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Joss WhedonJoss Whedon - SciFi.com talks to SF Author Jerry Pournelle
By Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose
Sunday 7 September 2003, by Webmaster
Not only has noted lecturer Jerry Pournelle co-authored two SF must-reads with Larry Niven (Lucifer’s Hammer and The Mote in God’s Eye), but he also acted as a science advisor to the legendary Robert Heinlein. Given Pournelle’s B.S. in psychology and mathematics, his M.S. in experimental statistics and systems engineering, and his Ph.D.s in psychology and political science, this all makes perfect sense
In addition to winning the John W. Campbell Award, Pournelle has also been nominationed for both the Nebula and Hugo awards. His other works include The Jannissaries series, Falkenberg’s Legion and Starswarm. He served as an advisor on space policy to the Republican congressional leadership and as a board member of the L-5 Society. Pournelle’s first computer, Ezekiel, is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Born in Shreveport, La., Pournelle now lives in California, taking up residence in what he has dubbed Chaos Manor, where this interview was conducted. Married in 1959, he has four sons and one daughter. His Web site, Chaos Manor in Perspective, can be found at www.jerrypournelle.com.
Does the term "hard science fiction" accurately describe your work?
Pournelle: Pretty well. Niven and I are doing what you’d call a "hard fantasy" series with The Burning City, and the next nook is The Burning Tower. It takes place 14,000 years ago, just after Atlantis sank. And basically what we did was assume that all the old myths are true. But because the mana’s getting used up the gods don’t exist anymore. But they did.
And we got a bunch of Aztec ones. The Aztecs believe they started up in what’s now New Mexico, and wandered for 10,000 years before they got down into where they are now, in Mexico City. That’s a weird legend. And they followed a hummingbird. For 10,000 years. Why? Well, we tell that story. And we’re trying to do it very consistently with our theory that the magic is vanishing, that the mana’s being used up; that’s from one of Niven’s early stories.
We do a hard fantasy as well as hard science fiction, and I think I probably single-handedly recreated military science fiction. It was dead before I started working in it.
What has changed the most in the field of SF during the last few years because of advances in science?
Pournelle: You no longer have much in the way of knowing what to do in a big, epic novel about the future, because nobody knows what the hell is going to happen. The last attempt at that, I think, was Clarke’s Imperial Earth, and it stunk. I mean, Arthur’s one of the most wonderful people I know. Niven and I wrote Mote, and I had set it a long way in the future because I had intelligent computers. You could talk to it, you could dictate to it, you could record conversations with it, but in 1971, nobody in the world believed we would live to see such devices.
So, I guess the answer to your question is very few people can bring off a novel of the future because it’s just so damn hard to make it look like the future. Bova tries. Like me, he’s an old aerospace guy, and he does what he can to project it. Heinlein pretty well gave up; you’ll notice his last books really had very little of the old Heinlein technology flavor. They look more like fantasies.
In your writing, which comes first, the story or the world in which it operates?
Pournelle: Mote in God’s Eye started with my empire, which was designed to allow me to write Hornblower-type stories.
I wanted a technological reason to be able to have naval battles. So I went to some JPL guys, and we sat down and tried to design an interstellar flight system that would create natural choke points, so you could have blockades and battles. Otherwise you’re over here [indicates a far distance], and he’s over there [indicates a similar distance opposite], and you approach each other at 2 million miles an hour, and, you know, the battle’s over [before it starts], so that ain’t going to work.
So I designed it that way, and Niven had come up with this notion of an alien, and all he had was a picture. So we put that together, we built this Motie society, and I already had my empire with the narrow choke-point battles and such-if the world is determined enough, it’s going to generate certain structures, including social structures, and your characters run into that, and now you have a problem you didn’t have before. The difference between real hard science and science fiction and fantasy, in my judgment, is precisely at that point.
What are your thoughts on the state of speculative fiction as it stands today?
Pournelle: I’m not really qualified to say. I don’t read very much anymore. I attempt to read a copy of Analog every now and then, and I don’t really find much. Now that’s maybe me on my part, but I’d rather read an issue of Discover or even Scientific American, complete with its political biases-I just don’t find Analog all that interesting anymore, and, of course, I was originally an Analog author.
