Sunday, February 15, 2009

First Post (Larry Niven/Jerry Pournelle interview)

Welcome to the House of Tones!
First off, if you ever feel my post is too long, scroll all the way to the bottom and look for "tl;dr," which stands for "too long; didn't read." This will give you a quick summary of what went down.

This is going to be a music discussion and interview site, but for my first post I decided to start with my first big interview I ever did. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are both famous sci-fi authors, Niven probably being most famous for his book Ringworld, which the Halo game series is based off of.

The story behind this interview is pretty simple. There was a lottery of sorts to get a chance to ask the writing duo questions through the chat system Xfire. I was lucky enough to get picked, as well as getting a few of my questions answered by the two of them.

Here goes:

Niven/Pournelle Interview

Note: I believe organlegger is Larry Niven before they replaced his name in the questionnaire. Splatteox posts the best questions picked from a chatbox containing 100 people all posting questions. I’m Hawkeye (with the first question of the interview thankyouverymuch)

[Xfire] Splatteox: Hello everyone. Thank you for being so patient.
[Xfire] Splatteox: We are very pleased to welcome everyone to chat with legendary science fiction authors, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle! Please join me in welcoming our special guests!
[Xfire] SDaria: We're having a few technical problems here at Xfire so please excuse our delay! =o)
organlegger: I find Question Room confusing. None of this seems to be for me.
[Xfire] SDaria: Hawkeye: The two of you and a few others were recently asked to advise Homeland Security on possible "outside the box" terrorist tactics and targets. Can you comment on this? Were there any ideas that came out of that conference that Homeland Security was able to use?
Jerry Pournelle: If we told you the answers to that they'd have to kill you
Jerry Pournelle: Actually, it's more complicated than that. Homeland security isn't monolitithic. We only work with the Research Department.
Organlegger: Quite a lot came out of the Homeland Security stuff. Not much came from me. I'm the weirdness branch, I think. If I find soemthing, it's supposed to blow minds.
Jerry Pournelle: He did, too
Jerry Pournelle: But it was Arlan and Greg Bear who came up with the idea of talking dogs
Jerry Pournelle: Actually with encephalographic equipment so the dog could say "I found drugs!" or "I found explosives!" or "I am snhiffing one cool female beagle!!!!"
All of which is technically possible
[Xfire] Splatteox: [DB] g0dd13: To both: Is there any place in science fiction for the old classic space travel stories?
Jerry Pournelle: Well of course there is. Try The Mote in God's Eye!!!
Larry Niven: I'm still writing tales of space travel, and my old stories are still selling. The damn trouble is we've become aware of how difficult travel in space is likely to be.
[Xfire] Splatteox: carnageX: @both: What book(s) do you think you could have improved upon after it was published?

Jerry Pournelle: This whole thing today is confusing: we aren't sure when the audience sees what questions, the question room flows so fast I do not know how any humans keep track of it. Niven points out a great truth: in Heinlein's day we assumed it was simple to get to space. The Rocket Equation is not so kind as we thought it was
Larry Niven: I'd like to read the OATH OF FEALTY that would have been published if our editor had been doing his job.
Larry Niven: OATH is still a good book, but we missed the feedback.
Jerry Pournelle: OATH was a very good book, but it would have been better with Bob Gleason as editor. Gleason bught the book but left Simon and Schuster before it came out. The editor made it a BEST SELLER but he didn't do any editorial work on it
Jerry Pournelle: By the way, this discussion of Oath brings out something that many ask: editors are in fact important to the writing process
[Xfire] Splatteox: [Xfire] SDaria: Mr. Niven: Are you planning on writing any more books in the Ringworld series, or will Ringworld's Children be the last one?

Larry Niven: Ringworld's Children is the last, best I can tell. It ends Teela Brown's story.
Jerry Pournelle: A good editor will make a book a lot better. Sometimes really really a lot better. Heinlein did the editing of MOTE IN GODS EYE (after him both Gleason and Baen, but mostly Heinlein).
[Xfire] SDaria: Tormentor: What would you do or feel if something you wrote became a reality?

