An Open Letter to Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle responded to my my most recent blog post with a detailed series of comments worth reading in their entirety. Given that we were already deep in the thread, I’m rebooting the whole discussion for a brand-new week.

Jerry-  thanks for the comments.  I’m sorry (though not surprised) to hear you reiterate your judgment re the rigor of the science in my books, all the more so as this is based on a ten minute exchange we had in which you repeatedly interrupted me and rarely allowed me to finish an answer.  Same goes for your view on my knowledge of history.  But in the hopes that print will lend itself better to clarity than talk, here’s my take on the various issues we’ve been discussing.

Re SDI: we agree on much here.  But I think the daylight between us centers on the distinction between the system’s architects saw the projected capabilities/intentions of what they were building VS. what was being sold to the American public.  The American people weren’t told that SDI would still leave most of their cities a smoking wreck, otherwise there’s no way they would have supported it.  They were simply led to believe that ultimately an effective “missile shield” was possible.  This isn’t the first time that insiders have been aware of the nuances of something while the broader public was encouraged to subscribe to a more black and white view.  All the more so as it was important to amplify/oversell SDI’s capabilities to the Soviet Union as well, so as to keep the Red Bear scared and get him to the negotiating table at speed.  All of which seems like practical politics/diplomacy to me.  Note at no point in our conversation have I disagreed with you about the ultimate intention of those who initiated SDI, and yet here I am being told I’m misinformed and don’t know what I’m talking about.  I fear you may be misinterpreting–or may have misheard–my position.

On those solar powered satellites: I understand that belief in a comprehensive, cheap SPS solution is an integral part of your world-view, and I hope you’re right that it’s a workable one.  It’s just that in my fiction. . . you aren’t.  For what it’s worth, this skeptical stance re the environmental side-effects of SPS is by no means an integral foundation-item for the Autumn Rain universe, and this is one area where being cut off Thursday night probably got in the way of clarity.  The Autumn Rain world is one that’s trying to turn the corner, and the question it faces is whether bootstrapping the off-Earth economy can occur before environmental decline becomes irreversible.  Even if SPS works, we will still, I think, face this task.

Re global warming:  yes, I subscribe to the current mainstream position that global warming is a serious problem, and that human industrial factors are contributing to it.   As you say, that position *may* be incorrect.

Re the state of hard science fiction:  My understanding is that hard science fiction involves a rigorous attempt to ground the narrative in science and scientific speculation.  But if we’re going to narrow that definition to science approved by particular authors/scientists, then yes, I would agree, hard science fiction is in rapid decline, and that’s probably a good thing too.  Personally, I think the genre is in much better shape than you might think vis-a-vis the issue of scientific rigor, all the more so with regards to the social sciences, where the level of realism used to veer toward the laughable.  Indeed, I think science-fiction has historically subscribed to way too many illusions regarding how politics really works, but I guess that’s an issue for another time.  Maybe over a beer some day.

I already gave Jerry a copy of BURNING SKIES, but the rest of you are going to have to buy your own.

36 Responses to “An Open Letter to Jerry Pournelle”

  1. Roland Dobbins Says:

    Please to cite *specific examples* of the American public being told by any official in the Reagan Administration, the first Bush Administration, or any Republican member of either the House or the Senate that SDI was an invincible shield? Just one example will suffice, actually.

    [Hint: There aren’t any – not a single one. This is a straw-man posited by those with their own reasons for denying the USA the ability to invalidate the USSR’s ability to launch an overwhelming, successful first strike, repeated endlessly by the usual sources of disinformation.]

    An ‘effective missile shield’ in the context of nuclear deterrence theory is one which effectively prevents a potential aggressor from believing that he can get away with an overwhelming first strike which renders the target’s second-strike capabilities ineffective. Even as a research concept with no production deployments, SDI was a roaring success, by this measure.

