RIP, Jerry Pournelle

Word reaches me by the president of SFWA and other sources that Jerry Pournelle passed away today, in his sleep. This makes it a sad day for science fiction. Pournelle was an outsized voice in the field, publicly often cantankerous and privately quietly devoted to the field, both as a member and former president of SFWA. And he was a very fine writer, with a number of memorable works, particularly those written with Larry Niven. My favorite of those was Footfall, which thrilled me when I was a teenager, although many would point to The Mote in God’s Eye as their finest collaboration. Both were nominated for the Hugo for Best Novel, and Pournelle himself was the inaugural winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which he won the same year as he was president of SFWA. Nifty trick, that.

I was not personally close with Jerry Pournelle, but as president of SFWA I had the opportunity to work with him on organizational matters. In that capacity he was always devoted and diligent, and his love for the organization and the field of science fiction was never in the slightest of doubt. He and I differed on many subjects (neither of us were ever exactly shy about expressing ourselves, either privately or in the SFWA discussion areas), but I never doubted his desire to be a positive force in the field, or his willingness to serve when asked. In this, he was the best of men.

My condolences to Dr. Pournelle’s family, friends and fans. His was a good and distinguished life. He will be missed.

65 thoughts on “RIP, Jerry Pournelle

  1. Dr. Pournelle’s last post on his blog (https://jerrypournelle.com/chaosmanor/ concluded with “Bye for now”. His words will be missed.
    (I am the web guy for his site. There is a place to leave ‘well wishes’ for his family on the site. Not sure what will become of his site, but I suspect we will do some republishing of his words on his site. There is a ton of his work there…)

  2. We are poorer today. “The Mote In Gods Eye” is still a favorite, as well as “Footfall.” Will re-read both this winter, and enjoy in his honor.

  3. Rick Hellewell:

    As an FYI, the site’s throwing database connection errors. I suspect it’s going to be overwhelmed with well-wishers for the next several days.

  4. A personal hero for so many years. I was so fortunate to finally meet him last year at WorldCon. My life is measurably better for his being. I bid you peace, Mr. Pournelle. Thank you.

  5. Jerry and I were close in age, education and interests. His computer articles we’re almost as enjoyable as his fiction. While we differed dramatically in our politics, he was a huge influence in my love for science fiction. I am greatly saddened by his passing.

  6. A sad day indeed. Many of his works are still on my shelves. At the risk of crossing genres, I would say: “May the stars light all thy paths.”

  7. I loved Mr Pournelle’s work as a teen, but developed major political issues with it as an adult. I suspect that I’m not the only person on Usenet to get into a flame war with him either – he was the kind of user Sysadmins tend to have ‘issues’ with, & was as aggressive online as I am.
    Nonetheless, he was an amazing influence, & an important part of SF as a genre, & it will be paler without him.
    My condolences to his family, & everyone who loved him. He will be missed.

  8. My first exposure to him was a novelization of a Planet of the Apes movie. After that, Lucifer’s Hammer remains my essential doomsday novel. Then the ones you mention. A great talent who’s stories will thrill more generations. Sleep well, Mr. Pournelle, and fly far.

  9. Tried many times but just couldn’t get into his solo work. But with Niven he made magic. Definitely one of the giants.

  10. I absolutely love Lucifer’s Hammer, one of the great post-apocalyptic novels of all time. Also, Inferno was pretty damned good too! RIP, Jerry.

  11. @John … yes, Dr P’s site is getting hammered. Having problems getting into the admin area so I can tweak things a bit. Even some FTP stuff to update things is timing out.

    Working on it, boss….

  12. Both my favorite writer (along with Niven) and formative in my politics during college.

    Thank you for a heart-felt and graceful tribute.

  13. I read “Footfall” during the recovery period from a really bad case of salmonella (Like, go to the ER on a Saturday and doctor on Monday). It completely took my mind off the misery, which was a tall order.. I thanked he and Larry for it at a con.

  14. I wish they would turn the Mote books and Footfall into movies. So sad to see legends of my teenage SF years pass on. So glad we have Master Scalzi.

  15. I remember reading mote in gods eye. I enjoyed it as a kid but didn’t understand all the high concepts. I’m gonna have to read it again. He was just at dragoncon last week too.

  16. Lucifer’s Hammer was my favorite book for a while. I always thought it would have made a great disaster movie. I have a hardcover copy of Footfall around somewhere. I loved his Chaos Manor columns in Byte too.

    I saw him at some kind of convention in San Francisco in the early 1980s. Might have been a Computer Faire. About the only detail I remember is I was there with a friend from high school who was wearing a ridiculous hat with Yoda ears. Jerry picked him out of the crowd and complemented him on his hat.

  17. And let us not forget A STEP FURTHER OUT. I enjoyed his books, and also his Alternate View columns in ANALOG back when, and I met him at Hostigos, that one year when there was an sf con in State College, Pennsylvania. That was my hometown, and I was back as a grad student in Materials at the time. Rest In Peace.

  18. Janissaries series, Falkenber Series, Footfall, Lucifer’s Hammer, Mote’s Eye: At an early point, he was a majority shareholder in my book shelf. Someone I will miss…

  19. I wish I had stopped and talked to him when I saw him and Larry Niven in the Hyatt lobby at Dragon*Con earlier this week.

  20. Falkenberg’s Legion. Janissaries. Which in turn leads to other military SF authors such as S. M. Sterling and David Drake. Before that Chaos Manor’ Tales of Tech Woe in Byte Magazine. Decades of enjoyable influence.

  21. I first came across him through his Chaos Manor column in Byte magazine, back in the very early days of the internet being something you might conceivably have at home. He made sense of technology, stayed on the cutting edge of what was possible without ever quite falling over it and was firmly in the then quite small intersection of the set of people who understood it all and the set of people who could communicate about it clearly.

    Many, many years later, I realised that he also wrote fiction…

  22. He was Author GOH with us in 2010 when we hosted Deep South Con and awarded him the Phoenix Award. He was not expecting it. So after the Rebel Award was given, he asked if he could say a few more words. He said the award was so unexpected that he hasn’t fully expressed himself. I remember what he said was passionate and heartfelt. He truly impressed me. I know his Q&A sessions were SRO.

    Indeed our world has lost a fine gentleman.

  23. One of my early influences as far as military SF was concerned, both with me and my dad. I remember dad pointing out a reference to a Military History Quarterly article (FMQ), which dad’s subscribed to since it started that Pournelle headed a chapter with in one of his Falkenberg novels and saying ‘I knew I liked him for more than just the stories’. His politics were somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun but his writing was spot on, he will be missed.

  24. He was one of those rare authors who could write well in just about any genre. With Niven, he wrote a classic space opera (The Mote In God’s Eye), a classic doomsday story (Lucifer’s Hammer), a classic dystopian novel (Oath Of Fealty), and a classic fantasy novel (Inferno). The world is a poorer place for losing him.

  25. I’ll always fondly remember Jerry standing at the door of the SFWA Suite at numerous worldcons, acting as gatekeeper. Even if you were a SFWA member, if he didn’t know or recognize you, you wouldn’t get in.

    He wrote some wonderful books, and with Larry Niven, was a wonderful collaborator. Jerry may be gone, but his books remain, to be enjoyed always.

  26. While our political views grew sharply apart, I always loved Jerry’s stories. I discovered him in my college library back in the early 70s with the story which was novelized as King David’s Spaceship, only to “lose” him because I ended up being late to class and forgot to note who the author was of the story I was so engrossed in. It took me months of searching — this was back when library searches were manual, folks :) — to rediscover him. He was a major influence.

    So you can imagine how I felt waiting in line for him to appear at a Footfall book signing in Santa Monica (Niven was already there). Only to be immediately brought back to Earth when he finally rolled in and bellowed “Okay, let’s get this show on the road, who brought the beer???”. Very much a real person.

    I’ll miss him.

  27. When I was a teen I loved his stuff, then I kind of outgrew it, but periodically re-read it just for the hell of it. Now that I think of it, kind of like Heinlein that way (and I bet he’d be pleased by the comparison). And I read Inferno just before I had to read Dante’s version for high school and found out I enjoyed the newer one more.

    But one thing always puzzled me about Inferno, and I suspect it was always too ‘inside baseball” for me to figure out. Since the protagonist is a second-tier SF writer there are more than a few inside jokes there. One references an author who wrote a crap novel as a lark/joke, and then found it made him and his work so popular that he was stuck writing endless sequels to a book he loathed. Anyone know if that was taken from real life? It had the sound of a tale which circulated around cons, but since I never attended those, I never had the chance to ask. So what’s the inside scoop?

