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The Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle Show

A bunch of science fiction writers gave a talk the other night at Reiter's bookstore on K Street, and afterward I parked myself between two of them, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, as they signed books for their many fans. When someone handed Pournelle a copy of his novel "The Mote in God's Eye" he immediately turned to page 465 and crossed out a single word, "spared," and replaced it with "spaced."

"It's one of those one-letter things that changes the meaning of the whole goddamned book," he said.

The two writers are tenured masters of the craft, which is to say, they've been around for a while and have converged into a literary team, collaborating on such novels as "Footfall." [Back cover text reprinted at end of this item.]

They know each other well enough to finish, and often refute, one another's sentences.

I mentioned to Niven that I was a fan of "Ringworld." Pournelle chimed in that the way Niven originally described Ringworld it would be unstable. I floated the thought that, since it's just a novel, the stability of a fictional artificial world encircling a distant star didn't really matter. Pournelle looked at me askance.

"It's not Fantasy! Science fiction isn't Fantasy! We don't have wizards and elves in science fiction! We don't have impossible structures in science fiction!"

But what about "Dune," and those sandworms and so forth?

"It's pretty close to fantasy," Pournelle said.

We talked about the Fermi Paradox ("Where are they?").

"They're not here until they're here. It's one of those Aristotelian things," Niven said.

"Robert Bussard's answer is that they're here and we're them," Pournelle said.

He said that a spacefaring civilization should be able to fill an entire galaxy with colonies in just two million years. That hasn't happened, apparently. Maybe civilizations that reach a certain level of technology invariably blow themselves up.

But then Niven said that perhaps the filamentary structure of the cosmos is a sign of intelligent life.

I said I didn't understand.

"At the largest scale it looks like skeins of galaxies and large bubbles of nothing," Niven said.

"This is Larry's latest pet," Pournelle said, "and I haven't tried poking holes in it yet."

So intelligent creatures might have somehow caused the large-scale cosmic structure?

"Tool users," Niven said, correcting me. They use "dark energy," the mysterious force deduced only in recent years, one that is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. Niven referred to it more generically as antigravity. I didn't follow his exact reasoning, but the gist is that the very structure of the universe "is a side effect of using antigravity."

"This is Larry Niven playing games with your head. Do not make more of it than it is," Pournelle said.

"It's a short story I haven't sold yet," Niven said.

They take their act this weekend to a science fiction and fantasy convention in Baltimore.

[From the back cover of Footfall:

"They first appear as a series of dots on astronomical plates, heading from Saturn directly toward Earth. Since

the ringed planet carries no life, scientists deduce the mysterious ship to be a visitor from another star.

"The world's frantic efforts to signal the aliens go unanswered. The first contact is hostile: the invaders blast a Soviet space station, seize the survivors, and then destroy every dam and installation on Earth with a hail of asteroids.

"Now the conquerers are descending on the American heartland, demanding servile surrender -- or death for all humans."]

[Stanley Miller, the pioneering researcher on the origin of life, has died at the age of 77.]

By Joel Achenbach  |  May 24, 2007; 7:59 AM ET
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