Pournelle died earlier this month. He (and his writing partner, Larry Niven) were big, popular names back in the 70s, and long ago I read several of his long tomes. I will say this for him: he could write an engaging potboiler, where the plot kept churning along. But in every one of his books, there was a “what the hell am I reading?” moment, followed by a period of introspection in which I had to admit to myself that if I’d been paying attention, I would have noticed that there were clear hints that this regressive conclusion was exactly what he’d been building towards all along. Then I read a few more and realized that you could predict exactly how the story would proceed from the first chapter on: the solution would always be a gushing militaristic/Libertarian fantasy. So I stopped reading him.
Except for one thing: those were also the heady days of the microcomputer revolution, and I read Byte magazine every month. Pournelle had a column in there, that was apparently popular to some people, but that I found plodding, unreadable, and useless. Well, not quite unreadable: I’d hate-read him. His house, which he called Chaos Manor, was stuffed with random computer gadgets, most of which seemed to be mainly there as techno-trophies. And every month there’d be some glitch that he’d solve by calling up one of his connections in the tech industry, and they’d mail him a new gizmo, or more insufferably, some fawning gadget-freak would show up at his door and install it for him. He was a boastful poseur. I much preferred Steve Ciarcia’s columns, where he’d actually do something and explain how it worked.
Anyway, the Daily Beast summarizes Pournelle’s career — schmoozing with Gingrich, promoting the military-industrial complex, praising Reagan and Trump, his grandstanding for the impossible “Star Wars” missile defense system, and includes excerpts of some of those “what the hell am I reading?” moments. Pournelle was overtly political, but strangely, his fans always seem to assume that radical conservative militarism is a non-political stance. Underlying it all, too, was the nasty racism of the well-connected white man.
The line that connects Pournelle, Gingrich and Trump is a view that the future must be secured through aggressive force, and specifically through authoritarian institutions (governmental or non-governmental) that group together humanity’s best and prevent the rest from stifling them. The difficulty, as always, lies in identifying “the best,” and in who’s doing the identification.
At the bottom of Pournelle’s website is the quote, “Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.” It’s not attributed, but the sentiment is an old saw of the far right, going back at least to John Birch Society co-founder and segregationist Thomas J. Anderson in 1961. Today, Pournelle’s particular phrasing is most commonly attributed to white supremacist and anti-semite Richard Cotten. It’s one more indicator that Trump was far from the first to eliminate the line between right-wing thought and outright bigotry.
Most of the obits I’ve seen were pablum. I’m glad someone was willing to call out his pernicious influence.
I also read where someone called his “Chaos Manor” columns “witty”. That person needs to have their license to write retracted.