Friday, June 01, 2007

Stalking Niven

Just like last year, I spent Memorial Day weekend at Balticon, the Baltimore area science fiction convention. Last year’s guest of honor was goth rock star Neil Gaiman. This year they went completely the other direction with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, two old-school rock-hard science fiction writers. Last year we just daytripped to the con in Hunt Valley from our home in Ellicott City. Since that is a long roundtrip and many events run pretty late, this year we ponied up for a room onsite.

Balticon 38Larry Niven is easily one of my top ten favorite science fiction writers and his collaborations with Jerry Pournelle are landmarks. I made it my goal to get to every event possible that featured one or the other.

A good convention really makes the guests sing for their supper (in the case of the musical guests, literally). Larry and Jerry were booked into at least three events a day. We blew off the first night of the con, but made sure we arrived early enough Saturday to catch the joint interview. I don’t know how it is when they are working together, but it’s good thing Niven is a fairly quiet individual, because nobody gets a word in edgewise when Pournelle has the floor.

At the joint interview they were very proud that the final draft of Inferno 2 (the sequel to a book I haven’t read) was delivered to the publisher. They are also pitching an epic-sized novel that will examine the response of society to a clear and present danger and if and how society can return to normal once the threat has passed. I expect the plot will involve an extinction event sized threat from space since, as they admit, they have made a good living throwing things at Earth.

Balticon 12Pournelle recycled a talk he gave to a group of international secret agency types that want to guard us against future threats. The theme was that the future can’t be predicted because too many random events disrupt the linear progression of events, but that the future can be invented and shaped if you know your goals as a society. He gave a personal anecdote about how the need for precise guidance systems for ballistic missiles created the computer industry. He also tiraded against Homeland Security, No Child Left Behind, and Robert McNamara.

Niven recycled a speech about how our only defense against the Deep Impact/Armageddon sized meteor is a serious space program. Larry is a pro-space advocate and thinks any excuse to be up there is a good one. He had some good science to back-up his ideas but admitted that raising the sense of urgency in the general public is a daunting task.

Balticon 12Both did a full hour of joint book signing. This attracted the usual smattering of people trying to push up shopping carts full of books of everything they wrote. A three item or less rule got the line moving again.

I had been scouring used book dealers for the past few months and came up with first editions of Footfall, The Gripping Hand, and The Ringworld Engineers. I had plenty of time to try to chit-chat with Larry while waiting for Jerry to find the right page in a very old issue of Byte to sign. I asked Pournelle if he remembered Joel Achenbach interviewing him at a book signing earlier in the week for the Achenblog post called The Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle Show. Jerry could barely remember that there was a reporter there.

Click on the picture to read my tee shirt.

They both showed up for a talk ostensibly about Robert Heinlein’s contribution to science. They found the topic baffling saying that the science in Heinlein’s work was clear and lucid and rarely original. Most of the gee-whiz ideas he used were around all the popular science magazines and showcased in the 1934 World’s Fair. Jerry went on another rant and Larry slipped out claiming it was late. After Pournelle finished pontificating and getting huffy with the unruly audience, I found Niven a few doors down listening to the open filk music session. It seems he likes participating in all the other stuff the regular fans do and knew the musical guests.

Balticon 38The next morning I had signed up for Kaffeeklatsches which are small group sessions with the guests. Pournelle’s was first and got off to a bad start. The room didn’t have any coffee or water or snacks. Jerry had a Ziploc bag of about a dozen pills to take and no way to swallow them. Without caffeine or any way to take his meds, Jerry moves from his normal crankiness right into cantakerous. After a fan ran off to get him a cup of joe, he resumed his rant against public education and pissed off a special ed teacher in the audience. After a long digression about dyslexia and ADD, he finally got steered back to writing. He feels creative writing classes are useless. He sees science fiction magazines as good ways to get into the business because they are so desperate for material since they pay so little. Nevertheless, he’s not keen on the idea of posting his stuff on the internet for free and is especially miffed at other people that post his stuff on the web. He gave some nice personal stories about the early days of Byte and other computer magazines before his time was up.

Balticon 12Because of scheduling confusion, I missed the first half of Nivens’s small group talk but I still got a lot of good insight. He talks slowly and measured but always has a point. Unlike Pournelle, he is quiet and thoughtful when others talk and it sometimes takes effort to steer the talk back to his opinions. Larry just wants to see us in space. It's the mindset of a fan that grew up reading the Golden Age giants. He likes the idea of private enterprise in space aviation because that is how it was always envisioned in things like "The Man Who Sold The Moon" and Destination Moon. He writes short stories just to keep his writing skill sharp.

It was great to see two of the masters still at the top of their game. They sound enthusiastic about their upcoming work and still think the future has a chance. For more pictures of Niven and Pournelle and other sights from Balticon, check out my Balticon 2007 Flickr set.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: What author would you like to stalk?


Anonymous said...

Pournelle doesn't travel well and from his comments at his "not a blog" he'd already been on the road for several days. All of which combined to make him crankier than ever.

I suppose the author I'd come closest to wanting to "stalk" would be Harry Turtledove. I've got a serious history bug.

yellojkt said...

Yeah, Jerry said that east coast pollen must me much deadlier than west coast pollen because he felt like a zombie most of the time.

Anonymous said...

What fun, yellojkt! You are lucky to live so near that major sci-fi event. Thanks for the report; it was "the next best thing to being there."

As you know, I've had some primo stalking experiences at the Miami Book Fair. I'm almost satisfied that I've met most of my favorite authors at this point. Amazing. Just this year, Dave Barry, Carl Hiaason, Kurt Andersen, Jonathan Franzen. For 2007, my dreams would come true if Barbara Kingsolver and Robert Wright showed up. It could happen.

Of course, it goes without saying that there's a certain WaPo reporter/blogger that I will be happy to meet whenever he publishes a book and makes the rounds of book-promotion venues. I'm thinking, maybe 2010.

Anonymous said...

The only Niven-Pournell books I've read are Inferno and the Motie books, but I really love Inferno. It made a huge impression on me as a kid and actually got me to read Dante. It's great because it takes a hard science attitude towards something very, very different. Well worth a read and I'm intrigued that a sequel is in the works all these years later.

The main characters do encounter lots of folks in hell that the authors want to take swipes at -- it's a lot like Dante in that respect. There's a nameless sci-fi writer (one who "pretends not to be a sci-fi writer") who I've always assumed was supposed to be Vonnegut, but I'm not sure...


Anonymous said...

Inferno was great fun. If I recall correctly, Vonnegut wound up in the circle of Heretics, just inside the walls of Dis. There was a tomb with a flashing green neon sign that read "And so it goes". I remember the protagonist finding that unfair, because the unnamed "heretic" didn't mean it seriously.

It got me to read Dante, too. It's really an appropriate subject, since I consider the Divine Comedy to be the first SF work. I mean, it uses the most the most up to date scientific knowledge of the period, understands the consequences of many of them, and has a number of scientific expository discussions.