Laurence van Cott Niven was born to Waldemar van Cott Niven and Lucy Estelle Dohenyborn on April 30th, 1938, in Los Angles, California. He was a great-grandson of oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, known for his part in the Teapot Dome scandal during the early part of the 1900s. Niven spent much of his childhood in Beverly Hills, where he attended the Hawthorne Public School and later the Cate School in Carpinteria, California. Throughout his early years, Niven picked up science-fiction stories, such as L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories and Robert Heinlein’s Juvenile novels, but it wasn’t until he discovered a bookstore packed with science-fiction novels and magazines in 1957 while he attended the California Institute of Technology that he fell in love with the genre, becoming enamored of authors such as Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson and Fritz Leiber. He dropped out of college in California in February, 1958, and worked odd jobs before enrolling at Washburn University in Kansas, where he graduated with a degree in Mathematics.
Following college, Niven turned to writing, supporting himself on a trust fund left to him by his family’s wealth. His first published short story, “The Coldest Place,” appeared in Frederic Pohl’s If Magazine in December 1964. In it, a pair of explorers set out to the planet Mercury to search for life. Shortly before If published the story, scientists discovered that the planet closest to the sun did in fact rotate, shattering the assumption that the far side of Mercury was the coldest place in the solar system. Niven noted that his story was obsolete before it hit the market.
If Magazine had fallen under Pohl’s editorial skills at the same time he helmed Galaxy Science Fiction, taking the reins from H.L. Gold. Between the two magazines, he used If as a springboard for other new authors joining the field, often reserving space for authors making their first sale. Niven joined Pohl’s publications and became a prominent author for Pohl’s magazines over the coming years, bringing his own particular brand of harder science fiction to the pages. In earlier years, Niven’s fiction might have appeared in John W. Campbell’s Astounding/Analog magazines, given his harder science edge, influences from Astounding veterans, and plot-driven stories, but Campbell’s 3-month turnaround times discouraged him from submitting.
Under Pohl, Niven’s career was off to a bright start, and throughout the 1960s he wrote at a furious pace. His next story, “World of Ptavvs,” appeared in the March 1965 issue of Worlds of Tomorrow, and was followed a month later by “Wrong-Way Street,” a time travel story, in Galaxy. The story would earn Niven his first Nebula nomination in 1966. Another Galaxy story, “One Face,” appeared a couple of months later in June. Around this time, Niven had begun to conceive an overarching shared world, similar to what Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson had done before him, a sort of “labor saving move” for future stories. The stories weren’t necessarily connected narratively, but they shared an environment and world, a notable consistency that guided numerous future stories. The next story set in what would become Niven’s “Known Space” world was “Eye of an Octopus,” published in Galaxy’s February 1966 issue, following a group of explorers as they uncover life on Mars that seems to have evolved in a parallel line with humans. More Known Space stories followed: “The Warriors” (If, Feb. 1966), which featured an encounter between humanity and the Kzinti for the first time; “How The Heroes Die” (Galaxy, Oct. 1966), a sequel to “Eye of an Octopus”; and “Neutron Star” (If, Oct. 1966). “Neutron Star,” which featured a (at the time) theoretical neutron star, introduced a major element of the Known Space universe: the Pierson Puppeteers, who contract a spacer to fly out to such a star. The story earned Niven his first Hugo Award in 1967 in the short story category.
The Known Space stories continued: “At the Core” (If, Nov. 1966); “At the Bottom of a Hole” (Galaxy, Dec. 1966); “A Relic of the Empire” (If, Dec. 1966); “The Soft Weapon” (Galaxy, Feb. 1967); “Flatlander”, (If, Mar. 1967); “The Ethics of Madness” (If, Apr. 1967); “Safe at Any Speed” (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1967); “The Adults” (Galaxy , Jun. 1967); “Wait It Out” (Future Unbounded Science Fiction Show and Convention, Jul. 1967); “The Jigsaw Man” (Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology in 1967); and “The Handicapped” (Galaxy Magazine, Dec. 1967). In April, 1968, Niven collected a number of his Known Space stories into a collection titled Neutron Star, which featured a new story, “Grendel.” Niven explored a number of topics throughout his Known Space stories, touching on everything from exploration, alien life and the ethics of advanced medical technologies, to the adventures of characters such as Gil Hamilton, a detective, and Beowulf Shaeffer, a spacer. A year later, Ballantine Books published another collection, The Shape of Space. More Known Space collections would follow: Tales of Known Space in 1975, The Patchwork Girl in 1980, Crashlander in 1994 and Flatlander in 1995.
Niven’s output of Known Space stories continued into the late 1960s, but he began slowing down: In 1968 he started with a serialization, “Slow Boat Cargo,” which was collected into a novel titled A Gift From Earth, published by Ballantine in September of that year. “There Is a Tide” followed in Galaxy’s July 1968 issue and his Gil Hamilton story “Death by Ecstasy” appeared in January 1969. Other non–Known Space stories appeared throughout 1968. By the end of the ’60s, Niven was preparing to terminate the series to focus on other storylines, when he had an idea: “take the equator out of a ping pong ball Dyson sphere—the only useful part—spin it up and terraform the inside.” Ringworld was born. While attending one of the Milford Writer’s Conferences, details began to fall into place, and Niven described the book idea to Betty Ballantine, who ultimately published the novel. Niven set to work, writing as quickly as possible, trying to keep the book from becoming too long.
The Ringworld was a massive construct outside of Known Space, a massive band surrounding a star. A mad Pierson’s Puppeteer, Nessus, contacts Niven’s protagonist, 200-year-old Louis Wu, and is contracted to investigate the newly-discovered artifact. A team is assembled, consisting of Nessus, Speaker-to-Animals, a Kzin, and Teela Brown, bred for luck by the Puppeteers. Together, they travel on an advanced ship and crash land on the Ring. They learn that the ring was created to provide a huge amount of land and energy, and that it was populated by a number of fallen civilizations as they journeyed across the ring to find a means of escape.
One critic, Thomas J. Remington, noted that there’s a number of similarities between Ringworld and one of Niven’s favorite childhood books, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a parallel which Niven notes wasn’t something he planned, but an argument which won him over completely after he looked at it. In the essay, Remington notes: “Ringworld serves as a science fictional ‘looking glass’ for the fantasy of Wizard. As we journey with Louis and the others through this looking glass, we discover sorcery transformed into technology, magic into ratiocination, and fantasy into science fiction.” It’s a compelling argument, especially as he aligns characters with one another.
Indeed, Niven creates a world where civilizations are leaps and bounds apart from one another. In another essay, David Langford notes that Niven “seems to have added a corollary to Arthur C. Clarke’s proposition that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’—specifically that any sufficiently advanced technology can also be indistinguishable from nature itself…. Ironically, even Louis, who has seen the entire Ringworld from a godlike perspective in space, has trouble resisting this interpretation of the phenomenon.” Ringworld, in many senses, is an examination of the unknown from both perspectives: the natives who have a limited understanding of Ringworld’s true nature, and the visitors who arrive and work to escape.
Ringworld was an immediate success for Niven. The novel was nominated and ultimately won the 1971 Hugo, Nebula and Ditmar Awards, and placed first in the Locus Poll for Best Novel. While the book was popularly received, it did have some harsh critics, who pointed to the book as a step backward after Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness received the Hugo for the Best Novel the year before, describing it as escapist fare without any critical depth. Nonetheless, Niven’s story remained popular for years to come: It would later be listed by Locus as the 12th Best Novel of all time in 1975, 9th Best Science Fiction novel in 1987 and 25th in 1998 for the Best Novel Before 1990.
Ringworld continued the momentum of the Known Space stories: In 1973, Ballantine Books published Protector, based on “The Adults,” even though Niven had begun to focus his attention elsewhere. Part of a loose grouping of politically conservative authors, he collaborated with many writers throughout the 1970s: Flying Sorcerers was published in 1971 alongside David Gerrold; The Mote in God’s Eye with Jerry Pournelle was nominated for the 1976 Hugo and Nebula; Inferno and Lucifer’s Hammer in 1977, both with Pournelle, were published in 1976 and 1977 respectively. He also published a couple of additional novels on his own: The Children of the State and A World out of Time in 1976, and The Magic Goes Away in 1978.