  28. One of my favorites, including those already mentioned, was Fallen Angels, written with Niven and Flynn. Sad today.

  29. Pixlaw, that’s a fannish urban legend. It has been attached to Doyle, to Burroughs, to Doc Smith, and just about every other author who has done a series that seems terrible by “today’s standards”.

  30. Master of Military Science Fiction. A Heinlein disciple who spread the faith. A peerless logician.
    I laugh when I read that so many found his political thinking too far to the right. The man only applied that merciless logic to the mass confusion and anarchy of the left.
    May he drink with heroes in Valhalla.

  31. I’ve been reading Pournelle’s works since the 70s. I just re-read Mote in God’s Eye this Summer. I’ve read and re-read many of his works. They hold up pretty well. I’ll miss him.

  32. “Footfall” and “The Mote in God’s Eye” were both great, but for my money their best was “Legacy of Heorot” along with Steven Barnes.

  33. As previously noted, you’re a class act, Scalzi. Also, an elegant tap dancer.

    I, less so. Pournelle’s technology writing was interesting for a while a couple decades back, the fiction was adolescent and will be quickly forgotten, and I’d long, long ago hit my gag limit with his fascism.** Upon reading of his passing my immediate reaction was the last lines of the Hugh MacDiarmid poem:

    “…In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
    With difficulty persist here and there on earth.”

    ** Of course, judged by today’s alt-reich standards, Pournelle comes off sounding like Russell Kirk. But I think we can agree this is not a case of how high the mountain, but how low the valley.

  34. Very saddened to hear this news. I read and enjoyed many of Jerry’s books, including a number of his collaborations with Larry Niven. The Mote In God’s Eye and Lucifer’s Hammer were my favorites, although there was a quirky attraction to Inferno as well. Footfall I didn’t care for as much; the notion of a council of science fiction writers saving the world was a bit much for me to swallow. And Oath of Fealty I despised. But on the whole, much more to like than dislike. I also read his Chaos Manor columns all the way back to the days when in was published in Byte Magazine (RIP). Always informative and entertaining. As much as I disliked his politics, his other writings meant a great deal to me. Condolences to all his family and friends.

  35. While I might have differed greatly with Mr. Pournelle, his voice added authority to the Mote in God’s Eye, and to Footfall, as you mentioned. We lost a great author, as well as a brilliant collaborator. He will be missed.

  36. I’m sure he was a fine fellow. I enjoyed his tech columns in the late-lamented Byte. But I always thought the best thing about the Niven/Pournelle collaborations was Niven, and that the digs at Vonnegut and Oppenheimer and the casting of environmentalists and journalists as traitors was Pournelle.

  37. Didn\t always agree with his viewpoints, and yet whenever I saw Niven & Pournelle it was an automatic buy.
    He will be missed.

  38. Pixlaw – I don’t think this is at all the answer to your question, but I once read an interview with Piers Anthony where the interviewer explicity asked why Anthony kept writing rubbish (Xanth) when he’d been known to write more ambitious and interesting stuff (Macroscope). He replied with some apparent frustration that people kept buying the bad stuff.

    As for Jerry Pournelle, there was much I didn’t like or agree with in his writing, but I do always have a soft spot for King Davids’ Spaceship. It’s a shame to see the generation of writers I grew up with go down one by one.

  39. Pixlaw, one possible source:

    “If it be in your power, bear serenely with imitators. My Jungle Books begat Zoos of them. But the genius of all the genii was one who wrote a series called Tarzan of the Apes. I read it, but regret I never saw it on the films, where it rages most successfully. He had ‘jazzed’ the motif of the Jungle Books and, I imagine, had thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was reported to have said that he wanted to find out how bad a book he could write and ‘get away with,’ which is a legitimate ambition.”

    — Rudyard Kipling on Edgar Rice Burroughs, in his autobiography Something of Myself

    (my thanks to Diane Duane for saving me the transcription)

  40. Mr. Scalzi: While I fully understand that you’d want a clean separation between Dr. Pournelle’s writing and his politics, I don’t see how you can’t make such a separation in the case of Dr. Pournelle, who chose to be published by the RSHD towards the end of his life. I also wonder how Dr. Pournelle reconciled his admirable, decades-long record of service to the greater SF community, with his choosing to do business with a man who both (1) was expelled from SFWA after he used official SFWA channels to spew racist invective at a fellow SFWA membe, and (2) was and is a major figure in the whole Puppies mess.

