In Memoriam: Jerry Pournelle

Some people you might never meet in person, but you get a strong sense of who they are from their writing. Sf writer, computer enthusiast, and technology strategist Jerry Pournelle, who died last week at the age of 84, was one of those.

You’ve probably heard of his first collaboration with Larry Niven, the 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye. It’s probably the best novel to not win either the Hugo or Nebula (beaten for both by LeGuin’s The Dispossessed). Don’t take my word for it, Robert Heinlein called it “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.” (And if you find Robert Heinlein’s praise a strike against it, both my blog and my sf are probably not for you). Having first read Mote after reading almost everything Niven had written to that point in my life, Pournelle’s distinctive worldview was quite clear. Sf had featured galactic emperors before, but in a “once upon a time” fashion, obscured from our present era by mythic epochs. Pournelle’s galactic empire emerged quite clearly from an alliance between the US and the USSR’s combined spacefleet (!) and a monarchial human colony world. And not only was it a real galactic empire, but a high church Christianity was its state religion! Definitely against the grain of most ’70s sf, with its rational computers governing spandex-clad, hedonistic atheists.

Other aspects of the Niven-Pournelle collaborations that have a strong (to me) Pournelle fingerprint are the identity of the virtuous pagan in Inferno, the techno-feudalism of Oath of Fealty, and the battle to save high-tech civilization in Lucifer’s Hammer.

He also wrote solo novels and stories in the CoDominion/galactic emperor setting of Mote, edited the There Will Be War series (being republished and continued by Castalia House), blogged about computers and politics, and a lot more. Whatever the topic, you could tell Pournelle had wrapped his mind around it and had something important to say.

But the single most distinctively Pournelle thing I ever read isn’t sf at all. It’s A Step Farther Out, a collection of “essays on technology, civilization, and saving the world” that mostly appeared in Galaxy magazine during the editorship of Jim Baen during the ’70s.

For those who weren’t there or don’t remember, the ’70s were much like today–an era when the elites proclaimed that the good times (for the 99%, that is) were over, when the most sensible solution to energy shortage, nuclear power, was demonized by facile word-flingers in the pay of anti-American propaganda machines; when we were told that only massive economic redistribution (again, from the upper parts of the 99%, not the elites, to the world’s impoverished billions) could stave off catastrophe.

Pournelle demolished the doom-and-gloom narrative in about a hundred pages.

Then he pointed out how we could get to space, and how we could live once we got there.

While I’m not convinced by the asteroid mining “cash on the barrel” arguments for space settlement, I still think space settlement is utterly possible. Pournelle’s essays are a major reason why… and a major reason my blood boils when I see the self-centered incompetence and corruption of the Western worlds’ ruling class.

I’m pretty sure Pournelle’s blood boiled at that too.