Books by Pournelle, Jerry

Niven, Larry and Jerry Pournelle. Escape from Hell. New York: Tor Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-765-31632-5.
Every now and then you read a novel where you're absolutely certain as you turn the pages that the author(s) had an absolute blast writing it, and when that's the case the result is usually superbly entertaining. That is certainly true here. How could two past masters of science fiction and fantasy not delight in a scenario in which they can darn to heck anybody they wish, choosing the particular torment for each and every sinner?

In this sequel to the authors' 1976 novel Inferno, the protagonist of the original novel, science fiction writer Allen Carpenter, makes a second progress through Hell. This time, after an unfortunate incident on the Ice in the Tenth Circle, he starts out back in the Vestibule, resolved that this time he will escape from Hell himself and, as he progresses ever downward toward the exit described by Dante, to determine if it is possible for any damned soul to escape and to aid those willing to follow him.

Hell is for eternity, but that doesn't mean things don't change there. In the decades since Carpenter's first traverse, there have been many modifications in the landscape of the underworld. We meet many newly-damned souls as well as revisiting those encountered before. Carpenter recounts his story to Sylvia Plath, who as a suicide, has been damned as a tree in the Wood of the Suicides in the Seventh Circle and who, rescued by him, accompanies him downward to the exit. The ice cream stand in the Fiery Desert is a refreshing interlude from justice without mercy! The treatment of one particular traitor in the Ice is sure to prove controversial; the authors explain their reasoning for his being there in the Notes at the end. A theme which runs throughout is how Hell is a kind of Heaven to many of those who belong there and, having found their niche in Eternity, aren't willing to gamble it for the chance of salvation. I've had jobs like that—got better.

I'll not spoil the ending, but will close by observing that the authors have provided a teaser for a possible Paradiso somewhere down the road. Should that come to pass, I'll look forward to devouring it as I did this thoroughly rewarding yarn. I'll wager that if that work comes to pass, Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy will be found to apply as Below, so Above.

March 2009 Permalink

Pournelle, Jerry. Exile—and Glory. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-5563-6.
This book collects all of Jerry Pournelle's stories of Hansen Enterprises and other mega-engineering projects, which were originally published in Analog, Galaxy, and Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1972 and 1977. The stories were previously published in two books: High Justice and Exiles to Glory, which are now out of print—if you have those books, don't buy this one unless you want to upgrade to hardcover or can't resist the delightfully space-operatic cover art by Jennie Faries.

The stories take place in a somewhat dystopian future in which the “malaise” of the 1970s never ended. Governments worldwide are doing what governments do best: tax the productive, squander the revenue and patrimony of their subjects, and obstruct innovation and progress. Giant international corporations have undertaken the tasks needed to bring prosperity to a world teeming with people in a way which will not wreck the Earth's environment. But as these enterprises implement their ambitious projects on the sea floor, in orbit, and in the asteroid belt, the one great invariant, human nature, manifests itself and they find themselves confronted with the challenges which caused human societies to institute government in the first place. How should justice be carried out on the technological frontier? And, more to the point, how can it be achieved without unleashing the malign genie of coercive government? These stories are thoughtful explorations of these questions without ever ceasing to be entertaining yarns with believable characters. And you have to love what happens to the pesky lawyer on pp. 304–305!

I don't know if these stories have been revised between the time they were published in the '70s and this edition; there is no indication that they have either in this book or on Jerry Pournelle's Web site. If not, then the author was amazingly prescient about a number of subsequent events which few would have imagined probable thirty years ago. It's a little disheartening to think that one of the reasons these stories have had such a long shelf life is that none of the great projects we expected to be right around the corner in the Seventies have come to pass. As predicted here, governments have not only failed to undertake the challenges but been an active impediment to those trying to solve them, but also the business culture has become so risk-averse and oriented toward the short term that there appears to be no way to raise the capital needed to, for example, deploy solar power satellites, even though such capital is modest compared to that consumed in military adventures in Mesopotamia.