I was offered the editorship of it when [John] Campbell died. They offered it first to Poul Anderson. In fact, Campbell had in his will that they should offer him the job. Poul wouldn’t take it for the same reason I wouldn’t-I wouldn’t want to move to the East Coast for $14,000 a year in 1972. We both made more than that as writers, and you knew damn well you weren’t going to get very much writing done. And I don’t think Poul could’ve lived there. We both had houses here at a time when the real estate market was not like it is now. It wasn’t like you could sell out and take your million. I paid $30,000 for this house, which you wouldn’t believe nowadays.
Ben Bova ended up with [the position], which is not surprising. His career and mine are very parallel. Anyway, Bova and I have had remarkably similar careers, and he could afford it because he didn’t have to move to New York City, he had a house in Connecticut.
What sort of goals should the beginning SF writer have in mind?
Pournelle: Write a lot. And finish what you write. Don’t join writer’s clubs and go sit around having coffee reading pieces of your manuscript to people. Write it. Finish it. I set those rules up years ago, and nothing’s changed.
I think it takes about a million words to make a writer. I mean that you’re going to throw away. I noticed that they just auctioned off Mr. Heinlein’s first novel. Robert had suppressed it. It supposedly was lost, but I think it was lost in the sense that he’d stuffed it into a file cabinet and he never wanted to see it again, and his literary estate found it. I’m not sure whether [Heinlein’s wife] Ginny every saw it. I am dead sure Robert would not have wanted it published. Because if he wanted it published, he would have.
He did haul out Take Back Your Government, which he couldn’t sell in 1946. And Baen republished it, so it wasn’t that he had any hesitation about works that were written a long time ago and were partly obsolete. I have never seen this manuscript, but it’s my guess that it ain’t going to read a helluva a lot like Heinlein.
Finish what you write, like Robert said, and start on the next one, and finish it, and keep doing it until one of them starts selling. When it starts selling, do your readers a favor, burn your trunk. Just burn it. Otherwise, your heirs will find it, and they’ll sell the pieces one at a time.
What is the hardest part of writing SF for a living?
Pournelle: The hard part of writing at all is sitting your ass down in a chair and writing it. There’s always something better to do, like I’ve got an interview, sharpening the pencils, trimming the roses. There’s always something better to do. Going to a writer’s club?
Somebody’s always getting me to come lecture to their writing class, and I don’t talk about writing at all, I talk about the business of making a living at this racket. That’s what I do, I make a living at it. A lot of kids don’t have the foggiest notion as to how to do that, and as Heinlein said, you almost always have to give your first book to a publisher. What you have to do is make sure that’s the only one you give them.
What responsibility does an SF writer have, and has such a thing changed since you first started writing?
Pournelle: Good question. Responsibility. We’re basically after Joe’s beer money, and Joe likes his beer, so you better make sure that what you give him is at least as pleasurable to him as having his six-pack of beer would be. Now, Stanislaw Lem found that so intolerable that he almost went insane. But then, Stanislaw Lem is a litterateur, and he is the only man I know of to have had a novel [Solaris] made twice into movies that nobody could understand. The same novel. And nobody understood it either time. And it didn’t sell very well, either. He’s a literary writer.
I guess the obligations are different for literary writers, and I’m not a literary writer, I’m an entertainer. I wrote the science fiction article for the Encyclopedia Britannica, and basically I said in it that, as far as I’m concerned, we are not any different from the old storytellers, the old bards back in Bronze Age time who would go from campfire to campfire, and they’d see a warrior sitting there and say, "You fill my cup up with that wine you’ve got there and chop me a piece of that boar you’re roasting and I’ll tell you a story about a virgin and a bull that you just wouldn’t believe!"
What sort of impact would you like to make, both in the genre you write in as well as in, for want of a better term, "civilian life"?
Pournelle: Well. I don’t know. [Mischievously] I want to make money.
Pournelle: Well, money’s a good scorecard. Niven chose the right grandparents, so he doesn’t need to make money at writing. I started in this racket in the early ’70s, and when I was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, of which I was like the sixth president, I was the first one nobody ever heard of. The organization was really in bad shape. Norman [Spinrad] and I tried to make a list of how many people made a living at SF. We couldn’t come up with more than 20. And in that, you would’ve had to count Niven and Asimov, and Asimov hadn’t written a science-fiction novel in 10 years. The Gods Themselves came out in about ’76 or so.
