H. BEAM PIPER
H. Beam Piper is remembered primarily for his Fuzzy novels and his alternate history stories. Although respected even during his lifetime, he was neither a prolific nor a commercially successful writer and his career was cut short by his suicide. Readers sometimes confused Piper with H.B. Fyfe, a contemporary, despite their very different writing styles because of the coincidental similarity of their names. Piper started writing in the late 1940s and died in ? Some of his work appeared posthumously. In addition to his science fiction, he wrote a mystery novel, Murder in the Gun Room, which I read many years ago. It was not very good.
Piper's first published novel was Uller Uprising (1952), part of the short lived Twayne triplet series in which three short novels were collected in one hardcover edition. Although a shorter version appeared in Space Science Fiction magazine, the full text was largely unavailable until Ace reprinted it in 1983. The novel is about the evils of imperialism and chauvinism. Humans have effectively taken control of the planet Uller, whose inhabitants are partly silicon based hermaphrodites. The local military authorities treat the natives much like you would expect, with patronizing contempt and casual brutality. They are currently engaged in attempting to suppress bands of cannibals, which sounds noble enough but they're only doing it to fulfill contracts with the local nobles. Unfortunately, a charismatic leader has arisen and there are plots to remove the current king and replace him, but no one is certain about the power hierarchy among the plotters. The Ullerans also have been stealing domestic animals from the human settlement for reasons no one understands. The human contingent has differing opinions about how the locals should be treated. One faction advocates deposing the local rulers and administering things directly, while others insist that the natives should be allowed to maintain their own government and customs, although even here there are disagreements about the degree of autonomy they should be granted. It is all clearly a parallel to the British occupation of India, eventually including the Mutiny.
The manifestations of imperialism are obvious. Humans call the natives "geeks", insist that they are brutal and treacherous by nature, and cannot understand why they aren't immensely happy to be granted the gifts of superior civilization. Piper's treatment is not one sided. He also demonstrates that the outside intervention has been beneficial to most of the natives and that some who have more progressive attitudes are actively interested in developing under the tutoring of the humans. The plot thickens when one of the locals poisons the human governor - and I have a minor cavil here because in a military/commercial organization like this there would almost certainly be a clear hierarchy of command. Piper suggests that no one knows who would take charge in the crisis and so a committee attempts to organize things. A general takes charge and the bulk of the book consists of their efforts to contain the rebellion, move friendly troops into more advantageous positions, and kill as many of the enemy as possible. Toward the end they discover that the secret master of the rebellion probably has at least one working nuclear weapon and the situation appears dire for a while before the humans ultimately prevail. More than a bit chauvinistic.
Ultimately Piper sides with the imperialists despite their faults and justifies the wholesale slaughter of the insurgents, which in fact reflects what happened during the Sepoy Mutiny. Some readers might take umbrage because the female characters are all described as "girls" while the males are "men". On the other hand, Paula Quinton - a civilian whose attitudes change dramatically when the rebellion breaks out - is a strong and competent character. There is an interesting suggestion in Piper's naming of minor characters. Three of the characters are named Retief, O'Leary and Falkenberg - characters created by Keith Laumer and Jerry Pournelle, but since none of these had been created yet, and since both Laumer and Pournelle expressed admiration for Piper, it seems possible that they borrowed them. It also was the first story in a loosely knit future history of the Terran Federation, formed mostly by colonists from the southern hemisphere of Earth after a nuclear war devastated most of the rest of the world.
Crisis in 2140, written in collaboration with John J. McGuire, was originally published in 1953 as Null ABC, probably a reference to A.E. van Vogt's Null-A novels. It's a dystopian satire set after the fourth world war wherein society is split among the majority, Illiterates, and a privileged minority, the Literates, who are despised by the other group. The authors make some gestures toward explaining how such a society would work but it's superficial because this is meant to be satire rather than a realistic portrait of a possible future. I was surprised and a bit depressed by the amount of nonsense the book pokes fun at that is still an issue today - including parental objections to school content that should not be controversial, male chauvinism, violence in schools, too easy access to firearms, and anti-intellectualism. The plot revolves around an election in which a secret cabal among the Literates is backing the leader of the Illiterates. This is part of a complicated strategy that also involves clandestine reading classes designed to return general literacy to the population. That trend is opposed not only by the Illiterates but by those Literates who enjoy their monopoly of influence. The climax involves a lengthy battle - and a deadly one - among armed factions in the middle of a department store. The story actually ages reasonably well except that satire has gone out of fashion in recent years.