The best science fiction makes you think. The very best science fiction makes you think all over again when you re-read it three decades afterward. This is the very best, and just plain fun as well.

August 2008 Permalink

Niven, Larry, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn. Fallen Angels. New York: Baen Books, 1991. ISBN 978-0-7434-7181-7.
I do not have the slightest idea what the authors were up to in writing this novel. All three are award-winning writers of “hard” science fiction, and the first two are the most celebrated team working in that genre of all time. I thought I'd read all of the Niven and Pournelle (and assorted others) collaborations, but I only discovered this one when the 2004 reprint edition was mentioned on Jerry Pournelle's Web log.

The premise is interesting, indeed delicious: neo-Luddite environmentalists have so crippled the U.S. economy (and presumably that of other industrialised nations, although they do not figure in the novel) that an incipient global cooling trend due to solar inactivity has tipped over into an ice age. Technologists are actively persecuted, and the U.S. and Soviet space stations and their crews have been marooned in orbit, left to fend for themselves without support from Earth. (The story is set in an unspecified future era in which the orbital habitats accommodate a substantially larger population than space stations envisioned when the novel was published, and have access to lunar resources.)

The earthbound technophobes, huddling in the cold and dark as the glaciers advance, and the orbiting technophiles, watching their meagre resources dwindle despite their cleverness, are forced to confront one another when a “scoop ship” harvesting nitrogen from Earth's atmosphere is shot down by a missile and makes a crash landing on the ice cap descending on upper midwest of the United States. The two “angels”—spacemen—are fugitives sought by the Green enforcers, and figures of legend to that small band of Earthlings who preserve the dream of a human destiny in the stars.

And who would they be? Science fiction fans, of course! Sorry, but you just lost me, right about when I almost lost my lunch. By “fans”, we aren't talking about people like me, and probably many readers of this chronicle, whose sense of wonder was kindled in childhood by science fiction and who, even as adults, find it almost unique among contemporary literary genera in being centred on ideas, and exploring “what if” scenarios that other authors do not even imagine. No, here we're talking about the subculture of “fandom”, a group of people, defying parody by transcending the most outrageous attempts, who invest much of their lives into elaborating their own private vocabulary, writing instantly forgotten fan fiction and fanzines, snarking and sniping at one another over incomprehensible disputes, and organising conventions whose names seem ever so clever only to other fans, where they gather to reinforce their behaviour. The premise here is that when the mainstream culture goes South (literally, as the glaciers descend from the North), “who's gonna save us?”—the fans!

I like to think that more decades of reading science fiction than I'd like to admit to has exercised my ability to suspend disbelief to such a degree that I'm willing to accept just about any self-consistent premise as the price of admission to an entertaining yarn. Heck, last week I recommended a zombie book! But for the work of three renowned hard science fiction writers, there are a lot of serious factual flubs here. (Page numbers are from the mass market paperback edition cited above.)

  • The Titan II (not “Titan Two”) uses Aerozine 50 and Nitrogen tetroxide as propellants, not RP-1 (kerosene) and LOX. One could not fuel a Titan II with RP-1 and LOX, not only because the sizes of the propellant tanks would be incorrect for the mixture ratio of the propellants, but because the Titan II lacks the ignition system for non-hypergolic propellants. (pp. 144–145)
  • “Sheppard reach in the first Mercury-Redstone?” It's “Shepard”, and it was the third Mercury-Redstone flight. (p. 151)
  • “Schirra's Aurora 7”. Please: Aurora 7 was Carpenter's capsule (which is in the Chicago museum); Schirra's was Sigma 7. (p. 248)
  • “Dick Rhutan”. It's “Rutan”. (p, 266)
  • “Just hydrogen. But you can compress it, and it will liquify. It is not that difficult.”. Well, actually, it is. The critical point for hydrogen is 23.97° K, so regardless of how much you compress it, you still need to refrigerate it to a temperature less than half that of liquid nitrogen to obtain the liquid phase. For liquid hydrogen at one atmosphere, you need to chill it to 20.28° K. You don't just need a compressor, you need a powerful cryostat to liquefy hydrogen.
    “…letting the O2 boil off.” Oxygen squared? Please, it's O2. (p. 290)
  • “…the jets were brighter than the dawn…“. If this had been in verse, I'd have let it stand as metaphorical, but it's descriptive prose and dead wrong. The Phoenix is fueled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen, which burn with an almost invisible flame. There's no way the rocket exhaust would have been brighter than the dawn.