Asimov was the reason why we changed some rules in the SFWA, and I’m not convinced we changed it for the best. There were probably, what, 300 science-fiction members in the SFWA, of whom probably a hundred were active members in the sense that they were selling something every year, or every couple years. Maybe 20 of them made a living at it. And of those 20, there were no bestsellers. Lucifer’s Hammer was the first science-fiction novel to break $100,000 for an advance. Arthur Clarke had done a three-book deal for a $100,000, but we got $236,500. That’s pretty good.
We got a lot of money for Lucifer’s Hammer, and it was 14 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list at number two. It would’ve been number one except for that goddamn Thorn Birds. Then that woman [Colleen McCullough] had the nerve to go off and write these wonderful historical novels after she finished doing that. There were people well known, of whom Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke and Heinlein had done well. You probably didn’t have any book that sold under 150 or 200,000 copies, which is pretty good. Heinlein never had a best-seller. Even, I think, with Stranger in a Strange Land, I don’t think it was actually on the New York Times best seller list. I don’t remember. But we hit it big, and to some extent, I think Lucifer’s Hammer probably changed the field. And now I would guess that there are 50 or 75 people who make a living at SF.
Do you think that’ll change?
Pournelle: I don’t know. I think the dot-com bust helps, for two reasons: entertainment usually does better in down times than up. And in down times it shakes a lot of the bad SF out, a lot the stuff that was bought for literary reasons, which is neither entertaining nor great literature. That are touted as "Big Literature," but aren’t, and aren’t very entertaining, either. And they usually give SF a terrible name. Saying "good" from the point of view where a girl with a master’s in fine arts in literature who spent four years as an apprentice in a publishing house is now finally an editor and able to buy books, and her view of what is good SF is not that of Joe Six-Pack. And she says, "Good SF writers are publishing and starving, so clearly what the public wants is junk." And her editorial committee meeting says, "Good! Because we don’t pay much for junk. So go buy us some junk." And lots of junk get published, and the field collapses even further, because good entertainment isn’t junk.
And meanwhile, the storytellers like me and Anderson, Silverberg ... we tell stories. People like them. They want to know how it comes out, they want to know what the ending is. Every time there’s a bust, it never goes back down quite as far as the previous one. It’s more of a scalloping. One the other hand, the publishing trend is ghastly, isn’t it? Two hundred and something distributors are now down to 10 or 12? And what’s the recruiting drive? You see, I used to do a certain amount of market research by going to the local drugstore and seeing what the truck drivers would put up. Now it’s all just copies from the latest best-seller list and damn little of anything else. Every now and again there will be a little variety, but not much. Louis L’Amour famously got rich by going to truck drivers, so whenever they’d come to a Louis L’Amour book ... they’d always put that out, and before you knew it, Louis L’Amour was just selling everywhere! Well, that wouldn’t work now. Because the supermarkets aren’t that way, so where are you recruiting new readers?
Would you say the Internet?
Pournelle: Maybe. That’s what [Jim] Baen thinks. We’re sure as hell not getting them from somebody casually buying a book on his way out of the grocery store and he’s still got his six-pack money. And I don’t know where we get them. Paperbacks aren’t making much money, hardbacks are the only lucrative part of the publishing business, and the anomaly is that the best-sellers don’t make any money, either. Because everybody has to discount the goddamn things just to get you into the store, the best-sellers aren’t making much profit for anybody. There are few exceptions; I mean Hilary Clinton. They got a lot of people into the bookstores.
The business of publishing hasn’t improved since you started your career?
Pournelle: Just the opposite. It’s worse. By a lot. One of the factors during the dot-com boom, particularly. Publishing, historically, has never made more than about four and a half to five percent return on investment. And part of the reason it makes even that much is because you have a lot of eager people, mostly girls, some men, with really good educations willing to work their hearts out for nothing and live four to a room in a fifth-floor walkup in order to do it. So there’s this unending supply of well-educated apprentices to be editors in the book business. And they don’t pay them anything.