  41. Fond memories of Lucifer’s Hammer, and The Mote in God’s Eye. My father and brother also read Lucifer’s Hammer, and we thereafter frequently mentioned “hammerfall” during sufficiently stormy weather.

  42. I admired Mr. Pournelle for his published writings, particularly his collaboration with Niven. Someone upthread mentioned their update of Inferno, which I was fortunate to read alongside studying the original in high school, and recommend, not to mention other fine works cited above.

    I admire you, Mr. Scalzi, for such a graceful and eloquent tribute. One might infer you had your differences, but may I always follow your example of kind and generous praise.

  43. Cubist:

    Because Dr. Pournelle taken as a whole is better than what I would consider a regrettable business decision near the end of his life, basically. And otherwise I don’t think this is the best time or place to continue that particular line of discussion.

  44. Came back to “Inferno” in a course on Dante’s “Comedia.” It provided an evocative way to understand that great work. Kudos for his appreciation of “Comedia” and his way of seeing how the journey could play out in a way that respected Dante’s vision while using contemporary elements. A challenge that would have daunted a lesser writer, which he was not.. We are poorer with this passing.

  45. I first read Mote in God’s Eye in college, and later read Footfall, and loved them both. I can’t speak to Dr. Pournelle’s personal and political views, as I didn’t know them. But I really enoyted the two books. I have somehow not read Lucifer’s Hammer, though. It’s always a shame to lose a good writer. Science fiction has always been my favorite genre.

  46. My dad was an avid fan and collected his works. When I was a toddler, the second I was allowed into my dad’s den, I’d make a beeline to Pournelle’s books and pull them from the shelves. I loved the covers, Year later, I read them instead of chewing on the covers and his works helped develop my love of science fiction and fantasy.

  47. Some of the first science fiction I ever read was his stuff. His writing went into shaping my worldview as a teenager in the 70’s. He was also huge in my professional development as well – reading Chaos Manor in Byte Magazine every month gave me real insights into users of software when I was a budding software developer and, I think, made me a better coder to this day.

    He gets the greatest compliment that I think you can give someone: He left the world a better place than he found it.

  48. Whatever I may think of some of Dr. Pournelle’s political opinions, I consider him a towering presence in the field of speculative fiction. I read everything he wrote, alone and with Niven. I read all of his Byte Columns. I read Chaos Manor. I have shelves full of his stuff. And I second the motion about how great “King David’s Spaceship” was as a story.
    What a shame that after all the battles with cancer and other things he’s dealt with, it was apparently concrud that brought him low.
    This is a sad day for the field. He will be missed.

  49. I’m kind of surprised for all the fond memories of Lucifer’s Hammer. No one here noticed the horrific racism? I mean, a gang of black cannibals as the main obstacle to civilization?

  50. I think I read every Chaos Manor column in Byte and after. Politically, he was a dinosaur, but there’s a lot more to life than politics. The Mote in God’s Eye was one of the few real attempts to imagine a truly alien mind, not just people in rubber suits.

  51. After being a fan of his collaborations with Niven and his military SF for years, I was able to work with Jerry for several years as his Product Manager on GEnie. Although we were worlds apart politically, the spirited discussions at GEnie SysCons were always fascinating and the differing viewpoints didn’t stop us from being friendly.

    So, for all that, I’ll miss the good doctor. RIP, Jerry

  52. I’m reading posts where people are listing their favorite Pournelle books and going “oh, yeah. he wrote that I LOVE that book!” A sad day indeed.

  53. I read a lot of Pournelle (with and without Larry Niven) when I was a teen. My ninth-grade English teacher gave me a copy of Lucifer’s Hammer after he saw me reading the old Berkley paperback of Stranger in A Strange Land. I have a lot of affection for both Lucifer’s Hammer and The Mote In God’s Eye, but found that I couldn’t finish them when I tried re-reading them as an adult because of the racial coding of the villains (in The Mote, the ruling class of the Moties are white, while the servitor classes are coded by color, for example). This is mostly absent from King David’s Spaceship, which is my own favorite of his works. It distills an interest in scientific possibilities AND a passion for military history (the main through line of his solo novels) into a splendid adventure story. I’m sorry to hear of his passing and have nothing but best wishes for his family and friends.