Now it seems to me there are three potential explanations of the numerous lapses of this story from the grounded-in-reality attention to detail one expects in hard science fiction.

  1. The authors deliberately wished to mock science fiction fans who, while able to reel off the entire credits of 1950s B movie creature features from memory, pay little attention to the actual history and science of the real world, and hence they get all kinds of details wrong while spouting off authoritatively.
  2. The story is set is an alternative universe, just a few forks from the one we inhabit. Consequently, the general outline is the same, but the little details differ. Like, for example, science fiction fans being able to work together to accomplish something productive.
  3. This manuscript, which, the authors “suspect that few books have ever been delivered this close to a previously scheduled publication date” (p. 451) was never subjected to the intensive fact-checking scrutiny which the better kind of obsessive-compulsive fan will contribute out of a sense that even fiction must be right where it intersects reality.

I'm not gonna fingo any hypotheses here. If you have no interest whatsoever in the world of science fiction fandom, you'll probably, like me, consider this the “Worst Niven and Pournelle—Ever”. On the other hand, if you can reel off every Worldcon from the first Boskone to the present and pen Feghoots for the local 'zine on days you're not rehearsing with the filk band, you may have a different estimation of this novel.

May 2008 Permalink

Pournelle, Jerry. Fires of Freedom. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, [1976, 1980] 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-3374-3.
This book includes two classic Jerry Pournelle novels which have been long out of print. Baen Publishing is doing journeyman work bringing the back lists of science fiction masters such as Pournelle, Robert Heinlein, and Poul Anderson back to the bookshelves, and this is a much welcome addition to the list. The two novels collected here are unrelated to one another. The first, Birth of Fire, originally published in 1976, follows a gang member who accepts voluntary exile to Mars to avoid a prison sentence on Earth. Arriving on Mars, he discovers a raw frontier society dominated by large Earth corporations who exploit the largely convict labour force. Nobody has to work, but if you don't work, you don't get paid and can't recharge the air medal everybody wears around their neck. If it turns red, or you're caught in public not wearing one, good tax-paying citizens will put the freeloader “outside”—without a pressure suit.

Former gangster Garrett Pittston finds that Mars suits him just fine, and, avoiding the temptations of the big companies, signs on as a farmhand with a crusty Marsman who goes by the name of Sarge. At Windhome, Sarge's station, Garrett learns how the Marsmen claw an independent existence from the barren soil of Mars, and also how the unyielding environment has shaped their culture, in which one's word is a life or death bond. Inevitably, this culture comes into conflict with the nanny state of the colonial administration, which seeks to bring the liberty-loving Marsmen under its authority by taxing and regulating them out of existence.

Garrett finds himself in the middle of an outright war of independence, in which the Marsmen use their intimate knowledge of the planet as an ally against what, on the face of it, would appear to be overwhelming superiority of their adversaries. Garrett leads a bold mission to obtain the game-changing resource which will allow Mars to deter reprisals from Earth, and in doing so becomes a Marsman in every way.

Pournelle paints this story with spare, bold brush strokes: all non-essentials are elided, and the characters develop and events transpire with little or no filler. If Kim Stanley Robinson had told this story, it would probably have occupied two thousand pages and have readers dying of boredom or old age before anything actually happened. This book delivers an action story set in a believable environment and a society which has been shaped by it. Having been originally published in the year of the Viking landings on Mars, there are a few things it gets wrong, but there are a great many others which are spot-on, and in some cases prophetic.

The second novel in the book, King David's Spaceship, is set in the CoDominium universe in which the classic novel The Mote in God's Eye takes place. The story occurs contemporarily with The Mote, during the Second Empire of Man, when imperial forces from the planet Sparta are re-establishing contact with worlds of the original Empire of Man who have been cut off from one another, with many reverting to primitive levels of technology and civilisation in the aftermath of the catastrophic Secession Wars.

When Imperial forces arrive on Prince Samual's World, its civilisation had recovered from disastrous post-collapse warfare and plague to around the technological level of 19th century Earth. King David of the Kingdom of Haven, who hopes to unify the planet under his rule, forms an alliance with the Empire and begins to topple rivals and petty kingdoms while pacifying the less civilised South Continent. King David's chief of secret police learns, from an Imperial novel that falls into his hands, that the Empire admits worlds on different bases depending upon their political and technological evolution. Worlds which have achieved planetary government and an indigenous space travel capability are admitted as “classified worlds”, which retain a substantial degree of autonomy and are represented in one house of the Imperial government. Worlds which have not achieved these benchmarks are classed as colonies, with their local governmental institutions abolished and replaced by rule by an aristocracy of colonists imported from other, more developed planets.

David realises that, with planetary unification rapidly approaching, his days are numbered unless somehow he can demonstrate some kind of space flight capability. But the Empire enforces a rigid technology embargo against less developed worlds, putatively to allow for their “orderly development”, but at least as much to maintain the Navy's power and enrich the traders, who are a major force in the Imperial capital. Nathan McKinnie, formerly a colonel in the service of Orleans, a state whose independence was snuffed out by Haven with the help of the Navy, is recruited by the ruthless secret policeman Malcolm Dougal to lead what is supposed to be a trading expedition to the world of Makassar, whose own civilisation is arrested in a state like medieval Europe, but which is home to a “temple” said to contain a library of documents describing First Empire technology which the locals do not know how to interpret. McKinnie's mission is to gain access to the documents, discover how to build a spaceship with the resources available on Haven, and spirit this information back to his home world under the eyes of the Navy and Imperial customs officials.

Arriving on Makassar, McKinnie finds that things are even more hopeless than he imagined. The temple is in a city remote from where he landed, reachable only by crossing a continent beset with barbarian hordes, or a sea passage through a pirate fleet which has essentially shut down seafaring on the planet. Using no advanced technology apart from the knowledge in his head, he outfits a ship and recruits and trains a crew to force the passage through the pirates. When he arrives at Batav, the site of the temple, he finds it besieged by Islamic barbarians (some things never change!), who are slowly eroding the temple's defenders by sheer force of numbers.

Again, McKinnie needs no new technology, but simply knowledge of the Western way of war—in this case recruiting from the disdained dregs of society and training a heavy infantry force, which he deploys along with a newly disciplined heavy cavalry in tactical doctrine with which Cæsar would have been familiar. Having saved the temple, he forms an alliance with representatives of the Imperial Church which grants him access to the holy relics, a set of memory cubes containing the collected knowledge of the First Empire.

Back on Prince Samual's World, a Los Alamos style research establishment quickly discovers that they lack the technology to read the copies of the memory cubes they've brought back, and that the technology of even the simplest Imperial landing craft is hopelessly out of reach of their knowledge and manufacturing capabilities. So, they adopt a desperate fall back plan, and take a huge gamble to decide the fate of their world.

This is superb science fiction which combines an interesting premise, the interaction of societies at very different levels of technology and political institutions, classical warfare at sea and on land, and the difficult and often ruthless decisions which must be made when everything is at stake (you will probably remember the case of the Temple swordsmen long after you close this book). It is wonderful that these excellent yarns are back in print after far too long an absence.

November 2010 Permalink

Pournelle, Jerry. A Step Farther Out. Studio City, CA: Chaos Manor Press, [1979, 1994] 2011. ASIN B004XTKFWW.
This book is a collection of essays originally published in Galaxy magazine between 1974 and 1978. They were originally collected into a book published in 1979, which was republished in 1994 with a new preface and notes from the author. This electronic edition includes all the material from the 1994 book plus a new preface which places the essays in the context of their time and the contemporary world.

