Jerry Eugene Pournelle (August 7, 1933 – September 8, 2017) was an American science fiction writer, essayist, and journalist who contributed for many years to the computer magazine Byte in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. In 2011, he joined journalist Gina Smith, pundit John C. Dvorak, political cartoonist Ted Rall and several other Byte.com staff reporters to launch an independent tech and political news site aNewDomain.
Pournelle served as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1973 and served aNewDomain Media as its director until his death. He is recognized as the first author to have written a published book contribution using a word processor on a personal computer, in 1977.
Pournelle was born in Shreveport, the seat of Caddo Parish in northwestern Louisiana, and educated in Capleville, Tennessee. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Afterwards, he studied at the University of Washington, where he received a B.S. in psychology on June 11, 1955; an M.S. in psychology on March 21, 1958; and a Ph.D. in political science in March 1964. The thesis for his M.S. is titled "Behavioural observations of the effects of personality needs and leadership in small discussion groups", and is dated 1957. Pournelle's PhD dissertation is titled "The American political continuum; an examination of the validity of the left-right model as an instrument for studying contemporary American political 'isms'".
Pournelle served as campaign research director for the mayoral campaign of 1969 for Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty (Democrat), working under campaign director Henry Salvatori. The election took place on May 27, 1969. Pournelle was later named Executive Assistant to the Mayor in charge of research in September 1969, but resigned from the position after two weeks. After leaving Yorty's office, in 1970 he was a consultant to the Professional Educators of Los Angeles (PELA), a group opposed to the unionization of school teachers in LA.
Pournelle was an intellectual protégé of Russell Kirk and Stefan T. Possony. Pournelle wrote numerous publications with Possony, including The Strategy of Technology (1970). The Strategy has been used as a textbook at the United States Military Academy (West Point), the United States Air Force Academy (Colorado Springs), the Air War College, and the National War College.
Pournelle's work in the aerospace industry includes time he worked at Boeing in the late 1950s. While there, he worked on Project Thor, conceiving of "hypervelocity rod bundles", also known as "rods from God". He edited Project 75, a 1964 study of 1975 defense requirements. He worked in operations research at The Aerospace Corporation, and North American Rockwell Space Division, and was founding President of the Pepperdine Research Institute. In 1989, Pournelle, Max Hunter, and retired Army Lieutenant General Daniel O. Graham made a presentation to then Vice President Dan Quayle promoting development of the DC-X rocket.
Pournelle was among those who in 1968 signed a pro-Vietnam War advertisement in Galaxy Science Fiction. During the 1970s and 1980s, he also published articles on military tactics and war gaming in the military simulations industry in Avalon Hill's magazine The General. He had previously won first prize in a late 1960s essay contest run by the magazine on how to end the Vietnam war. That led him into correspondences with some of the early figures in Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy role-playing games.
Two of his collaborations with Larry Niven reached the top rankings in the New York Times Best Seller List. In 1977, Lucifer's Hammer reached number two. Footfall — wherein Robert A. Heinlein was a thinly veiled minor character — reached the number one spot in 1985.
In 1994, Pournelle's friendly relationship with Newt Gingrich led to Gingrich securing a government job for Pournelle's son, Richard. At the time, Pournelle and Gingrich were reported to be collaborating on "a science fiction political thriller." Pournelle's relationship with Gingrich was long established even then, as Pournelle had written the preface to Gingrich's book, Window of Opportunity (1985).
Years after Byte shuttered, Pournelle wrote his Chaos Manor column online. He reprised it at Byte.com, which he helped launch with journalist Gina Smith, John C. Dvorak and others. However, after a shakeup, he announced that rather than stay at UBM, he would follow Smith, Dvorak and 14 other news journalists to start an independent tech and politics site. As an active director of that site and others it launched, Pournelle wrote, edited and worked with young writers and journalists on the craft of writing about science and tech.
In 2008, Pournelle battled a brain tumor, which appeared to respond favorably to radiation treatment. An August 28, 2008 report on his weblog claimed he was now cancer-free. Pournelle suffered a stroke on December 16, 2014, for which he was hospitalized for a time. By June 2015, he was writing again, though impairment from the stroke had slowed his typing. Pournelle died in his sleep at his home in Studio City, California, on September 8, 2017.
From the beginning, Pournelle's work has engaged strong military themes. Several books are centered on a fictional mercenary infantry force known as Falkenberg's Legion. There are strong parallels between these stories and the Childe Cycle mercenary stories by Gordon R. Dickson, as well as Heinlein's Starship Troopers, although Pournelle's work takes far fewer technological leaps than either of these.
Pournelle was one of the few close friends of H. Beam Piper and was granted by Piper the rights to produce stories set in Piper's Terro-Human Future History. This right has been recognized by the Piper estate. Pournelle worked for some years on a sequel to Space Viking but seems to have abandoned this in the early 1990s, however John F. Carr intends its completion for release in 2018.
In 2013, Variety reported that motion picture rights to Pournelle's novel Janissaries had been acquired by the newly formed Goddard Film Group, headed by Gary Goddard. The IMDb website reported that the film was in development, and that husband-and-wife writing team, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, had written the screenplay.
Pournelle began fiction writing non-SF work under a pseudonym in 1965. His early SF was published as "Wade Curtis", in Analog and other magazines. Some of his work is also published as "J.E. Pournelle".
