"To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection." -- Jerry Pournelle
Jerry Eugene Pournelle (born August 7, 1933) is an American science fiction writer, essayist and journalist who contributed for many years to the computer magazine Byte and has since 1998 been maintaining his own website/blog.
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 copyright owner of the Piper estate. Pournelle did work for some years on a sequel to Space Viking but seems to have abandoned this twenty years or so ago.
He served as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1973.
"And in down times it shakes a lot of the bad SF out, a lot the stuff that was bought for literary reasons, which is neither entertaining nor great literature.""And meanwhile, the storytellers like me and Anderson, Silverberg... we tell stories. People like them. They want to know how it comes out, they want to know what the ending is.""And that's another piece of advice I'll give junior writers; when you get to the point where they take you to lunch, let the editor suggest where to go.""Asimov was the reason why we changed some rules in the SFWA, and I'm not convinced we changed it for the best.""Because Tom Doherty and people like that are not stupid. If they could have streamlined their operation more to get more money out of it, they would have done it. It's not like they're a bunch of idiots.""Heinlein never had a best-seller. Even, I think, with Stranger in a Strange Land, I don't think it was actually on the New York Times best seller list.""I have more information in one place than anybody in the world.""I started in this racket in the early '70s, and when I was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, of which I was like the sixth president, I was the first one nobody ever heard of.""I think it takes about a million words to make a writer. I mean that you're going to throw away.""In any ethical situation, the thing you want least to do is probably the right action.""One the other hand, the publishing trend is ghastly, isn't it? Two hundred and something distributors are now down to 10 or 12? And what's the recruiting drive?""So, I guess the answer to your question is very few people can bring off a novel of the future because it's just so damn hard to make it look like the future.""Somebody's always getting me to come lecture to their writing class, and I don't talk about writing at all, I talk about the business of making a living at this racket.""The Aztecs believe they started up in what's now New Mexico, and wandered for 10,000 years before they got down into where they are now, in Mexico City. That's a weird legend.""The hard part of writing at all is sitting your ass down in a chair and writing it. There's always something better to do, like I've got an interview, sharpening the pencils, trimming the roses. There's always something better to do. Going to a writer's club?""The importance of information is directly proportional to its improbability.""There were probably, what, 300 science-fiction members in the SFWA, of whom probably a hundred were active members in the sense that they were selling something every year, or every couple years.""We do a hard fantasy as well as hard science fiction, and I think I probably single-handedly recreated military science fiction. It was dead before I started working in it.""We're basically after Joe's beer money, and Joe likes his beer, so you better make sure that what you give him is at least as pleasurable to him as having his six-pack of beer would be.""Write a lot. And finish what you write. Don't join writer's clubs and go sit around having coffee reading pieces of your manuscript to people. Write it. Finish it. I set those rules up years ago, and nothing's changed.""You no longer have much in the way of knowing what to do in a big, epic novel about the future, because nobody knows what the hell is going to happen.""You see, I used to do a certain amount of market research by going to the local drugstore and seeing what the truck drivers would put up. Now it's all just copies from the latest best-seller list and damn little of anything else."
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 obtained advanced degrees: M.S. degrees in both experimental statistics and systems engineering, and Ph.D.'s in both psychology and political science, all from the University of Washington. His political science thesis was titled, "The American political continuum; an examination of the validity of the left-right model as an instrument for studying contemporary American political "isms," and is dated 1964.
He served as campaign research director for the mayoral primary campaign of 1969 for Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty (Dem.), working under campaign director Henry Salvatori. After the primary he was 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 protege of Russell Kirk (Kenneth C. Cole, Pournelle's mentor at the University of Washington, was co-founder with Kirk of Modern Age) and Stefan T. Possony. Pournelle wrote numerous publications with Possony, including The Strategy of Technology (1970). 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.
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).
As of early 2008, Dr. Pournelle has been battling a brain tumor, which appears to be responding favorably to radiation treatment. View 502 January 21 - 27, 2008 As of 28 August, 2008 he is cancer-free according to a report on his weblog.
