Jerry Pournelle

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Jerry Pournelle
Jerrytux small.jpg
Pournelle at NASFiC in 2005
Born (1933-08-07)August 7, 1933
Shreveport, Louisiana, United States
Died September 8, 2017(2017-09-08) (aged 84)[1]
Studio City, California, United States
Pen name Wade Curtis (early work)
Occupation Novelist, journalist, essayist
Nationality American
Period 1971–2017
Genre Science fiction

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 announced he would be working with tech journalist Gina Smith to relaunch BYTE as the website, for InformationWeek publisher United Business Media.[2] A few months later, he joined Smith, tech pundit John C. Dvorak, syndicated political cartoonist Ted Rall and several other staff reporters to launch an independent tech and political news site, aNewDomain. He served aNewDomain Media as its director till his death.

Pournelle served as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1973.[3]

Early years

Pournelle was born in Shreveport, the seat of Caddo Parish in northwestern Louisiana, and educated in Capleville, Tennessee.[4] He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Afterwards, he studied at the University of Washington and received a BSc in psychology on June 11, 1955; an M.S. in psychology on March 21, 1958; and a PhD in political science in March 1964.[5] 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.[6]

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'" and is dated 1964.[7]


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.[8] The election took place on May 27, 1969.[9] Pournelle was later named Executive Assistant to the Mayor in charge of research in September 1969, but resigned from the position after two weeks.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12]

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".[13] He edited Project 75, a 1964 study of 1975 defense requirements.[14] 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.[15]

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.[16]

In 1985, Footfall, in which Robert A. Heinlein was a thinly veiled minor character, reached the number one spot on the New York Times Best Seller List. Another bestseller, Lucifer's Hammer (1977), reached number two. Both novels were written with Larry Niven.

In 1994, Pournelle's friendly relationship with Newt Gingrich led to Gingrich securing a government job for Pournelle's son, Richard.[17] At the time, Pournelle and Gingrich were reported to be collaborating on "a science fiction political thriller."[17] Pournelle's relationship with Gingrich was long established even then, as Pournelle had written the preface to Gingrich's book, Window of Opportunity (1985).[18]

Years after BYTE shuttered, Pournelle wrote his Chaos Manor column online. He reprised it at, 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.

Personal life

In 2008, Pournelle battled a brain tumor, which appeared to respond favorably to radiation treatment.[19] An August 28, 2008 report on his weblog claimed he was now cancer-free.

In 2010, his daughter Jennifer R. Pournelle (writing as J.R. Pournelle), an archaeology professor, e-published a novel Outies, an authorized sequel to the Mote in God's Eye series.[20][21]

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.[22][23]

Pournelle died in his sleep at his home in Studio City, California, on September 8, 2017.[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 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

In February 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.[24] In October 2013, 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.[25]

Pseudonyms and collaborations

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 by "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 June 1980. Subtitled "Omikron TRS-80 Boards, NEWDOS+, and Sundry Other Matters", an Editor's Note accompanied the article:[26][27]

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.[27] The next column appeared in December 1980 with the subtitle "BASIC, Computer Languages, and Computer Adventures",[28]

Ezekiel II, a Compupro S-100 CP/M system, debuted in March 1983.[29] Other computers received nicknames, such as Lucy Van Pelt, Pournelle's "fussbudget" IBM PC,[30] 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".[31]

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".[26] 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.[32]

In the 1980s, Pournelle was an editor and columnist for Survive, a survivalist magazine.[33]

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.[34] 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 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.

Humorist Dave Barry has fun with 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.[35] 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[36] 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".[37]

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 was critical of the Iraq War, but demanded support of the 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 rational planning, bottom being complete lack of confidence in rational planning).

Iron Law of Bureaucracy

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.[38]

He restated it as: 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.[39]

This can be compared to the Iron law of oligarchy. His blog, "The View from Chaos Manor", often referenced apparent examples of the law.

Some of Pournelle's standard themes that recurred in the stories were: 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."

Politics in fiction

As noted by James Wheatfield,[40] "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."

  • 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 (a socialist solution which is very reminiscent of Mao's "cultural revolution"). 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".

    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.




  • Stability and National Security (Air Force Directorate of Doctrines, Concepts and Objectives) (1968)[43]
  • The Strategy of Technology with Stephan T. Possony, PhD and Francis X. Kane, PhD (1970)[44]
  • 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)



With Larry Niven

With others


Other media

  • Triangulation[48] – Dr. Pournelle was interviewed by Leo Laporte for 2 episodes of Triangulation (Episodes 90 and 95) in 2013.
  • This Week in Tech – Dr. Pournelle has appeared a number of times as one of the panelists on the podcast This Week in Tech, including episode 427 on October 13, 2013; episode 463 on June 22, 2014; and with Larry Niven in episode 468 on July 27, 2014.
  • He also appeared in the science documentary film Target... Earth? (1980).