    Also note that the Soviets were scared to death that SDI would do just what I posited above, and spent billions and billions they didn’t have on trying to build their own – and failed. This contributed to the ultimate collapse of the USSR, by siphoning off funds they could ill afford.

    In Reykjavik, Gorbachev was willing to cede away almost anything at the bargaining table, as long as President Reagan agreed to shut down SDI research. As any competent statesman would do in a similar situation, President Reagan rightly inferred that if SDI was what the Soviets feared the most, it was the one thing which he couldn’t afford to bargain away.

    Events have demonstrated the soundness of his judgment in this regard.

    ABM systems are no more first-strike enablers than are SAM systems, Phalanx/Goalkeeper CIWS-type systems or an AN/TPQ-36/-37 Firefinder counterbattery radar systems combined with MLRS or howitzer batteries. To assert otherwise is nonsense.

  2. Joe Zeff Says:

    Dave, I may not be a Filthy Pro, but I have written some SF, and had some short stories published in a semi-prozine. Most of them were hard SF. I checked the physics, I did the math. For one story, I worked out the surface gravity of Ceres for myself to get the description right. Some hard SF writers go to far more effort than that, some to less, but they all try to get things right.

    Compare that to Star Wars, or Star Trek. Nobody even pretends that there’s any accurate science there, and nobody cares, because for them, the story is everything. I think the question was, is Autumn Rain hard SF (as the cover claims) or isn’t it? I don’t know; I haven’t read it yet and, considering that I’m currently unemployed, it might be a while before I do.

    The question matters, because it tells us what standard we need to use in judging it. If it really is hard SF, then it’s fair game for us to look for holes in your science, although it’s not fair to ding you for things that weren’t known when you wrote it. (Much old SF has Mercury with a hot side and a cold side. As long as it was written before we learned that that’s not quite true, it’s OK.) If you’re writing “Science Fantasy,” all we can ask for is internal consistency.

  3. Karen Wester Newton Says:

    As someone who skips over the hard science stuff, I don’t feel qualified to say what is and is not “hard SF.” I will say that no amount of solid extrapolation of facts can excuse a boring story (NOT a problem with your books, Dave). Also, when I was young, I read Isaac Asmiov’s Lucky Starr YA books (written under the pseudonym Paul French). Asimov included a disclaimer at the front that said, “When I wrote this, we didn’t know as much as we know now about Venus (or Mars, or the asteroids)…” I read those stories knowing that there were no swaps on Venus or Martians, but I still enjoyed them.

    If you write science fiction well enough, there is always the chance your books will still be in print when the science in them becomes obsolete. So what? That doesn’t make them not good stories.

  4. Joe Zeff Says:

    I think you misunderstand, Karen. It doesn’t matter that we’ve learned more about the planets than we did when Asimov wrote those stories. What matters is, with one exception, what he wrote was accurate at the time he wrote it. (No, I’m not pointing out the one error I found, but will leave it as an exercise for the reader.)

  5. David Williams Says:

    @ Roland: you’re kidding me, right? Even the most cursory glance at the literature from the 1980s reveals a public discourse clearly centered on the notion of an impervious missile shield:,9171,961937,00.html It’s not like they just got that idea out of thin air. Sure, all the administration’s statements were nuanced. . but whereas the technocrats could hang all sorts of asterisks on the term “missile shield”, that’s what the public heard and that’s what they ran with.

    @ Joe: That’s nice that you calculated the surface gravity of Ceres. But as to the question you’re raising, Jerry seemed to answer that to his own satisfaction within two minutes, and most of that was me trying to get a word in edgeways. I’d invite any skeptics to read my books and tell me what science they disagree with.

  6. Steven Klotz Says:

    Can anyone that’s read both Jerry and Dave suggest a good book by Jerry that I can read? I made a quick pass through amazon and most (based on cover alone) looked like plain military SF. Where should I start for a good comparison of Hard SF? I’m pretty sure I read something of his as a kid, but it doesn’t stand out in my mind.

