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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.


Economics of Space Settlements, Part II

Previously, I talked about why space settlement, using current technology, would cost too much to ever happen.  But what if the costs were to drop enough, through nanotechnology or some comparable magic wand?

Simple: the price of goods sold by space settlements would be too low to pay back even those new, low costs.  Why?  The same nanotechnology that lowers the costs of space settlement would lower the cost of finding or making those same goods on Earth.

Consider the Niven/Pournelle dream of asteroid mining.  (I cut my teeth on Pournelle’s science fact essays collected in A Step Farther Out.)  All it costs to bring thousands of tons of highly pure iron or nickel to Earth from the asteroid belt are the capital and operational expenses of round-trip travel and smelting.  At current nickel prices, those expenses would have to be less than about $9/lb of delivered nickel to pay off.  For iron, those expenses would have to be closer to $0.10/lb of delivered iron to pay off.  (Remember, using current technology, the expenses would be at least $1000/lb, if not much more).

Let’s assume nanotechnology can lower those expenses 10,000-fold.  It would do so by making both the machines to do the travel and smelting work, and the energy to drive that work, much cheaper than today.  So nanotech-using miners could settle the asteroid belt, ship nickel or iron to Earth, and make a profit, right?

Except for one thing.  Those lower expenses for smelting machinery and the energy to run it would also apply to Earth-based mining.  Reduce the costs of Earth-based mining by, let’s say, just 1000-fold, and iron and nickel deposits that today are too marginal to pay for themselves would become immensely profitable.  For that matter, mining landfills and salvage lots for the iron and nickel in junked appliances and cars would become immensely profitable.  I haven’t run the numbers, but I suspect it would be profitable under those conditions to extract iron at its baseline abundance of 5% in Earth’s crust.

Comparable reasoning would apply to essentially any element or compound.  Regardless of the state of technology, there’s nothing useful to Earth’s economy you could find or make in space you couldn’t find or make more cheaply on Earth.

But, but, strangelets!  Stringlets!  Magnetic monopoles!  Unobtanium!  Yes, there may well be exotic matter out there, but no one’s going to spend a large sum of money hunting for it.  What economic value would it have?  And if it had any, would it be cheaper to substitute for it using terrestrial materials?  The answers very much seem to be “none” and “yes,” respectively.

So, Raymund, there will never be human settlements in space?

I never said that.

But you spent the last two posts stating that human space settlements make no economic sense and never will.

True.  But that doesn’t mean human space settlements will never happen.  I’ll get into the reasons why they might happen in my next post.