Jerry Pournelle passed away, aged 84, on September 8th, 2017.
He wrote a number of non-fiction books and edited a huge number of anthologies wrote a sizable number of fiction works by himself, but most of the stuff that I read (and re-read) were his collaborations with Larry Niven. We can rattle them off together: The Mote in God’s Eye (and its sequel The Gripping Hand). Inferno (and its sequel Escape from Hell). Lucifer’s Hammer. Footfall.
Man, I loved those books. Sure, some of them frustrated me. The sequels weren’t quite as awesome as the books that came before them… but, man, I wanted to go back to those worlds. I wanted to spend some more time with those characters. I wanted to know what happened next.
Heck, I’ll just ramble about each of the above books and tell you that you should read them too. They make great gifts for bright youngsters who want good science fiction and voracious readers who want pulp to chew on.
The Mote in God’s Eye was a great “first contact” story. Humans contact the “moties” and the book does a good job of trying to create a universe where that shows that these aliens are not merely humans with different features but actually fundamentally different in how they think about things. The conceit for this book was that humans were very dualistic. Humans would say “on the one hand this… but on the other hand *THAT*.” The “moties”, by contrast, were triad-istic. They would say “on the one hand… on the other hand… on the gripping hand.” And there were a lot of twists and turns in the various sub-plots that were absolute genius (including the humans learning about “Crazy Eddies”) that just kept me turning pages. The culmination of the story (involving the humans coming up with a dilemma where they had to pick between X and Y… but the moties helped them figure out a third way) was absolutely brilliant and elegant.
The sequel was not merely good-for-a-sequel but actually good. In this one, we jumped ahead a ways and asked the question “hey, that third way solution… how’s it holding up?” and, wouldn’t you know it, the lingering questions that bugged you after reading Mote were, apparently, also bugging Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. They deal with that. That other thing? They deal with that too. Oh, that idea you wish they’d played with more? They figured it out. It was great to return to this universe. It didn’t have the magic of the whole First Contact thing but… hey. This is what happens in a universe where we already know the hidden secrets. It’s not about discovery at this point but exploration.
Inferno? Oh, my gosh. If I were to tell you to read *ANY* of Jerry Pournelle’s works, it’d be his collaboration with Niven to bring Dante to the 20th Century. It’s about a writer who dies and goes to Hell. In Hell, we wander from the first circle (the nicest part of Hell) where we meet an updated Virgil and travel through the circles of Hell all the way to the center of the 9th, reserved for those who betray their benefactors, where we meet Satan himself. Along the way, we meet many familiar faces (including acquaintances of the authors) and chew on a number of questions theological (and theodical). (For those of you who have read it, I don’t know about you, but I saw several parts of Hell that would have fit me like a glove.) Even if you don’t agree with Niven and Pournelle’s priors (hey, I don’t), the story contains some red meat worth chewing on.
Much like with Mote, you’ll leave Inferno behind you thinking “that was really good… but, wait. What about this? What about that? What about this other thing?” and Escape from Hell addresses those… except, this time, we do it as someone who wishes they were as good as Virgil managed to be. We explore the idea of a Purgatorial Hell and what it would take for someone theologically insane to start to become well again. As strong as the first one? Of course not. But I’m not sorry I read it.
Lucifer’s Hammer is a science fiction disaster book about an asteroid (or comet, really) hitting us. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
The chance that Lucifer’s Hammer would hit Earth head-on were one in a million. Then one in a thousand. Then one in a hundred. And then…
A great story that explores the ideas in an asteroid (or comet, I guess) hitting the planet and what was likely to happen and everything that was likely to go wrong. I suppose it’s very much evident that it was written smack dab in the middle of the cold war with a handful of the things that happen, but if you can get past that, you’re going to find yourself with a really exciting story that does what Armageddon/Deep Impact/Doomsday Rock/Tycus/Asteroid/Judgment Day *WISH* they could capture.
And Footfall did an absolutely amazing trick of taking the best parts of Mote in God’s Eye with the best parts of Lucifer’s Hammer and wrap them together into a First Contact/Global War story. You’ve got your aliens that are very, very alien. You’ve got your war event that gets everybody to work together… but at an absolutely amazing pace. It’s one that starts off deliberately (almost ploddingly) but speeds up to the point where it finishes in such a climactic rush that when I read the last sentence, I flipped the page, then flipped it back and re-read the last sentence, then flipped the page again and stared at a blank page that I couldn’t believe existed.
All of these universes are well worth visiting. I’m delighted that Niven and Pournelle created them for us and I feel poorer for Pournelle’s passing.
Thanks, Jerry. I loved your books.
So… what are you reading?