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INTRODUCTIONS to works of fiction are not common, but Tor Books editor Bob Gleason says they should be. In any event, he wanted one for this book. "Tell them how you came to write it," he said. That's like asking how I came to be a science-fiction writer.

I don't remember exactly when I began to read science fiction, but I do recall taking the streetcar—they had electric streetcars in Memphis, back before the gas companies and auto makers bribed the cities into tearing out the tracks and replacing quiet and efficient and wonderful electric street railways with noisy, smelly buses—to the downtown newsstands to buy Astounding Science Fiction when it came out each month. There may have been other science fiction magazines, but I don't remember reading any of them. Astounding was rare enough. I had to get there on the right day, because they only got five copies of Astounding each month at the newsstand at Main and Madison, and I'm not sure anyone else got any at all. You could buy The Shadow, and Doc Savage, in the drugstore near the fair grounds where I changed street cars, but I never saw Astounding anywhere but downtown.

Subscribing was out of the question. I could save up a quarter each month, and since I combined my newsstand expedition with a trip to the Memphis Public Library I could always get carfare (a nickel each way as I recall) from my parents, but there was no way I was going to get several dollars, and if I had the money there wasn't any way to send it. It probably wasn't an actual crime to send currency through the mails, but we were warned so strongly against it that it might as well have been. In those days few crimes were federal, but we all knew that anything having to do with the mail would bring in G-men. I was particularly conscious of this because for a while we had lived in the house on Ranier Street where the FBI captured Machinegun Kelly.

He's been forgotten now, but at one time Machinegun Kelly was as well known as Dillinger, and when the FBI burst into the house and confronted him he said, "Don't shoot, G-men!"; the first use of that term. I always pretended to know more about that than I did. I think I even convinced myself I'd heard him say, "Don't shoot, G-men!" Of course he was captured years before we moved into the house. That was probably my first venture into fiction writing: I told stories about the capture of Machinegun Kelly to anyone who would listen.

I read every issue of Astounding, and later I found some back issues in used book stores. They had wonderful covers. That era is now known as the Golden Age of science fiction. Most of the stories were long on 'sense of wonder' and short on science, and I got some pretty odd notions before I got to high school. Then, fortunately, Brother Henry, the physics teacher at Christian Brothers College (which despite the name was a high school) was willing to explain the difference between "real science" (what was already possible but very difficult, like rockets to the Moon), far-out science (things we couldn't do yet but probably would learn to, like thinking-machine computers, and wrist radios, and ray guns), and impossible stuff like faster than light travel; but in fact he was wise enough to keep the "impossible" list pretty short. Brother Henry didn't much care for science fiction himself, but he was willing to put up with it since it got me asking questions. Anything that would interest students in real science . . .

I particularly liked Robert Heinlein's stories. So did Brother Henry, because in those days nearly everything in Heinlein's stories was "real science"; but that didn't keep them from having plenty of "sense of wonder." His matter of fact stories about space travel, settlements on the moon and Mars, space stations, made it all come alive. For me space travel wasn't a matter of if, but how and when; and the sooner the better. I always knew I'd live to see the first man walk on the moon. I did, too, and although it seems a dreadfully long time since the last Apollo mission, I don't think I have seen the last man on the moon. We'll go back, and on, and beyond, and many of those who made it happen got started in their work by being inspired by Robert Heinlein.

I found Robert A. Heinlein in back issues of Astounding, and also in The Saturday Evening Post, and I read everything of his I could find. I was completely hooked on his "juveniles": Space Cadet; Red Planet; Starman Jones; Between Planets; Farmer in the Sky. Wonderful stories, and the only thing juvenile about them was that he took the trouble to explain what was happening. Robert once told me that young people want to know how things work, and you can tell them more in a "juvenile" than you can in an adult novel. In any event, I devoured everything of his I could find, through high school, the army, college, and I couldn't have cared less that many were "juveniles." They were wonderful.

I met Robert Heinlein years later, and through some kind of rare magic we became instant friends. We corresponded for a decade. In those days I was an engineering psychologist, operations research specialist, and systems engineer in aerospace. Most of my work was military aerospace, but I did get to work on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. We were helping to make the dream come true!

I went from there to a professorship, and then into political management and city government. Robert visited me when I was working for Mayor Sam Yorty. "You probably don't know this," he said, "but my political career ended when Yorty beat me for the Democratic nomination to the State Assembly . . . ."

When I finally decided to get out of politics, academia, and the aerospace industry and try my hand at writing, Mr. Heinlein was enormously helpful. Years later, when I was an established writer, I asked him how I could pay him back.

"You can't," he said. "You don't pay back, you pay forward." I never forgot that, just as I never forgot the wonderful things his "juvenile" stories did for me.

When Larry Niven and I set out to write The Mote in God's Eye (which Bob Gleason bought and edited back when he was at Simon and Schuster/Pocket Books) we tried to write the kind of story we had wanted to read when we were first discovering science fiction. Niven is younger than I am, and discovered science fiction somewhat later than I did, well after the Golden Age was over, but we were influenced by many of the same stories.