  7. Roland Dobbins Says:


    Again, what you’ve cited is an opinion piece written by folks who, for various ideological and pecuniary reasons, were opposed to the USA having the ability to mitigate the USSR’s ability to potentially launch a successful first strike. And it doesn’t even say what you allege.

    Again, I challenge you to produce one concrete example of a Reagan or GHWB Administration official, or even a defense contractor rep, pushing SDI as an ‘invulnerable missile shield’. You won’t find any, of course, because that was a huge straw man set up as a direct result of KGB propaganda efforts in order to try and discredit the ABM concept in general, and SDI in particular.

    You’ll only find people denigrating the ‘invincible missile shield’ concept – but no one advocating it in the first place, heh.

    Let’s move back in time a bit, to the 1950s.

    During the 1950s and into the early 1960s, there was no strategic triad of land-based ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers – there was only a ‘unipod’ of bombers. Both the USSR and the USA invested tons of money and effort into building better/faster/more survivable bombers, deploying lots of radar-guided AA cannon and SAMs (the USSR were the world leader in SAM technology), and of course continually building newer/faster/better/better-armed interceptor jets with which to shoot down one another’s bombers.

    Yet, during the 1950s and into the 1960s, there was never any brouhaha about fighter aircraft, or SAMs, or AA cannon were ‘first-strike enablers’, or ‘invulnerable shields’. Even though they were the ‘SDI’ of their day.

    Then, along came usable/useful land-based ICBMs with non-laughable CEPs, followed by SLBM/SSBN (if you want to talk about first-strike, let’s talk about depressed-trajectory SLBMs lobbed from just off one’s coast, heh). No big uproar about these, either, apart from the usual unilateral-disarmament contingent.

    Lots of conventional weapons, too – tanks, artillery, SSNs etc. (USSR world leaders in the first two for most of the Cold War, and for parts of it, with SSNs, too). Again, no big outcry a la SDI.

    You know why?

    Because all of the above were either mechanical or electro-mechanical in nature, and despite their various inefficiencies, the USSR could and did produce decent tanks, planes, artillery, fighters, bombers, ICBMs, even SSBNs/SLBMs (the latter kind of sucked until the tail-end of the Cold War, but they were Good Enough for brinksmanship purposes, even so).

    SDI was a game-changer, because the vast majority of what enabled an SDI-type ABM system was computers/networking information technology – stuff the USSR simply couldn’t do at anything approaching the level of the USA.

    So, while you never heard that much about SAMs or AA cannon or fighters or any of these other things as big, bad ‘first-strike enablers’, you started hearing all this nonsense about SDI – the reason being that the USSR could hold their own enough to maintain rough strategic parity with the other things, but they simply couldn’t do so with SDI, they were totally outclassed.

    When they understood the implications of SDI, they panicked, and cranked up the propaganda/disinformation machine – remember, they were they world masters at it.

    And that’s why you never heard any of this nonsense about fighters and SAMs and AA cannon during the 1950s, or the other stuff later – the USSR could keep up, at least sort of. They couldn’t even make table-stakes with SDI, hence the shrill propaganda.

  8. Al Billings Says:


    “Also note that the Soviets were scared to death that SDI would do just what I posited above, and spent billions and billions they didn’t have on trying to build their own – and failed. This contributed to the ultimate collapse of the USSR, by siphoning off funds they could ill afford.”

    Unlike the billions and billions that the US spent that it didn’t have to try to build its own system that failed? Where is the working SDI system from the 80s? Where is the working one now?

    Yes, with a variety of means, we managed to outspend the USSR into bankruptcy and managed to avert our own (through building the most massive deficits in history at the time). Of course, since then, we’ve managed to collapse our own economy and I still don’t see a missile shield in space (nor working space based weapons of any sort, which doesn’t sadden me).

