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Paul Chafe
conducted by Toni Weisskopf
 
April 2006

Paul Chafe's first fiction sales were to Larry Niven for the Man-Kzin wars series, not your ordinary career path. Later stories and nonfiction about the science in those stories were sold to me for both Cosmic Tales volumes. Paul was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1965 and is pursuing graduate studies in Electrical Engineering at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, working on computer vision systems. He is an infantry officer in the Canadian forces Reserve, has served with four regiments, and is currently in training. When he isn't writing or blowing things up, he devotes his spare time to flying sailplanes, parachuting, cycling and travel. He has one son, Christian, who is 13.

Paul got his start reading SF early. "I've been reading science fiction since age eight, starting with a battered old copy of Tom Swift and his Giant Robot that my mom picked up at a jumble sale. No, I think even before Tom Swift I read a copy of Ruthven Todd's Space Cat that happened to be kicking around in my third grade classroom. The first non-children's story science fiction I read was Isaac Asimov's collection, The Rest of the Robots, which is actually the sequel to I, Robot, and I would have been about ten at the time. Again it was my mom who introduced me to it. She was a big science fiction fan herself and so she knew what to get me started with. After that I was hooked. I used to go over to the college where my father worked, they had a subscription to Analog there, and I would go and read through all the back issues every day after school.

"I started writing when I was ten, and my first story was science fiction. As a teen I devoured everything by the old masters--Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Arthur Clarke, Poul Anderson and so on, and one day a friend suggested I read Larry Niven's Ringworld." And that, of course, led directly to his first professional sale to Larry in 1995 for Man-Kzin Wars VII.

For Paul, "The best perk of all is going into the bookstore and seeing my name on the cover up there on the shelf. To be able to write in Larry Niven's Known Space, having been a such a huge fan of the series when I was younger, is a tremendous privilege. In Man-Kzin Wars IX I'm on the cover not only with Larry but with Poul Anderson and Hal Colebatch. Larry and Poul are giants in the field, and Hal is one of the best, and certainly the most prolific, of the Man-Kzin Wars writers, so to be on that cover in such company is really great."

Paul, like most writers, doesn't like to be asked to pick a favorite character. "Hmmm, that's almost like asking someone to pick their favorite child. I like all my characters a lot, one of the best things about writing is you get to create all these great characters. However, I think in Destiny's Forge my favorite has to be Pouncer, the Patriarch's son who has to flee for his life when his father is deposed and then reclaim his throne. The book really is his story, and you see him struggle with self-doubt and destiny and figure out his path. He earns his place in the world, which is all any of us can hope to do. I also really like Ftzaal-Tzaatz, who is kind of Pouncer's mirror image, his adversary in the book. He's a very dark character, very dangerous, but still possessed of his own kind of honor. Then there's Trina Cherenkova, who carries an early version of the Teela Brown luck gene, this young waif caught up in things far bigger than she is who has to figure that out. They're all special characters, and I could go on, but I won't."

It's easier for Paul to pick favorite authors. "I mostly read nonfiction. I like Richard Dawkins for his deep insight into the wonders of evolution and his passionate advocacy of it. He shows us how the natural world is far more miraculous than any human-imagined deity could ever be. I like Gwynne Dyer, for his equally deep insight into international affairs. He's always there in the middle of the latest crisis saying ‘Look, don't panic, this isn't going to end the world.'  I like Stephen Pinker, who has a lot to say about why it is that people are the way they are. Now that you've asked the question, I realize that a lot of the thought that went into Destiny's Forge actually comes from these three, and a bunch more like them, in terms of how the whole world works in the book. In terms of fiction, my favorite book is probably Watership Down, by Richard Adams."

Paul has a fairly active lifestyle, to put it mildly, so his work habits are not what you could call regular. "Left to my own devices I write best from about midnight to four in the morning, but I'm rarely left to my own devices. I write wherever and whenever time and a keyboard come together, internet cafes in airports, downtime in the command post on military exercises, the houses of friend's and relatives, hotel rooms, on planes and trains on a laptop. I keep a copy of my latest work online so I can download it wherever I am, and nowadays I carry a jump drive too." It's good for an SF author to utilize current technology!