I suspect that many readers of these remarks may be inclined to exclaim “Whatever possessed you to read a bunch of thirty-year-old columns from a science fiction magazine which itself disappeared from the scene in 1980?” I reply, “Because the wisdom in these explorations of science, technology, and the human prospect is just as relevant today as it was when I first read them in the original book, and taken together they limn the lost three decades of technological progress which have so blighted our lives.” Pournelle not only envisioned what was possible as humanity expanded its horizons from the Earth to become a spacefaring species drawing upon the resources of the solar system which dwarf those about which the “only one Earth” crowd fret, he also foresaw the constraint which would prevent us from today living in a perfectly achievable world, starting from the 1970s, with fusion, space power satellites, ocean thermal energy conversion, and innovative sources of natural gas providing energy; a robust private space infrastructure with low cost transport to Earth orbit; settlements on the Moon and Mars; exploration of the asteroids with an aim to exploit their resources; and compounded growth of technology which would not only permit human survival but “survival with style”—not only for those in the developed countries, but for all the ten billion who will inhabit this planet by the middle of the present century.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, Pournelle nails that as well. Recall whilst reading the following paragraph that it was written in 1978.

[…] Merely continue as we are now: innovative technology discouraged by taxes, environmental impact statements, reports, lawsuits, commission hearings, delays, delays, delays; space research not carried out, never officially abandoned but delayed, stretched-out, budgets cut and work confined to the studies without hardware; solving the energy crisis by conservation, with fusion research cut to the bone and beyond, continued at level-of-effort but never to a practical reactor; fission plants never officially banned, but no provision made for waste disposal or storage so that no new plants are built and the operating plants slowly are phased out; riots at nuclear power plant construction sites; legal hearings, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers…

Can you not imagine the dream being lost? Can you not imagine the nation slowly learning to “do without”, making “Smaller is Better” the national slogan, fussing over insulating attics and devoting attention to windmills; production falling, standards of living falling, until one day we discover the investments needed to go to space would be truly costly, would require cuts in essentials like food —

A world slowly settling into satisfaction with less, until there are no resources to invest in That Buck Rogers Stuff?

I can imagine that.

As can we all, as now we are living it. And yet, and yet…. One consequence of the Three Lost Decades is that the technological vision and optimistic roadmap of the future presented in these essays is just as relevant to our predicament today as when they were originally published, simply because with a few exceptions we haven't done a thing to achieve them. Indeed, today we have fewer resources with which to pursue them, having squandered our patrimony on consumption, armies of rent-seekers, and placed generations yet unborn in debt to fund our avarice. But for those who look beyond the noise of the headlines and the platitudes of politicians whose time horizon is limited to the next election, here is a roadmap for a true step farther out, in which the problems we perceive as intractable are not “managed” or “coped with”, but rather solved, just as free people have always done when unconstrained to apply their intellect, passion, and resources toward making their fortunes and, incidentally, creating wealth for all.

This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above, under the given ASIN. The ISBN of the original 1979 paperback edition is 978-0-441-78584-1. The formatting in the Kindle edition is imperfect, but entirely readable. As is often the case with Kindle documents, “images and tables hardest hit”: some of the tables take a bit of head-scratching to figure out, as the Kindle (or at least the iPad application which I use) particularly mangles multi-column tables. (I mean, what's with that, anyway? LaTeX got this perfectly right thirty years ago, and in a manner even beginners could use; and this was pure public domain software anybody could adopt. Sigh—three lost decades….) Formatting quibbles aside, I'm as glad I bought and read this book as I was when I first bought it and read it all those years ago. If you want to experience not just what the future could have been, then, but what it can be, now, here is an excellent place to start.

The author's Web site is an essential resource for those interested in these big ideas, grand ambitions, and the destiny of humankind and its descendents.

June 2012 Permalink