In the mid-1970s, Pournelle began a fruitful collaboration with Larry Niven; he has also collaborated on novels with Roland J. Green, Michael F. Flynn, and Steven Barnes, and collaborated as an editor on an anthology series with John F. Carr.
Pournelle wrote the "Chaos Manor" column in Byte. In it Pournelle described his experiences with computer hardware and software, some purchased and some sent by vendors for review, at his home office. Because Pournelle was then, according to the magazine, "virtually Byte's only writer who was a mere user—he didn't create compilers and computers, he merely used them", it began as "The User's Column" in July 1980. Subtitled "Omikron TRS-80 Boards, NEWDOS+, and Sundry Other Matters", an Editor's Note accompanied the article:
The other day we were sitting around the Byte offices listening to software and hardware explosions going off around us in the microcomputer world. We wondered, "Who could cover some of the latest developments for us in a funny, frank (and sometimes irascible) style?" The phone rang. It was Jerry Pournelle with an idea for a funny, frank (and sometimes irascible) series of articles to be presented in Byte on a semi-regular (i.e.: every 2 to 3 months) basis, which would cover the wild microcomputer goings-on at the Pournelle House ("Chaos Manor") in Southern California. We said yes. Herewith the first installment ...
Pournelle stated that
This will be a column by and for computer users, and with rare exceptions I won't discuss anything I haven't installed and implemented here in Chaos Manor. At Chaos Manor we have computer users ranging in sophistication from my 9-year-old through a college-undergraduate assistant and up to myself. (Not that I'm the last word in sophistication, but I do sit here and pound this machine a lot; if I can't get something to work, it takes an expert.) Fair warning, then: the very nature of this column limits its scope. I can't talk about anything I can't run on my machines, nor am I likely to discuss things I have no use for.
He introduced to readers "my friend Ezekiel, who happens to be a Cromemco Z-2 with iCom 8-inch soft-sectored floppy disk drives"; he also owned a TRS-80 Model I, and the first subject discussed in the column was an add-on that permitted it to use the same data and CP/M applications as the Cromemco. The next column appeared in December 1980 with the subtitle "BASIC, Computer Languages, and Computer Adventures", Ezekiel II, a Compupro S-100 CP/M system, debuted in March 1983. Other computers received nicknames, such as Lucy Van Pelt, Pournelle's "fussbudget" IBM PC, and he referred to generic PC compatibles as "PClones". Pournelle often denounced companies that announced products without delivering them, sarcastically writing that they would arrive "Real Soon Now", later abbreviated to just "RSN". As part of a redesign in June 1984, the magazine renamed the popular column to "Computing at Chaos Manor", and the accompanying letter column became "Chaos Manor Mail". After the print version of Byte ended publication in the United States, Pournelle continued publishing the column for the online version and international print editions of Byte. In July 2006, Pournelle and Byte declined to renew their contract and Pournelle moved the column to his own web site, Chaos Manor Reviews.
In the 1980s, Pournelle was an editor and columnist for Survive, a survivalist magazine. After 1998, Pournelle maintained a website with a daily online journal, "View from Chaos Manor", a blog dating from before the use of that term. It is a collection of his "Views" and "Mail" from a large variety of readers. This is a continuation of his 1980s blog-like online journal on GEnie. He said he resists using the term "blog" because he considered the word ugly, and because he maintained that his "View" is primarily a vehicle for writing rather than a collection of links. In his book Dave Barry in Cyberspace, humorist Dave Barry has fun with Pournelle's guru column in Byte magazine.
In a 1997 article, Norman Spinrad wrote that Pournelle had written the SDI portion of Ronald Reagan's State of the Union Address, as part of a plan to use SDI to get more money for space exploration, using the larger defense budget. Pournelle wrote in response that while the Citizens' Advisory Council on National Space Policy "wrote parts of Reagan's 1983 SDI speech, and provided much of the background for the policy, we certainly did not write the speech ... We were not trying to boost space, we were trying to win the Cold War". The Council's first report in 1980 became the transition team policy paper on space for the incoming Reagan administration. The third report was certainly quoted in the Reagan "Star Wars" speech.
He is sometimes quoted as describing his politics as "somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan". Nevertheless, Pournelle opposed the Gulf War and the Iraq War, maintaining that the money would be better spent developing energy technologies for the United States.
Pournelle is also known for his Pournelle chart, a 2-dimensional coordinate system used to distinguish political ideologies that he initially delineated in his dissertation. It is similar to the Nolan Chart, except that the X-axis gauges opinion toward state and centralized government (farthest right being state worship, farthest left being the idea of a state as the "ultimate evil"), and the Y-axis measures the belief that all problems in society have rational solutions (top being complete confidence in rational planning, bottom being complete lack of confidence in rational planning).
Pournelle suggested several "laws". His first use of the term "Pournelle's law" appears to be for the expression "one user, one CPU." He has also used "Pournelle's law" to apply to the importance of checking cable connections when diagnosing computer problems. His best-known "law" is "Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy":
In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.
He eventually restated it as:
...in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.
This can be compared to the iron law of oligarchy. His blog, "The View from Chaos Manor", often references apparent examples of the law. Some of Pournelle's standard themes that recur in the stories are: welfare states become self-perpetuating, building a technological society requires a strong defense and the rule of law, and "those who forget history are condemned to repeat it."
As noted by James Wheatfield, "Jerry Pournelle delights in setting up complex background situations and plots, leading the reader step by step towards a solution which is the very opposite of politically correct and ... defying a dissenting reader to find where in this logical chain he or she would have acted differently."