When I became president of the Science Fiction Writers of America there were fewer than twenty science-fiction writers making enough to live on from their writing, and some of them had day jobs even so. Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson had no income but writing. Niven probably made enough to scrape up a living from his writing, but thanks to a fortunate choice of grandparents didn't have to. James Gunn was a professor at the University of Kansas. Cliff Simak edited a small town newspaper. Isaac Asimov turned out books of science fact, but hadn't written any science fiction in years. The times were lean, but I was lucky enough to get in just at the beginning of a new boom. Suddenly science fiction was in demand, and while publishers weren't paying very much, they were buying all the science fiction they could get.

That presented a problem. In order to make a living at writing I had to write a lot; and writing is hard work. Actually, writing wasn't so bad: it was rewriting, particularly retyping an entire page in order to correct half a dozen sentences. Typing neatly involved correction fluid, carbon paper, fussing with margins; a lot of work, most of which I hated. I wasn't anything like the first to discover that, but again I was lucky: Just as it became clear that writing would be my next (and final) career, everything changed.

Somewhere in the course of my career in political management I met a onetime intelligence agent named Dan Mac Lean. (That's not the way his name is spelled in most legal documents, but it's the way he preferred.) Mac Lean was arguably mad; indeed, when I later wrote articles about small computers, I often included the observations of "my mad friend," a designation I stole shamelessly from the early work of the late Gary Edmundson, because it fit Dan so well.

Mac Lean knew a little about everything, as well as a lot about anything he became really interested in; and when some then obscure companies began to offer kits for building small home computers, Dan Mac Lean was one of the first to acquire one. He soon learned just about all there was to know about them.

His home computer didn't seem very useful to me, but Mac Lean insisted: These little machines were going to change the world. He was right, of course. Within months, two Harvard dropouts named Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote a BASIC language program for the first of the home computers, and not long after came Electric Pencil. Pencil wasn't the first "word processing" program; for years there had been specialized programs that let you write on punched cards or magnetic tape, but those only ran on large and very expensive systems. Electric Pencil was the first such program to work with small home computers; and I fell in love with it the first time Mac Lean showed it to me.

The potential was awesome: here was a way to turn out text fast, and rewrite without retyping an entire page. The instant I saw that, I had to have one. Unfortunately, while the machines were cheap compared to commercial word processors and office machines, the cost was enormous. A professional quality system for writing books cost $12,000. Mac Lean insisted it was a good investment, and eventually convinced me; and with Dan Mac Lean's help I got into the computer era. Ezekial—that's the way I spelled his name—had a Z-80 chip, two 8-inch floppy disk drives, and a Diablo "daisy-wheel" printer, and if you want to see him he's on display in the Smithsonian Museum. Go to the exhibit on History of Communications and Computing in the Museum of American History.

After I bought Ezekial I needed a way to convince the Internal Revenue Service that it was neither frivolous nor mad to use a computer to write books—no one had ever done that, back then— so I wrote a couple of articles about writing with computers and sold them to BYTE. So far as I was concerned that was that, but Mac Lean thought better. "I can't write. You can write. I can tinker," he said. "You do a regular column for BYTE. We'll get lots of free software, I'll play with it, you write it up, and we'll have a lot of fun." As luck would have it, BYTE Magazine had an opening.

It worked that way for a couple of years; but of course, since I had to confer with Mac Lean about the computer columns, I spent a lot of time with him—he was as interesting a person to be with as I have ever known—and that inevitably led to discussing my stories.

One of those stories was Starswarm. I don't know precisely how I got the idea of a boy who grew up with a computer in his head meeting a living creature that thought like a computer, but I did, and pretty soon Mac Lean was speculating about how that might work. He still couldn't write—I guess he tried from time to time, but he generally didn't finish anything—but he liked talking to writers, and he'd generate about a million ideas an hour. The real problem was making notes fast enough, because once he'd talked about something he forgot it completely. I suppose that's one reason he didn't write. He thought too fast.

Mac Lean had been in intelligence work—to this day no one is sure which of his stories were made up and which were real, although I have since found out that some of his most unbelievable stories were strictly true—and one residual of his former career was a reluctance to have any patterns in his life. Starswarm was born over coffee in dozens of small restaurants all over Los Angeles, and the first few chapters were written so Mac Lean could read them. He loved the story. And shortly after that he found he had cancer, and a few months later he was dead.

I hadn't known I could miss someone so much. It wasn't just sentiment. The small computer industry was taking off like a rocket, and keeping up with it was nearly impossible even with Mac Lean's help; without him it took nearly all the time I had. I also had book contracts, while Starswarm was only an unsold idea. When I finally found time to look at Starswarm again, it didn't seem the same without Dan to talk it over with; so for years it sat in my files until one day I decided I'd been in a funk long enough and it was time to finish it.

And that's how I came to write Starswarm, which owes a lot to Robert Heinlein for getting me started reading science fiction; to Brother Henry of the Christian Brothers, who encouraged me to learn science; Robert Heinlein again, who helped me a lot in becoming a science-fiction writer; and even more to Dan Mac Lean, who got me into small computers and helped me understand them, and got me to thinking about how a living creature might think like a computer and what that might mean.

It's mushy sentimentality to say I hope they're around somewhere enjoying this novel; after all, they've probably got more important assignments. But I still wish it.

Jerry Pournelle
Hollywood, 1997

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