    Crow all you want about the joys of SDI but it was a black hole for money that we suckered the Soviets into following us down. We just had more resources to dump into it by borrowing against future generations (like my own since I was not an adult then). It is hard to consider SDI more than the wet dream of the military and some geeks when no working system ever resulted from it.

    @Joe, have you read Dave’s books? It is easy to criticize the science of novels that you haven’t read, isn’t it? I gather that you haven’t bothered to read the books though.

    As to whether the book says “Hard SF” on it or not, is that really the tempest in a teapot here? People don’t have better things to do than argue about what the marketing department put on a cover?

  9. Roland Dobbins Says:


    SDI was funded by the USA at pittance levels – absolutely nothing, compared to conventional strategic weapons systems. But that pittance was enough to throw the USSR in to a panic, and they spent the equivalent of 10x what we did, relatively speaking, and it was enough to help tip the balance.

    We’ve known how to build and deploy an SDI-type ABM system for 25 years. We’ve simply lacked the political will do so so, largely because those in the permanent bureaucratic nomenklatura within DoD and Congressional staff share your ideological blinkers.

  10. Al Billings Says:

    @roland, or they don’t share your desire to weaponize space? I’m not the right wind asshat here. We already spend vastly more on our military than almost anything else and, personally, I think our priorities are completely mistaken. Of course, I would lay money on you supporting the unending Iraq War and bet you are very sad that we may actually pull troops out soon (after only six years!).

    Some of us have goals and joys in life that don’t involve glorifying death and the tools of it. Now, before you try to paint me into some caricature, I have family that have served, grew up with guns, and don’t have issues with people defending themselves. None of those support building up a military and occupying nations on the other side of the planet at the expense of the health and welfare of our own nation. Our wars are bankrupting us and we can’t afford to play cop to the world anymore.

    You seem a bit mired in the past. Time to move the clock forward a few decades, Comrade.

  11. Al Billings Says:

    Besides, we’re talking about a nation that is about to lose the capability to put astronauts in orbit for a few years until we (theoretically) roll out new hardware that hasn’t even begun to be built yet.

    I guess we could dust off some rockets from the early 70s or, hey, ask our friends the Russians to launch our weapon systems into space for us. I’m sure that they’d like the cash.

  12. Karl Lembke Says:

    I think there are several ways we can have “bad science” in science fiction.
    First and second, writers can get the science wrong.

    In the first case, the science itself gets revised — Venus’ swamps disappear, Mercury’s “twilight zone” disappears, and so on. This is usually not a critical failure — we can always tell ourselves the setting is another solar system entirely. No physical laws are necessarily violated in these stories.

    In the second case, the author gets the knowledge of the day wrong — what Niven’s characters see the universe doing near the speed of light, Heinlein’s discussion of nuclear reactors in “Blowups Happen” and gyroscopes in “Number of the Beast”. Here, we may have to ignore the laws of physics, or suspend our disbelief on a more sturdy rope. (And sometimes the rope breaks!)

    Then there is the case where the science is controversial. An author might assume Velokovsky’s or Von Danikan’s history is correct, or assume the existence of Atlantis or Mu. Or a story may depend on psychic powers where the science remains, at best, unsettled. This third category is wandering into the realm of fantasy. I’m not sure how to draw the line there.

    In all three of these cases, I’ve seen good stories, and wretched stories. The quality of the story is often independent of the soundness of the underlying science. As long as the author can establish a set of rules, and then follow them, I think most readers will understand and forgive any minor (or even major) errors. I know I do, for the most part.

    I reserve the right enjoy The Integral Trees despite the fact that the setting is physically impossible. And if someone else can’t abide calling the book “hard SF” because the setting is physically impossible — well, I guess that’s his problem.

  13. Steven Klotz Says:

    What if the political climate was similar to that of the cold war, but technology had advanced (over 100+ years) to the point where the militarization of space was possible?

    That should really be the starting point for arguments, as that’s the closest connection to SDI I can find in Mirrored Heavens and Burning Skies.

