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RIP Jerry Pournelle, the first author to write a novel on a computer

Science fiction author Jerry Pournelle passed away earlier this week after a sudden illness at the age of 84. He helped popularize the military science fiction genre with novels such as Janissaries and The Mercenary, but is also credited with a major milestone: the first author to write a novel entirely on a computer.

Pournelle wrote on his blog on Thursday that he had come down with a cold and the flu while attending DragonCon in Atlanta, Georgia, and his son Alex confirmed his passing last night, (via File770) saying that he didn’t suffer. Steven Barnes, with whom Pournelle collaborated on several novels, told me in an email that “he was an absolute original, one of the best and smartest men I’ve ever known.”

Born in 1933, Pournelle served in the US Army during the Korean War, and later earned his doctorate in political science. He ended up in the defense industry, working for Boeing and NASA where he worked on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. He also wrote science fiction on the side, publishing his first short story in Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact in 1971.

In a recent history, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing by University of Maryland Associate Professor of English Matthew G. Kirschenbaum says that Pournelle “has a strong claim to having been the first author to have written published fiction on a word processor.” Pournelle acknowledged that “It’s generally conceded that I wrote the first published book written on a computer.”

In an email exchange last year, Pournelle told me that it was a friend who prompted him to purchase his own computer in 1977. “When he showed me Electric Pencil, primitive as it was with only 14 lines of 64 characters on a monochrome monitor the size of a small black and white TV, I was hooked.” His reasoning for the steep investment (the system cost him $ 12,000) were entirely practical: it offered the means to enhance his productivity. It allowed him to correct typos and edit quickly and electronically, rather than performing edits by hand and retyping the entire manuscript for publication while using a typewriter. “I earned back the $ 120,000 investment in under a year just with increased sales,” he recalled.

He put that increased productivity to work, authoring a number of well-regarded novels in collaboration with Ringworld author Larry Niven, such as The Mote in God’s Eye, about humanity’s first contact with aliens, and Lucifer’s Hammer, a post-apocalyptic novel set after a comet collides with Earth.

Pournelle was a deeply conservative and polarizing figure within the science fiction community, who often described his political beliefs as “somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan.” He led the Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy under the Regan Administration, and briefly collaborated with former Georgia GOP senator Newt Gingrich. In his history of the genre, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered The World, author Thomas Disch noted that Pournelle helped popularize a conservative flair to the genre, following in the footsteps of authors Robert A. Heinlein and editor John W. Campbell Jr, focusing on fiction that emphasized hard science and military force. He was also president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and was “publicly often cantankerous and privately quietly devoted to the field,” according to former SFWA president John Scalzi.

His friends and colleagues quickly saw the advantages to the system at the time, and went out to buy their own versions. Today, it’s hard to imagine authors writing on anything but a computer, but Pournelle was the ultimate early adopter in a genre that worked to predict the future.

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