RIP Jerry Pournelle, 1933-2017

The great Jerry Pournelle, political scientist, technological visionary, prolific science fiction writer (often in collaboration with Larry Niven), and computing pioneer all in one, just passed away after a brief respiratory illness. He had appeared at DragonCon only days earlier.

I’ve been following Chaos Manor on an off since it was first a print column in BYTE magazine, back in the Early Tertiary era of computing. The online version has a serious claim to being the world’s oldest blog.
Novels like “Fallen Angels” (with Niven & Flynn) or “The Mote in G-d’s Eye” (with Niven) would have made the reputation of a lesser man. But aside from being a prolific science fiction writer, he was also a compelling thinker and technological visionary. Even with half his brain zapped by radiation treatments, he could still out-think most soi-disant “intellectuals”. Pournelle suffered no fools intellectually, but by all accounts was a generous and solicitous human being in private.
Here is a taste of Jerry Pournelle in his own words. (He was, by the way, apparently the first writer to write a published novel entirely on a [then primitive and monstrously expensive] personal computer.)

HOW TO GET MY JOB

The question I get most often, both in mail and when I speak, is, “How do I get your job?” Usually it’s done a bit more politely, but sometimes it’s asked just that way. It’s generally phrased differently by computer audiences than by science fiction audiences, but both really want to know the same thing: how do you become an author?

I always give the same answer: it’s easy to be an author, whether of fiction or nonfiction, and it’s a pleasant profession. Fiction authors go about making speeches and signing books. Computer authors go to computer shows and then come home to open boxes of new equipment and software, and play with the new stuff until they tire of it. It’s nice work if you can get it.

The problem is that no one pays you to be an author.

To be an author, you must first be a writer; and while it’s easy to be an author, being a writer is hard work. Surprisingly, it may be only hard work; that is, while some people certainly have more talent for writing than others, everyone has some. The good news is that nearly anyone who wants to badly enough can make some kind of living at writing. The bad news is that wanting to badly enough means being willing to devote the time and work necessary to learn the trade.

The secret of becoming a writer is that you have to write. You have to write a lot. You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet. If you don’t learn to finish your work, no one will ever want to see it. The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.

I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that’s another story.

The late Randall Garrett, one of the most prolific writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, used to have a number of rules, many of them scatological. One of them was that no professional writer ever got anything from formal courses in writing. I think he was wrong, in the sense that a good formal introduction to the rules of grammar and spelling can be extremely useful; but he had a point, which is that there aren’t any secrets to be learned from creative-writing courses. If the only way you can force yourself to write that million words of your best work is to take a class in creative writing or attend a writers’ workshop, by all means do it; but do it understanding that the good comes from the writing you do, not from the criticism or theory or technique taught in the class.

May his memory be blessed. The science fiction field and the blogosphere are truly a poorer place without him.

 

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