Farewell To A Friend: Jerry Pournelle 1933-2017
Two weeks ago, while getting ready for two weeks in the South of France (probably a once in a lifetime thing) I had an email from a friend. The email said “Hey, I’m going to Dragon Con. May I look forward to seeing you there? We could discuss the story.”
The friend was Dr. Jerry Pournelle, one of the legends of science fiction, and any other year, any year when I didn’t already have all arrangements made to be out of the country, I’d be tempted to ditching everything and asking Larry Correia if I could crash on his floor, for the chance to spend a couple of evenings talking to Jerry.
I knew he was my father’s age and time was getting short, and given both of our schedules, the time to actually meet in the flesh was limited and far in between.
But I couldn’t, and I told him so, and also that I was traveling every month through November, but perhaps I could fly out and visit in January?
That visit won’t happen. We landed yesterday, and when I woke up from my jet lagged sleep, it was to the news that Jerry had died, peacefully, in his sleep.
I’ve spent most of the day having irregular crying fits, and let’s just say my bathrooms are very clean because cleaning is how I cope with most things: grief, anxiety, shock.
There is the sense that a giant has fallen, and that the world has stopped in stunned silence, listening at nothing where there used to be so much.
Jerry is probably not the last of the giants, but the last of the giants for a long time.
In a field, that like all artistic fields is driven in part by talent and craft, and in part by uniqueness of vision, he stood apart and beyond most of us, work-a-day authors, in a league with Robert A. Heinlein, or very close to him.
I discovered his Janissaries series in South Carolina, the year my older son was born. Someone in a small library in Columbia, South Carolina, must have loved Jerry’s science fiction writing as they had all of it. I then went on to buy and read everything he wrote alone and in collaboration.
Because of the way my life works, I first met him at (I think) the first Liberty con I attended. Because I’d gone there to meet someone and discuss a possible book, I hadn’t looked at the guests of honor. So I didn’t have any of his books to sign. I made my way through the signing line, anyway, to tell him how much I loved his work and also that his had been one of my very first personal and encouraging rejections (I submitted to the There Will Be War anthology, and he told me he would have published it, if there were one more volume. Since there wasn’t, he was returning it. (He didn’t remember rejecting me, though he did remember my story. It wasn’t until last month I found the paper copy of that story and realized at the time I was submitting under my pre-citizenship name.)
We ended up talking both then and later at the Baen dinner. Jerry would have had every possible excuse to ignore me or treat me as a bothersome newby. At the time I’d published one, spectacularly failed, fantasy trilogy (the Magic Shakespeare) and I might never publish again. Instead, he treated me as a colleague and talked to me as though we were equals. I knew very well we weren’t equals, but the kindness was forever treasured.
After that, we corresponded, more or less intensely depending on time and how hard we were working. Our correspondence ranged from religion, to family, to science, and always, of course, to writing.
He more or less told me to send him everything I wrote, and he signed me for his newsletter, which included his tech articles. I pay him no mean compliment when I say he made technology sound interesting. (Yes, I do like science, but computer tech has a MEGO (my eyes glaze over) rate of about 5 seconds with me.)
Later, when my blog became a going concern, he’d often show up in the comments and give my regular commenters near heart attacks.
I will note that while several people would attempt to genuflect in his direction, via blog comment, he seemed not to look for or even particularly welcome adulation. He’d ignore the adulatory comments and instead enter in earnest discussion of the point he’d first raised, happy to meet mind-to-mind without demanding the credentials or political affiliation of his interlocutors.
In fact, that to me was Jerry’s characteristic: in an age riven by deep political divisions, he refused to draw a political line, and associated with people on both sides of the spectrum, treating all as humans and worthy – or not worthy – of his attention. (Yes, I do remember a few comments of “we’re done here” in answer to less-than-stellar arguments.) If anyone drew a political color line, it was not Jerry. In fact, he urged me more than once to be forgiving of things that colleagues on the left side of the spectrum said while in the heat of battle. He’d point out the good things they’d said – or done, or written – and find excuses for their more intemperate behavior.
In fact, when he disagreed with me – and we had one or two points of contention – he accorded me the same leeway and sometimes, after I’d sent him an apology, he’d say “Of course I’m not mad at you. You’re allowed to disagree.” Or words to that effect.
That combination of strong opinions and gracious ability not to take disagreement personally made Jerry a rare creature in science fiction in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.
It also made his work stronger, I believe. That and his ability to see the potential in new technologies, instead of being resistant to them.
All of this, mind, without taking himself unduly seriously. That story mentioned above? We were supposed to collaborate on a short story (there wasn’t any more than a paragraph and some remarks back and forth) and some of his remarks about his inability to write short, coupled with my inability to write short, were both insightful and funny. We had more or less resigned ourselves to the fact it would be a novella or possibly a novel.
It won’t happen now. Not in this world.
He’s gone forth and I console myself with the thought that if he had to choose how to go, he would have chosen this: to go peacefully in his sleep after he was an honored guest at Dragon Con and had a chance to reconnect with friends old and new.
I console myself with the idea he’s seeing his old friends, and perhaps planning things to write, which will be done when I see him again.
It will go quickly for him. He’s beyond time. It’s harder for me. I miss him already, and it will get worse.
Jerry Pournelle was one of those people I always knew. Meeting him was not making a new friendship, but resuming a friendship that had always existed, in that space beyond time, beyond the limitations of our physical selves.
In that eternity we’ll meet again and our friendship will continue, uninterrupted.
Meanwhile, in this world, science fiction and fantasy has lost one of its giants, one of the people who shaped a generation of readers and inspired them with an interest in technology and the future.
There is a silence after a giant falls. We’re all concussed by the sudden loss.
Afterwards, though, we should resume work. Jerry wouldn’t want us to be idle. And he would want us to build a future he’d approve of.
We shall not see his like again. But we can strive, each of us, to fill in a little bit of the silence left by his departure.