In 1979, Niven was coaxed back to the Ringworld by fans. A number of MIT students had studied the author’s megastructure, and concluded that it wouldn’t hold together, and in 1971, they chanted “The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!” at that year’s Worldcon. Niven’s next Ringworld adventure came in the form of Ringworld Engineers, in part to address the engineering issues. He brought back Luis Wu and members of the original crew as they returned to the structure to study its technology. Niven used the book to examine some of the previously ignored elements of Ringworld, such as the native life forms and societies, and pulled in ideas from other Known Space novels, such as Protector. The novel was serialized in Galileo Magazine’s July, September, and November, 1979, issues, as well as the January, 1980, issue. It was first published as a hardcover by Phantasia Press in December, 1979.
For the most part, the Niven’s production of Known Space stories had fizzled by the 1970s, with only “Cloak of Anarchy” publishing in 1972 in Analog; a Gil Hamilton story “The Defenseless Dead” publishing in Ten Tomorrows in 1973; and in 1975, “ARM” in Epoch and “The Borderland of Sol” in Analog. Niven withdrew from the Known Space world as he continued to collaborate with other authors and helped to consult with U.S. space policy alongside fellow science fiction writers. The demand from fans for more Known Space stories grew, however. A roleplaying game based on Ringworld was released in 1984, and in 1988, a collection of stories, The Man-Kzin Wars, arrived, featuring stories from the Known Space universe through the eyes of other authors: Poul Anderson, Dean Ing and also Niven himself. A second volume appeared in 1989, with stories by Pournelle and S.M. Sterling. Since the collection’s inception, new editions of the series have appeared almost yearly, with the latest, Man-Kzin Wars XIV, released in 2013. Known Space continued, although mostly in the hands of other authors.
In 1996, Niven returned once again to Ringworld in The Ringworld Throne, picking up years after the events of its predecessor. In 2004, he returned for a final sequel, Ringworld’s Children. At the same time, the SyFy channel had optioned the book for a miniseries, although that never came to fruition. Interest in the book was high, especially after the release of a first-person shooter game, Halo, which featured a military force fighting an alien threat across the surface of a much smaller structure, homage to Niven’s creation. Halo, which spawned a franchise of sequel games, continued the use of its titular structure and ancient civilizations to the present day.
Alongside author Edward M. Lerner, Niven co-wrote a new Ringworld/Known Space series called Fleet of Worlds, a prequel series to Ringworld, taking place chronologically after Niven’s short story “At the Core,” in which a massive explosion is discovered at the Galaxy’s center, which prompted much of the events in Ringworld. This new series began in 2007 with Fleet of Worlds, following the reaction of the Citizens (Pierson’s Puppeteers) as they begin to flee with their planetary system. Four sequels followed: Juggler of Worlds in 2008, Destroyer of Worlds in 2009, Betrayer of Worlds in 2010, and Fate of Worlds: Return from Ringworld in 2012, itself a sequel to the Ringworld cycle. In 2013 and 2014, Niven collaborated with Gregory Benford on a pair of novels, Bowl of Heaven and Shipstar, which feature more enormous constructs, but remain unattached to his Known Space stories.
In 2013, the SyFy channel announced that they had optioned the book once again, but the project was soon cancelled. The structure has appeared in other films, though: In 2013, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium featured a small orbital station in ring form. Niven’s novel inspired a generation of younger authors to follow in his footsteps with his particular brand of science fiction—such as James S.A. Corey with the Expanse series, and Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, which bears superficial similarities to Niven’s works. On July 8th, 2014, Ringworld will be released as a graphic novel by Robert Mandell and illustrated by Sean Lam.
Ringworld has become a major work within the science fiction canon, staking out a new brand of space opera at a time when the subgenre had begun to decline amid other interests. Part remnant of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and part transitional work to the future, the book largely holds up decades after its first publication and continues to capture the imagination of readers and authors alike. When asked about the lasting appeal of his structure, Niven noted that “the Ringworld is a wonderful mental plaything,” before noting that he has no further plans for future additions to the cycle.