Jerry Pournelle: May His Wings Be Made Of Tungsten

Slightly modified from the original post on my blog about the passing of Jerry Pournelle, The Logoccentric Orbit for the SF fans I can rely on finding here.

I have been asked to say a few words on the passing of Jerry Pournelle. I scarcely know where to begin. He wrote several novels I loved, especially High Justice. But my first thought about Jerry Pournelle was the awestruck realization that here was someone who could make Larry Niven even better. This team produces two of my favorite SF novels: Footfall and The Mote In God’s Eye, which to me deserve a place in the eternal canon of SF for being, respectively, the greatest alien invasion and first contact novels of the latter 20th century. (Although I will admit that Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow could give Mote a run for its money.) Another of their works that I will always admire is Inferno, a rewrite of Dante, in which they quite literally put a science-fiction writer through Hell. I loved it so much that during graduate school I talked it up to a visiting professor from Yale. She was nice enough to write me back thanking me for the tip and saying she was adding it to her curriculum!

I was reminded of how privileged I am to have spent even one evening in Jerry’s company when I saw so many of my Facebook friends, most of whom are more accomplished authors than I am myself, saying that they had only met Jerry last week at DragonCon for the first time, or never.

I met Jerry eighteen years ago, at Writers’ Of The Future. I’d won 2nd place in the 1999 contest for my story “Bearing The Pattern,” and I still remember it as one of the proudest moments of my life that he and Mr. Niven handed me — ME! — my first ever science-fiction writing award. That I promptly made an ass of myself with my thank-you speech, which I had not rehearsed, is a somewhat less-proud moment, but that’s life.

But I will always treasure the memory of the after-party, when I got to speak with Jerry and many other writers.  I’ll always remember that he came up with the best explanation I’ve ever heard of for the infamous Roswell  Incident, which I will recall here. I’m going to emphasize that this was Jerry speculating, NOT releasing actual knowledge. Obviously, what follows is not an exact transcript, but I’m going to reproduce it as best I can recall from eighteen years ago:

“You got to remember that this was the old Air Force, with all the pilots still veterans of World War II. And those pilots were pretty much drunk as their ground state of being. On top of that, this was 1947, when the entire nuclear arsenal of the world was approximately eight weapons, all of them bombs, and all of them owned by the United States of America.

“Well, what it seems to me is that at some point, the Air Force wanted to move a bomb. Naturally, you’d keep that as secret as you can; why would you tell even the pilots? And so, two pilots, enjoying the long and boring flight over the New Mexico desert as best they could, climbed into the night sky, and never arrived at their destination.

“Now a nuclear weapon, of course, has safeties to prevent a mushroom going off in case the plane carrying it crashes, but crashed planes tend to burn, and the chemical explosive wrapped around the plutonium can certainly catch fire. So you have the Air Force looking for a missing plane, carrying an atomic bomb, and suddenly reports from Roswell of a a burning wreck in the middle of the desert. It doesn’t take the Air Force long to put those two facts together, but by the time they arrive, several VERY unauthorized persons have seen the wreck and the burned bodies (Author’s Note: Ever seen a photo of a very badly burned body? They do tend to shrink and attenuate. So they look very thin, with disproportionately-sized heads. Funny, that.) and strange fragments of highly-classified equipment.

What the Air Force very much wants to do is to make all this go away, so they whisk away all that they can, but they can’t disappear U.S. citizens, and they very definitely do not want it getting out that a couple of idiots managed to destroy by incompetence an eighth of the world’s nuclear arsenal. So they make up the story of a crashed weather balloon, which is an obvious fabrication, and pray. Sure enough, people disbelieve this and their theory about what the Air Force is covering up is… aliens. Alien spacecraft, crashed in the desert, whisked away by the Air Force.

The Air Force, of course, with its competent people now on the job, send up praises to heaven and immediately refuse all comment on such things, pointing with increased energy to the “weather balloon,” and looking as stupid as they can. Because the more they do, the more people think “Ah-HAH! So it IS aliens,” and the less they think, “I wonder whether the Air Force might have lost a nuclear bomb.”

I remember thinking. My gods, of course. That makes absolutely perfect sense, and no matter how high up the chain of command you go, all the way up to President Truman, absolutely NO ONE in the government is going to have an interest in coming clean on that story, and neither would anyone in Eisenhower’s administration after that. How simple and brilliant.

Well, we all laughed, and whether it’s true or not, it’s a good story. And then Jerry talked to me. He asked about my story, and said he remembered it, and that it was a good story. And that’s something I will always remember when I feel that I can’t hack it as a writer. More than anything else, I remember that Jerry made me feel included, and truly part of this wonderful thing that I had always imagined fandom to be. And you know what? I think he did that with everyone. While I have talked to people who hated Jerry’s politics (and hated his fiction) and said he could be an ass when he was arguing, I never heard anyone who said that Jerry snubbed them or made them feel unwelcome.

There’s been a lot of — shall we say, discord — in fandom lately. A lot of exclusivity. I’ve seen friends made to feel unwelcome and friends threatened and excoriated and called liars and slanderers and worse. I’ve experienced some of it myself, as people made it clear that for one reason or another, I was not good enough or important enough to be worth their respect or time. For the purposes of this piece, though, I am not interested in the rights or the wrongs of any of it. All I would like to say is, that I would like all of us to remember Jerry, and how he took the time to befriend and welcome a newbie author. I never had the privilege of truly working with him, but I will always be grateful that for that evening, and that the man I met was as gracious and entertaining as the worlds he had brought to life for me. Thank you Jerry. And I hope to meet you again, where all is

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, worlds without end. Amen.