How Larry Niven Won the Cold War

Flashback: It's September, 2000 and frenzied preparations are under way for ArmageddonCon, the greatest science-fiction event ever planned in Israel. Famous writers and enthusiasts from around the world are expected at this end-of-millennium convention, to be held in Jerusalem in the last week of the year. First among an impressive list of guests of honor will be Larry Niven, one of the great living masters of the genre. The highlight will be the New Year's Eve party on the dance floor by the ancient ruins of Megiddo, overlooking the Plain of Armageddon, where we will see in the 21st century together and look to the sky to see if centuries of prophets warning of cosmic cataclysm on this very night were on target. My illustration of Revelation's Great Beast with Seven Heads and a sky full of landing spacecraft has graced every sci-fi fan mag in the world, with the inviting headline, "Where will YOU spend the end of the world?" I have also created a series of Israeli postage stamps connecting science-fiction themes and writers with Jewish legends, as conceived by translator Emanuel Lotem. First-day covers will be on sale after midnight in a temporary post office to be set up on the spot, postmarked "Armageddon 01/01/01." But of course the future rarely comes out as expected and here on Earth, the second intifada breaks out, with violent clashes right around the corner from Megiddo. Cancellations start arriving, and finally Larry Niven throws in the towel as well. "Armageddon has been called on account of Apocalypse," he says. Back to the present. I am waiting for Niven in a building on the Bar-Ilan University campus. He has arrived to speak at a conference entitled "Realms of Imagination: Science Fiction and Fantasy at the Outset of the Third Millennium" and has agreed to meet with me at the end of his press conference. I know his face, which I have just portrayed for the cover of the Israeli sci-fi magazine "The Tenth Dimension." So I know that the bearded smiling gent who enters the building with Emanuel Lotem is not Burl Ives, but the brilliant author of "Ringworld" - which tells of an artificial planet in the shape of a band going all the way around its sun - and creator of the "Known Space" universe. Emanuel and I, together with two young women active in the Israel Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, Nomi Wiener and Keren Imbar, go with Niven to a faculty lounge, where we have an hour to talk of cabbages and kings with one of the most original minds in the world. Niven is an oddity among science-fiction writers because of his penchant for collaboration. Besides his frequent writing partner Jerry Pournelle and others who have joined him for specific projects, numerous writers have worked with his approval within the parameters of "Known Space," creating new adventures in the context of the distant worlds and alien races conceived by Niven. I ask why this vast conceptual universe, so much richer than that of "Star Trek" or "Star Wars," has never been picked up by the movie or television industries. Niven sighs over his coffee. "I've been approached," he says. "But everybody wants Ringworld at the center of the show… and, unfortunately, I sold the rights in perpetuity and can't get them back. Meanwhile, the producer I sold Ringworld to seems to have no intention of using them - he's from Texas, you see, so he's doing an animation series about robot horses. The closest I've come to cinematization is a short YouTube version made by a fellow named Jack Danyells of my essay, "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex." Wiener and Imbar giggle with embarrassed delight at the mention of this classic study of the bio-technical problems involved in Superman's sex life. Niven says he'll be touring Jerusalem and will also visit Megiddo. I wax enthusiastic about the history and archaeology of Armageddon. Niven has written the history of future wars - notably that between mankind and a feline race called the Kzin - but is also fascinated by the past. What's more, he also claims to have won a war himself just about 20 years ago - the Cold War. "What happened was this," he explains. "In 1979, when it was clear that Ronald Reagan was going to be elected, Jerry Pournelle came to me and said, 'Reagan's Science Adviser is going to be a guy who was my best student when I was teaching. We can get a paper submitted to the White House.' Jerry and I organized a seminar of about 40 science fiction writers, scientists and engineers at my house in Tarzana, California. We wrote a paper which explained that computers, satellites and rockets had gotten good enough that we could reliably shoot down missiles. We persuaded the president that it was possible to set up an anti-missile umbrella, a plan which came to be called the Space Defense Initiative, or Star Wars by those who hated it. President Reagan publicly offered to send the plans to the Soviets. They could build their own shield and we could protect both countries. "But the Soviets couldn't afford a Space Defense," Niven continues. "By then, they couldn't afford tomorrow's lunch. Soviet President Gorbachev would have done almost anything to persuade Reagan to give up the SDI. He announced that he would never again send tanks against civilians to protect a local Communist government. And all the European provinces revolted. "I'm not a warrior… but I loved the idea that the Soviet Union was driven bankrupt by a science fiction story written at Larry Niven's house."