Authors@Google Presents: Gregory Benford and Larry Niven

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 07.11.2012


BRAD TEMPLETON: All right, why don't we go ahead.
This is Authors at Google.
I'm Brad Templeton from Google X. What we have today are two
of the most respected writers of science fiction,
particularly hard science fiction, I think, we have in
the field, Gregory Benford and Larry Niven.
Both of these men have been nominated for, and won,
science fiction's top awards, the Hugo award
and the Nebula Award.
You've probably read Larry's books in what's called the
Known Space series, including works like "Ringworld" and
"Neutron Star." Gregory, I think, got his first big hit
with "Timescape," although I know you had other things.
But that won you the Nebula Award.
Gregory's also a professor of physics at UC Irvine.
And he is also now a biotech entrepreneur, having worked to
found a company called Genescient, whose goal is to
stop human beings from dying like flies.
And he may be able to answer some questions
about that, as well.
They have a new book that's just come out this week called
"Bowl of Heaven," that we see on the screen, and they're
going to talk about that.
And there's many other things in their careers that I'm sure
will be interesting to us.
And then we'll have Q&A.
LARRY NIVEN: Quite a crowd.
See, and they're very orderly and everything.
This is a talk mostly about--
of course, what everybody in the room probably knows--
about the idea of what were called Big Dumb Objects.
We'll get to that.
But here's "Ringworld," Larry's.
Remember "Ringworld"?
It's been 42 years.
LARRY NIVEN: It has been.
We celebrated the 40th anniversary by running a
reprint and a lot of publicity.

"Ringworld." Let me talk about the Big Dumb--
Trying that again.
Let me talk about the Big Dumb Object concept.
I like David Gerrold's phrase, which was the Enormous Big
Thing, as the plot line for a story.
It sounds like nothing happens.
The key to nothing happening was not our first discovery;
it was all the marvelous, empty cities found by Conan
the Cimmerian and Tarzan of the Apes.

Empty cities can be explored without things
happening all at once.
You can discover what's going on.
You can find the interesting things.
You can get attacked by the interesting
monsters, one at a time.
You drop Conan the Cimmerian into New York City, he'll be
bewildered for a long time.
GREGORY BENFORD: Mostly by the New Yorkers.

LARRY NIVEN: So I wrote "Ringworld" as
nearly emptied of rulers.
Nobody's running it.
People came to be running it in later volumes, but for
"Ringworld," you don't even see who built it.
It's just there, and you can explore--
well, with sky cycles you can explore--
about one quarter of the distance across the width, is
how much got explored in "Ringworld."
And that was my point.
It's just too big to look at.

Notice, however, it's 93 million miles in radius, 600
million miles in circumference.
It's the Earth's orbit, approximately.
And it's entirely filled by a habitat.
I made it a million miles across, but that's arbitrary.
You could make it two, or half, whatever you like.
It's so big that air leaking over the rim walls, which
stand 1,000 miles high at either edge--
air leaking over the rim walls doesn't rob you of your
atmosphere in any decent time.
It can last millions of years doing that.
GREGORY BENFORD: Yeah, that's--
GREGORY BENFORD: And that's what makes it dumb.
Well, it is perhaps a dumb idea but it
gives you better visuals.
And I was after the visuals.
GREGORY BENFORD: It's dumb in the sense of being struck dumb
in awe at the prospect of even exploring the thing.
You see, it's too big to cross, but it's not too big to
write about.
And the whole point-- next slide--
is that this book, this whole idea, descends also from
something probably all of you know, the Dyson Sphere idea.
Because Freeman Dyson just said, look, a really advanced
civilization will use all the energy that's getting wasted
into the night sky by its star.
And it'll absorb it, and use it for something.
And then, of course because of the laws of physics, it'll
re-radiate it into the infrared.
So the thing to look for, and the reason this is published
as a scientific paper, not just as speculation, is
unexplained infrared objects that are very compact
in the night sky.
By the way, I'll get to a recent grant given to look for
exactly that, in a little bit, at UC Berkeley.
LARRY NIVEN: The point of the idea is that you can find it.
You don't have to wait for people who want to talk to us.
Super-powered beings who have been civilized for a billion
years are not likely to want to talk to us.
But if they've built Dyson Spheres, you can find them.
GREGORY BENFORD: The galaxy might easily be full of
entities that don't really, especially want to talk to us.
For example, New Yorkers.

So the whole idea comes also from later ideas that people
have manifested.
Like, if it's in the stage of being built, it's going to
take awhile to build this.
You could get a Dyson Swarm of solar-powered satellites and
habitats like this.
and you could put them in various kinds of orbits that
would make it look like, what's called a Dyson
Bubble, like this.
And there are all kinds of ideas about how to maintain
these structures, and therefore, over time, you
would use up the resource.
GREGORY BENFORD: And so, toward the end it might even
look like this.
And therefore, this is actually an object we could
look at using Kepler and another satellites, and the
recently finished infrared search called WISE.
That's an acronym, as usual.
Next slide.
And therefore, a grant was just gotten by Geoff Marcy
over at UC Berkeley that will use the Lick Observatory,
right over there on the hills, to look for Dyson Spheres,
using the best data we now have accumulated from those
two missions, the WISE and the Kepler.
And you could actually, if you care to, you could put this in
as a public charity actually.
If you go to that address, you can make a donation to the
Dyson Sphere search.
BRAD TEMPLETON: Why are you looking at me, in particular?
GREGORY BENFORD: Well, because you're a
large infrared object.

