Reflections on Jerry Pournelle

I saw in the midst of all the hurricane-related news this morning that science fiction author, technologist, and political advocate Jerry Pournelle has passed away. I am saddened by this, though not greatly surprised, as Dr. Pournelle has been in ill health for a while now. Still, he shaped a great deal of my thinking and post-formal education, and so I’d like to take a few minutes to share my thoughts on the man.

I first encountered Pournelle’s work through the works he co-wrote with Larry Niven (especially The Mote in God’s Eye and Oath of Fealty). Eventually I read his stand-alone works, particularly the military science fiction in his “CoDominium” series, but also his technological books, A Step Farther Out, The Endless Frontierand Cities in Space, all of which depicted a future of high technology, freedom, and improving standards of living for all of humanity.

An unabashed conservative, Pournelle developed his own chart for describing the political “spectrum,” which placed political ideologies on axes defined by how much government control they preferred and how much rationalism contributed to an ideology’s belief that rationalism could be used to solve social problems.

Pournelle_chart_color

His past experience included time as a soldier in the Korean War, where he served in the artillery. (He was famous for speaking in tones loud enough to be heard over firing howitzers.) He wrote a book with Stefan Possony and Francis Kane called The Strategy of Technology, which advocated for (the U.S.) government to develop and use technologies that would improve its military capabilities. Pournelle worked with the Reagan administration but later especially the George H. W. Bush administrations to develop the Delta Clipper (later named Clipper Graham after the U.S. Army general who advocated for the program within the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (now the Missile Defense Agency). Delta Clipper was a rocket designed to test technologies and operations for a low-cost single-stage-to-orbit space vehicle.

As a political scientist, Pournelle was widely read, and his ideas come across strongly in his fiction and nonfiction. I am still working through the extensive list of books he recommended for understanding history and philosophy. He was a staunch anti-communist and believed in political and military strategies that would strengthen the United States.

Given his conservative views and his association with Robert A. Heinlein, he has gotten the label of “fascist,” which is a serious misreading of the man and his works. He did not want the U.S. to become a formal empire, but in the event that it did, he favored competent empire, meaning that he felt any actions the nation took should be to the nation’s benefit and not result in instability.

Pournelle’s ideas come across most strongly in his CoDominium series and his blog postings on his site, Chaos Manor. However, he also makes it clear in his nonfiction writing that his CoDominium series was written to serve as a warning. He prefered republican (small r) government, equality under the law, intellectual freedom, economic growth, technological inquiry, and a foreign policy that favored U.S. but did not inflict American authority on the rest of the world. He favored a strong Navy and Marine Corps controlled by the President and a small Army that could only be deployed under declaration of war by the Congress. He did not want to see the U.S. become an occupying power, and he strongly denounced both Iraq wars. He was also very much against political correctness and restrictions on freedom of thought.

A couple months ago Dr. Pournelle was kind enough to facilitate a three-part autographing of Fallen Angels, which he wrote with Larry Niven and Michael Flynn. I’m glad I did that and that I took the time to thank him for his writing and influence upon me. If I were to recommend any works of his, they would be A Step Farther Out, which articulates a future where civilization “survives with style” and his collaboration with Niven, The Mote in God’s Eye. I will miss his wisdom.

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