    I for one think there’s a drastic difference between a budget line item and a working energy weapon powerful enough that AIMING it could be construed as an act of war. I for one am glad that neither are part of my current reality, but the latter allows for some intense fiction, no matter how it’s labeled.

  14. Melinda Says:

    @Joe: I think you’re right to say “If it’s hard SF, the science matters.” I would, however, encourage you to critque the science in the books if that’s your point. Comparing David’s work to Start Trek is not fair at all. He certainly didn’t write a plot that centers around creating a black hole and then ignore everything we know about black holes. Be a scientist: cite specific examples that where the proof doesn’t hold.

    re SDI and how it was sold/not sold to the public: I thought this was about the science/lack of science in the Autumn Rain universe? Whether people thought SDI was invulnerable and whether they were mislead into thinking that is not a science question. It’s a difference of opinion on the political fallout from a specific US policy. You can disagree, but you can’t say a book’s science is bad because you don’t think the political reasoning is sound.

  15. Joe Zeff Says:

    Al, I’ve already said that I haven’t read Dave’s books yet, and therefor, am not criticizing them. I was only explaining why the question of “hard SF” came up, and giving a personal example of how thorough a hard SF writer might get.

    I’d also, if I were you, lighten up on the ad hominum attacks, because they add nothing to your arguments while making you look churlish and bad mannered. You’ve done it several times now, since I’ve been here, yet none of the people you’ve attacked have replied in kind.

  16. Joe Zeff Says:

    You and I were posting at the same time, Melinda. I wasn’t comparing the science in Autumn Rain to that of Star Trek; I was using Star Trek as an example of SF that doesn’t even pretend to be hard. As far as SDI goes, Dave brought it up during his talk at LASFS, and asserted things about it that Jerry considered wrong. During the discussion, Jerry made it very plain that he had been deeply involved in the planning and selling of SDI, but Dave still insisted that Jerry was wrong and that Dave Knew Better.

  17. Al Billings Says:

    @joe, when I see the typical right wing nutjobs turn out in force on a blog, I tend to treat them as they are. If you’d read this blog during the last year, you’d know the kind of BS that starts when they show up.

    Since you aren’t me and I’m not you, I’m sure we can worry about our own behavior and keep the advice for when it is solicited. You aren’t one of my parents, after all.

    You seem to assume that just because Pournelle helped write some policy speeches in the late 1970s, he knows better than Dave. Why this is the case and how it is relevant to what Dave is actually writing, I have no idea. SDI was (and is) a joke and was a ill-thought idea at the time, let alone now. In the end, bickering about something that got said in a ten minute period during an interrupted talk (what a way to treat a guest!) on a blog days later seems to be a waste of time for a number of people.

    I happen to be a regular participant here and a fan of Dave’s. Why are you here except to pile on behind Pournelle? Are you going to become a contributor to ongoing discussions on this blog?

  18. Melinda Says:

    @joe: To someone who looks at the comments and doesn’t know the whole backstory, it looks like SDI and whether it works is integral to the plot of Autumn Rain.

    So, we really have two discussions going on: Is Autumn Rain hard SF? And was Dave insufficiently polite at a certain writer’s meeting?

    Now, since the SDI discussion in the comments has devolved into “You don’t know what you’re talking about with SDI,” “No, you don’t know.” “You’re a nutjob.” “You’re a communist,” allow me to point out that if God Himself commented on this blog about the actual intentions of SDI, it doesn’t change the nature of this discussion. Should Dave had been nicer? Probably. Should Pournelle have been nicer? Probably. Civil disagreement is something every writer should learn.

    Is Autumn Rain “Hard science fiction”? I guess we’re not interested in that question, particularly since Karen and I are the only people here who’ve read it.

