Into The Light: Jerry Pournelle

NOTE:  I started writing this the day the news broke; but, life has been hectic and frankly this one has been hard to write.  So, trying to finish it now and get it out. 

Since hearing the news of his death, I’ve been thinking about the Jerry Pournelle I knew. That phrasing is very deliberate, because science fiction fandom has long been into drama, and the tall tales of Jerry and others were legend continuously being embellished and embossed. Many in the field have written about him, and he was a giant in the field. Yet, far fewer realize the impact he had on many areas outside the field.

I first met him at a worldcon (LA I think) and while he was harried and hurried, he was gracious. I think I met him again at another con, but it was when we met at a science conference that he took a look at me, and some amazing things (from my perspective) happened.

I suddenly found myself under his wing, loudly threatened with a messy departure from this life (his booming pronouncement of same echoing through the atrium literally caused the lobby and other parts of the Hyatt in Chicago to fall silent), and being introduced to a wide range of figures in science, science fiction, and other fields. In fact, at that science conference, I found myself going to a dinner I could only dream of on government per diem with Jerry, his lovely and gracious wife Roberta, Fred Pohl, and a number of other luminaries.

What struck me at the time was that he and the others treated me and my opinions as worthy of hearing and discussion — and drew me out on them. While I had been doing science reporting and writing for several years at that point, I was still early in my career and was definitely the junior party present. In fact, I rather felt like an E-1 suddenly finding himself at dinner with the Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs and other senior leaders. Yet, Jerry set the tone and I was encouraged by all to join in on the discussions.

It was the first of several such dinners over the years, and I’m glad I finally got the chance to reciprocate many years later. It was more than dinners. I found myself included in a number of discussions, informal meetings, and more. We discussed ways to get humanity into space, deal with a variety of threats here at home, and shoot the bull. Jerry, and Roberta, helped take some rough edges off of me, and provided some life lessons well beyond writing.

Yet, for all that he was a giant in the science fiction field, few realize the crucial role he played in winning the Cold War; in the aerospace industry; in setting the stage for the current commercial space industry; in advancing computing and personal computing; and, with Roberta, in education. Few realize he was a polymath, with degrees covering a wide range of topics while focused on his core. He had significant impact in each of them.

He served in the Korean War with the Army, then obtained several degrees. While doing that, he also worked for Boeing and as part of that worked on Project Thor, a KEV concept that continues to evolve (and offers a much needed alternative to nuclear strikes, IMO). He then went on to do more work in the field, including serving as the founding president of the Pepperdine Research Institute.

When I was working commercial space activities at NASA, I was unsurprised to find that Jerry was there ahead of me in terms of sowing seeds with the investment community. Not just for launch services, but in terms of the wide range of research that can (and does) benefit from research in microgravity — everything from casting metals to plant growth.

His work — and Roberta’s — in education is very much under appreciated in my opinion. Together, they have advanced a number of theories and initiatives that could help with the current state of education.

His work in computing was far more than his column. In fact, he used his column to push a number of things that have helped bring about the current state of the field — and lay groundwork for the future.

The small part I played in the Cold War was an area where Jerry helped provide context by sharing history and his experiences, which pre-dated mine. It shaped some of my thoughts on preparedness — a topic on which we both had considerable interest.

Nor were all the times serious. We laughed, told tales, and generally had a good time even as we discussed and plotted on more serious things.

For all his legend, there was a great deal of thought behind what he said, and even how he said it. We did not always agree; but, when presented with a differing opinion he always listened and there were some interesting bits of discourse between those present. Eye opening and mind opening does not begin to describe it.

If there is a way to influence things from that which awaits, I have little doubt that he, Aleta Jackson, and some others are already deep into discussions and efforts to do just that.

There is so much more I could say, but the fact is he was more than an author. He was an innovator who encouraged innovation and growth in a number of fields. More than that, he encouraged people with a wide range of interests (and beliefs) to think, grow, and do.

Godspeed Jerry. Prayers are said for you and your family, and for all you leave behind. Thank you for all you did for me, and for being you. The world has lost not just a gifted writer, but someone who worked tirelessly to make practical and positive changes to the world.

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