Larry and Steven, for agreeing to do this interview! I had a great time interviewing you, and I look forward to reading the other books in the Dream Park series, as well as future novels you both will likely write apart from the series.
I highly urge anyone who is a fan of science fiction to check out the novels of both Larry Niven and Steven Barnes, and if you haven’t yet read the Dream Park series and The Moon Maze Game, I highly recommend that you do so!