  19. Joe Zeff Says:

    No, Al, I don’t assume that Dr. Pournelle knows more about SDI than Dave because he helped write some policy speeches. I assume that he knows more because he chaired the Citizen’s Advisory Committee that came up with the idea, worked it out and sold it to President Reagan. He knows exactly what it was intended to do, how much it could do and, equally important, what it couldn’t do. During the discussion at the LASFS, he was very specific about what he had done and where his knowledge came from, but Dave Just Didn’t Care.

  20. David Williams Says:

    @Al : honestly, I have zero problem with Jerry’s defenders showing up for this particular instant. If they’d like to stick around, that’s great, but no obligations. Jerry’s a grand old man of SF, and he’s entitled to his die-hard defenders.

    @Joe: that said—and to Al’s point—I’m still not following your argument here. So you’re saying that anyone who was involved in the planning/selling of a particular government initiative gets to make ex cathedra statements about that initiative, and that it’s simply arrogant to question them on this? By that token, we shouldn’t be questioning the policies of our government, ever, under any circumstances. This line of thinking could justify basically anything.

  21. Al Billings Says:


    Actually, I’ve read the first book and am most of the way through the second. I don’t care about whether it is “Hard” Science Fiction or not though. That isn’t what determines what I read or enjoy. I read for cool stories, characters and ideas.

  22. Joe Zeff Says:

    Actually, Melinda, both Jerry and Dave were very civil in their discussion, once you adjust for Jerry’s difficulties with controlling how loudly he speaks. They tried to keep the debate rational, and avoided even the appearance of personal attacks. The only person who really got bent out of shape was Karen Anderson, and I have no idea why.

    As far as finding out if Autumn Rain is hard SF, I hope to find out for myself some day. If nothing else, I’m fairly sure it will turn up, sooner or later, at Chaos Manor, and I’ll have a chance to read it while housesitting for Jerry.

    I’d also like to point out that some of my favorite SF of all times could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be called hard. I’m not a purist, and try to judge each work on its own merits.

  23. Joe Zeff Says:

    My point, Dave, is this: Jerry knows what SDI was designed to do, what it could do and what it couldn’t. He also knows how it was described to the public, because he helped write the description. On that, I think you can rely on his word.

    Now, if you want to argue that there was a way to use SDI as an offensive weapon, feel free to do so. Personally, I don’t agree with you, because I don’t see how the ability to block most of any Soviet retaliation can be considered offensive, but I can understand why a layman might. It appears to be a fairly common misconception, just as the average Frenchman of the 1930s thought that the Maginot Line made it impossible for Germany to invade, even though that wasn’t how it was designed or presented (It was designed and intended to make it impractical for Germany to invade across the German/French border, and that’s exactly what it did.). It seems to be part of human nature to take things like that and over-generalize their capability, expecting more from them than their designers intended.

  24. Al Billings Says:

    @Joe, you left out the word “theoretically” in saying that Pournelle knew what SDI could or couldn’t do since we never actually built it (nor did he participate in the engineering efforts to do so). You can’t talk about what a non-existent system can or cannot do since it doesn’t exist. It was an idea that became policy but which was never built (and we can all debate whether it could have been built in the 80s at all).

    SDI is really a tangent to the idea of the space based weaponry in Dave’s books. We’re arguing about a historical footnote that is in the background of a work of fiction set 100 years from now. Other than Jerry Pournelle (and perhaps you and Roland), who really cares? This is a deep rabbit hole with no real point to the real subject at hand.

  25. Karl Lembke Says:

    @Al Billings:
    Other than Jerry Pournelle (and perhaps you and Roland), who really cares [about SDI]?

    Um…. Everyone who’s been keeping this thread going?

  26. David Williams Says:

    @ Joe: Side A has a partial missile shield. Side B does not. Side A now has a first-strike advantage . . or, if you like, a “diminished reluctance” to use its first strike, because a partial missile shield is going to be that much more effective against a weak retaliatory strike in which a portion of Side B’s missiles were already caught on the ground by Side A’s first strike.

    I think the reason this is so hard for you to see is that I’ve been saying US and USSR, and those concepts trigger emotional responses. So imagine that Side A is the USSR instead of the US. Meaning the USSR now has the partial missile shield, and the US doesn’t. That doesn’t worry you?

    Note that none of what I’m saying has anything to do with the actual intentions of U.S. leadership during the 1980s. I’m simply pointing out the strategic realities had a partial strategic missile shield been built.

  27. Joe Zeff Says:

    Dave, I understood your point when you first made it at LASFS; I just don’t agree that this is using SDI as an offensive weapon. However, as I said before, I see why a layman like you might look at it that way.

    Me? I’m ex-Navy. I was part of the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club back in ’72, when our gunfire support helped turn back and defeat the Eastertide Offensive by the NVA, and since then I’ve done a fair amount of reading into military history, so I may well have a deeper understanding of the issues than most people.

  28. Al Billings Says:


    If SDI gives one nation more of a willingness to attack, to use its offensive capability, because it feels it can survive the consequences because of a missile shield, that makes SDI a part of the offensive capability of the nation and will be taken as such by policy makers in that nation (and others). Just because a weapon has an officially defensive purpose doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a defacto offensive one as well.

    I don’t see how being ex-Navy and having read military history makes you that much more qualified than not-ex-Navy and having read military history as well. It isn’t like you were an ICBM crewmember or a member of the Joint Chiefs.

  29. David Williams Says:

    @Joe : yeah, I was talking less about the SDI infrastructure being a weapon in and of itself, and more that it would/could create conditions that maximized first-strike advantage. That said, future generations of space-based “defensive weaponry” could certainly be used as actual offensive weapons, either in ASAT capacity or as space-to-ground directed energy, but that wasn’t the point I was making Thursday night, because 1980s technology wasn’t even remotely there.

  30. Joe Zeff Says:

    @Al, the problem here, that you don’t understand, and I do because of my background, is a matter of definitions. An “offensive weapon” is something that you can use to reach out and smack somebody, something that just wasn’t designed into SDI. SDI was designed strictly to defend against somebody else trying to “reach out and smack” us, and nothing else, making it defensive only.

    @Dave, I understand that, and have no problem with it. Just don’t call it a “first strike capability” in the future, and people like me who know what that actually means won’t have any problem with it.

    The problem here, I think, was terminology, and a lack of understanding that some of the terms used have very specific meanings in this context. It’s just like discussing legal matters with a lawyer; some terms have very special, restricted, narrow meanings in that context that have little to do with what they mean in everyday life. Unless you know how a lawyer defines those terms, you’re not going to understand things correctly.

  31. Brian Says:

    I really hope the debate is about the word “invincible” and not the spirit of Reagan’s sale to the American people. In his most famous speech kicking off the sales process Reagan used the words “impotent and obsolete” and that sounds pretty damn close to invincible in concept to me.

    And if anyone’s debating that, since the dawn of the American presidency, aids and internal research groups feed one form of truth to the president and that he turns around and tells his constituency exactly what he’s been told–without nuance–then there’s such a lack of objectivity in that person’s statement you’re only left to declare the conversation as an exercise in futility. Especially if it’s with someone that was/is “on the inside” because in my opinion they know better and are acting against the principle of democracy. Namely transparency. It’s the fight of The People in a democracy to achieve transparency and it’s generally the fight of those in charge to limit it (but not eliminate it).