  54. Dr. Pournelle’s novels are on my frequent reread list. Didn’t care for his politics, but I thought they were more than just a regurgitation of whatever was on faux news. I only knew him on pages and screens, Rest In Peace Jerry.

  55. I enjoyed a lot of his works when I was a teenager, but coming back to them as an adult I find that they make me very uneasy. After reading about his politics and that “regrettable business decision” I feel even less likely to recommend them. I’m sure he had his good points, as several of the testimonials of him as a person here demonstrate, but looking on his works and where many of his fans ended up in the puppybro!right, I would not give his books to my nieces and nephews without being able to first talk to them about the harmful stereotypes and viewpoints therein, and how they affect others in real life. I’m not entirely convinced, on balance, that he did leave the world a better place than he found it. On a personal level, maybe, but in the wider applications…

  56. Dear folks,

    And nobody seems willing to talk about the elephant in the room, and that’s just fuckin’ wrong.

    I knew Jerry for 45 years. The first 10 years I considered him a good friend, and vice versa. This in an era when he was a rabid Vietnam hawk and I was a draft Resistor, he was sexist male pig and I was a burgeoning young feminist — our politics were NEVER remotely aligned. We both knew each other’s politics and activities, and we argued like crazy about it. But they were real arguments, real discussions. He never failed to listen to a conflicting viewpoint, and when he didn’t have a counterargument or superior line of reasoning, he gave you the point. We argued, enjoyably… We never got in a fight. He was a tolerant fanatic, if that’s not an oxymoron.

    Doesn’t sound like the Jerry most of you knew, does it? Because, and then…

    And then there was the 10 years when alcoholism took over his life and he was a stone drunk. I won’t mince words. He was no maintenance alcoholic, this was a drunk.

    That disease screwed him over. And way too many of his friends. He hurt many of us (including me) and modest ways. He hurt some in serious life-changing ways that they would never forgive him for and he didn’t deserve forgiveness.

    And it hurt him. When he escaped from that after a decade, he was 30 IQ points dumber and half of his critical thinking ability was gone. Too many neural pathways poisoned by alcohol. The disease crippled him.

    He did his best after he recovered. He genuinely tried to be a better person and (he never use this phrase) make amends. For a while, anyway. But he really tried. And to some degree he succeeded. We became friends again. But we never got to be close friends, because the intellectual connection was gone. He just wasn’t that smart anymore and he was intolerant. When you start off as smart as Jerry was, you can afford 30 IQ points. Your average (smart) person won’t notice. But losing your critical thinking faculties? That’s bad.

    We stayed casual at-arms-length friends for as long as he lived. On rare occasions, we even had an interesting conversation, nothing too contentious, where there were flashes of the old Jerry. But they didn’t last long. And if it wandered onto any hot button topic, instead of getting an insightful argument you’d get a canned soundbite back.

    And, dammit, I missed my old friend.

    Who died back in the early 80s. A victim of alcoholism.

    (And don’t anyone here suggest that this was a choice he made, that he wasn’t a victim of the disease. Because I will smack you so hard upside the head…)

    – Pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    ======================================
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 
    ======================================

  57. P.S. — Sorry about this — I forgot the callouts to a couple of important people. Big props to Roberta for having the ability (and the will) to kick Jerry hard enough that he could beat the disease. If it weren’t for her, it could’ve taken another 10 years… Or maybe never.

    And to Alex, who I only became reacquainted with (after decades) in Kansas City. Alex, you have my deepest sympathies and condolences. And I want to tell you that if a parent gets judged by their kid, then Jerry gets a gold star. Because you are one fine human being.

  58. I was a huge Niven fanatic in junior high and high school so my reading of Pournelle was mainly the books he cowrote with Niven in that era, Inferno, Lucifers Hammer and Mote in Gods Eye. I liked all three of those. For the most part I’m not big on military SF so I didn’t read a lot of his solo work but I loved those 3 I did read.

  59. I have to second everything ctein says, I too was his friend and watched his downfall. There is no way to gloss over his relationship with RSHD. Sorry, but when you side with the Nazis there is no forgiveness. He will not be missed

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