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 SF novels under his own name (sometimes rendered as "J.E. Pournelle") include:
A Spaceship for the King (1973) part of the CoDominium series
King David's Spaceship (1980) an expanded version of A Spaceship for the King - peripherally linked to the Motie subseries
The Endless Frontier (1979)
Janissaries series composed of: (unfinished series)
Tran (1996) (with Roland J. Green) (omnibus of the second and third novels in the Janissaries series)
Janissaries II (1982) (with Roland Green)
Janissaries III (1987) (with Roland Green)
Janissaries IV (work in progress)
The Falkenberg's Legion subseries of the CoDominium series
The Prince (2002) omnibus edition of the Falkenberg's Legion series
Prince of Mercenaries (1989)
Falkenberg's Legion (1990) omnibus edition of West of Honor and The Mercenary
West of Honor (1976)
The Mercenary (1977)
Go Tell the Spartans (1991)
Prince of Sparta (1993)
Fires of Freedom (2009) Birth of Fire and King David's Spaceship in one volume.
In the mid-1970s, Pournelle began a fruitful collaboration with Larry Niven:
The Mote in God's Eye (1974) (part of the CoDominium series, and the Motie subseries)
Lucifer's Hammer (1977)
Oath of Fealty (1982)
The Legacy of Heorot (1987), with Steven Barnes
The Gripping Hand (1991), the sequel to The Mote in God's Eye (part of the CoDominium series, and the Motie subseries)
Fallen Angels (1991) with 2003 Heinlein Award winner Michael Flynn
The Dragons of Heorot AKA Beowulf's Children (1995), with Steven Barnes; the sequel to The Legacy of Heorot
The Burning City (2000)
Burning Tower (2005).
Escape from Hell (sequel to Inferno, 2009)
Burning Mountain (in the planning stages).
In 1985, Footfall, in which Robert A. Heinlein was a thinly veiled minor character, reached the number one spot on The New York Times bestseller list. Another bestseller, Lucifer's Hammer (1977), reached number two. Fallen Angels won the Prometheus Award in 1992 for Best Novel and Japan's Seiun Award for Foreign Novel in 1998.
Pournelle wrote the "Chaos Manor" column in the print version of Byte, beginning in January 1982. In the column, Pournelle described his experiences with computer hardware and software, some purchased and some sent by vendors for his review. 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. Notes from a Survival Sage
Since 1998, Pournelle has maintained a website with a daily online journal, "View from Chaos Manor", a blog dating from before the use of that term. This is a continuation of his 1980s blog-like online journal on GEnie. He says he resists using the term blog because he considers the word ugly and because he maintains that his "View" is primarily a vehicle for writing rather than a collection of links.
Humor is an important part of his journalistic output. He wrote of an incident when he and his wife drove to Baja California to witness a total solar eclipse. Driving a rugged trail to a mountain top, the better to see the umbra approaching at hundreds of miles per hour, they found another vehicle there. Parking next to it, Mrs. Roberta Pournelle rolled down a window and asked "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?"
Humorist Dave Barry gives accolades to Pournelle's guru column in Byte magazine in Dave Barry in Cyberspace.
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  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".
Pournelle opposed both Gulf Wars, maintaining that the money would be better spent developing energy technologies for the United States. He is quoted as saying "with what we spent in Iraq we could build nuclear power plants and space solar power satellites and tell the Arabs to drink their oil." His web site is critical of the Iraq War, but demands support of troops committed there. "Once you send the troops in, you have no choice but to give them what they need until you bring them home."
Pournelle is also known for his Pournelle chart, a 2-dimensional coordinate system used to distinguish political ideologies. 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 planning, bottom being its total lack).
Pournelle has popularized a law, which he calls 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.
Also stated 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 representative 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 Institutions.
His "blog", "The View from Chaos Manor", often references apparent examples of the law.
Pournelle's 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 cables connections when diagnosing computer problems.
Pournelle is a member of commentator Steve Sailer's "Human Biodiversity Institute."
This is a list of some of Pournelle's standard themes that recur in the stories.
Welfare States become self perpetuating. In fact, the officials of a Welfare State, perceiving that their jobs require a supply of "clients" needing State aid, eventually become adept at making sure that there are always people in need. To do this, they either adopt policies that promote poverty and dependence, or stretch existing classifications to bring more "clients" into the Welfare system.