Jerry Pournelle: Strategic defense is becoming a reality
Larry Niven: I've seen some of my predictions become reality. Mostly it makes me joyful, but I'm an optimist mostly. The organ bank problem in China raises my hackles.
I love it when my made-up words enter the language. "Flash crowd/flash mob."
Jerry Pournelle: Does everyone here understand that Niven and I are not seeing the questgions as they come in? Some get selected and presented to us and we try to answer those. If this were entirely free form we'd be unable to cope with it all
[Xfire] Splatteox: [DB] g0dd13: To both: What question, if any, have you always wished a person would ask you? And, what's the answer?

Larry Niven: I don't have an answer to the unasked question. I thrive on feedback.
Jerry Pournelle: The "prediction" i made was the CoDominium with US and USSR dividing the world. It did not happen, and I am happy because it was a warning. But something like it could still happen. We often get the question "How do you two work together?" and out invariable answer is to say, in unison, "Superbly".
Larry Niven: Warnings (like in 1984) are always a part of SF. We wince when our warnings don't work.
[Xfire] Splatteox: Jaran: Mr. Niven and Pournelle: Were there any authors that you enjoyed immensely while growing up? In addition, how did their work impact yours?

Jerry Pournelle: We both grew up on Heinlein, of course. One of the big deals in my life was to meet him and become friends. H Beam Piper was another influence who became a friend. And Poul Anderson: I loved his work when I was an undergrad, and then we became close friends. We sent sailing for weeks together.

Larry Niven: Heinlein. Poul Anderson. Jack Vance. Arthur Clarke. I loved them all, and I've needed their skills over and over. I need to be able to write like any given great writer; some story will require it.
Jerry Pournelle: But I also had a classical education, and I can be said to have been influenced by a lot of people. Including Verne and Orwell, and H G Wells
[Xfire] Splatteox: Boojangels: Question: How do you deal with writer's block?

Jerry Pournelle: Niven can write like almost anyone I know. He writes better than I do. I plot better than he does, and I work harder at making the details feed the story. Together we're Superb.

Larry Niven: I have to wait for inspiration--or seek it by doing a lot of reading.
Jerry Pournelle: I deal with writers block by looking at the incoming bill box.
When the stack is too high, I get my tail in gear and WORK. I Owe, I Owe, so it's off to work I go. Niven can't do that. And sometimes Niven gets ideas to continue when we hike and discuss it. As do I. He's the one who had me make Galloway a track star rather than a jock in Janissaries. Once he suggested it, it all made sense
[Xfire] Splatteox: Vanderdecken: To both: Have you ever had ideas stolen from you, or seen people use ideas that are thinly veiled versions of your own?

Jerry Pournelle: Lots of stuff is stolen from us. Particularly by the films. But if we wanted to spend our lives in court rooms we would have been lawyers.
Larry Niven: Occasionally I see a Ringworld in someone else's fiction. Say "homage" rather than "Theft", or I'll go crazy. And I've seen "Man of Steel/Woman of Kleenex" quoted start to finish.
Jerry Pournelle: We had a Hollywood agent who shopped Lucifer's Hammer as an "unpublished story" by a well known short story author who had died recently.
[Xfire] Splatteox: SOS-HeatDrive: Did your success make you more famous (ex. people recognize you and ask you for an autograph etc.)

Jerry Pournelle: Famous is a relative term. If you read science fiction you know who we are. But it's not like we are hotel heiresses

Larry Niven: We're famous if we go to the right places: SF conventions, etc. Otherwise we're as anonymous as we like.
[Xfire] Splatteox: SOS-HeatDrive: Do you personally think that science fiction nowadays in general is becoming in repetitive by using same materials over and over again (ex. slipstream) or do you think it's getting better because lots of original, new ideas and concepts are constantly coming out?

Jerry Pournelle: ALL LITERATURE recycles ideas. Science fiction no more than other forms. Heck, Writer's Digest once published a book that says there are only 35 plots in all literature

Larry Niven: Both are true. There's repetitive SF, but the fringe is becoming really interesting. I'm fascinated by Vernor Vinge's approaching singularity.
Jerry Pournelle: Larry was flattered when people in Homeland Security knew who he was, and a general at Walter Reed (where we signed books) wanted Larry's autograph. I already knew that general
Larry Niven: Other writers can deal with the singularity. I may not have the grasp, but I love the stories.
[Xfire] Splatteox: carnageX: @both: do either of you consider writing a "job" or do you consider it more of a hobby that you like to do?
Jerry Pournelle: I make a living writing. If I don't write I starve. But I get to work inside, sitting down, with no heavy lifting.
Larry Niven: Writing is a job and a hobby both.
Larry Niven: It's also a compulsion. What would I do otherwise, quit daydreaming?
Jerry Pournelle: By the way Larry we are invited to go up to another Singularity conference. Shall we?
Larry Niven: That's in San Francisco? With better names than we had before? If so, OK.
Jerry Pournelle: Good. I'll tell them we're coming
Jerry Pournelle: Niven has a saying: writers who write for other writers should write letters. Influencing other writers is not our goal. Not mine anyway
Jerry Pournelle: If you notice that I often quote Niven, it's because he comes up with good quotable lines more often than most
[Xfire] Splatteox: Jaran: What do you two think about lawyers and critics? Do you share Heinlein's utter distaste for bureaucracy in general?

Larry Niven: Bureaucracy: yeah, I've got a personal distaste. Jerry has convinced me that bureaucracy has its place--but it tends to grow all over everything like kudzu.
Jerry Pournelle: This is a question that needs an essay. The short answer is that the only thing government can do is set up a bureaucracy. THE ONLY THING
Jerry Pournelle: But Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy ALWAYS applies.
Jerry Pournelle: The Iron Law says that all bureaucracies have two kinds of people. Those who are devoted to the purpose of the bureaucracy (good cops, teachers who really want to teach) and those who are devoted to the bureaucracy itself. The second group ALWAYS gets in control
[Xfire] Splatteox: [Vadeka Deathsong]: while reading/watching sci fi, do you ever think: "I can do better"?

Larry Niven: Every writer thinks he can do, or has done, better than whatever's on the screen. It's been pointed out: that's not the point. The point is to have so good a story that a committee of unwanted collaborators can't ruin it.
Larry Niven: I don't send a story out until it's ready.
Jerry Pournelle: When our agent arranged for Niven and me to do interviews with TV series and movie people, after about the third interview (Joss Whedon's people excepted) I told Niven "if we do everything just right we get to spend a lot of time with these executives, and I'd pay money never to meet one of them again." So we dropped out of trying to create a series

[Xfire] Splatteox: [DB] g0dd13: To larry: Of all your acknowledged classics of the science fiction genre, such as Ringworld, The Mote in God's Eye (with Pournelle), The Integral Trees, "Neutron Star" and "Inconstant Moon," is there one that you're most pleased with? Conversely, is there a lesser-known work of yours that you thought deserved a little more attention?

Larry Niven: I had immense fun with "Rainbow Mars". I'm proud of the interstellar tree, and surprised it didn't get more attention.
Jerry Pournelle: Someone asked about people taking our work apart. Actually, one of our best moments was when de Alverez at a AAAS conference on what killed the dinosaurs recognized us in the audience and acknowledged that we thought of Lucifer's Hammer first
[Xfire] Splatteox: Hawkeye:
Of late, NASA seems to have become far more of a beauracracy than anything else, with a muddled sense of direction and no clear goals. Is there hope for the American manned space program?

Jerry Pournelle: "The Congress has determined that an American owned lunar base is in the national interest. The Treasurer is directred and authorized to pay to the first American company that places 31 American citizens on the Moon and keeps them there alive and well for 3 years and a day the sum of ten billion dollars." Pass that law and the space program will be saved.

Larry Niven: I never expected that we'd go to the Moon, come back, and stop. I and friends have spent a million man-hours trying to fix NASA, with varying success.
Jerry Pournelle: Dana Rohrabacher was going to be Chairman of the space committee if the Republicans won. He was ready to try prizes. Prizes and X programs will save the space program. Someone will do them
Jerry Pournelle: NASA has spent enough money since Apollo that we ought to have manned ships halfway to Alpha Centauri. Instead we can't get back to the Moon. NASA ate the dream. It's hard to get to space but it is not THAT HARD
Jerry Pournelle: It takes about the same amount of energy to get a pound into orbit as it does to fly that pound to Sydney from Los Angeles. Of course in Sydney they don’t throw the airplane away and build another. We need reusable ships. I was able to get them to build DC/X at one time but that was USAF. NASA burned my little ship up the first time they flew it. Astounding.

[Xfire] Splatteox: Jaran: Both: What words of advice would you offer to amateur writers who may be thinking of pursuing a career as a Sci-fi writer?

