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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Edward M. Lerner

A physicist and computer scientist, Edward M. Lerner toiled in the vineyards of high tech for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president. Then, suitably intoxicated, he began writing full-time.

He writes everything from near-future technothrillers, most recently Fools’ Experiments and Small Miracles, to classic science fiction like InterstellarNet: Origins, to, with colleague Larry Niven, the far-future space epic Fleet of Worlds series.


Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, you’ve had a long career with technology and science. Which came first, your interest in science fiction, or your passion for the sciences?

Edward M. Lerner: Hi, Charles! It’s my pleasure, and thanks for inviting me.

The dinosaur or the egg? Honestly, I can’t say. I was only eight when Sputnik was launched, and at that age the boundary between science and fiction is pretty blurry. Whichever way the process ran, I’ve been a fan of science and SF ever since.

CT: What’s the appeal of hard science fiction for you?

EML: Science works as a way to make sense of life and the universe. Hard SF as my preferred fictional genre just feels natural.

CT: You’ve written both short stories and novels before. What is it about the novel format that makes you keep coming back to it?

EML: Some ideas and some stories simply won’t fit into the short form. The scope of what I have to say determines the length of what I write.

CT: Backtracking a bit, how did you end up collaborating with Larry Niven on the various Known Space books? What made you decide to set it as a prequel to Ringworld?

EML: We were on a Worldcon panel called “My Favorite Planet.” When my turn came, I said I’d like to visit the Fleet of Worlds: five Earth-like worlds, far from any star, hurtling together through space at near-light speeds. The Fleet–home to a trillion aliens known as the Puppeteers–is a fascinating setting only briefly glimpsed in Larry’s perhaps best-known novel, Ringworld. Larry answered that he didn’t have a story in mind for a book set in the Fleet. A short while later I contacted him to say, “I do.”

As for why, specifically, the Fleet of Worlds series precedes the events of Ringworld … there’s just no way to explain without major spoilers. I can say that, in my opinion, reading the prequels before or after Ringworld works. Beyond that, allow me to skip that part of your question.

CT: Were you familiar with Larry Niven’s work before the collaboration began?

EML: Oh, yes–I’m a long-time fan of Larry’s writing. I suspect that demonstrating my familiarity had something to do with his agreeing to share Known Space. One doesn’t just wander unvetted into someone else’s epic interstellar future history.

CT: What’s the collaboration process like when it comes to writing a novel?

EML: Larry calls working with me a spectator sport. It’s an amusing (and complimentary) line that doesn’t do justice to his contributions.

Out of his past writings (from Ringworld, certainly, but from short fiction and other novels, too) Larry brings much of our stories’ background: several worlds, species, and characters, plus a wealth of futuristic technology. I bring the plot–and with it, new worlds, species, characters, and technology. (I’m particularly proud of the Gw’oth species: scary-smart starfish.)

If elements of a story premise don’t gibe with Larry’s sense of, say, Puppeteer behavior, we tweak. One doesn’t mess with the proprietor of a universe!

As I complete sections of the first draft, we take turns editing till we’re both happy.

CT: What are the advantages of collaborating together versus writing a novel alone (and vice versa)?

EML: Partnering with Larry is the way to play with his shiniest toys: Puppeteers, Pak Protectors, and the General Products hulls. Exploring new ways to destroy the all-but-indestructible GP hulls (as just one example) made for some interesting synergies. And collaboration is a nice change of pace from the often solitary nature of the writer’s craft.

But there’s also much to be said for controlling every facet of the process.

CT: How do you find the time writing both your own novels and the Known Space books?

EML: Not enough sleep? Seriously, my past few years have been hectic and intense. Maybe too hectic. If I slow down the pace, don’t be surprised …

CT: How did Tor end up becoming your publisher (for both the Known Space novels and your own books)?

EML: Tor Books being such a big player in SF, for them to publish my solos and the collaborations wouldn’t have been a big coincidence. Having said that, I take Tor’s interest in both as a vote of confidence.

CT: Despite being part of a series, my experience with reading Betrayer of Worlds is that it could stand on its own. Was this a conscious decision? What are the challenges in writing with such a style?

EML: Making Betrayer (and, for that matter, all the books in the series) standalone was a conscious decision. It’s good to hear that we succeeded.

It helps to keep the books self-contained that we never set out to write a series: we design each book to reach a resolution. Whenever our editor at Tor invites us to extend the storyline, we build on what has gone before.

Think of it as Known Space (for all that it spans light-years and centuries) mirroring the here-and-now. One crisis survived seldom keeps new problems from cropping up, or new challenges from turning out to be unforeseen and unforeseeable complications of whatever resolved some earlier emergency.

CT: What made you decide to focus on Louis Wu?

EML: As Ringworld opens the reader meets the main character, Louis Wu, at his 200th birthday. An awesome–in the true sense of the word–artifact looms in the path of the Fleet of Worlds. Nessus, one of the long-vanished (from human ken) alien race of Puppeteers, recruits Louis to explore the Ringworld.

(For anyone unfamiliar with Ringworld, picture a ribbon a million miles wide looped around a star at roughly Earth’s distance from its sun. The Ringworld has a surface area equal to millions of Earths. Now put a few trillion aliens there … that’s a lot of opportunity for storytelling.)

Never truly explained: why Louis? In Betrayer of Worlds, we discover why: because the Ringworld was not Louis Wu’s first great adventure …

CT: What are your future plans for the series?

EML: We’re in the early stages of another installment. Unlike all episodes that have gone before, Fate of Worlds will be a sequel to the Ringworld series.

CT: Anything else you want to plug?

EML: Since you twisted my arm. Small Miracles–my most recent solo from Tor, a near-future technothriller–is newly re-released in paperback. Real medicine. Real nanotech. And zombies.

(And an aside to anyone I’ve left curious about my writing: check out Edward M. Lerner, perpetrator of science fiction and technothrillers (my website) or SF and Nonsense (my blog).

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