di_fate_niven orbitsvillen370The Science Fiction and Fantasy genres are largely idea driven. A story can dangle on the end of a good idea and experience a sort of half-life without the need for full characterization and even a terrible plot – if the idea is good enough. There is then, a race for the best ideas – the most ambitious, the most interesting, the most realistic, the most prophetic. Most authors won’t readily admit to this, but it’s there all the same. Its a guilty pleasure to follow a nice new idea and mine out a seam of something related to it, perhaps spring boarding into another sub-genre entirely – space opera, steampunk, urban fantasy, victorian SF…

We are, of course, excited by ideas. If  the idea wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be science fiction of fantasy, it would just be… fiction: stories about people in a world we are familiar with. Even then, there needs to be an idea, right at the center of it all, driving the whole thing.

Author’s covet their own ideas, of course. An idea does more than just belong to an author, it is part of them, so they’ll always be special. But – what happens when someone else has the same idea?

There are perhaps many precedents of this, but the one I’ll wave around here is the curious case of Ringworld vs. Orbitsville.  In the Evil Corner (and I’m using this term very loosely, as I have a grave respect for the man, but every story needs a villain!) is Larry Niven, a SF great who really shouldn’t need an introduction. And in the Good corner is the British contender, Bob Shaw. I’ve mentioned both of these gents in passing before, as I find the relationship between them quite interesting.

Mr. Niven gave us probably the very first weird Big Dumb Object story/novel – the Ringworld.  Today, Ringworlds (and Orbitals, Halos, to some degree) are well known in SF, but it took Niven to put forth a “workable” construct, providing you had the materials and matter control to build one.  A ring 153 million km in radius, a million km wide, calling it crazy large really doesn’t do it justice. Niven had figured out features with which to cement its “reality” within the imagination – I’ll go so far as to say he had engineered it:  it had thousand kilometer high walls to keep atmosphere against its interior side, shadow squares to provide day/night transitions to a world that couldn’t spin as the Earth does in relation to Sol, the attitude adjustment rockets (which were mentioned in later books to correct one aspect that Niven had not realized, or more likely, not wanted to bother himself with (See, he’s a villain!)) and many others. It truly is an interesting construct and in my opinion, Larry wouldn’t outdo this achievement until he conjured up the weird Integral Trees.

Bob Shaw-1x2a

Mr Bob Shaw, concerned at the news of his rival being heralded as a technical savant

Irishman Bob Shaw, a respected author in British circles, and unfortunately less well known elsewhere, wanted to write about Dyson Spheres. Many years before, physicist Freeman Dyson described an even and constant sphere of matter that would encircle a star at precisely the same distance as the “Goldilocks” zone, 1 AU in the case of Sol, with the idea of collecting all the emanating radiation from the star.  It also has a few other handy uses, such as hiding a xenophobic civilization from prying eyes by hiding the star away completely. Although, with this in mind,  you aspiring giga-structure engineers should have a way of obscuring the sphere from gravity lensing alien astronomers and the build up of collected radiation of the star for the sphere’s entire lifespan – its got to go somewhere.  Bob wrote Orbitsville and its several sequels, but it almost didn’t happen. In his own words:

“I’d written two chapters when a fanzine came in with a review of a book called “Ringworld” by Larry Niven. He was hailed as a technical genius for writing that book. About a year later I was talking to Fred Pohl, who was then editor of Ace Books, and told him about what I’d been writing. He told me not to worry about Ringworld and that if I would write my book he would publish it. That was the best advice ever because it’s been my most successful book, but its doomed to lifelong comparison with Ringworld.” – Bob Shaw, in an 1985 Interview with Imagine Magazine.

I think its bad form to compare the two novels, head to head, since they are very different creatures. Ringworld is, though, by far the better achievement (not novel…), in that it is a completely original concept, but it’s rather dull and the characterization is … sterile, despite giving us the memorable Louis Wu, the Lying Bastard and the Puppeteers. Orbitsville is more of a character driven novel, and in many ways is on the opposite side of a see-saw/teeter-totter with Ringworld. I think Bob’s honesty and determination at the advice of Fred Pohl should be commended, after all, Bob’s first news of his rival is quite damning to him – Niven is a “Technical genius” and the book has been received very well.

Mr. Niven’s villainous thoughts on his rival’s achievement, taken from an 1988 interview with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Concatenation:

Concat: What do you think of Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville which is a similar sort of novel?

Niven: I think that it’s amusing that he came that close to the Ringworld without having read it. He even had a ‘shadow-square’ system, only for him it’s a force-field beachball shape.

Niven felt like he had set the bar. His own Ringworld idea had defined how weird a BDO could be and still fall within the confines of Science Fiction. But even he felt like he was pushing the boundaries of what a SF idea could be. From the same interview:

Concat: In our recent F&SF poll Ringworld came in seventh place. Are you surprised at its popularity?

Niven: No. I knew it was a neat idea and an entertaining one. I suppose there were moments of terror when I thought, “Nobody’s going to get what I’m after! Nobody’s going to understand this thing!” I’m delighted to find out I was wrong.

Later in the interview, Niven reveals his true villainy!

Concat: Broadly speaking there appears to be more hard science in American SF than in English. How do you feel about the two types of SF being written?

Niven: I think ours is better! What would I think! I think ours is better, and you should all learn to write like me (laughter). I’d think you’d get roughly the same answer from any writer who you asked. I think some of them would conceal it better, but I don’t seem to have any interest in doing that.


Larry Niven, supervillain and SF author

I believe that the reason that Niven went for the Ringworld concept rather than picking the low-hanging fruit of the Dyson Sphere is that he recognized the value of the idea, as an idea. He has mentioned in the past that when he came up with an idea, he mined it for all its worth – pushing it to its limits – and perhaps in the process “scorching the earth” behind him as he goes. Other people placing an idea in the similar territory will find it devalued somewhat, as Mr. Shaw was to find out. To Niven, a Dyson sphere wasn’t good enough. He pushed it further creatively and astounded generations since.

I’m not sure what Bob Shaw thought about including the Dyson Sphere – à la carte, if you like – rather than creating something similar, but not quite a Dyson Sphere, but that’s the thing – the idea. Shaw drew upon a known concept and presented it for the first time in a SF setting, thinking that no one else would be doing the same thing. He didn’t think he needed to embellish on the concept of a Dyson sphere, because the sphere itself was idea enough. The idea will forever entangle both men, both concepts, but ironically, it is their IDEA yet again, that separates them. When they put themselves, their backgrounds, attitudes, knowledge and interests behind their idea and write a story, it will inevitably come out differently.

It is this fact that has enabled generations of authors to conjure up stories and novels sharing the same idea, or idea space – and even the same world of collaborative works, from creative roundtables of scientists, theorists and authors, all the way up to diverse video game worlds written by massive teams of writers/designers.

However, it is a shame that if the idea you use is largely similar to someone else’s, despite doing your utmost into making it precisely yours,  others probably won’t be compelled to see it for what it really is – yours.  The absolute worst, I think, is when someone describes your work “Like Ringworld, but not as good…”

Yeah, sometimes the bad guys win. 🙂

For full interview with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Concatenation, its a good read.


Image Credits: Ringworld, Balantine Books, Vincent Di Fate; Orbitsville, Baen Books, artist unknown; Photographers their respective owners/creators.