It’s the old story; if the author gets to town, the junior editors fight like hell for the privilege of taking him to lunch, because that’s the only time they’ll get an expense account! And that’s another piece of advice I’ll give junior writers; when you get to the point where they take you to lunch, let the editor suggest where to go. She usually has in mind a place she can’t afford to go, and she wants to be there, and if you insist on your own [chuckles], you’ll get what you wanted, but you won’t make your editor happy, and the world is a much better place if your editor’s happy.
When there was a little venture capital floating around, you would get people to think, "Hell, we’re efficiency experts. We’ll buy that stupid publishing company that’s making four and a half percent on investment, and we’ll just go through there and clean it up and do what we do with clothing mills and everything else." And they come in and do it, and of course it doesn’t work. Because Tom Doherty and people like that are not stupid. If they could have streamlined their operation more to get more money out of it, they would have done it. It’s not like they’re a bunch of idiots.
Dick Snyder, for God’s sakes, at Simon & Schuster, was the meanest son of a bitch in the history of mankind! He was the most ruthless bastard we’ve ever heard of! And he couldn’t get more than four and a half to five percent out of Simon & Schuster. So you figure, if people like him can’t do it, who can? And it collapses. So that you now have Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and 17 others all, y’know, that have been collapsed into one publishing firm. It’s much worse for authors. That and the collapse of the distribution business.
It doesn’t hurt me. My books tend to get into airports and places. But I don’t know how the hell I’d break into this racket if I was just starting. And I think it can be done, because people are doing it, but-it used to be a lot easier to get on these coffeepot radio shows and talk shows and things. When I first started with Mote, there wasn’t a week when I wasn’t doing a telephone interview with some radio show. I’d drive up to Bakersfield to be on the afternoon talk show. The talk shows in those days all had guests, and they were desperate to find the guests, and I was a good one because I could talk about things other than fiction, being in the aerospace business, and having a science background. And that probably helped the holy hell out of Mote and our early books. I never hear authors on radio talk shows anymore.
Is a reader without a strong background in science still able to enjoy your work as much as has been intended?
Pournelle: You’d have to ask one of them. I don’t know. I have lots of friends who seem to like my stories and whom I don’t think know what I’m talking about. They’ve been using some of my military novels in the war colleges lately, and it’s textbooks on low-intensity conflicts. How to fight guerilla war. Tell me a better source. And I mean that as a serious question; tell me a better source that is real, and in fact I think I did a pretty good job. But on the other hand, I sold a hell of a lot of them in PXs. A lot of my stories-we know that every nuclear submarine takes a bunch of my stories out-they’re out there for months. I know that quite well now; been on one of them and found dog-eared copies of my book at various corners in the submarine.
What’s your opinion on how SF is being represented in the worlds of TV and film?
Pournelle: Most of it’s dreadful, but here and there are exceptions. I thought they did The Puppet Masters quite well. The first Matrix was both fast enough and new enough that you didn’t tear it apart while you were watching it. The second movie’s just dreadful, because there are no two frames that are logically connected anymore. They just threw in everything: "Well, we can get away with that much inconsistency in the first one, let’s see if we can’t really do it to them now." I came away from it with the conclusion that, boy, computers must really like kung fu! Lord of the Rings is wonderful. I thought they did Harry Potter pretty good. The trouble is that the Harry Potter stories are sufficiently detailed that it makes it almost impossible to make a movie. But then, you know, a real novel can’t be made into a movie, anyway.
They said that about Lord of the Rings for the longest time.
Pournelle: Yeah, but well, look at how long it’s taking them to do it, too. I mean, they are huge! How long did it take you to read the latest Harry Potter novel? You’re a fast reader. Several hours, right?
All told, that’s right.
Pournelle: You know, that’s been the problem with Mote. They’re now talking about making it a miniseries on the SCI FI Channel, and you’ve got some pretty good people involved, and maybe they will. You couldn’t possibly make that into a single episode. ... Oddly enough, one that wasn’t very popular, Kurt Russell’s Soldier, wasn’t that bad.
