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When The Good Old Songs Were New

A Step Farther Out

By Jerry Pournelle 

17 Dec, 2023

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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Jerry Pournelle’s 1979 A Step Farther Out is a collection of science essays, some of which have aged more gracefully than others. All of them first appeared in the late, lamented Galaxy Magazine.

Why review this forty-five-year-old collection of popular science essays now? Because there was a by-election on November 30 and I was helping at the polls. I needed a book that was long enough to keep me amused if the election was slow, but one not so obviously enticing that a voter might walk off with my copy when my back was turned. Having read A Step Farther Out, I must review it. 

As it turned out, only about one in four voters showed up. Next time, I am taking my paperback of Little, Big or perhaps my trade paperback of Islandia.

Full disclosure: I hoovered this bullshit intriguing but often flawed material up as a teen. Some of the contents, such as The Big Rain, were in retrospect obvious nonsense from day one, although the process of understanding why they are nonsense is potentially educational. Other essays document how Science Marches On, which I find interesting (watch as our understanding of black holes evolves on fast forward!). There are one or two essays still of interest to me, primary Pesky Belters.

In retrospect, it is interesting to observe Pournelle’s little rhetorical quirks. He’s big on Follow the Math, but prefers not to do so if it leads somewhere other than his preferred destination. Developments he desires are presented as reasonable and inevitable, provided only those people are not allowed to sabotage the process. Doubt is a concept not found here.

(Is there a succinct term for stab in the back”? I feel like JEP would have found it useful.)

Still, I do still appreciate the moral that anyone with time and a slide-rule or a calculator can learn enough basic orbital mechanics to discuss such things rationally. Having bought into hard SF’s propaganda about itself, it took me a surprisingly long time to notice that by and large SF authors, even the supposedly hard variety, generally don’t bother. It’s part and parcel of SF’s hit or miss relationship with science in general.

A Step Further Out is out of print. I for one blame Senator Proxmire, a shadowy cabal of fuzzy-minded leftists, and B. J. Eddy.

Now, for the contents! Essays without an author are by Pournelle alone. Essays without a date first appeared in this collection. The collection is divided into thematic sections, whose headers are in ALL BOLD CAPS.

Preface: The Freedom of Choice • essay by Larry Niven

A short, enthusiastic introduction by Niven.

Foreword • essay by A. E. van Vogt

A short, enthusiastic foreword by van Vogt.

In retrospect, van Vogt’s enthusiasm should have been a red flag. Sure, he loved Pournelle’s essays but he also loved Dianetics.


JEP vows to wow the reader with awesome views of a wonderful future.


Survival with Style • (1976)

Pournelle concludes that the four crises facing Man! are really one, the energy crisis. He is guardedly optimistic that Man! can lick the energy problem. Cheap energy means access to space and space solves all material needs (as long as your material needs are metal-focused).

Two items of interest here: ocean thermal appears for the first but not the last time. OTEC does not seem inherently unworkable but thus far it has not been a winner, possibly because it requires significant up-front investment. Also JEP mentions solar … but only in the context of space-based solar power. Ground based doesn’t facilitate Buck Rogers in spaaace, so it does not rate a mention.

Blueprint for Survival • (1976)

Space will save us all from the Limits to Growth.

How long to Doomsday? • (1974)

We are not doomed.

Interesting mainly because he acknowledges the demographic transition, also for an early appearance of what will grow into full fledged climate change denial by 1993.

The ISFDB’s entry for this is wrong: they put the” in place of to.”

That Buck Rogers Stuff • (1976)

Space will save us all.


Here Come the Brains • (1974)

Computers are awesome, useful, and becoming cheaper at an astounding rate. Maybe everyone will get brain implants. Maybe humans will be immortalized on computer tape!

Points for engaging with Moore’s Law, something not at all common knowledge at this time. I don’t know why he focused on implant terminals and not hand-held; The Mote in God’s Eye had hand-held terminals.

The Big Rain • (1975)

Terraforming Venus is as easy as dropping a handful of algae into the atmosphere and stepping back as it is transformed into a new Earth. We’d be stupid not to do it.

The only virtue of this essay is that of being incorrect in virtually every respect, starting with the fact that even if algae operated at perfect efficiency, it would take much longer than he claims to crack all the CO2 into many bars of pure O2 and kilometers of bone-dry carbon. Inspirational but also pure bunkum. It’s educational if you can figure out why it’s bunkum.

Flying Saucers • (1976)

Is it time to take UFOs seriously?

Building the Mote in God’s Eye • (1976) • essay by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

A legitimately fascinating study of the creative process behind the novel The Mote in God’s Eye.

The MacArthur has a fusion-powered photon drive. One can learn interesting things working out why that is unworkable.


Gravity Waves, Black Holes, and Cosmic Censors • (1974)

Black holes are cool.

Fuzzy Black Holes Have No Hair • (1975)

Black holes are even cooler than we thought.

The cost being that a lot of John Varley stories were suddenly outdated.

Crashing Neutron Stars, Mini Black Holes, and Spacedrives • (1976)

Various subjects, most interestingly the Dean Drive. Want to show you have defeated Newton? Provide a working model.

In the Beginning … • (1975)

An account of a Hawking lecture.

Possibly the first discussion of Hawking the person I ever encountered.


Halfway to Anywhere • (1974)

A sunnily optimistic discussion of space travel, math included.

Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships • (1974)

Good-natured jabs at Larry Niven’s contradictory world-building assumptions lead to a mathy discussion of low-delta vee settings.

I too find a mathy discussion of low-delta vee settings” as mind-blowingly inspirational as you do. This was the essay I read over and over. One can trace a path from this essay to Erik Max Francis’ Mission Tables via a discussion I had with EMF on rec.arts.sf.science.

Ships for Manned Spaceflight • (1974)

Musing on what a plausible fusion rocket might look like, which became background material for JEP’s Tinker.

Life Among the Asteroids • (1975)

Speculations on life in space.

What’s It Like Out There? • (1977)

More speculations about life in space.


A Potpourri” • (1977)

Various science tidbits, including an interesting claim that there’s evidence of 40,000-year-old human activity in the New World. Ha ha.

Highways to Space • (1976)

Stratagems for getting into space. Laser launchers get mentioned, as does another system whose details are unclear because in my mass market paperback, page 283 ends with and then you” and page 284 is blank.

Come Fly with Me • (1978)

Various cool ways to move energy around, all of which will surely be realized in the near future!

Or not.

The Tools of the Trade (And Other Scientific Matters) • (1978)

More tidbits from the annual AAAS meeting.


Fusion Without Ex-Lax • (1976)

With proper funding America can have fusion by 1995! Why is this vital field being left to the Soviets?

Can Trash Save Us? • (1977)

Burning trash will not fix the energy crisis, but it still might be worth doing.

The Moral Equivalent of War • (1978)

Pournelle criticizes Carter’s energy policy.

One can draw a straight line from conservative moaning about Carter to the Republican dingbats stinking up the US government.

Finally, a citation of Petr Beckmann and his remarkable Access To Energy newsletter! Do feel free to Google that. It isn’t like that could lead to regrettable destinations (malevolent laughter).

Some Futures • (1977)

Will Man embrace Small is Beautiful poverty or 👉 space-based abundance 👈?

I have subtly indicated the correct answer.