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Jerry Pournelle 2017

By Greg Bear

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Jerry Pournelle, 1980
Photo by Astrid Anderson

One of my favorite Jerry moments happened during a Citizen's Advisory Council meeting in the 1980s, held at Larry Niven's home in Tarzana and attended by rocket scientists, engineers, politicians, NASA officials, and more than a few science fiction writers and fans. Jerry was in his element, putting capable people together to effect great changes, and toward the end of a busy day, he walked through a room and proclaimed, "My feet hurt and I don't love Jesus!"

Jerry's wife Roberta walked past, glared at him, and said, "You do too love Jesus!"

Jerry cocked his head, grinned, and said, "Yeah, I guess I do still love Jesus."

It's very hard to say good-bye to Jerry. He's played such a large and consistent role in my life over the years, despite (or perhaps because of) our major disagreements on politics. I am a moderate but eminently reasonable liberal. Jerry more than once described his own politics as a little to the right of Attila the Hun.

Still, we got along. There were many occasions when Jerry, in frustration at my obtuseness, would yell at me. But we still greatly enjoyed each other's company, and Jerry over the years listened, gave sage advice, sometimes took advice, and put me in the way of many extraordinary opportunities. In part, I surmised later on, he was grooming me to serve in the Science Fiction Writers of America, a fractious but necessary organization, dear to his heart, where he had performed admirably as president, and helped resolve many pressing issues in publishing.

The friendship began with my being invited to join a discussion group at Pepperdine University, near Malibu, California, in the mid-1970s. I was publishing early stories in GALAXY and ANALOG. Jerry had read some. Pepperdine was a hotbed of conservative activity, and I was a self-professed liberal, but those events were both educational and great fun. I picked up a lot of opposition insight, observing the habits of scions of very rich people, very rich people, and those who enjoyed being fed by the largesse of very rich people--including myself.

Jerry watched me closely, and later invited me to join the writers and journalists covering the Voyager missions to Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond. That gig lasted from 1979 to 1989. (Here's a picture of Jerry in the press room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1980, also in his element, hugely enjoying himself). During that time, I got together with Astrid, daughter of Poul and Karen Anderson. Jerry and Poul were fast friends. After a day spent at JPL, during a dinner party at the Pournelle home in Studio City, Jerry brandished a long sword and swooped it around, nearly decapitating several guests, to Roberta's concern. He pointed the sword at me and said, "Bear, you'd better take care of her. She has a lot more friends than you do!"

I accepted that responsibility, said something to defuse his indignation, and received a grateful look from Roberta. We were staunch allies from that point on. And nobody actually died.

In the early 1980s, Jerry invited me to join the Citizen's Advisory Council on National Space Policy, engaged in the hugely controversial and interesting prospect of designing and proposing missile and other defensive systems designed to bring down Soviet ICBMs. There were many amazing people at those meetings. I listened, contributed a few papers that recorded sessions managed by experts, and made up my own mind about the prospects--finding the entire idea fascinating, likely improbable of ultimate success, but well worth trying in the incredibly fraught environment of the last stages of the Cold War. Along the way, at this and other high-tech meetings (including at what was then called Titan Systems in San Diego) I lived among the cultures, characters, politics, and technological thinking that would underlie the situation I described in EON, published in 1985. The Soviet Union folded its cards earlier than anyone expected, and there followed mixed analyses as to how much the Strategic Defense Initiative proposed by General Danny Graham and others helped with that, but I saw with more information and insight than I otherwise would have had the strange conflicts and posturings involved in high-level international politics.

Jerry gave me that opportunity. Later Council meetings focused on Jerry's other abiding passion, humans in space, and brought in NASA administrator Dan Goldin (at his own request, so powerful and respected was the Council) to help plan for the future of civilian space flight.

Today, civilian space flight is major. Jerry and those Council meetings helped that come about, I think.

Jerry was demanding, challenging, unpredictable, brilliant. Especially in our early years, Jerry was one of the few people who could make me sweat. But he stuck with me, kept bringing me into new opportunities, and was forgiving of my occasional lapses. In short, Jerry had a huge heart. He was a mentor to many. A major mentor to me.

Some people judged Jerry by Roberta. If Roberta, a very intelligent and strong woman, put up with him, then there had to be something good there. And her presence was certainly a terrific gauge. But I judged Jerry soon enough by the shining light he himself projected. Jerry was intensely interested in human beings and their possibilities, as well as their foibles.

Also, a damned fine writer.

Very tough to say good-bye. So I won't.

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