Walked right into that one, Brad.

BRAD TEMPLETON: I'm a skilled engineer, but my job is
pushing a next button on a slide.
So you see, this is an ongoing project.
I mean, I've known Geoff Marcy a long time.
And I knew he was interested in this, and while we were
writing the novel, it all came to mind.
Now it actually, coincidentally, just in time
to come out with our book, is the news that he got the
grant, $200,000.
You'd be amazed what you can do for such a small amount of
money at Google.
Here's the definition of a Big Dumb Object.
I'll give you a minute to read it.
OK, time's up, and--
this is Google, right?
No, go back to it.
Go back to the last slide.
LARRY NIVEN: Their minutes are still 60 seconds longer.
GREGORY BENFORD: This is from Peter Nichols, a noted SF
critic, who said, basically it's an interesting--
as Larry pointed out-- it's a great narrative structure
because nobody bothers your protagonist while he staggers
around, trying to understand what's going on.
And that actually is useful in "Ringworld" and Conan.
Because Conan, apparently, doesn't seem to
be that bright anyway.
LARRY NIVEN: But it is the amateurish--
the semi-amateurish way to write.
I knew I was young and foolish and needed more skills.
when I wrote "Ringworld."
This, by the way, is from an essay
that's on my own website.
With Peter's permission, I put the whole essay up about
re-reading hard science fiction.
It's a lot of thoughts about it.
You can go to and go down
in the blog--
or somewhere on that site, among the articles, I think,
and it's got his essay.
OK, time's up.
Next slide.
And of course, if you've been around in this field long
enough, you know that there were the ONeill fashion.
The big fashion of the 1970's was writing about these
cylinder colonies that we would put in space and have
habitats, and so forth.
Gerry O'Neill pursued this in great detail, and showed that
you could do it.
And it was a good idea.
And then, as typical in many--
much of the evolution of science fiction, it fades away
and you get another idea.
I can remember when I started reading SF in the 1950's, the
big idea was telepathy.
Whatever happened to that idea, right?
LARRY NIVEN: Robert Silverberg happened to that idea.
GREGORY BENFORD: Yes, see, Robert Silverberg.
Although Connie Willis is writing a telepathy novel now,
she told me.
BRAD TEMPLETON: Pre-cognition sort of failed too as a theme.
I wonder why they didn't see that coming.

And then "Rendezvous with Rama"--
Arthur C. Clarke.
Big alien artifact, suspiciously like an O'Neill
colony, comes into the solar system, and takes off for
parts unknown.
And you explore it.
And again, there appears to be nobody in charge.
There's some aliens crawling around.
They turned out to be maintenance features.
Nobody knows what the hell this was
for, and then it goes.
That's the thing is you try to leave the wizard behind the
curtain, if you possibly can.

And this is ours.
That's the Bowl of Heaven.
That little bright point, that's the star.
The big blue and white zone is the main habitable zone, but
you actually could live under that rather tan-colored
section, which is mirrors.
Not entirely mirrors, but mostly.
LARRY NIVEN: Notice something here.
If you start with a Dyson Sphere, and work within the
laws of physics as we know them, you're bound to wind up
using just the equator, and spinning it for gravity.
You spin it for gravity.
The equator is the only thing that will hold an atmosphere,
because from the higher levels,
atmosphere will flow down.
In this object, you still have to pocket the atmosphere to
avoid losing it.
But the half-Dyson Sphere doesn't quite work.
You wind up with a Ringworld with a wok-shaped lid, and a
hole in the lid, if you're going to make it move.
GREGORY BENFORD: Tell them the title.
LARRY NIVEN: The title is "Bowl of Heaven."
GREGORY BENFORD: But our first title was "Wokworld." Somehow
it didn't seem to quite--
LARRY NIVEN: And then I borrowed a term, which I had
seen 48 years ago, for a cartoon done for a set of
cartoons done about the Ringworld.
One of them laid out the plot line in a few hundred words,
and called it "Cupworld." You've got a half of a Dyson
Sphere, space ports in the handle, and night and day
provided by orbiting tea bags.

GREGORY BENFORD: And somehow that didn't get written up.
I don't know why.
LARRY NIVEN: "Cupworld" wasn't good enough. "Bowl of Heaven"
works just fine.
GREGORY BENFORD: And you'll notice there are other
features here.
Those mirrors in a great fraction of the bowl reflect
back on to a tiny spot on the surface of the rapidly
rotating star.
As you know, stellar rotation gives you
strong magnetic fields.
It's true on our [? sun. ?]
Very high magnetic fields.
And this concentrated energy ignites a flare which turns
into a jet.
It bulges out and then the magnetic fields that are
entrained focus the jet so it streams through the knothole.
The whole system is going somewhere.
LARRY NIVEN: The star is accelerating and the Bowl
follows because of gravity, and some
fancy magnetic fields.
And here I was again able to moonlight because I've
published several dozen papers on the dynamics, the
stability, and origin of the jets that come from the
accretion disks around both stars and black holes.
And I published them in "Astrophysical Journal," gone
to a lot of conferences, and then decided to use that
expertise, because jets form naturally an astonishingly
large number of times.
We now have seen hundreds of jets coming from black hole
regions around the universe.
And there are dozens around black holes and
stars in our galaxy.
So the jet and the Bowl all make an integrated system that
is a transport system that people could live in.
Mysteries ensue.
LARRY NIVEN: It's a Big Smart Object because it needs
constant maintenance.
You don't dare lose your civilization.
You lose your civilization, you've lost your habitat.
It'll spin out of control, it'll impact the sun, it'll go
straight to hell.
Yet much of the land in the Bowl of Heaven is natural.
It's a natural habitat.
It has enormous parks.
They utterly dominate.
It's not just a big New York City.
And so you have to wonder, why was this built, who built it,
and what's its point?
And obviously the point is that it's going somewhere,
unlike "Ringworld."
Interesting plot point, right?
All of this is the pre-thinking before you write
the first line.
And in the first line someone is waking up-- a human, a guy,
a biologist--
on a starship that's headed for a planet called Glory,
because the watch officers--
almost all the expedition is in the deep
sleep, and fairly cold--
the watch officers suddenly saw appear off to the side,
this thing, because they had overtaken it.
Because you couldn't see it from behind.
The star was blocked.
And the jet wasn't quite luminous enough to register at
a distance.
And the thing is about a quarter of a
light year away anyway.
LARRY NIVEN: What Greg hasn't said is, this thing is
accelerating directly away from Earth, with the same
target as the spaceship that contains our protagonists.
LARRY NIVEN: They were bound to catch up.
The Bowl wasn't big enough to see until they got closer.
And of course they're moving through the flare.
Which has some implications about what's been happening to
the starship, which we'll let you discover when you read the
Google discounted book.

So all of this is the beginning of the plot.
Notice how much thinking you've got to do before you
can write the first page.
It really does help to plan.
LARRY NIVEN: Until you write the first page, it's all
Collaborations don't become work until you start writing.
Until then it's just fun.
Until then it's an excuse to meet in a bar.
LARRY NIVEN: I have spent a whole afternoon walking with a
guy named Michael [? Crew ?], carving out a novel as we
walked around the hills of Berkeley.
We get back to the house, and we find out that neither of us
actually wants to write.

GREGORY BENFORD: You suck all the fun out of it.
That's the thing.
Don't eat the cream first.
That's the usual rule about desserts.

The Bowl spins quite rapidly, as you would guess, to create
an artificial gravity.
And as you'll see, in your location the Bowl--
and all the bowl has habitat in it.
It's not just mirrors plus a habitat somewhere else--
you can have very light gravity.
And therefore the species are different.
The living conditions are different.
And the humans in this novel get to experience several of
these different g's.
The main equatorial section is called the Great Plain, and
it's at 0.8g.
This sketch is in the book.
Use your own work.
LARRY NIVEN: The sketches, the visuals, all of the visual
were done from sketches we made by Don Davis.
We took a flat fee for doing several paintings.
Several paintings indeed, because this is a close up of
the Don Davis.
He's a guy I've known since Chesley Bonestell introduced
him to me, and Don was 18 years old,
back in the late 1960's.
Here's a close up.
You can see the mirror zone.
And you can see the storms above both oceans and land in
the Great Plain.
And you'll see everything at such a scale, you can't tell
anything about the inhabitants at this range.
Which is largely true of the Earth, except for some large

So the--

LARRY NIVEN: In fact the thing looks so planet-like that you
have to keep remembering, and the protagonists have to keep
remembering, you're looking across interplanetary scales,
objects as far away as Mars.
GREGORY BENFORD: Yeah but you can tell essentially the major
characteristics over an interplanetary distance.
And so this is a scene that occurs fairly early in.
The way for this starship to actually maneuver in is, first
it has to lose some velocity, and it wants to explore the
object, so it flies up the jet, to decelerate.
Great scene to write.
And this is a Don Davis painting.
You'll see the larger version in
unfortunately black and white.
Although in the e-Edition maybe it's in color.
I actually haven't even looked at the e-Edition.
And notice the large magnetic coils around
the rim of the knothole.
And there's some other magnetic features too.
There's a lot of magnetism in this, because I've done a lot
of classical electrodynamics, and I taught it at UC Irvine--
the advanced class.
They've got a graduate class.
To me the most important technology of the last 200
years has clearly been that that derives
from the Maxwell Equations.
I mean, it's made this company, right?
I mean it's the key technology.
And we're still mining it.
Only a few months ago, some guys at Imperial College in
London announced an easy way to produce a coherent
microwave emitter from a solid by flashing light on it.
Completely a new discovery.
It's going to revolutionize microwave transmission.
It's amazing where you don't even have to tune.

LARRY NIVEN: And it gets us cheap [? sugary ?]
[? cereals. ?]
GREGORY BENFORD: That's right.
Yeah that's an immediate application.
Here's a view from standing in the Great Plain, looking out
into the distance on a very clear day.
This is a clear day.
It has a deep ocean, which is held in by a
membrane at the top.
And this is the kind of view that we imagine would be true
if you were able to stand there and look across at and
see such great distances.
This is on a clear day, remember.
So you see some fading with distance but not a lot.

And here's another part of that view.
It's all part of one painting.
You'll notice in the foreground there's what we
call a zig-zag tree, which is an adaptation we haven't
explained yet to this world.
There's a human walking over toward the left.
And you can see the scale, as the whole thing just runs away
into the distance, over colossal distances.
It's inverse to a planet, in that the horizon tilts up, so
you can see great distances.
But there's something else in there.
Next slide.
Something else within view, and it's this.
This is an animal.
It looks like a fish because it flies through
the air, very slowly.
It's like a giant blimp.