    That all said, I find it fascinating, and perhaps not unrelated, that (and no offense meant to the author here) if you walk into any bookstore (with few exceptions) you find SF crammed into some forgotten corner of the store–as though the bookstore’s purposely trying to keep this type of scene away from other customers, lest they be scared away forever. If SF is ever going to achieve its true commercial value it has to become more welcoming to those that are curious–but lacking a PhD in physics. As a casual bystander I feel like I’ve been transported back to high school and am watching the D&D club masturbate one another while the rest of the world is wondering what all the fuss is about. Is it not enough that something’s called fiction to get a pass for a few details here or there? I certainly haven’t picked up either AR book with the expectation that it’s peer reviewed and a blueprint for the space empire I plan on starting next week,

  32. David Williams Says:

    @ Joe: Strictly speaking, there were a number of components of SDI that could have been used as weapons, in particular much of the space-based hardware, and especially the X-ray bomb-pumped lasers. But yes, the core offensive potential in the SDI system was as an enabling factor. I made that point in the room—perhaps not very articulately, it would appear—but sensed all along that the real objection to my argument was less anyone truly misunderstanding me about what constituted a weapon and more a broad objection to anyone questioning Pournelle’s right to be the final authority on all things SDI. To say nothing of the fact that some seemed to think I was attributing a certain set of beliefs to U.S. war planners, simply because I said the capability was there. But it sounds like we’re all on the same page now, at least insofar as where we’re all coming from on this.

  33. Jerry Ellis Says:

    I would say that Joe has commited a basic blunder, for such a learned expert in all things military, and that would be in underestimating his adversary.

  34. Roland Dobbins Says:


    You wrote this:

    ‘@ Joe: Side A has a partial missile shield. Side B does not. Side A now has a first-strike advantage . . or, if you like, a “diminished reluctance” to use its first strike, because a partial missile shield is going to be that much more effective against a weak retaliatory strike in which a portion of Side B’s missiles were already caught on the ground by Side A’s first strike.’

    *Precisely because no ABM system would be perfect*, precisely because of things like depressed-trajectory SLBMs, and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, and nuclear gravity bombs delivered via aircraft*, not even the most amateurish, imbecilic war planner in the USA or USSR would ever make this assumption. Yet another example of a straw-man set up to be knocked down by those with ideological and/or other reasons for seeing the USA and USSR locked into MAD.

    Yet again, your responses and assertions demonstrate that you’ve no background in nor knowledge of nuclear deterrence theory. I don’t mean this as an insult; there are subjects on which you’re far more knowledgeable than I. But by making such ill-informed and inaccurate statements as the above, you continue to demonstrate that you lack domain expertise in this area.

    Whether you realize it or not, you’re repeating what is literally, not figuratively, extremely successful KGB-initiated propaganda and disinformation which has been absorbed into the popular culture due to its endless repetition by those with agendas (you most definitely are *not* someone with an agenda, and I want to ensure that I make this very clear). I do not mean this as an insult or as a form of rhetorical hyperbole; I mean it literally. You can check primary sources such as Kalugin and Gordievsky on this topic.


    Your insulting, patronizing, condescending ad hominem insults invalidate any possible point you may be trying to make. From this point forward, I shall simply ignore any comments you make, as you clearly aren’t capable of civil discussion.

  35. David Williams Says:

    @ Roland: so let me get this straight. First you’ve told us that the media got the impression that SDI would be an airtight missile shield as the result of their own ideological biases, rather than the Reagan White House. And now you’re saying that I’m a KGB dupe because I think a partial missile shield *could* have had a destabilizing impact. Give me a fucking break, dude. Your attribution of my meme-intake amounts to an ad hominem attack all its own, and if you keep posting this crap, I’ll delete it, because you’re wasting my time.

    As Jerry himself noted on the other thread, the Soviet Union was considering first-strike scenarios in the 1970s that *didn’t* involve any kind of robust missile defense, so it hardly seems nuts to think that (for example) the USSR would have given even more thought to such a scenario had they been the ones to possess a missile defense.

    But whatever. You’ve got the KGB on the brain, man. My advice to you is to adjust the chip they’ve planted in your skull and switch to a different channel. Preferably somewhere off this blog.

  36. Sunday Starlinks Says:

    […] Why writing hard science fiction is more dangerous than other kinds of fiction: David J. Williams in a cage match with Jerry Pournelle.  Follow up being an open letter to Jerry Pournelle. […]