But it's pure science that Paul turns to when asked what advance he'd most like to see in his lifetime. "I'd love to see the reconciliation of quantum physics and relativity. I'm sure that will come with the solution to the problem of dark matter and dark energy, the source of the Big Bang and a lot of other interesting answers." But Paul is practical, too. "Even more than that though, I'd love to see the general public gain a real understanding of the science we already have. We have this tremendous acceleration in the rate-of-gain of knowledge, where we've learned more in the last ten years than we have in the previous hundred, where we've really got answers, at least in rough outline, to all of the big questions humanity has been asking for centuries, and yet people seem to be largely unaware of a lot of it. If every child came out of grade eight with a real understanding of basic statistics and the scientific method I think we'd have a much better world in a lot of ways."

Paul turns back to technology when asked what one incident in all of history to he'd like to watch as a spectator. "Just one?  Perhaps watching the first hominid actually build a fire on purpose and cook something with it--humanity's first use of an energy source other than muscle power. What a long way we've come since then!"

Since the bulk of Paul's stories have been set in Larry Niven's universe, I wondered how had writing in another author's universe influenced him. "Writing in Known Space is a tremendous privilege, and so the first responsibility, as Larry Niven puts it, is to respect the playground equipment. That means following the assumptions that Larry, and every other author in the series, has put into place beforehand. At the same time there's always new territory to explore. One of my favorite moments as a writer was reading Larry's story "Fly-By-Night," which includes a Jotok named Paradoxical. The Jotoki are five-armed aliens that Don Kingsbury invented in "The Survivor," and they have five semi-independent sub-brains. I tell the story of the Kzinti-Jotoki first contact in "Jotok," and I had to decide how how Jotoki names worked, because in "The Survivor" they all have Kzinti-gifted slave names. I decided each sub brain would get a single syllable name, and all give would be strung together to be the name of the creature. That's never explained in the story, you just get my Jotok character's name, Joyaselatak. You can imagine my pleasure when, in "Fly-By-Night," Paradoxical explains to Beowulf Shaeffer how Jotoki names work, and his explanation is exactly what I've just described. I never mentioned it to Larry, he just picked it up by osmosis from the story, and it's a tremendous compliment to have him use my idea. That's a testament to how good he is both as a reader and a writer, and it shows how important good background work is. Even if it's never mentioned directly in the story, a sharp reader will pick it up, even subconsciously, and it gives a story a depth and authenticity that otherwise just wouldn't be there."

So, too, I wondered how Paul's experience as an army officer and working scientist influenced this novel. "The army officer influence shows up in the battle scenes in Destiny's Forge. I understand how troops move over ground, I know what's going through a leader's mind as a battle develops--you have to make decisions fast, with not enough information and under extreme stress. They don't have to be the best possible decisions but they have to be damn good ones, and once you've made them there's no turning back. So I think that experience shows up in the writing and gives the reader an authentic feel for the realities of combat and command.

"The scientist influence comes into the attention given to technical details--for instance I built a three-dimensional star map of every system in Known Space, so the time/distance factors are all correct when travelling from star to star. Niven's hyperdrive and his reactionless thrusters are pure science fiction, in that they violate physics as we know it. That's necessary if you're going to have a certain kind of interstellar civilization with fast star travel, but I put a lot of thought into figuring out how they might work, consistent with the information we have about them. That's important for understanding how much energy and power a ship can command, which tells you what the range of a ship might be, or how ships maneuver in combat, or just to get themselves up and down from planets. There's a fairly detailed treatment of that on the Destiny's Forge website (http://destinysforge.com). I hasten to point out that it's not science, just internally consistent speculation, but it's still interesting and it works to lend authenticity to the story.

"Being a father--actually being both a son and a father--is probably the most important influence on the story, far more so than being a scientist or a soldier. A lot happens in the book, but the central theme is the coming-of-age of Pouncer, who is the heir to the Kzinti Patriarchy. His own father is assassinated, and so he's forced to become a fugitive and make his own way in the world. My own father was a very unique man and his story, if not quite rags to riches, is certainly from the son of a poor fisherman to a successful and respected professional. He was quiet and wise, and he never seemed to be anything out of the ordinary to me, but he could speak seven languages and his work took him to every continent, so as I got older I began to understand that not everyone's dad was like that. You can see that in Pouncer in the story, as he wonders how he can ever live up to the example his father is offering, but then as he comes into his own he does manage that. Then when he becomes a father himself you can see that, even as life calls him out to do these great things, at heart he really just wants to be home with his own children. That comes straight from my own heart. However much I love to travel and challenge myself out there in the world, the most important thing I can do is just go fly a kite with my son, and when I look back at my father, I can see the same thing was true of him. The best success I can hope for in life is just to give my son the same wisdom my dad gave me, not really through any direct teaching, just by being there and living it."

For more information please go to:
http://paulchafe.com
and
http://destinysforge.com

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