OUR 21ST CENTURY WRITERS: Part I
by Allen Varney
[From The Texas SF Inquirer, December 1986]
This year, 2026, science fiction is 100 years old. A century ago Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories magazine, and that humble start in 1926 began the procession of great authors who have enriched the 20th and 21st centuries.
As the most popular form of literature in this new millennium, sf has produced its share of tourist landmarks:
But these well-known sightseeing stops could not capture the essence of modern sf writing, an essence deeply rooted in the evolution of the form over the past five decades. Searching for that essence, to satisfy my own curiosity and that of the Texas SF Inquirer's millions of readers, I visited some less accessible havens of modern science fiction production, the homes of 2026's most successful authors.
Part I: California Recovery Zone, 6/12/26
Southern California, post-Firequake, post-Medfly, post-Famine, post-Disney, is a desolate land. Travel is difficult. Only the Inquirer's bottomless expense account paid my extensive urbway tolls, bribes, and desalination taxes. Only the balloon tires on my hired urbmobile negotiated the broken ferrocrete of North Los Angeles, while a Chicano urchin guided the stealthy approach to my goal.
Stealth proved necessary, as gangs of wild dogs and wilder teenagers rove the devastated landscape. Concealed in the bombed- out shell of a relief station, I observed the gangs' careful respect for the red sidewalks surrounding a large, open lot. Signs posted every few yards beyond the sidewalks gave clear warnings in six languages: IF YOU CROSS THIS BOUNDARY, YOU WILL DIE. In the center of that empty area, protected by electrified barbed-wire fences and a traditional moat, lay the green lushness of Heinlein Colony.
Near the sidewalks it was safer, and I soon pulled up to the stone-and-steel gate. There, beneath the machine-gun towers, the guards checked me in and led the way along the carefully- circumscribed path across the minefields. Passing beneath the arch of the second checkpoint, with the colony's motto (FREEDOM FIRST, EVERYTHING ELSE FOLLOWS) carved in stone letters, we entered the happy enclave.
Beneath the statue of Robert Heinlein I was greeted by a colony rep, checked for weapons, and instructed in etiquette toward citizens. All the while, I goggled at the lavish greenery and evident prosperity of this suburban neighborhood. Along its wide sidewalks walked hundreds of people. A great stream of happy white faces -- and a few black face, too, here and there, and at least one Hispanic that I saw. About one in ten wore the handsome badge denoting citizenship, and carried the mandatory sidearm required of all (and only) citizens.
In a small park beyond the entrance I passed a statue of one of the colony's founding fathers, Larry Niven. The famous author does not actually reside here, but frequently visits from nearby Tarzana, which he owns.
Meeting the First Citizen
The ever-influential Inquirer press card brought me to the plush office of the Colony's "first citizen." Now totally deaf, Jerry Pournelle is otherwise incredibly hale for his 93 years. Clad in his trademark khaki uniform, he strutted from behind his mahogany desk with the vigor of a 40-year-old.
"Megavitamins," he responded to my written question. "And prosthetics didn't hurt either. I could practically give you a road map of the magnesium alloy implants in my skeleton. That's just one example of how technology is making life better for the good folks in this colony," he continued, leading me out for a briskly-paced tour.
Brimming with vitality and still quite prolific, Pournelle donates all income from his fabulously successful books to the colony. "See that?" he shouts, indicating a new hydroponics greenhouse. "The newest John Christian Falkenberg novel -- my 20th, thank you -- paid for that."
Walking the colony's broad, clean, tree-lined streets, the multiple-Hugo-winning author frequently pointed out new urbmobiles, houses, private fusion generators made possible by his work. As we walked, he absently slapped at the holster on his hip, which held the biggest, shiniest gun in the entire colony.
Though his enthusiasm is infectious, it's hard keeping up with Pournelle. One moment he is showing the Armory, the largest and most heavily guarded building in the complex -- "Every citizen has a key, and every citizen knows how to use every weapon in there, when and if the time comes."
The next instant, he is off to show the new train depot. "We're not only getting the trains to run on time, we're building them," he laughs. I soon found that deafness doesn't impede the great man in any practical way. "My friends say they can't even tell the difference," he says proudly.
Treats Citizenship Seriously
Not an official administrator of Heinlein Colony ("I'd be a disaster actually supervising people"), Jerry Pournelle is more a spiritual advisor, "like the Medicis in Renaissance Italy." His younger son is officially the leader. But Jerry is intimately involved in every major decision, and the official administrators (fellow sf writers David Drake, Dean Ing, Janet Morris, others) look to him as an elder statesman.
"I treat citizenship seriously," he says without preamble. "A lot of college professors and liberals in the old days didn't, and that's one reason we got where we are now. You look at those volunteer workers out there," pointing to half a dozen laborers in a vegetable field outside the walls.
"They're working for their citizenship. Here, it's not automatic; you don't get it unless you want it bad. It may take them years hoeing those weeds, and at damned low wages too. Most of them give up and leave, but a few hang in there. And when they get that badge and that weapon, they'll appreciate them. Our citizens never miss an election, and seldom even a town meeting. How many other communities can say that?