Piper and McGuire collaborated again on A Planet for Texans (aka Lone Star Planet) in 1958. It's quite short and despite the cover there are no giant steers on the planet New Texas, settled by Texans obviously. They're not part of the human federation despite the fact that they are the major producers of meat - a native lifeform something like a hippopotamus. They also live in a Libertarian dream state, an unlikely society where everyone is armed (and wears cowboy boots) and a romanticized version of the Old West is the model for their society. The protagonist is Stephen Silk, a newly appointed ambassador who is supposed to foil an alien invasion and convinced the New Texans to join their alliance, without getting killed in the process, which is what happened to his predecessor. Other ambassadors have gone insane, committed suicide, or turned native. Silk has the uneasy feeling that he is being sent to his death to provide a pretext for an armed takeover to pre-empt a conquest by the aggressive aliens, who are descended from canine ancestors. The novel is satirical - no one could take the setting seriously - and includes ingroup jokes like having one of the minor characters named Wilbur Whately, although there is no Lovecraftian flavor otherwise. Politicians can be killed without legal consequences so long as they deserve it, as determined by the courts, and diplomats are politicians, which makes Silk fair game as well. There's some really noxious stuff along the lines of an armed society is a polite society and it's not clear whether or not the authors saw the absurdity of their own arguments. The last third of the novel is a convoluted trial scene in which Silk outwits the aliens, their human allies, and the idiosyncrasies of local law. Minor but not awful. When Ace reprinted in some years later, all references to McGuire were dropped.
Four Day Planet (1961) is a young adult novel set on Fenris, a barely tenable planetary colony whose "year" only lasts four local days, and it's related vaguely to The Uller Uprising. Walter Boyd is a teenage reporter for the only newspaper on the planet who at the opening of the story is waiting at the spaceport for the arrival of a prominent travel writer. Except that Walter does a little checking - which doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone else - and can't find any evidence that the man has ever written anything. The local society is a libertarian wet dream. Everyone, even the minors, carry firearms routinely and what government there is consists mostly of thugs. The union, which governs the planet's only exports, is being run by a corrupt gang who are taking the profits themselves and silencing anyone who opposes them. Another factor is Bish Ware, a secretive spacer who is generally believed to have been important at some time in the past, before being banished to this backward part of civilized space. Some of the exporters - the product is an analogue of verdigris, a biological product harvested from local sea animals - have decided to negotiate separately with another company, and the fake travel writer is their contact. This sets the stage for conflict between with the group of thugs and possibly even a planetary civil war.
Our young hero joins a hunting expedition that is crippled by sabotage. There's a fairly lengthy section in which they are stranded that slows the pace of the main plot rather dramatically and to no real purpose. They are rescued and a civil war breaks out, but is temporarily diverted when the bad guys start a potentially disastrous fire. There's a big confrontation at the spaceport and Bish Ware is believed to have sold out to the bad guys until we discover - not surprisingly - that he's an undercover agent for the Terran Federation specially working to arrest the head of the gang, which he has now done. Everything is tidied up pretty well. Although reasonably well told, there is a problem of pacing and the young adult perspective is occasionally obtrusive.
Little Fuzzy (1962) was the first in a trilogy which has been expanded since by other writers. It remains Piper's most famous book and was a strong contender for the Hugo, although it lost to The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. The planet Zarathustra has only been settled for about fifteen years but it is already the most profitable site for the company that is exploiting it, and they can only exploit it because it has no indigenous intelligent species. Or does it? When prospector Jack Holloway stumbles across the Fuzzies, diminutive creatures who appear to be sentient, that possibility threatens the company's profit margin so a host of authorities are called upon to debunk the story, while others prepare to wipe out the species just for safety's sake. There's some questionable science here. The scientists insist that sapience is either present or not, that there are not degrees of it, but then they say that there is no generally accepted definition of the term. On the other hand, particularly during the trial, the discussion of what constitutes sapience is fascinating.
Tension between the two human camps builds steadily while the Fuzzies, initially at least, are unaware of it. At the same time, the military authorities on an orbital base are aware of the situation and are considering the possibility of intervening. The plot ticks up a level when one of the company men kills a Fuzzy and his bodyguard is killed during the subsequent turmoil. Jack is accused of murder but his defense is that he was trying to prevent the murder of a sapient being, which would make the company man the killer, as well as invalidating their charter. The company seizes the Fuzzies as evidence but the court rules against them. Unfortunately, the Fuzzies have managed to escape during the interim. Everything comes to a head during the double murder trial and the company loses its chargter. This was a delightful novel when I first read it fifty years ago and it's just as good today.
The Cosmic Computer (1963, aka Junkyard Planet) is another one of those gun toting utopias that only works because the author stacks the cards so that it does, ignoring the contradictions and plain silliness of the society as depicted. The planet Poictesme is a backward planet abandoned by an extensive military establishment during an interstellar war and reduced to excavating old military sites and selling the salvage. There have been rumors of a super computer somewhere on the planet and our young hero, Conn Maxwell, was sent to Earth to ferret out its location. Instead he learns that it never really existed - which makes sense because if it had there would be others in the Federation - but he uses the search as an excuse to goad his fellow citizens into building a ship capable of travel among the stars. Unfortunately the society is so badly portrayed that it's hard to summon any sympathy for the protagonists - who look down on the unemployed as tramps and issue such mindless cliches as "guns don't make trouble; people make trouble." Piper's enthusiasm for weapons - no one on the planet is considered dressed unless he has a sidearm strapped on - found its ultimate form when Piper took his own life with one. Women, of course, are exempt. Duelling to the death is legal. And naturally the "liberals" have destroyed effective government on both Earth and Poictesme. And naturally the protagonists are heroes despite lying to the people who supported them because, as the author has arranged, they turn out to have chosen the right path. This kind of one dimensional society building and plotting is endemic to science fiction - not just by libertarians like Piper - and it's one of the reasons why so much of it can be and is dismissed as trivial. The supposedly enlightened privileged class proves to be repressive of anyone less fortunate, impressing laborers by declaring them vagrants, and generally referring to the unemployed - through no fault of their own - as hoodlums. Piper endorses all of this as well as summary execution of prisoners later int he story.