And it's actually the means of transport--
one of the means of transport that the inhabitants use.
Because, guess what, there's not going to be a climate
change problem here because there are no fossil fuels.
You have to get around in some other means.
You could make fuels of course, the
way we do with ethanol.
But it's cheaper to get around, since you've got a lot
of time, in a method that doesn't burn something.
Because you have to be careful of the environment.
You don't want too much oxidation
to run out of control.
So that's some of the environment that we have spent
a whole lot of time and fun in designing.
The whole strategy of the first book is to show you a
lot of things, let you reach some assumptions, and then
undermine them and prove them false in the second book.
That's what makes it fun for us.
So anything more about-- this is called a sky
fish, by the way.
It's called by the humans a sky fish.
LARRY NIVEN: You can't pronounce the
word in Bird Folk.

GREGORY BENFORD: Yeah because the Bird Folk are the people
who run this place, and they have a lot of feathers.
And it's one of their major modes of expression.
And they regard these curious primates, who come on-board
and have to be, of course,
immediately grabbed and corralled.
I mean, you don't want new influences, right?
You don't want instability in the Bowl, because instability
means death.
But these primates have this curious thing that--
I mean they make gestures with their arms.
They have these funny little facial expressions, and they
try to convey meaning with them.
But they don't use the full glory of a fan feather
They can't change colors.
They can't rattle, and rustle, and move.
I mean it just shows you how limited they are.
Poor things.
And they have this kind of simple starship.
Well we've seen a lot of those before.
They come and go, you know.
It's a different attitude.
LARRY NIVEN: We've been avoiding some
spoilers, so far.
GREGORY BENFORD: Yes and we're going to keep avoiding
them, aren't we?
LARRY NIVEN: That was topic I was--
I'm not going to tell them about the Builders, right?
LARRY NIVEN: As with "Ringworld," you don't know
much about the Builders until you get into the book.
Because it's just too damn much to show you all of New
York in one day, right?
LARRY NIVEN: But the Builders do go onstage quick.
They have to with a Big Smart Object because that's who is
running everything.
Their quite obvious, quite obtrusive.
But there's an old saying-- my father was a
professional army officer.
That's how I ended up spending three years in occupied
Germany, three years in occupied Japan.
And I learned things about hierarchies, both in Japan and
in the army.
When you go into the GQ, the General Headquarters, the
first person you meet is not a general.
That rule applies to the Bowl.
Next slide.
Conservative means careful because Big Smart Objects
means it's not mutually stable like the Ringworld was
supposedly first thought to be.
It turns out it's not usually stable.
In fact I gave the problem of, calculate the stability of the
Ringworld as a problem on the qualifying exam for the PhD at
UC Irvine, one year.
And guess how many people out of 18 candidates managed to do
the calculation correctly, and reach the right conclusion.
Do I hear two?
How many pessimists--
how many vote for zero?
Yeah, well you're right to be skeptical.
The correct number is two, out of 18.
They said it was one of the toughest problems they had
ever had on an exam, because they hadn't
seen one like it before.
And you see, I wanted to privilege the people who had
read "Ringworld." I've never said that in public before.
It was 1977, so they had a chance.

BRAD TEMPLETON: Really, because we did that one in
high school integration.
I mean just, no mass, no gravity
inside a disc or a sphere.
We did that.
But anyway.
GREGORY BENFORD: That's right.
Yeah I mean you can do it.
It's just an interval.
LARRY NIVEN: They were using "Ringworld" calculations at my
high school last time I visited.
GREGORY BENFORD: You can calculate the potential field,
and then show that the lateral movement increases the energy,
and therefore the system will go that way.
So that Ringworld will simply slide into the star.
If you push it will just keep going.
Like a ball rolling down a hill.
LARRY NIVEN: Which is why there are attitude jets in the
second book.
And so in "Bowl of Heaven"--
actually, I think I left this out deliberately.
It'll be in the second book-- somebody says, how come they
just don't turn off the jet and coast?
Think for a minute.

Interstellar wind.

And the star.
Who wins?
It's a complicated dynamics problem.
The wind stops the Bowl.
The sun, being more massive keeps going.
You lose your sun.
Now what?
But it could be, if you're in a low density region that the
sun's gravity wins.
And either way it goes, it's unstable.
If you turn off the jet you're dead.
The Bowl is spinning, that keeps your orientation, but it
doesn't help you with the instability.
And there are other problems too.
How is this maintained?
By a complicated set of magnetic fields, a rapidly
spinning object with electrical charge, generates a
magnetic field.
And lots of great engineering, which I hope will form the
basis for future qualifying exam questions.
Well you've probably read this one.
Is this the last?
No it's not.
So smart means vigilant.
You can read that.
It's more effective.

LARRY NIVEN: I didn't deal with the problem of drilling
in the vacuum on the Ringworld, long ago.
It's the reason you don't find oil wells.