Building a technological society requires a strong defense and the rule of law. Even if large scale war is not a threat, many small scale conflicts (involving terrorism, for example) can disrupt a society, especially if encouraged and supplied from outside. Even a country such as Sweden, which combines a high level of technological achievement and liberal social policies, maintains a strong military that uses Swedish-manufactured technology.
"Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it." Pournelle uses history as a source of warnings about the consequences of certain policies, and of examples of effective military organization and tactics.
These concepts are part of the basic underlying structure of the Pournelle Universe, at least as much as the physics which enable Faster-Than-Light travel or the engineering which goes into the weapons used by military protagonists. In the books and stories, protagonists (individuals, groups, whole cultures) who abide by such rules are likely to succeed and those who ignore or flout them are usually doomed to failure, sometimes very messy and painful failure.
Examples in fiction
In The Mercenary, later integrated into Falkenberg's Legion, the newly-independent planet Hadley is threatened with economic collapse, famine, and resulting mass death. This can only be avoided by having a large part of its city population relocated to the countryside and assigned to work in agriculture. This solution is unpopular, and the leading Freedom Party won't hear of it. The party uses bloody, violent means to force the planet's President to resign and get themselves into power. The story's protagonist, mercenary commander John Christian Falkenberg, finds what he considers a brutal but unavoidable solution: in order to force the city people to move to the countryside, the Freedom Party must be completely crushed, in however bloody a way - as the other alternative is a total economic collapse in which at least a third of the population would perish.
Accordingly, he gets his soldiers into the stadium where the Freedom Party holds its rally, catching its members by complete surprise. His men break the disorganized resistance and proceed to systematically kill the armed militants and party leaders. Mission completed, Falkenberg hands over power to a well-meaning liberal who hitherto could only wring his hands in despair, and departs the planet. Falkenberg freely offers to use himself and his men as scapegoats, since "nobody is going to forget what happened today".
Pournelle clearly set up the situation leading to such a climax to illustrate his opinion that in some situations a brutal solution is unavoidable, and that those willing to implement such a solution unflinchingly should be considered heroes.
The climax and perhaps some of the politics are borrowed from Fletcher Pratt's The Battles That Changed History, specifically "Fighting in the Streets and the Future of Order." Justinian the Great suppressed a revolt in Constantinople by seeming to capitulate, and then sending in Belisarius with reliable mercenaries to butcher the celebrating faction in the Hippodrome together with their leaders. This incident is formally known as the Nika riots.
In Footfall, elephant-like alien invaders seize a foothold in Kansas. Unable to dislodge them with conventional weapons, the US government finally resorts to annihilating Kansas with nuclear weapons-- killing aliens and humans alike.
Later, when the aliens continue their offensive, the President authorizes the construction of a spaceship powered by nuclear explosions; the dangerous technology is presented as the only viable technology available to humans for powering a space warship. Safety, environmental and civil rights protections are suspended in the construction area.
An investigative journalist discovers the Orion ship. Wrestling with whether to reveal the scoop of the century to the world (and therefore alerting the alien invaders as well), he confides the secret to an environmental activist. Although he does this as protection against being arrested by the government and had not definitively decided to publish, the activist kills him to protect the secret.
After the human ship fights the alien mothership to the brink of destruction, the aliens finally attempt to negotiate a surrender. The President expresses his willingness to accept a peaceful settlement. Unwilling to spare the enemy mothership for a mere promise from the alien leader, the National Security Advisor seizes control of the government and refuses the alien's terms. The aliens immediately turn their ship over to human control and offer their unconditional surrender.
In Lucifer's Hammer, the world is thrown into total chaos by the disastrous strike of a comet. In the wreckage of central California, a coalition of US Army deserters, Black Power activists, militant environmentalists, and evangelical religious fanatics take up cannibalism and pursue an anti-technological crusade against the remaining enclaves of civilization. When a farming community is attacked by this group, the settlers are forced to counter the invading army's superior numbers, fanaticism and weapons with home-brewed chemical weapons (mustard gas). The farmers successfully use this weapon of mass destruction to annihilate their enemies, enslaving the survivors.
High Justice is a collection of seven stories, all of which have as protagonists the agents and executives of multinational corporations (upgraded to multi-planetary corporations in the later stories) who work to defend their corporation's business interests in ways both fair or foul in various science-fictional settings.