Pournelle: Yeah, at least I could believe in the characters. There are a lot of fantasies; Spirited Away, wonderful. I’m not sure that movies are not a better fantasy medium than SF medium, anyway. But the only problem with movies in SF is the SF has got all these problems-we don’t know where we’re going anymore.
In that respect, fantasy is easier?
Pournelle: Fantasy’s easier because you’ve got a self-contained world. You don’t know what the hell the rules are in SF. I don’t know what the rules are in science anymore, do you? I mean, we like interstellar travel for storytelling purposes; the fact is that’s fantasy, too. Charlie Sheffield and I did Higher Education; that was an attempt to be realistic, and I guess it has done that. You know, it didn’t have anything that is inconsistent with science as we knew it when we wrote it. There’re not too many stories like that. People don’t want to read them. They all are Mars stories, they’re all fantasy. Most every one of them is fantasy. Some worse than others.
Are you able to read for entertainment’s sake, or does the thought process of a writer creep in to interrupt?
Pournelle: Oh, a little bit, yeah. It’s one of the problems. Also, a lot of the stuff I see nowadays I don’t like as much. The trouble is, I like the kind of stuff I write, and I don’t like to read the kind of stuff I write because I’m afraid I’ll end up stealing other people’s ideas. [Smiles.]
What can you tell us about your projects in the works?
Pournelle: I’m finishing Burning Tower, which I’ve got to go work on this afternoon, in fact, which is the second volume in this big-what do you want to call it? It’s a heroic fantasy. The characters don’t even think they’re in a heroic fantasy; the characters are just trying to stay alive and put together the trade routes. They’re not set off on any great quest to liberate the Earth. We don’t have any of that.
I don’t know if you’ve read The Burning City. Well, Whandall [Placehold] is not trying to free his people, or do anything else, he’s just trying to get the hell out of a place he doesn’t like living in. But it is a social commentary. As long as the characters don’t know it, you can get away with it. I’ve got another book in the Janissaries series I want to do, and everybody in the world wants me to do a sequel to Starswarm, and I may do that, but I don’t know. I told the story.
And what about the Mote adaptation?
Pournelle: Well, if they do it, it’s wonderful, isn’t it? Birth of Fire has been optioned for quite a lot of money. They paid enough money in the option that I’m pretty sure they’re going to go on and actually make the story. I don’t want anything to do with it. I would rather go back to journalism. I don’t like most [movie] people. Met a few of them.
Joss Whedon is very sharp. And he and I and Niven very nearly came up with a fantasy series, which I would have loved to have worked on, based on the notion "Suppose the magic came back. We live in this world right now, and all of a sudden, the mana is coming back, and nobody knows how to use it, because we haven’t studied it in 15,000 years." But some people have natural talent, and it will turn out, and we had this storyline that there have been some wizards all along for thousands of years. They mostly make their living doing prestidigitation. Stage magicians. And that was going to be one of our major characters, this 30-something-year-old witch who learned to be a stage magician but has far more talent than her mother did, so she gets it right more often, and meanwhile, the magic’s coming back; we’re pumping oil out of the ground, we’re bringing up ores from deep under the Earth, you know, most of those things have mana attached to it. We very nearly made a deal with Joss on that one, and that would have been fun. That one I would like to have done.
Pournelle: I think he just got interested in something else, or didn’t have the financing, I don’t know. The trouble is I really wouldn’t want to work with very many people on something like that. We actually came up with a story treatment for it, at least a background for some characters. The general in charge of Fort Knox. Gold has an awful lot of mana in it, and suppose his daughter turns out to have a little bit of talent. [Chuckles] And he’s the general of Fort Knox, you see, with all these soldiers. That was going to be the pilot. You’re trying to steal the mana, but of course nobody knows there’s anything to steal, so, "Go after the gold. I don’t give a sh-t about the gold. I don’t want the damn gold, I want the mana." [Laughs.]
But I make a comfortable living. I could’ve made more if I had really gone out and whacked at it harder and maybe if I’d pitched more stories and got into the movie business. I keep remembering that Fitzgerald did that and drank himself to death as a result of it, so. ...
There’s that "inner happiness" thing.
Pournelle: Psychic income is the one damn thing they can’t take away from you in taxes, and I have deductibly built myself a fairly comfortable place to live. It’s all deductible, too!