GREGORY BENFORD: But if you're on the Bowl, and you drill
through, you're not only going to be sucked through by the
vacuum, you have a velocity relative to the rest of the
background of a hundreds of kilometers a second.
And it's going to get you into trouble because the
outside of the Bowl--
we have some interesting things about this in the
second book--
the outside the Bowl is not just bare skin.
It has constructs on it.
It's useful.
So you're almost certainly going to run into something.
So it's going to be a very bad idea to think about.
And they have safeguards against that.
The point about this is to say, why should we think about
this enormous object?
Well it's a way of thinking about, what would intelligent
life do, if it really had a lot of time, and a big energy
budget, and had motivations that are not ours.
There's an old story told about bringing an aboriginal
from Australia in the 19th century to London.
And he looked at St. Paul's Cathedral, and these
buildings, and these streets, and he said, you know, this is
very impressive, but why did you do it?
Why did you bother?
I mean, he couldn't see the point of building large
buildings and a city.
It just didn't seem like something he wanted to do.
Well maybe the Bowl of Heaven will be something that we
wouldn't want to do, but somebody did.
And who was that?
That's really the thrust of the book.
And, oh by the way, why is it going to Glory, the target for
the starship.
And then some other things.
As we always say toward end, events ensue.

This is why it's fun to write these books.
It's because it's just kind of fun to fool around with ideas.
And from the point of view of the guy whose published over
200 scientific papers, it is very much like doing science,
when it's really good.
That is, you're having new ideas.
You're working them out in a rigorous way.
The writing, as Larry said, is the hard part.
LARRY NIVEN: And things keep surprising you.
That's right.
And so we keeping kicking my ideas back and forth.
LARRY NIVEN: We've been hard at work on the second book as
we drove around the Southern California area.
If you can carpool, you can collaborate.
Yeah and it's more productive than just
listening to classic rock.
So it's a fun process.
And our intention is to finish this subject in two books.
Now "Ringworld" has how many books now?
LARRY NIVEN: "Ringworld" is four, and
"Ringworld" is finished.
It was going to be one.
GREGORY BENFORD: Until further notice, then.
LARRY NIVEN: This one, we planned two, and we're still
planning two.
It's not going to be one of those seven-part trilogies.
Or even a three-part trilogy because trilogies--
the classic problem with trilogies is the
middle book, right?
How to eliminate this problem, make it two books.

Seems simple.
So, why don't we do Q&A?
But it actually announces part of the narrative strategy of
telling such stories.
So we thought what's the opposite?
LARRY NIVEN: It's a critic's term.
It's a critics who was not impressed by a flood of Big
Dumb Object stories.
"Ringworld" followed by "Orbitsville," and the
"Rendezvous with Rama," and several others.
GREGORY BENFORD: And Farley's books--
He wrote a Big Dumb Object trilogy, which is the only
part of his work which is out of print, he told me.
LARRY NIVEN: Well, he broke too many physics
laws with that one.
GREGORY BENFORD: Yeah, that's true.
LARRY NIVEN: And bent probability a lot too far.
BRAD TEMPLETON: Wait a minute, are you talking about "Titan?"
BRAD TEMPLETON: That wasn't dumb.
LARRY NIVEN: Wasn't it?
No, you're right.
Someone was in charge.
GREGORY BENFORD: Oh there was somebody charge, yes.
That's true.
But it tended, like most ideas in science fiction, to have a
half-life of roughly a decade, and then to go away.
So now it's back.
Thanks for coming.
It's great fun to have you here.
How are the inhabitants protected
against ionizing radiation?
LARRY NIVEN: Lots of atmosphere, for one thing.
And for another, that sun is a wretched little red dwarf.
LARRY NIVEN: You've got the flare, but it's generating
mostly heat.
Check me out on this, because you're the expert.
GREGORY BENFORD: That's true. , No, I mean,
about what you said.

GREGORY BENFORD: But it's also the magnetic field.
LARRY NIVEN: Hundreds of kilometers of atmosphere being
held in by what is essentially the far future descendants of
a sandwich baggie.
But the whole region is magnetically dominated, and so
you fend off an lot of cosmic rays.
LARRY NIVEN: Flare is confined.
If you fiddle with the flare, you're going to get ionizing
radiation where you don't want it.
Something to remember.
GREGORY BENFORD: That's right.
The trick in the system is that
the jet is very dangerous.
And it will always work perfectly,
until the second book.

AUDIENCE: So you said the Bowl's going somewhere, and
you said it's hard to stop.
LARRY NIVEN: The Bowl is a spacecraft and it's been
traveling for a long time.
It's visited many, many places.
AUDIENCE: Well, anyway, you said it would be very hard to
stop, or I assume, even turn, and get into an orbit.
So what the heck's going to happen about that?
LARRY NIVEN: There's lots of space out there.
Light years are big.
Light years are big.
You don't need to make a hairpin turn.
And if you did, you could do it around the sun.
AUDIENCE: But even an infinitesimal turn would, I
assume, give you the same problems you described with
turning off the jet.
GREGORY BENFORD: Well, remember you could apply
torque over a very long time.
Yes, as he said, you could make the turns slowly.
It has to.
The knothole is only so big.
But, 747's don't make house calls.

You fly by, you've got time, you send faster ships, you
explore the region, and then, you keep going.
LARRY NIVEN: And launching a spaceship is fairly easy.
You just drop it off the edge, at around
600 miles per second.
AUDIENCE: A pivot from plot to business, for a
moment, if you would.
I'd be interested in your two perspectives as authors on the
changes in the publishing industry,
specifically related to--
I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't buy many of
these in paper form anymore, and I'd be interested in
seeing how this looks from your side of the pen.
LARRY NIVEN: I carry a Kindle.

BRAD TEMPLETON: Can you get Play Store on the Kindle?

GREGORY BENFORD: I don't waste time either.
LARRY NIVEN: I got my Kindle free from Jeff Bezos, at a
three-day party he threw for around 40 of the people, and
their wives and husbands, whom he wanted to meet.
And the Kindle was signed.

That's another thing about collectors, is they want the
print edition, you know, information stored in the
bodies of dead trees, because you can get them signed.
There are ways around that.
I mean David Brin and I reissued a novel of ours,
"Heart of the Comet," and we give away a card that we have
signed that is that card "Heart of the Comet." You can
keep it on your file if you want, but otherwise it's an
electronic edition.
Although there is a Print on Demand.
But what you're talking about is the big war that's going on
in publishing.
And at the moment it's really like the opening chapters of
World War II.
It's all offense, no defense.

We were just doing a signing on the Queen Mary, Saturday
night for the Independent Booksellers of Southern
California, their annual meeting.
And there were several speeches
at the banquet about--
well they were Amazon hate sessions.
I mean it was like a scene from 1984.
Everybody chants about Big Brother.
And at the same time New York publishing was getting
hollered out.
You can tell it by the growing incompetence of the staff who
had been recently hired, when they fired the executives.

No one seems to understand that up ahead in the future,
there's some kind of equilibrium
we're going to approach.
And no one seems to be really thinking forward about that
equilibrium now.
Barnes and Noble is tottering and may collapse, the last big
chain that's across the continent.
The independents are finding niche markets, such as a Books
Inc, one of my favorite bookstores, is actually a
chain about, what, seven or eight stores.
Very good store.
And they make a point of being up on everything and knowing
what's going on.
You walk into a store, they got the book you heard about
today on NPR, or read in the "New York Times."
But how does this all work?
I don't know, except the writers are actually, I think,
in many ways the biggest beneficiaries, because we now
have options.
We can control our work.
I am reissuing my novels selectively.
Although I know I could get publishers to reissue them, I
can reissue them myself.
I can hire the artist.
I hired a copywriter--
a copy editor.
I've got a promotional editor I use.
Even to revisit novels I've written before and prune them
up, and change, or readjust the physics.
I care about that kind of thing.
I'm working on a novel of mine from the from the aughts,
"Cosm," which is actually set at UCI.
And it was a nice chance to satirize other members of my

Some of whom, luckily, are dead.

BRAD TEMPLETON: Coincedence?
GREGORY BENFORD: Some say not.

So we can choose our markets.
We could choose to do print on demand, or just e-Edition.
I've done both.
Larry's starting to reissue his books in this way.
The point is, the books are going to be always available,
at least in digital form, or print on demand.
That's a whole new landscape for a writer.
And for this first time in my career--
our career--
there's a sense of real opening for the writers.
And you may not think about it right away, but there's the
publishers, and the bookstores, and all that, But
they wouldn't have a business without us.
And we're getting some control of how we want
the fields to work.
And that's a good feeling.
LARRY NIVEN: For your sense of proportion, my first novel, I
had to settle for 4% royalties.
GREGORY BENFORD: "World of Ptavvs"?
LARRY NIVEN: Yeah, well I was a novice.
4% royalties.
My agent later argued them into a bigger proportion, but
most people get 10% or 8% royalties.
And you get that after you've been in the field two or three
books deep.

HG Wells used to get 25%, an amazing figure.
He got that, I presume, because he put
some money into it.
He was part of the backing, of the backer.
I'm getting--
my agent is putting out my books as the contracts lapse,
and one by one they're going into electronic print, for
which I get 85%.
My agent keeps the 15% she's entitled to.
This is an amazing change.
GREGORY BENFORD: It feels great to do something better
than HG Wells.

LARRY NIVEN: Absolutely
GREGORY BENFORD: So, to conclude on that, it's a time
of the greatest change since that guy named Gutenberg.
And it will mean an enormous amount particularly to the
vast majority of humanity that has never really
had access to books.
I've been to India a lot, and Africa, and believe me, these
are people who are starved for information, and have been so
for thousands of years.
Can you imagine the civilization that was
information starved forever?
Well read the history books.
That's most of human history.
This is really going to alter humanity.
And I, with my biases, think, look, I come from a small town
in southern Alabama.
Information starved?
I know what we're talking about.
I went to-- my brother and I--
I'm an identical twin--
went to a one room schoolhouse when we were growing up, in a
farm community.
It changes your view of the world.

LARRY NIVEN: That it does.
AUDIENCE: So our species used to build things, that-- you
know we have ruins from millennia ago, and now you're
in front of a room full of people who routinely get woken
up in the middle of the night because our
system needs our help.
So I'm wondering if you see sort of a broad societal trend
towards building smarter objects that need more
LARRY NIVEN: Smarter objects that need more maintenance?
Obama would support that.

GREGORY BENFORD: You mean Steve, or--
LARRY NIVEN: No, I mean jobs.

GREGORY BENFORD: That is an interesting way to look at it.
But the reason is, of course, that builds a
society of smart people.
I mean people who can manage a complex system.
If you're building the pyramids, a Big Dumb Object,
you don't need literate people.

