Jerry Pournelle, RIP
I found out this week that Jerry Pournelle had passed away after Dragoncon. There was almost nobody in my life that had a bigger impact. My greatest regret is that I only met him personally once and was probably too much of a fanboy and made his hand sore when he signed all my books. That did lead though to a wonderful two hour or so conversation at jersey devil con.
My story with Jerry starts with high school in the 1970’s. Now the 1970’s were not a good time for technical minded kids who were trying find any optimism for the future. As far as all the media was concerned, doom was coming. We all knew, because the experts told us, that Western civilization was hopeless, that we needed to become more sustainable, more socialized.
At a time when technical optimists were as scarce as hen’s teeth, at least in the public eye, Jerry was unabashedly that technical optimist. I did a post about A Step Farther Out when I started this blog and how relevant it still remains today.
At a time when the language of the day all across the media was how we were all DOOMED, DOOMED by the monsters of our own creation and that there was nothing that could be done to save us. Even the best stuff in media, like the classic series Connections was mildly pessimistic. Contrast that with any column in A Step Farther Out.
Consider this column from 1974,on the fact that once you get to orbit you are halfway to anywhere:
Along with a discussion of laser launching spacecraft. This, in a time when the average science program on TV was pure hokum. with Leonard Nimoy talking about ancient aliens and other nonsense. As far as science goes, the 1970’s were the crazy years. We haven’t recovered fully. The idea that that was a way out, any way out, was heady stuff for a fifteen year old. Which was when I first encountered it.
Not that Jerry didn’t know about the possibility of a more Orwellian future. You can see that in his 1970’s fiction, like Exiles To Glory.
He thought though that, that people wouldn’t just collapse into a series of unending ghettos and endless tyranny. he thought that people would use the skill and minds, the technologies that humans had created to overcome the problems we had. He never accepted that we would just surrender and mostly die. he was also optimistic that with a little more oomph people would reach for the stars and create wealth for all.
We never got the Jerry Pournelle future of the 1970’s. Considering some of the downers in that future and that it consisted, in part, of the McGovernites taking over. that was a good thing. Not that he cared. He continued to advocate for that future because he believed in it. He formed the presidential committee for space(Whatever it was really called, I don’t feel like looking it up. I don’t think we appreciated just how much impact that had until the Reagan administration ended. The sad part is just how much the Bureaucracy in aviation has turned the industry into more or less static version of itself. I don’t think that anybody in the 1960’s would have believed that the aircraft flying in 2017 would be essentially the same aircraft of 1969. That happens in technology.
Jerry moved on. though and became the reporter and advocate for a new technology that emerged in the late 1970’s. That was the small computer. He started his columns in Byte magazine and recorded his adventures with Zeke and his frustrations with an infant technology that then was on the brink of so much potential, but back when jerry started was essentially the province of teenagers with the technological maturity to match. Very few people understood the potential for what those machines could do. Jerry did and may have been one of the first to actually get useful work from one of them and write about actually using the machines, rather than just geeking off about them. It was because of Jerry that I bought my first computer and was willing to put up with the frustrations that those early machines had. It’s hard to remember just how user unfriendly those early machines were.
The downside of Jerry playing around with computers was that he wrote less Science fiction as the years went by. I still want to more Jannisaries and Codominium stories and now they will never be finished. I understand the economics of being paid far more for playing around with small computers and writing about it for a million subscribers and how addictive small computers are. I know that one all to well, especially after the internet. It was one thing to write about the information superhighway before it happened. Jerry did that. Then he lived on it, writing his blog and entertaining us for some 25 years or so.
I will miss Jerry. I only met him once and I wish that I had had the gumption and courage to make Jerry’s future happen It didn’t. which says perhaps more about ourselves and our inability to face the our fears, We may be one step from doom, but we are also one step from glory. That is what Jerry Pournelle wrote about. He looked at all the crybabies and doomsayers of that horrible period in the 1970’s and said “We don’t need to go down if we don’t want to.” Maybe not in those exact words but look at A Step farther out and the rest and tell me that I’m wrong. Here’s some more links about Jerry.
As was typical his last post was trying to find solutions to thorny problems.
Here’s a post I did with Jerry talking to some people
And some other’s people’s goodbyes.