Jerry Pournelle, one of my favorite Science Fiction writers, passed away peacefully in his sleep today. He had reported illness, popularly known as “con crud” on his return from the Draconcon science fiction convention. According to reports he lay down for a nap and passed quietly.
As I said, Dr. Pournelle was one of my favorite science fiction writers. He had degrees in Psychology, and a PhD in Political science. His PhD dissertation, “The American political continuum; an examination of the validity of the left-right model as an instrument for studying contemporary American political ‘isms'”, was written in 1964 and is generally considered the origin of various two-axis methods of organizing political philosophies.
The first book of Dr. Pournelles that I read was “King David’s Spaceship.” That led to reading The Mote in God’s Eye (with Larry Niven) and others. However, the book of his that most influenced me was not his fiction so much but the collection of non-fiction essays he wrote for various venues, chiefly the long-defunct “Galaxy” magazine. In them, he gave a much more hopeful blueprint for the future than was popular at the time. He wrote of humanity not only surviving the various “dooms” that the intelligentsia were so bent on predicting but prospering. Not for him a sharply restricted future with the majority of the human race either exterminated or condemned to crushing poverty forever, a future where “the limits to growth” was taken as holy writ”, but instead a future of wealth and plenty, where mankind expands into the cosmos. And all of the reasons that folk like the Club of Rome use to say that cannot happen? He disposes of those with detailed, fact-based, analyses.
As much as I loved the works of Robert Heinlein, he bought entirely too much into the Malthusian disaster fallacy. Pournelle exceeded the master in this way.
Pournelle’s writings were probably the strongest direct influence on my own science fiction writing, even greater than those of Heinlein. (I knew that I could never be another Heinlein, but in my naive optimism I thought I might be another Pournelle–how fatuous youth can be.) My first fiction sale, “The Future is Now” (included as the first story in FTI: Beginnings) was a direct homage to Dr. Pournelle, using concepts that he championed both in fiction and in his non-fiction essays. Indeed, my entire FTI universe, from near near future stories such as the aforementioned The Future is Now, Match Point, Survival Test, EMT, et al to farther future stories like Live to Tell, and Her World Exploded, (and, it is to be hoped, more to come), owes its existence to Dr. Pournelle.
Personally, my interaction with Dr. Pournelle was mostly online. First in the long since defunt online forum GEnie (owned by General Electric, thus the capitalization). He had his own forum (called “Round Tables” there) in which I was an active participant for a while. He also participated somewhat in the various Science Fiction Roundtables which I could also attend because I had a “freeflag” (members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America could participate in these forums free of charge presumably on the theory that having published authors and related individuals there would attract paying customers). He could be quite acerbic and definitely did not suffer fools gladly. On the other hand, while I did not always agree with him (I don’t always agree with anyone, including myself) he was always worth listening to.
I only met him once in person in a LibertyCon several years ago. The meeting was brief, but it is one of my treasured memories.
In addition to his fiction and essays he had a long-running column in Byte magazine, up until the day it folded. His writings from a users perspective were helpful to me as I was getting my first PC’s. When Byte folded, he continued with his own web site, with daily discussions on various topics, making him one of the first bloggers. Indeed, as Samuel Clemens is attributed as being the first professional writer to adopt the typewriter, Dr. Pournelle was one of the first writers to use computers to write. His first computer used for that purpose (which he named “Zeke”, beginning a long tradition of giving his computers names which which he referred to them in his writings) has been enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution.
So…Farewell, Dr. Pournelle. Fair winds and a following sea. If not in Odin’s Hall, then may we meet again in Gold Thatched Gimle.