author note: as excerpted from my pending short story compilation, Lights in the Deep, which debuts at Salt Lake City Comic Con the weekend of 5-7, Sept. 2013 . . . .
I stumbled across Larry Niven in 1992.
At the B. Dalton bookstore in Cottonwood Mall, Salt Lake City, to be precise.
No, not Larry Niven the man. Larry Niven the writer.
Having just finished the first two books in W. Michael Gear’s Forbidden Borders series, I was impatient. The third book wasn’t due out for at least a year, and I wasn’t quite ready to return to my tried-and-true library of Pocketbooks Star Trek novels. So I trotted off to my favorite bookstore and idly scanned the shelves. Hoping for one or more titles to leap out at me. Kind of like a literary blind date.
At that time, Larry Niven was a name I’d only ever seen in passing: in the back pages of Omni magazine—amidst the book club selections. So when I spotted the books N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind, something in my unconscious said, “Hey, you keep seeing that guy pop up, why not give him a try?”
Little did I know that N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind were not, in fact, novels. Little did I also know that those two books would absolutely consume and regurgitate my imagination over the next four months, such that I would never look at science fiction the same ever again.
Much has been written in other places about The Great Larry Niven, most of it before I was old enough to drive. But at that particular point in my life I didn’t know Larry Niven from Adam, and had absolutely no idea how much of an impact he’d had on the literary science fiction field in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. To me he was just another writer, and the stories and excerpts in N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind so thoroughly captivated me—fresh, without preconceptions, prejudices, or expectations—I went on to buy and read virtually every book Larry had ever written, or would ever write from that point forward.
Such was the level of my enjoyment of his work.
I mentioned earlier—with my piece on Allan Cole & Chris Bunch—that it’s impossible to read a million-plus words of a writer’s work, and not have that writer’s sensibilities, cadence, idioms, sense of humor, etc., rub off on you. In both large and small ways. So it is again with Larry Niven. The man I credit above all others for not only showing me a new and amazing way to tell science fiction stories—the “hard” way—but also for teaching me to love short science fiction as an art form. Because he does it so damned well.
Some writers credit Ray Bradbury or Harlan Ellison in this regard.
Me? All credit to Larry Niven! And to those two paperbacks. Which I have read and re-read so many times over the years, they’ve grown yellowed and fragile. Overused, one might say. Though in a loving and tender way.
Not long after I broke into professional science fiction myself, I met Larry Niven in person, at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, California. It was my big chance to do what I’d been too afraid to do in 1993, at CONduit in Salt Lake: accost Larry and impress upon him my admiration for his work.
I thought I could keep my cool. Being a recent winner of the very contest Larry himself judged. I thought I could maintain my professional (albeit brand new!) demeanor.
I am embarrassed to say I went full fanboy. Full! Fanboy!
Thankfully, Larry was a patient chap, who suffered my exclamations with a smile. His wife too. They were gracious and kind.
I did it to them again the following year, when I brought and pressed my abused copies of N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind into Larry’s hands, with a pen, and said, “Larry, these books are why I write short science fiction! Would you please sign them?”
Again, he suffered my exclamations with a smile.
Little did I know that my Writer Dad, Mike Resnick, would eventually line me up to collaborate with Larry Niven, for Arc Manor’s Stellar Guild series. A project which I wrapped up at the same time I finished my edits for the very book you’re now holding in your hands.
Being able to collaborate with Larry Niven—to write in one of his worlds—has been one of those serendipitous things for which I could not possibly have planned. Dreamed, yes. But not planned. A junior point guard just starting out in the NBA does not plan to scrimmage with or take pointers from the great John Stockton. A guitar player two steps out of his garage, making waves in local venues, does not plan to play with or open for Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page.
Perhaps the best compliment Larry ever gave me during the process, was that my style seemed to so closely match his own, he had a difficult time telling the difference between my prose and his.
You can’t buy that kind of thing. Nor steal it. It is a gift. More valuable than diamonds or platinum. I shall take it to my grave as one of the straight-up most heart-warming things anyone has ever said to me, about my writing. Your basic good feeling, as Tom Clancy said in his introduction to N-Space.
So, everything you’ve been reading in this book, it’s partially Larry’s doing. Without my having adored Larry’s work first, I’d have never gotten up the nerve to try my hand at making my own stories.
Because in the same four months when I was reading Larry for the first time, a locally-produced science fiction radio serial called Searcher and Stallion had picked me up to work on some sci-fi scripts for them. So that between doing the scripts and thinking, hot damn, this is fun, and reading Larry’s stories and thinking, hot damn, this is amazing, and people pay Larry to do this, I got it into my brain that maybe I could do what Larry does too.
Twenty years later I’ve been the 2012 triple-nominee for the Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell awards, and I’ve won the Writers of the Future award, as well as the Analog magazine “AnLab” readers’ choice award—Analog being the premier “hard” science fiction magazine in the English language, where Larry himself still publishes. Seems to me I can’t talk about my career or my successes without speaking of the tremendous influence Larry’s had, and still has. Just because he’s terrific at what he does.
So I’ll give a big salute to the man who created the Kzinti and the Ringworld and the Smoke Ring. Who peopled his books and stories with amazing men, women, and aliens; some of whom think as well as you or I do, just differently. Pak Protectors and Outsiders and Grendels and Pierson’s Puppeteers. A menagerie of delightful, incredible, and essentially believable creatures. Who often exist in stupendously amazing yet utterly scientifically plausible places.
Folks, that’s not easy to render. Trust me.
But Larry makes it look effortless.
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