RIP, Jerry Pournelle

I just read that Jerry Pournelle, one of my favorite sci-fi authors, passed away. Unlike many of his compatriots, he wasn’t an engineer or scientist. Instead, his background was in political science and psychology, coupled to a deep knowledge of history. If his libertarianism got the better of him in his old age he remained a great storyteller.

While he will probably be known for the books he co-authored with Larry Niven — among them Inferno, about a sci-fi author dealing with coming back to life in Dante’s Hell, The Mote in God’s Eye, about first contact with aliens, and Footfall, about an alien invasion of Earth — I’ll always remember him for the stories set in a world which could’ve evolved out of the 1970s.

It was one where the US and the USSR came to realize the only thing they feared more than either of them beating the other was some third power rising up to replace them. Thus was born the CoDominium, a world empire maintained by two nations who hated and feared each other. 

It eventually failed, as all human institutions fail. But in preserving an uneasy peace it bought time for a number of interstellar colonies to be founded, so that when resurgent nationalism in the US and the USSR brought about a long-delayed global thermonuclear holocaust, the species had a shot at surviving.

The price of maintaining that peace was high. From a dialog between a young Marine who’s just seen part of that price tag and his more experienced superior:

“You asked what good we do. We buy time. Back on Earth they’re ready to start a war that won’t end until billions are dead. The Fleet’s the only thing preventing that. The only thing, Hal. Be as cynical about the CoDominium as you like. Be contemptuous of Grand Senator Bronson and his friends — yes, and most of his enemies, too, damn it. But remember that the Fleet keeps the peace, and as long as we do, Earth still lives. If the price of that is getting our hands dirty out here on the frontiers, then it’s a price we have to pay. And while we’re paying it, just once in a while we do something right. I think we did that here.”

Even if you strip out the admittedly romantic view of the military present in that speech, I think something important remains: sometimes the best you can do is just hold on, and take whatever minor victories come your way. Because if you hold on, there will be a tomorrow. And who knows? Maybe it’ll be better.



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