So it's easy to be impressed by gargantuan things.
But Gargantuan Smart Things is qualitatively different.
I wrote a whole book, which in fact I'm going to bring back
in print within a year or so, called "Deep Time." The
subtitle was "How Humanity Communicates Across
Millennia." It's nonfiction about my experience of trying
to design long-term messages in various places, like the
nuclear waste facility in New Mexico, and the Cassini
mission to Saturn.
And one of the things I learned, to my astonishment,
is that there were many museums, and art galleries,
and libraries in the ancient world.
Guess how many survived the collapse of the Roman Empire,
or other empires?
Parts of them were left over.
None of the institutions survived.
So, if you really want a long-term message, in the
ancient past anyway, you should invest in granite.
Carve it deep and leave it in a desert.
AUDIENCE: I'm a big "Ringworld" fan.
And recently computer graphics imaging has, I think, made it
possible to actually make movies out of this.
Not that it might fit in two or three hours, but I just
wondered what you thought of those kinds of ideas.
And, I think, in general the idea of books are wonderful
because you don't need any computer graphics imaging.
You can think of it in your mind.
But now we have the technology to do all these kinds of
movies, and are we making readers dumber by making these
movies with big explosions?
LARRY NIVEN: Are we making readers dumber by showing so
much in a movie?
GREGORY BENFORD: Well we're making moviegoers dumber.

But tell them about the "Ringworld" movie.
LARRY NIVEN: The "Ringworld" movie has suffered over the
decades because I signed some papers I shouldn't have early
in my career.
But we renegotiated a contract a couple years ago and now
that the guy who has the right to has shopped it to MGM.
That's all I know.
The movie is at MGM.
And if [? Mandel ?]
fails to come through with it, I get a
chance to make a movie.
But that won't happen for a little while.
GREGORY BENFORD: But everything you say about
special effects is quite so.
AUDIENCE: You don't really need actors anymore.
GREGORY BENFORD: No, and you don't even need a big budget.
Remember the movie "Moon" made by the son of a famous rock
star for, what was it, a million?
It was some small sum, and it made tens of millions, because
there was a good script.
And it was a smart script.
And the special effects were cheap.
LARRY NIVEN: I'm remembering "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet."
when you had to imagine most of what you were
supposed to be seeing.
GREGORY BENFORD: Hell, you had to imagine
what you were seeing.
I mean, rocket ships, in which the exhaust
rises, as it goes across.
Yeah, well.
I mean, it never occurred to them, apparently, to turn the
camera sideways and just have a rocket ship come down like
this, so the exhaust would appear to be going away from
the rocket.
LARRY NIVEN: Do you know how they got freefall in "2001: A
Space Odyssey"?
GREGORY BENFORD: Yeah they spun the giant hoop.
LARRY NIVEN: They put the astronaut on a line, and then
shot him from underneath so that the line didn't show.
Now he's in freefall.
And it was remarkably convincing.
It really was.

Arthur Clarke gave me a photograph of him walking
through that rotating drum that they use for the interior
of the spaceship.
Do you know the famous establishing shot where the
guy appears to run over the ceiling?
And he did the same thing.
He said there's a film of him doing the same thing.
But I haven't seen it.
But it was funny to see him in this futuristic context, which
now lies in the past, "2001."
AUDIENCE: I like the way they did the special effects for
"Apollo 13" to get the zero gravity.
Back to something you just said.
So on the one hand, we have electronic books, which means
you can reissue things, you can publish things, you make
more money with it, which I think is wonderful by the way.
The downside is, something that you just said, if you
want it to last, put it in granite.
One of the reasons I don't buy electronic books is I don't
want Amazon deciding that, for some reason, I didn't buy
their electronic book, after I've already got it.
You know, I want to keep it.
I want to have my own backup, and my own copies.
GREGORY BENFORD: Well, buy both.
AUDIENCE: Well, it it's in print.
But again, if it's in print, or if it's only
in electronic form.
I can go to the used bookstore, and look forever,
and maybe find it, and maybe not.
Where do you stand on that sort of DRM restrictions--
you know, high price, low price, and mass distribution--
kind of thing?

LARRY NIVEN: I like cheaper books.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, me too.
AUDIENCE: If you keep it up, everybody buys them, right?
So, it's kind of a tradeoff.
LARRY NIVEN: I want my ideas spread.
I don't even mind pirates very much.
I mind them some.
What you bring up is a serious issue.
First, I'm against DRM.
Second, if you really want to keep your electronic books
safe and preserved forever, well you could put them in
orbit where I don't think they can reach them.
But it's always good to have a backup.
I mean, that's what I tell people when they say, what is
it like to be an identical twin.
I say, have a backup.
So I too like physical books.
And I have a few electronic books but I don't
mostly read that way.

But they're crowding me out of my houses,
so there's the downside.
If you can't bear to throw away a book, you're in trouble
They pile up.
GREGORY BENFORD: And thank you for it.
BRAD TEMPLETON: Oh, there are books I've
wanted to throw away.
GREGORY BENFORD: Well, you know, as a conservationist,
you could burn them for heat.

Which further has a benefit that other people will not be
troubled by reading.
BRAD TEMPLETON: So, you've touched on this a little bit,
but I was wondering if you might want to talk a little
bit more about collaboration.
I mean, I think, Larry, you're becoming known as a great
Once, when I was angry at Jerry Pournelle, I told him,
you know Jerry, you write really good books when you
work with Larry.
LARRY NIVEN: I think he was flattered, myself.
I write really good books when I write with Jerry.
BRAD TEMPLETON: No, you do actually.
I think the two of you together do stuff that you
don't do on your own.
So tell me what is about the collaborative process that
makes that happen.
LARRY NIVEN: You learn each other's strengths.
Jerry's, for instance, are with military and politics.
Mine are with aliens, and characters who go crazy.
GREGORY BENFORD: Yeah, that's true.
Crazy characters.
When a heroic character is wading his way through a sea
of troubles, fighting his way toward a goal, that's Jerry.
The character goes nuts, that's me.

