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Jerry Pournelle, Science Fiction Novelist and Computer Guide, Dies at 84

Dr. Pournelle was also known to many through lively columns for Byte magazine in which, beginning early in the home-computing age, he talked about personal computers and the software for them. Much of any given column was about his own experiences at “Chaos Manor” — his name for his home, and for the column — trying out new software products and wrestling with bugs, glitches and viruses.

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Mr. Pournelle’s “Footfall” made it to the top of The New York Times’s paperback best-seller list in May 1986. Credit Random House

He named some of his computers — Zeke and Bette among them — and his columns, though well informed, were filled with humor and a dash of snark. In one, intended for the August 1998 issue of Byte (the magazine ceased print publication the month before, so Dr. Pournelle posted it on his website instead), he complained that Bill Gates’s Microsoft was no longer bothering to fix flaws in Windows 95 because it wanted customers to buy Windows 98.

“Probably it’s just hard to get bright young people to work on tedious stuff like fixing bugs when they can be adding new features and bringing in more sales,” he wrote. “Probably Gates is no longer really in control of his company, and people do what they want to do, and no one wants to fix bugs.”

He applied that same curmudgeonly tone to his endless blog posts on politics, public issues, movies, science, technology and practically any other subject imaginable.

Jerry Eugene Pournelle was born on Aug. 7, 1933, in Shreveport, La. His father, Percival, was a radio advertising executive and later general manager of several stations. His mother, Ruth, was a teacher and worked in a munitions factory during World War II.

When Dr. Pournelle was a boy the family moved to rural Tennessee, where the school he attended was small, to say the least.

“We had two grades to a room and four teachers for the whole eighth-grade school system,” he recalled in a 2013 interview.

But he supplemented the schoolhouse learning by reading the family Encyclopaedia Britannica. Dr. Pournelle, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill after serving in the Army during the Korean War, would eventually receive multiple degrees from the University of Washington.

He spent years working in the aerospace industry, including at Boeing, on projects including studying heat tolerance for astronauts and their spacesuits. This side of his career also found him working on projections related to military tactics and probabilities. One report in which he had a hand became a basis for the Strategic Defense Initiative, the missile defense system proposed by President Ronald Reagan. A study he edited in 1964 involved projecting Air Force missile technology needs for 1975.

“I once told Mr. Heinlein” — the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, an early mentor — “that once I got into advance plans at Boeing I probably wrote more science fiction than he did, and I didn’t have to put characters in mine,” Dr. Pournelle recalled in February in an interview with the podcaster Hank Garner.

His expertise at projecting the future was also evident in his novels.

“The iPhone is a pocket computer,” he once noted, “and we had pocket computers in ‘Mote in God’s Eye’ in 1972.”

Dr. Pournelle’s first novel, “Red Heroin,” appeared in 1969 under the pen name Wade Curtis. The books kept coming at a steady pace for the next 40 years.

Dr. Pournelle was an early adopter of personal computing. In 2011, when The Times published an article about an English professor, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, who was hunting for the first writer to have written a novel on a word processor, Dr. Pournelle argued that he deserved those bragging rights for the 1981 book “Oath of Fealty,” which he wrote with Mr. Niven.

The year before that book came out, he began writing his Byte column, which he continued in an online version of the magazine after the print edition ended in 1998, and then on his own website.

Dr. Pournelle would always tell would-be writers seeking advice that the key to becoming an author was to write — a lot.

“And finish what you write,” he added in a 2003 interview. “Don’t join a writers’ club and sit around having coffee reading pieces of your manuscript to people. Write it. Finish it.”

He certainly wrote, and finished, quite a bit himself. His Byte columns were on the long side, and his frequent blog posts were, too. There seemed to be nothing Dr. Pournelle was not willing to hold forth about, his views generally conservative with a touch of the libertarian. (He wrote the preface for his friend Newt Gingrich’s book “Window of Opportunity,” published in 1984.)

In addition to his son Phillip, Dr. Pournelle is survived by his wife, the former Roberta Jane Isdell, whom he married in 1959; a daughter, Jennifer Pournelle; three other sons, Alex, Frank and Richard; and four grandchildren.

Though Dr. Pournelle wore many hats, he had a license plate that focused on the storytelling side, Phillip Pournelle said; it read, SCIBARD.

In the 2003 interview, Dr. Pournelle mused about the art of the science fiction writer.

“As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “we are not any different from the old storytellers, the old bards back in Bronze Age time who would go from campfire to campfire, and they’d see a warrior sitting there and say, ‘You fill my cup up with that wine you’ve got there and chop me a piece of that boar you’re roasting and I’ll tell you a story about a virgin and a bull that you just wouldn’t believe!’ ”

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