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RIP, Jerry Pournelle  


10 September 2017, 17:05

Sci-fi author and author of so much more, Jerry Pournelle, died recently.

I’m going to quote other people first, because I never knew Pournelle except from a distance, mediated through his collaborations with others and what other people told me about him.

Important stuff first: via Instapundit, a variety of Pournelle-related titles will be free this week. Right now, the kindle version of There Will be War is free. I grabbed me some of that.

Next, Sarah Hoyt, another sci-fi/fantasy/other author, writes of her experience with Pournelle.

There is the sense that a giant has fallen, and that the world has stopped in stunned silence, listening at nothing where there used to be so much.

Jerry is probably not the last of the giants, but the last of the giants for a long time.

In a field, that like all artistic fields is driven in part by talent and craft, and in part by uniqueness of vision, he stood apart and beyond most of us, work-a-day authors, in a league with Robert A. Heinlein, or very close to him.

In fact, that to me was Jerry’s characteristic: in an age riven by deep political divisions, he refused to draw a political line, and associated with people on both sides of the spectrum, treating all as humans and worthy – or not worthy – of his attention. (Yes, I do remember a few comments of “we’re done here” in answer to less-than-stellar arguments.) If anyone drew a political color line, it was not Jerry. In fact, he urged me more than once to be forgiving of things that colleagues on the left side of the spectrum said while in the heat of battle. He’d point out the good things they’d said – or done, or written – and find excuses for their more intemperate behavior.

In fact, when he disagreed with me – and we had one or two points of contention – he accorded me the same leeway and sometimes, after I’d sent him an apology, he’d say “Of course I’m not mad at you. You’re allowed to disagree.” Or words to that effect.

That combination of strong opinions and gracious ability not to take disagreement personally made Jerry a rare creature in science fiction in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

It also made his work stronger, I believe. That and his ability to see the potential in new technologies, instead of being resistant to them.

Amusingly, the books I know him from have little to do with new tech. It has to do with some more core ideas.

MORE: Glenn Reynolds in USA Today on Pournelle.

But Pournelle didn’t just write fiction. His 1970 book with Stefan Possony, The Strategy of Technology, outlined a strategy for winning the Cold War (with among other things, an emphasis on strategic missile defense) that was largely followed, and successfully, by the Reagan administration. He was a driving force behind the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy in the 1980s that helped lay the groundwork for today’s booming civilian space launch industry. And, for me, his wide-ranging columns in Galaxy Magazine, back when it was edited by star editor James Baen, were particularly influential.

Some people found such claims outlandish in the 1970s, but we’re pretty much living in Pournelle’s world now. The 1970s “Energy Crisis” and its turn-of-the-millennium equivalent, “Peak Oil,” have been undone by technological advances in the form of fracking. Private companies are launching rockets into space at a furious rate — Elon Musk’s SpaceX is on track to launch more rockets than Russia this year — and there are even private companies (companies, plural) working on asteroid mining.

I am a bit younger, so I got to “enjoy” the “NUCLEAR WAR IS COMING OMG” meltdown of the 80s, to try to avoid the obvious economic boom which undermined the 1970s limitation narrative.


I’ve read Pournelle’s PC-[as in computer]-related writings, but the novels I’ve read by him were actually co-authored with Larry Niven. Let me address two of them.

First is Niven & Pournelle’s Inferno. I’ve owned three different paperback versions of this book, but I think only one survives…somewhere… in my house.

When I was in high school, somebody recommended Niven to me as an author. So I went to a used bookstore in Raleigh, and bought up all the Niven-titled books, including a couple he co-authored with Pournelle. Inferno caught my eye, because I had been forced to read Dante’s Inferno for school, and I was underwhelmed at the time. But I liked the concept of a modern version of hell.

In college, I wrote my final paper for a literature class on the book. The paper is here.

I would re-write this paper differently now. After having becoming a type of professional writer myself (specializing in a very niche industry), I can see a lot of things I would edit. But that’s what 20+ years of experience gives you.

I had a great time having the book & a copy of Dante open, trying to read in parallel.

Yeah, the Niven & Pournelle work is a lot easier for a modern reader.

(Let’s forget their sequel written decades later… it was not all that good, and I’ll let that lie for right now.)

What was funny to me is that the lit class I took was on Science Fiction literature, and my prof was a bit taken aback hearing what I planned on writing on. He considered Niven&Pournelle’s Inferno to be a fantasy novel. So he asked me to write a section arguing as to why the work was science fiction.

Here is a bit of what I had to write:

Aside: Is Inferno Science Fiction?

I have several responses to this:

1. The commercial: On my Pocket Books edition, I see “Science Fiction” on the spine. So it’s science fiction.12

[12] This is also known as the smart-ass response.

That gives you an idea.

But here is the thing about Niven & Pournelle’s book — it’s kind of like Purgatorio, but not exactly. Since high school/college, I have read Dante’s Commedia a few times, in different translations. A lot of people never get past Inferno, but I think Purgatorio is the most compelling.

I find Purgatorio the most compelling, as I think it’s the most human of the three. both those in Inferno & Paradiso are in their final places. They are not ever to leave their spheres. But Purgatorio has an implicit movement – these people are ultimately saved, but not yet in Heaven. They’ve still got a struggle going on.

The way Niven & Pournelle made their Inferno a little relatable is that their characters aren’t stuck in Hell (unlike with Dante). In Dante’s, there really is no hope. You’re damned, and that’s it. In N&P, you can escape, though it’s extremely difficult (and not a promise, unlike Purgatory).

Niven & Pournelle’s Inferno is not Purgatory, but neither is it the hopeless landscape seen in Dante. There is a dim flicker of hope — a chance at salvation, though not guaranteed.

The re-visit is… just it’s obvious they couldn’t deal with Purgatory. To an extent, I can see the problem in making it as dramatically compelling as Hell. Purgatory is more Henry James, and Hell is Dickens.

The sins in Niven & Pournelle’s Inferno are not quite as dated as Dante’s Inferno (such as simony), but some of them haven’t aged well. I had to research some of the issues… which were from around the time I was born.

The best part of my experience of writing that paper came over a decade after I wrote it, and I got in touch with Niven himself. He corrected me on a couple items of fact regarding Pournelle himself. (They’re in the footnotes)


Science-fiction hell or classical version, many people aren’t into that sort of thing.

The following, though, is pure science fiction and it’s partly suspense and mystery: The Mote in God’s Eye.

This is partly a first-contact story, but there’s loads of problem-solving problems involved. The biggest mystery is determining the nature of the aliens the humans come in contact with. And there’s a very blatant series set-up.

I did read following book (not yet read the third, by Pournelle’s daughter), which was just fine, but I think the first novel in the series was the most engaging in that you were trying to figure out what in the hell was going on.

There’s a lot about evolution & specialization, and I will not get more into that because a big part of the novel is trying to figure out the nature of the aliens.

Anyway, it’s a bit late in the day, but while Pournelle himself is gone in this world, his books are still around. I think I’ll grab Fallen Angels next, a book I’ve been meaning to read for a very long time.

I’m sorry I never met Pournelle in this life, but perhaps I’ll bump into him in Purgatory eventually.

ADDITIONAL: A memorial for Jerry Pournelle from the Sci Fi & Fantasy Writers of America