Anthology (as editor)


  1. 1.0 1.1 Pournelle, Alex (September 8, 2017). "Passings…". Chaos Manor. Retrieved September 8, 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "TWiT 284/Transcript - The Official TWiT Wiki". Retrieved September 9, 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. The SFWA Grand Masters, Vol. One edited by Frederik Pohl, 1999, NY, NY, pg. 12
  4. The View from Chaos Manor, June 20, 2003
  5. "Transcript". University of Washington Registrar's Office.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Behavioural observations of the effects of personality needs and leadership in small discussion groups" listing, University of Washington Libraries
  7. The American political continuum; an examination of the validity of the left-right model as an instrument for studying contemporary American political "isms." listing, University of Washington Libraries
  8. "Yorty Campaign Reorganized; Henry Salvatori Takes Charge", KENNETH REICH, Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1969.
  9. "Will Be Glad to Meet Bradley to Heal Any Wounds, Yorty Says", Los Angeles Times, May 29, 1969.
  10. "Key Assistant to Yorty Quits After 2 Weeks", Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1969.
  11. "UTLA Captures 6 of 9 Positions on Teacher Council", HARRY BERNSTEIN, Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1970.
  12. "The First Essential of Airpower: The Case for Air Force Laboratories", Air & Space Power Journal, Major Daniel E. Bullock, September 29, 1999.
  13. "Rods From God", JONATHAN SHAININ, The New York Times, December 10, 2006.
  14. "Deep Impact", JERRY POURNELLE, Dr. Dobb's Journal, October 1, 2005. Pournelle goes into some detail; the study was classified.
  15. "Test of Tail-First Landing: Science Fiction Gives Rocket a Boost", CHARLES PETIT, San Francisco Chronicle, June 17, 1993.
  16. The General, Vol. 7, No. 6.
  17. 17.0 17.1 "Hot Topics", JON BREAM, Star Tribune (Minneapolis–Saint Paul), May 2, 1995.
  18. "The Truth Is Out There", ALEXANDER STARR, The New York Times, August 9, 1998.
  19. View 502 January 21 – 27, 2008.
  20. The View From Chaos Manor, View 668 March 28 - April 3, 2011, Jerry Pournelle.
  21., J.R. Pournelle.
  22. According to his son, Alex Pournelle, The View from Chaos Manor, Dr. Pournelle's blog.
  23. Pournelle, Jerry. "Chaos Manor blog". Archived from the original on June 15, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "Goddard Forms Film Production Unit".
  25. "Janissaries". IMDb.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. 26.0 26.1 Lemmons, Phil (June 1984). "BYTE's New Look". BYTE (editorial). p. 6. Retrieved October 23, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. 27.0 27.1 Pournelle, Jerry (July 1980). "Omikron TRS-80 Boards, NEWDOS+, and Sundry Other Matters". BYTE. p. 198. Retrieved October 18, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Pournelle, Jerry (December 1980). "BASIC, Computer Languages, and Computer Adventures". BYTE. p. 222. Retrieved October 18, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. Pournelle, Jerry (March 1983). "Sage in Bloom, Zeke II, CBIOS Traps, Language Debate Continues". BYTE. p. 218. Retrieved October 19, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Pournelle, Jerry (October 1984). "Minor Problems". BYTE. p. 317. Retrieved October 23, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Pournelle, Jerry (November 1984). "NCC Reflections". BYTE. p. 361. Retrieved October 23, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. "Chaos Manor Reviews". Chaos Manor Reviews. Retrieved August 31, 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Notes from a Survival Sage
  34. "Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor". June 25, 2011. Retrieved August 31, 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  36. "Le Monde, SDI, Space, and The Council". Retrieved August 31, 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. "Bush Medical Research Funding Lags Inflation Again". FuturePundit. February 5, 2007. Retrieved August 31, 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  38. "Current Chaos Manor mail". Retrieved August 31, 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  39. "The Iron Law of Bureaucracy". September 11, 2010. Retrieved August 31, 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  40. James Wheatfield, "Controversial Politics in Contemporary Thrillers, Science Fiction and Fantasy" in Barbara Brown (Ed.) "Trends in Literature and Popular Culture in the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century"
  41. Heinlein Society 2005 Heinlein Award
  42. NSS, Acclaimed Science Fiction Author Dr. Jerry Pournelle Wins the National Space Society Robert A. Heinlein Award, April 12, 2016 (accessed April 24 2016)
  43. "Stability and National Security" (PDF). 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  44. "The Strategy of Technology". Retrieved August 31, 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  45. TWiTTriangulation (February 6, 2013). "Triangulation 90: Jerry Pournelle".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> PODcast Interview with Jerry Pournelle
  46. Jerry Pournelle (October 26, 2011). "A good day; Iron Law and NASA". Chaos Manor.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  47. "Chat Log: January 7th, 2012". Larry Niven. January 7, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  48. "Triangulation".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links