GREGORY BENFORD: It says so much about your lives.
LARRY NIVEN: Collaborations are more fun, and more
friendly, than sitting at your typewriter all alone writing.
Of course, as a collaborator you're going to do a lot of
that anyway, because you don't live together in the same
house unless you're man and wife.

Jerry and I live about 25 minutes away from each other.

Greg lives an hour and a half away, maybe two.

But we've got the internet.
When we didn't have the internet, Jerry lived a little
closer and it was easier, but we still had to carry texts
back and forth.
BRAD TEMPLETON: What, are you saying as soon as he got the
internet, he moved further away from you?
LARRY NIVEN: You got the right idea, but I
was the one who moved.
To a bigger house.
Bigger still.
The books were piling up.
We had to move to a bigger house.
GREGORY BENFORD: You're quite right.
We have different strengths.
You know, physicist He's an alien tech--
He's an alien.
LARRY NIVEN: Greg has got the electromagnetic fields that I
don't know very much about it.
GREGORY BENFORD: But it's also true that writing is a lonely
business, and you can advance your ideas
faster by speaking them.
We all know that.
And kicking ideas back and forth generates new ideas at a
much, much faster rate than sitting there staring at a a
cathode ray tube.
Or a stream of some kind.
It's just one of the strengths of human beings.
We are a collaborative species.
That's why we talk so much.
LARRY NIVEN: I do not have the patience to be a scientist.
I knew that fairly early.

GREGORY BENFORD: And there's a deeper thing here.
Modern science fiction, by the way, which invented fandom--
the word and the thing itself, and fanzines, and all that--
came out of the scientific, technical culture.
It has always been marked by a high degree of collaboration.
And that is true in the scientific
and engineering culture.
This is not true in the literary culture.
Collaborations are rare.
It's because they come out of an older,
and different culture.
Scientists inherently collaborate.
By far, the majority of all scientific papers are
A high fraction of SF work is collaboration.
A minority, but far higher than in other fields.
Even in mysteries, there are very few collaborations.
Westerns, romance novels--
they're almost all individual writers.
Not so, in science fiction.
And so it underlies the fact that science fiction is a
cultural expression of the dominant
force in modern times--
science and technology.
Try to imagine the last two centuries without science and
technology, and its rate of change.
Actually try to imagine the last two centuries without the
United States of America, but that's another discussion.

So you ought to realize this is actually part of a very
much larger phenomena that is taking over the world.
We have many competitors in Asia, and so forth.
They're copying our methods.
Some years ago, at the World Science Fiction Convention in
Tokyo, I spoke to the team of six editors from the Chinese
science fiction magazine.
We've never had a science fiction magazine, and they had
six editors.
It's a monthly.
It has circulation of about a third to a half a million
copies, whereas "Analog" sells about 35,000 a month.
And the Chinese government supports this magazine--
subsidizes it-- because they want to invert the process.
You see, the first science fiction magazine was "Amazing
Stories" published by a group of radio magazines.
And it was the anomaly inside there.
And it's the only one that anyone remembers now.
The Chinese want to draw their own people into the culture of
science and technology and the habits of mind, by using
science fiction.
They're inverting--
reverse engineering--
what we did naturally and
spontaneously in the 20th century.
So this has been an important phenomena
going around the world.
And it's the reason there are now science fiction
conventions in India, and other
seemingly unlikely places.
Africa, even.
And it's part of the shaping of human culture that is being
done by you, the technological elite.

BRAD TEMPLETON: So I think we're running
close to the end.
I'll ask one last question, actually, because you two are
both well-known for being specialists in hard science
fiction, by which I like to call realistic science fiction
that actually follows the physics.
And now it's not just necessary to follow physics.
I often say romance novels have excellent physics, and
they barely violate those laws.
They may violate the laws of chemistry, but
not the laws of physics.
GREGORY BENFORD: And of biology.
BRAD TEMPLETON: But what is it that you feel is the great
virtue of hard science fiction?
What is it that makes-- when you sit down to write, why do
you feel that that's what you must write?
LARRY NIVEN: I'm not a fanatic on the subject.
I have written science fiction.
I've written fantasy.
I have written detective fiction.
When I get up the nerve, I write detective science
fiction, and I've got to tell you, it's the hardest work.
I generally write science fiction because that's where
my ideas come from.
I've got no contempt for every other field of fiction.
They will all teach you to read, and reading
teaches you to think.

There was a phenomenon called Laser Books.
Laser Books was going to be science fiction, as produced
by a house that produced mostly romance--
well, all romance novels.
They were going to branch out, going to be science fiction,
going to be the label that sells, rather than the
author's name.

This, as far as I was concerned, was a great way to
train readers to read, and eventually they would grow up
and read my stuff.
As it turned out, the name was what sold anyway.
And I do mean the name of the author.
Robert Gleason, my favorite editor, told me that he was--
he tends to travel among the people who transport the books
to the stores, the distributors.
He told me he was at a bar where they were gathered, and
from the next table he hears, there's only one Laser Book
that sells at all well, and it's by one author.
And his name [INAUDIBLE]

It turned out to be Jerry Pournelle's Laser books were
the only ones who sold well, among Laser.
And Laser bowed out gracefully, returned all
rights, got out of the field, and it was one of those happy
stories, as far as people who think that the author's name
ought to be what sells books best.
BRAD TEMPLETON: All right, well, on that note I'd like to
thank our two guests for a fabulous presentation.