Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle at the 2006 Stanford Singularity Summit
Pseudonym:"J.E. Pournelle"
"Wade Curtis"
Born:July 7 1933 (1933--) (age 74)
Shreveport, Louisiana, U.S.
Genres:Science fiction

Jerry Eugene Pournelle, (born August 7, 1933) is an American essayist, journalist and science fiction author who contributed for many years to the computer magazine Byte. He has served as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.


Pournelle was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and educated in Capleville, Tennessee.[1] He served in the US Army during the Korean War as an artillery officer. After Korea, he obtained advanced degrees in psychology, statistics, engineering, and political science, including two PhDs. He acquired political experience by serving as Executive Assistant to the Mayor and Director of Research for the City of Los Angeles, campaign manager for Congressman Barry Goldwater Jr. (Rep.), and campaign manager for the third (successful) campaign for Mayor Sam Yorty (Dem.).

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 with whom Pournelle wrote numerous publications including The Strategy of Technology, onetime textbook at the United States Military Academy (West Point) and the United States Air Force Academy (Colorado Springs). His work in the aerospace industry includes editing Project 75, a 1964 study of 1975 defense requirements. He worked in operations research at Boeing, The Aerospace Corporation, and North American Rockwell Space Division, and was founding President of the Pepperdine Research Institute.

A famous humorist, Dave Barry, gives accolades with regards to Mr. Pournelle's guru column in Byte magazine in Mr. Barry's book, "Dave Barry in Cyberspace"..

Writing career

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: In the mid-1970s, Pournelle began a fruitful collaboration with Larry Niven: 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.

See [1]


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 Dorsai 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.


Since January 1982, Pournelle wrote the "Chaos Manor" column in the print version of Byte. 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.

Since 1998, Pournelle has maintained a website with a daily online journal, "View from Chaos Manor", in effect 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 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 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?"


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, exploiting the larger defence budget. [2] 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". [3] . The Council's first report [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.

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. This law "...states that 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." 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. His "blog", "The View from Chaos Manor", often references apparent examples of the law.

Contrarian scientific views

Pournelle has expressed support for several viewpoints that differ from the mainstream scientific consensus. These include skepticism on a significant human contribution to global warming and on evolution, and he has advocated research to directly investigate Peter Duesberg's controversial views on the cause of AIDS. Pournelle has also commented on possible links between race and IQ. He emphasizes that in some cases, particularly when the impacts of wrong decisions could be disastrous, contrarian research by competent researchers is valuable as insurance.

Politics in the fiction

In his books Pournelle delights in again and again creating situations and dilemmas from which the only solution (at least, the only one offered to the reader) is taking an action which is decidedly not "politically correct". However these stories are not mere one-sided polemics. The protagonists are at the mercy of forces they may understand but cannot control, forces which are very real and which operate in our world today. If Pournelle has specific targets in mind, they are those who for ideological or personal reasons ignore or bypass these truths. The forces involved are the need for resources, especially energy, the inevitable stratification of societies and the consequences of disturbing the existing order, and the tendency of cultures to drift towards the politics of entitlement, as demonstrated by Welfare States throughout history as well as economic oligarchies. Similar themes occur in the work of H. Beam Piper, who was an influence on Pournelle.

Pournelle is also a member of noted writer Steve Sailer's "Human Biodiversity Institute."

Recurrent themes

This is a list of some of Pournelle's pet themes that recur in the stories.
  • Welfare States become self sustaining. In fact, eventually 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(Terrorism) 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 the fiction

  • In The Mercenary, latter 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.

For more details on this topic, see The Prince (Pournelle).
  • In Footfall, elephant-like alien invaders land in Kansas, and the only way to dislodge them seems to be large-scale nuclear strikes which would kill a lot of American citizens together with the aliens and render Kansas a radioactive wasteland - which is precisely what the US government proceeds to do.
Later on, when the aliens continue their offensive and seize large parts of Africa, the US President secretly authorizes the construction of a spaceship powered by nuclear blasts - the only way of getting at the orbiting alien mothership and ending the threat. The environmental considerations which led to stopping such a project in the 1960s are brushed aside in the emergency.

An investigative journalist discovers this environmentally-damaging government project and plans to reveal it, in the hope of a Pulitzer - but is murdered by his best friend to whom he had revealed his intention, and who is determined to protect the secret at all costs.

The ship takes off, with radioactive contamination of Earth's atmosphere considered an acceptable price, and successfully engages with the alien ship. But at the critical moment the President grows "soft" and is willing to settle for less than the aliens' unconditional surrender. Whereupon the President's civil and military associates seize power, hold the President incommunicado and hand effective power to the hawkish National Security Adviser - who carries the war to a successful conclusion and secures the aliens' surrender.
  • In Lucifer's Hammer, the world is thrown into total chaos by the disastrous strike of a comet. The one hope of restoring a technological civilization is a nuclear power station which survived intact - but a coalition of religious fanatics, militant environmental activists and Afro-Americans, who have all taken up cannibalism, are determined to destroy the station, and they possess the guns to do it. The protagonists seem helpless to stop them, until a scientist comes up with the formula for mustard gas - and they proceed to gas the advancing cannibals, save the power station and get on with the reconstruction of civilization. (The scientist saviour, who had selflessly given the production of mustard gas priority over insulin, dies of diabetes).
  • High Justice is a collection of seven stories, all of which portray as heroes (or at least, as protagonists whose success the author seems to desire) 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.

Professional Influences

  • Important to Pournelle's early career was Jack Woodford and his books on writing and getting published.



  • Stability and national security (Air Force Directorate of Doctrines, Concepts and Objectives) (1968)
  • The Strategy of Technology with Stephan T. Possony, Ph.D. and Francis X. Kane, Ph.D. (1970) available at
  • A Step Farther Out: The Velikovsky Affair. Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1975, pp. 74-84.
  • A Step Farther Out (1981)
  • The users guide to small computers (1984)
  • Mutually Assured Survival (1984)
  • Adventures in Microland (1985)
  • Guide to Disc Operating System and Easy Computing (1989)
  • Pournelle's PC Communications Bible: The Ultimate Guide to Productivity With a Modem with Michael Banks (1992)
  • Jerry Pournelle's Guide to DOS and Easy Computing: DOS over Easy (1992)
  • Jerry Pournelle's Windows With an Attitude (1995)
  • PC Hardware: The Definitive Guide (2003) with Bob Thompson
  • 1001 Computer Words You Need to Know (2004)



Other Media

  • This Week in Tech - Dr. Pournelle has appeared a number of times as one of the panelists on the podcast This Week in Tech. He appears to be invited principally as a source of "old-timer" knowledge of the early days of computer technology.


External links


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