Larry Niven: Get a day job.
Jerry Pournelle: To those who want to make a living at SWF writing: it is hard to do. It can be done. I do it. Niven makes enough that he could live on it. But not many do. On the other hand, a page a day is a book a year
[Xfire] Splatteox: xdeathknightx: A lot of science fiction seems to focus on a bleak and dark future, or present at times, did you ever had the urge to write an utopian sci fi? Or would you feel this wouldn't be too interesting?

Jerry Pournelle: Not long before he died Charlie Sheffield sent me a message. "Here's my utopian SF novel. Where's yours?" he asked. I have studied too much history to write a utopian novel. There will always be problems. We are human beings. Ever hear of Original Sin?

Larry Niven: My first stories were all utopias in which something had gone wrong. Try A GIFT FROM EARTH. It's fairyland. The houses grow themselves; the mines are worked by worms. The only problem is the organ banks, and we're about to solve that too.

[Xfire] Splatteox: [Xfire] Artaxs: Larry Niven, the first novel I read of yours was Dream Park. Given the advances in the 'Net, Virtual Reality, and the rising popularity of Live Action Roleplaying, would you ever consider revisting that trilogy? Perhaps without Barnes as a co-writer? Are you dissapointed that noone has built a VR Dream Park in this modern world of ours?

Larry Niven: Steven Barnes and I are writing a 4th Dream Park novel now. Yes, I'm disappointed that Dream Park hasn't happened yet; it's way overdue. One Mark Matthew-Simmons thought he was going to build it, but he got distracted.
[Xfire] Splatteox: [Vadeka Deathsong]: Both: Do you often have scientists/science nerds who break down your work because it is impossible in reality?

Larry Niven: I mostly meet scientists who got into their fields because they read SF, often my own work.

Jerry Pournelle: As Niven says, we mostly meet scientists who like what we write. Of course Niven's Ringword was unstable, and in his first book the Earth rotated the wrong way, but that was before he met me...
[Xfire] Splatteox: Aaron: To both: What made you decide to participate in xfire's Sci-fi week?

Larry Niven: Publicity is good, and I like to talk about myself. Email is good: I can erase the stuttering.

Jerry Pournelle: Why are we here? We were asked, Larry likes to do stuff like this, and a very charming young lady was persuasive.
[Xfire] Splatteox: {HV}Kukri: to both: Was there anyone who mocked you for beginning careers in writing?

Larry Niven: Friends and relatives did try to persuade me that writing is not a career; but I was never mocked. (Unless behind my back.)
Jerry Pournelle: In my case my first novel sold, I got a good agent, and we made money at it; when I decided to try full time it was a reasonable decision. Took a while to make enough, but then came MOTE IN GOD'S EYE, and LUCIFER'S HAMMER. Amazing what 14 weeks as #2 on the best seller list will do for a career.
Jerry Pournelle: Niven's only financial pressure from writing is score keeping. I had 4 kids to get through college. So I do journalism and write articles -- or did, until we hit the best seller list. I told Niven stick with me and I'll make you rich and famous. He was already rich. But I do a lot of the promotion work, because I need the money more than he does.
[Xfire] Splatteox: That concludes the chat with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle! Thank you very much to our special guests for joining us on Xfire, and thank you everyone for participating.

Jerry Pournelle: Last words? If you want to be a writer, you have to write. And if you want to see more of what I do, go to and see if you can find your way around. Some people are smart enough to get past the puzzles...
Jerry Pournelle: Bye all
[Xfire] Splatteox: The following ten people will receive N-Space, written by Larry Niven:

1. Jaran
2. ultimainferno
3. Hawkeye
4. Vanderdecken
5. Slywolf
6. -SOS-HeatDrive
7. [DB] g0dd13
8. xdeathknightx
9. [Vadeka Deathsong]
10. Aaron

If you are one of the winners PM me for instructions on how to claim your prize!

Thanks again for your participation!

Transcripts will be posted on the Xfire Sci-Fi Week site as soon we’re able to get them out.
Jerry Pournelle: Incidentally, we did answer all the questions we were presented with, and that did take up all the hour. Sorry to those who didn't get questions answered

TL;DR: Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are cool guys. I, on the other hand, am somewhat of a loser.

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