In Memoriam, Jerry Pournelle
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Categories: Not an expert

In Memoriam, Jerry Pournelle

Dr. Jerry E. Pournelle died a few days ago. As someone who only knew him through his work, its hard for me to express what a brilliant, multitalented, frustrating individual he was. The summary of his career on Wikipedia gives some idea: born poor in Louisiana, conscripted into the US Army and sent to Korea as an artillery officer, he made his way through university by keeping a pot constantly simmering in his one-room apartment and got a doctorate in Political Science. Having just gotten started, he moved to Southern California and filled his life with political advocacy, academic work on the strategy of technology and operations research, hobbyist and professional wargaming, science-fiction fandom and the early SCA, fiction writing, a technology column for the early home computer movement in the 1980s and 1990s, and eventually a blog (not to mention marrying and having two children, one a multi-talented academic and another who prefers a quiet life). Like some other Catholic intellectuals in rich English-speaking countries, he was a contrarian by nature and loved a good rant. Throughout his life he was fearless in expressing his political opinions and attacking his political opponents, but since he had very different convictions than I do, particularly later in his life, I will say no more about that here. He did his best to save the world from communism and his country from its most threatening neighbours, and his writings were an important influence on my thought in my teens and early twenties.

People interested in ancient warfare are most likely to know him through his military science fiction which was always infused with his political science and his reading in the classics. As I wrote back in 2012, in a list of some modern projects similar to Xenophon’s Cyropaedia:

His Falkenberg stories are set about the year 2100 in a world where the US and USSR decided it was better to divide the world between them then fight and possibly lose. They extended this arrangement when a faster-than-light drive was invented. Unfortunately, tensions are brewing, and its clear to any intelligent observer that there will be a nuclear war soon. Enter John Christian Falkenberg, a professional soldier turned mercenary and part of a conspiracy devoted to delaying that war and ensuring that some sort of technological civilization survives it. Pournelle uses some interesting techniques to portray his brilliant soldier, including keeping him offstage as much as possible and using different viewpoint characters who notice different sides of him; he also uses such devices as a Socratic dialogue between two indentured servants, a government designed by political scientists who have read their Polybius and Aristotle, and a scene drawn from Justinian’s suppression of the Nike riots. … Why is this a parallel? It shows a recent solution to the problem of portraying a brilliant military leader, and of embedding political philosophy in fiction.

“The Cyropaedia and Later Prose Fictions,” Cyrus’ Paradise (Wayback Machine)

– And that two-way standoff ending in an alliance, the Co-Dominium, was inspired by situations like the Roman-Parthian and Roman-Sasanid struggles, or the balance of power between Athens and Sparta during the Pentekontaetia, as well as many other cases. I wish as many political scientists were familiar with ancient and medieval scenarios as well as ones in the last hundred years.

He was very good at so many things, and tireless in supporting the things he loved, and while we found ourselves on opposite sides on some very important questions, I am sorry to see him go.

Edit 2024-02-20: block editor

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0 thoughts on “In Memoriam, Jerry Pournelle

  1. russell1200 says:

    He was a fairly major figure in the survivalist movement editing one of the major (pre-internet) news letters. You can see that in some of this writing.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Now that is another side of his life that I did not know about! I think I will check out the novel by Jennifer R. Pournelle.

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