"We've [the administrative committee] talked and talked about the best way to allow citizenship," he continues. "Military service. Neighborhood service. Examination. Labor. Every decade or so we even throw out all the citizenship rosters and start from scratch. We high mucky-mucks have to earn it all over again, like everyone else.
"And you know what? No matter how we decide to judge it, no matter which way we think is best to earn citizenship, all of the administrators earn it every time, without fail. It's remarkable. I've earned my citizenship five times. I'm prouder of that than of anything else, I think, except my family."
The spry nonagenarian's own clear thought and immense likability made me want to talk with the other community leaders. "They're away," he said with a slight smile. "Hunting."
"Hunting?" I said -- or rather, wrote.
"Let's just say this area has the lowest crime rate in the entire nation, when it once had one of the highest. Criminals have learned that our citizens are willing to protect their security and property." As though punctuating his statement, a fusillade of rifle shots sounded beyond the complex walls. Pournelle didn't hear the shots, but he smiled just the same.
Benefits of Progress
We headed back to the central office at the same brisk pace, stopping off at Pournelle's own magnificent home, "Chaos Manor." Here he showed me his cluttered, book-lined office, including four entire shelves of his own bestselling work. A state-of-the- art personal computer sat on his desk.
"This does my columns," Pournelle boasted, referring to the computer columns he contributes regularly to BYTE, the oldest surviving computer magazine. Almost since the magazine's inception in the late 1970s, Pournelle has filled several pages of every issue with reports, reviews, gossip, and speculation about the industry. "Good money, good contacts, people like it."
Text scrolled across the computer's screen. "The great thing now is that I don't have to do the work any more," the ageless writer explained. "My assistants phone news and reports onto my answering machine. The computer knows how to play them back and write them up. Then the program writes up the column, using my own style. I don't even have to pay attention now. And you know, my friends say they can't tell the difference," he said, beaming.
Back at his office, as evening fell, he talked of his fiction. "I'm like every other writer, especially the ones here: We just want to reach the widest possible audience and communicate our views. Obviously, we've done a good job. I sometimes flatter myself that our work helped bring about what happened here in California."
"How?" I wrote.
"Well, you know, we always wrote about the collapse of the old, liberal, intellectual-ridden society. We showed that collapse might not be such a bad thing. It may be that we helped persuade our audience -- the tough, resourceful types -- that the old society wasn't much worth fighting for. Let it go, then fight for a newer, more effective government.
"That's the way it worked out, anyway," he finished, leaning back on a plush couch. His still-handsome features were bathed in the lambent glow of minor building fires beyond the colony wall.
Since the other administrators hadn't yet returned from their hunting expedition, I expressed regret at not being able to meet them. "Don't worry about that," said the great patriarch. "They all think like me. If they didn't, they'd be asked to go off and start their own colony. That's just fair."
But there was still one person to meet. Apparently unsettled by my request, Pournelle reluctantly assented. "You know, if this weren't for the Inquirer, and if you weren't such a brilliantly talented and eminently fair reporter," he said, "you'd be sent out the gate right now. Very few are allowed to meet the Master nowadays."
Solemnly he and a couple of armed guards escorted me to a sub- basement beneath his office. Tendrils of water vapor curled beneath a vault door.
Pournelle cautioned against touching anything or smoking. "You won't actually be able to talk to him. His sensory apparatus has malfunctioned. Our fault, we bought foreign models. Before his hearing went, we asked how he was doing. He said don't bother replacing the senses; it's just the way he likes it now."
A few quick passwords and we were inside. There, almost lost amid a bank of life-support machines, diagnostic consoles, and freezer units, lay a long plexiglass tube rimed with frost. In it lay the man himself: Heinlein.
Pournelle nodded to a technician in a white lab coat. The tech stooped near a speaker hookup, from which a stream of spoken words poured without interruption.
"He's dictating his new novel," Pournelle whispered reverently. "His seventy-eighth. I read the first thousand pages in manuscript last week. I was raised in a time when men were taught not to cry, but I shed real tears reading it. Be sure to tell your readers: With this book, the old Heinlein is back. This time we mean it."
A Fond Farewell
While escorting me out, Pournelle himself raised the issue of the notorious protests against Heinlein Colony, and his cheerful features, for once, turned grim.
"You'd think people could have read the signs all around this place. I suppose they thought we don't mean it. Those people were not our readers, obviously. They didn't know about fighting for one's beliefs and security.
"No, I think those protesters, if they read at all, were the college types who say a work has to be depressing in order to be good. Their view of life is that inevitably you get stepped on. That's just not true; I don't see why they think it is. Life certainly hasn't stepped on me!" As another coincidental punctuation mark, machine-guns fired in the night. Pournelle's broad smile, never long away, returned.
I was taken back to the gate by a worker still a year away from citizenship. He looked tanned, strong, healthy, happy. His eyes held the wide, distant, slightly glazed expression of far sight. "This is a great place," he said. "Someday I hope everybody will live this way. I think the administrators are working on it, too. To hear them talk, you have to wonder why everyone doesn't start living this way."
He left me at my urbmobile, the gates closed, and he went to calm the guard dogs. As I drove away from that happy place, I too wondered why everyone doesn't live that way. But I had further journeys to make before I could return, and more great 21st-century writers to visit.