The Enquiring Hitchhiker Interviews Dr. Jerry Pournelle

We have a special treat for our readers this morning. One of my all time favorite authors Dr, Jerry Pournelle.  Having co-authored my third favorite book Lucifer’s Hammer (1 and 2 are both Heinlein works) I was a little nervous to contact him and more nervous to actually ask for an interview. Luckily I got over that  and I am very proud to present this interview for our audience here at the Freehold.

Normally we like to ask four questions about the person’s work and a fifth question being about politics. Many of our readers are very familiar with Dr. Pournelle’s writing. In fact in my circle of acquaintances both on the internet and in real life Lucifer’s Hammer is referenced quite often along with many of his other work’s. So we focused this interview  on asking Dr. Pournelle political questions.

 The Hitchhiker asks…

1. My first conscious introduction to you was the forward you wrote for Heinlein’s Take Back Your Government In fact your forward and that book helped make me a politically aware person. It also influenced me to vote for Ross Perot that year. Do you think Perot was the right man at that time and do you think third parties actually accomplish anything in our society beyond being a spoiler for one of the large party candidates?

 

The goal of many adherents of the Perot movement was to alter the political process of the United States, and particularly the party nomination process; specifically to move some of the control of that process back down to the precinct and legislative district level where it had been for a century. It was not so much support of Perot himself as of the viability of a third party candidate with popular support.

 

 

2. Lucifer’s Hammer is a favorite in my crowd. I like to think of that crowd as the rational preppers. Do you have any thoughts about how and why the prepper movement has developed in this country to such an extent?

 

I’m not sure what you mean by prepper. It is not a word I use. Citizens ought to be prepared for local emergencies, and I was at one time an Emergency Preparedness merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts, and as Assistant Scoutmaster I insisted on Emergency Preparedness in our local troop. I was also involved with the Civil Defense network and activities. I do not believe that the Federal Government can establish an agency to take the place of what used to be Civil Defense, and it seems clear to me that the frequent FEMA failures illustrate this.

Self government requires citizens willing to participate in self government rather than rely on distant government organizations to take care of them. During the Cold War the primary threat to civilization in the US was from nuclear war. In my view the best way to survive a nuclear war is not to have one, but if that fails, then there are obvious steps one may take to make survival more probable. Today the threats are quite different, as are their probabilities.

 

At my age I would not expect to survive the collapse of civilization, nor would I expect to be able to conduct a point defense against organized marauders. Local Civil Defense organizations were the best preparation against the failure of national military deterrence – and had the merit of making that deterrence more stable. There are preparations that regions can make against threats to civilization – such as world power failure following enormous solar flares. They aren’t being made now. How effectively individuals or small communities can prepare against a million people with limited resources and time before starvation in a world without electrical power (no refrigerators, no pipelines, no food distribution system operating in a world of ‘just in time’ delivery to grocery stores, etc.. etc.) is not so clear or obvious. Again local Civil Defense organizations with a chain of command and some contingency plans would seem to have the best chance here.

 

The old notion of survival companies able to hole up and survive the first months following nuclear war and fallout with its casualties doesn’t apply when no one is sick yet but everyone is starving, and cars still run, bridges are still intact, but fuel is running out. That kind of Hobbesian world makes for rather depressing science fiction novels.

 

3.Our readers are concerned about the space program and NASA. While I believe personally that commercial space exploration is the future I can not stress how important the contributions of NASA scientists have been to our society. We certainly would not be doing this interview over email without some of the technology developed in the Apollo era and beyond. In light of all your work in the aerospace community do you believe NASA still holds an important role in space exploration?

 

I have long ago said that governments are supposed to look out for our grandchildren now that we no longer have kings and aristocrats who do that. The problem is that government does only a few things well. It can organize for defined missions like Apollo, but then the standing army created for doing that tends to stay around and absorb resources.

 

There are things that government can and should do. I summarize that as “Prizes and X Projects”. I wrote that briefing a long time ago, and it’s available as “How to get to Space” http://www.jerrypournelle.com/reports/jerryp/gettospace.html

 

 

4. There is a belief that Republican administrations are anti-science. I can understand where some would feel that way because of the anti-evolution crowd among the religious right. However when I have looked at the numbers, presidents like George Bush increased NASA funding while the Obama Administration has slashed it. What are your thoughts on the political difference in spending for science?

 

I was campaign manager for the first (and successful) campaign of Barry Goldwater, Jr. for Congress. Barry was on the Science Committee and attempted to save a number of advanced research projects such as NERVA. My old friend Dana Rohrbacher has long been a congressional friend of advanced research projects. Newt Gingrich tried to introduce Prizes for space projects and has long been known as a space cadet. There is a place for government in space development. But I covered all that in the last question.  See http://www.jerrypournelle.com/reports/jerryp/gettospace.html

 

 

5. Since the first four questions were political in nature I thought I would save a science fiction question for last. The modern trend in speculative fiction is away from hard science fiction and has moved towards a melange of vampire eroticism, mystical children, and medieval fantasy. Even when Hollywood attempts a science fiction story (see my review of the new Total Recall) they infuse the story with so much pseudo-scientific gobbledegook that it gives me a headache. Do you think that this lack of interest in hard science fiction says something about our society?

 

When I first got into science fiction, fantasy was a small branch of SF, and SFWA was the Science Fiction Writers of America; fantasy writers could join but it was a courtesy. Now fantasy is much larger in sales than SF. On the other hand, science fiction still sells. Lucifer’s Hammer was fifteen weeks on the best-seller list, and continues to sell well as an electronic book (and indeed eBook rights are probably worth more now than print rights for many SF works).

 

The American public school system has become a national disaster, and we have a generation unprepared for understanding science or science fiction; and a school system that believes that everything is relative and thus a matter of opinion (including so far as I can see the value of Planck’s Constant and the solution to the problem of 12.3 + 44) isn’t likely to generate students fond of works like The Cold Equations, or for that matter that kind of tales I tell which still have stories of honor and loyalty. Fortunately the Internet has produced a remedy, and those who really want to learn can turn to the Kahn Academy and various MIT and Cal Tech lectures, and such like. The means for learning are out there.

 

And, as Mr. Heinlein used to say, mankind will go to space, but there is no law of the Universe that says that the language spoken out there will be English.

 

America has the potential to go back to space, beginning with Moon Colonies and continuing to the asteroids and beyond. I wrote all that years ago in my non-fiction book A Step Farther Out http://www.baenebooks.com/p-922-a-step-farther-out.aspx and it’s still pretty valid.

 

Dr. Pournelle Thank you for this interview it was a genuine pleasure.

About Jonathan David Baird

Jonathan David Baird has worked as an archaeologist for the past fifteen years throughout the Southeast. He left full-time field work in 2011 to finish graduate school. In 2012 Jonathan received a master's degree in English literature from Fort Hays State University. His focus of study was the development of late Victorian Gothic horror. Currently working on second masters in American history and applying to PhD programs.
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LeChat says:

In the fantasy realm, I really liked the original “Inferno” by Niven and Pournelle. I’ve read it a number of times and always found something new with each reading.

That was very interesting. Thanks. I have to say I preferred the rewrite, with the elephants, but Lucifer’s Hammer was very good too, though even more scary.

I liked Footfall but Lucifer’s Hammer edges it out in my opinion because it is something that certainly could and probably will occur one day.