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'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". He edited Project 75, a 1964 study of 1975 defense requirements. 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.
Pournelle was born in Shreveport, the seat of Caddo Parish in northwestern Louisiana, and educated in Capleville, Tennessee. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Afterwards, he studied at the University of Washington, where he received a B.S. in psychology on June 11, 1955; an M.S. in psychology on March 21, 1958; and a Ph.D. in political science in March 1964. 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. 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'".
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 "J.E. Pournelle".
Pournelle was among those who in 1968 signed a pro-Vietnam War advertisement in Galaxy Science Fiction. 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.
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. The election took place on May 27, 1969. Pournelle was later named Executive Assistant to the Mayor in charge of research in September 1969, but resigned from the position after two weeks. 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.
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.
Two of his collaborations with Larry Niven reached the top rankings in the New York Times Best Seller List. In 1977, Lucifer's Hammer reached number two. Footfall — wherein Robert A. Heinlein was a thinly veiled minor character — reached the number one spot in 1985.
In the 1980s, Pournelle was an Editor and columnist for Survive, a survivalist magazine. After 1998, Pournelle maintained a website with a daily online journal, "View from Chaos Manor", a blog dating from before the use of that term. 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 said he resists using the term "blog" because he considered the word ugly, and because he maintained that his "View" is primarily a vehicle for writing rather than a collection of links. In his book Dave Barry in Cyberspace, humorist Dave Barry has fun with Pournelle's guru column in Byte magazine.
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. 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.
In 1994, Pournelle's friendly relationship with Newt Gingrich led to Gingrich securing a government job for Pournelle's son, Richard. At the time, Pournelle and Gingrich were reported to be collaborating on "a science fiction political thriller." Pournelle's relationship with Gingrich was long established even then, as Pournelle had written the preface to Gingrich's book, Window of Opportunity (1985).
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. 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 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.
In 2008, Pournelle battled a brain tumor, which appeared to respond favorably to radiation treatment. An August 28, 2008 report on his weblog claimed he was now cancer-free. 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. Pournelle died in his sleep at his home in Studio City, California, on September 8, 2017.
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.
In 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. 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.
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 July 1980. Subtitled "Omikron TRS-80 Boards, NEWDOS+, and Sundry Other Matters", an Editor's Note accompanied the article: