Of all the people it’s sucked to lose in 2017, Jerry Pournelle’s loss might quietly be the saddest.
Case in point: His final blog post, published Thursday. He noted the cold he was dealing with after attending a convention, wrote about immigration (Pournelle, an irreverent if hard-line conservative voice even at the height of his popularity, suggested that we let the “Dreamers” in after they serve seven years overseas in the military), and then overshared just a little bit before ending the post.
“More later I’m experiencing a wave of nausea,” he wrote. ”Bye for now.”
Unusual, but ultimately fitting last words for a man who was one of the writing world’s greatest early adopters—setting the parameters for how writing and technology would interact.
Born in 1933 and having served in the military during the Korean War, Pournelle was a tour de force with the written word, with an often breezy tone and a tendency to ponder issues creatively.
His voice, despite predating the blog era, ultimately defined it. His “Chaos Manor” columns, written for Byte Magazine, were from the perspective of an end user, which Pournelle was long before the computer entered most homes. His pieces for Byte, always with a jump or twelve, would often have a rambling, fun-to-read tone that somehow turned computing into a life-or-death affair. In his 1996 book Dave Barry in Cyberspace, Barry basically lays out the art of the Pournelle column like this:
1. Jerry tries to make some seemingly simple change to one of his computers, such as connect it to a new printer.
2. Everything goes hideously wrong and the computer completely stops working. Sometimes several of his other computers also stop working. Sometimes there are massive power outages all over the West Coast. Poor Larry spends days trying to get everything straightened out.
3. Finally, with the help of Customer Service and other computer experts all over the world, Jerry gets his computer working again approximately the way it used to, and he writes several thousand words about it for Byte.
Barry’s rough approximation of Pournelle’s columns, exaggerated to a degree, nonetheless nails their effectiveness. (Here’s a sample of the form.) The humorist argues that Pournelle’s columns work “because Jerry’s coming right out and admitting we knowledgable computer people primarily use our computers for messing around.”
Pournelle, who built his fame and reputation as a science-fiction author and is said to be one of the first people ever to write a book on a computer, never stopped writing Chaos Manor even after Byte folded. (Side note: He also got in trouble because he wrote about ARPANET, the early version of the internet, during a time when it was still a Defense Department novelty.)
Pournelle is one of the original bloggers, having been active on the web as a writer since the late '90s before "blog" went into regular use, though it took him a while to warm to the term. He belongs in a class of writer firmly in the modern era: The kind of writer that keeps at it as much as possible, putting his life on the page.
“The secret of becoming a writer is that you have to write. You have to write a lot,” Pournelle wrote in one of his best-known blog posts, 1999’s “How to Get My Job.” “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 never had a chance to meet Jerry, even online, but I’ve read a lot of his work. As a kid, I would go to the library and read decades-old copies of Byte, just to read his columns. Maybe it had an effect on me.
If you find yourself wanting to become a great or even good writer, you could do a lot worse than following Pournelle’s great example.