Once Piper leaves the politics behind, the story picks up. Conn has managed to discover the location of secret bases on the planet which can now be reopened and exploited. The military equipment comes in handy because the planet is plagued by highly armed gangs of bandits with whom it is hard at times not to feel sympathy given the incompetence of the local government and the general malaise and poor conditions endemic on Poictesme. They defeat a band of pirates and acquire half interest in a ship that could potentially satisfy their requirements. Eventually they have an interplanetary ship with which they visit a massive shipyard, also abandoned, on a lifeless, airless planet. After evading some maintenance robots that consider the intruders a form of trash to be swept up, they explore and reactivate the shipyard. Piper has an ambivalent attitude toward his female characters. On the one hand, a number of them are competent technicians and at least one is an authority figure. On the other hand, the males are all "men" and the females are all "girls". Extremist factions who believe that the super computer is Satan battle with others who think it will usher in a new age begin battling all over Poictesme in a rather unconvincing series of encounters. Much to everyone's surprise - except the reader's - they eventually uncover what appears to be a super secret installation and some references to the project. (Piper overestimates the space needed for a super computer, which is probably the most dated thing in the novel.) They learn eventually that the computer projected the collapse of the Federation, much worse if word got out in advance, so they decide to let the computer determine whether or not it should be destroyed. Contrary to Piper's statement, however, no computer is infallible. Despite the quibbles above, this was quite entertaining if not entirely plausible.
Space Viking (1963) is set after the fall of the Federation. The various worlds are self governing and most have regressed into a kind of medieval costume drama with robots. Our hero is Lucas Trask, son of a prominent family on one such world. Although the politics are less intrusive this time around, Piper expresses disdain for democracy, labor unions, and governments in general, showing a preference for a monarchy, private duels, and an armed society. In fact, Piper tells us, if the citizenry isn't armed: "If their ballots aren't secured by arms, they're worthless." He even suggests that slavery can have beneficial results in the long run. Trask even expresses his lack of concern if the Viking pirates slaughter thousands of innocents on other planets so long as they don't upset his business concerns. Trask's bride is murdered on their wedding night by a deranged nobleman who steals a ship and escapes, so he undergoes an immediate conversion and decides to become a Viking himself and search the galaxy for the killer. Trask is conflicted about the damage he inflicts once he has a base and begins attacking helpless settlements, but that doesn't stop him from shooting defenseless people without a word of warning. To be fair, he is repelled by what he has become, but that doesn't stop him from doing it again.
Most of the novel consists of Trask's efforts to build a stable base on the planet Tanith, deal with the corrupt king who has assumed the throne back on his home world, set up a viable interplanetary trade organization, and recruit ships to be his allies in the inevitable confrontation with his old enemy. Years pass in fact with very progress on the latter front, although Trask is arguably now more powerful and certainly more popular than the king to whom he is theoretically subordinate. The story moves well until Piper feels called upon to inveigh against government once more and we are subjected to a lecture about how governments should not do anything "for" people and that the best way to have the leaders bow to public opinion is by assassinating them when they don't. The parallel with, say, the Russian revolution does not seem to have occurred to him. One of the fatal flaws in the novel is that in his quest for vengeance, Trask proves himself to be no better than his enemy, capable of slaughtering innocent people either by mass bombings or at close hand - at one point he kills an unarmed civilian he finds crying over the body of his wife. Another is that Piper does not seem to understand his own contradictions. While praising societies where popular uprisings eliminate unresponsive leaders, he presents the revolutionary movement on one planet - which is doing just what he said societies should do - as an evil scourge that threatens society. The great evil they propose, incidentally, is clearly our own social security pensions. Characters whom Piper likes "argue" while those he creates as straw men "rant" or "shriek." Piper envisions an "enlightened" ruling class that doesn't abuse its privileges, supervising the masses, who are simply constrained barbarians. Leaving aside the politics in their own right, the constant lecturing in the last third of the novel destroys its momentum and by the end, most readers are unlikely to care which of the villains actually wins.
The Other Human Race (1964) was the second Fuzzy novel. Recognition that Fuzzies are intelligent beings causes as many or more problems than it solves. The aftermath of the revocation of the Zarathrustra Company's charter has left a power vacuum and political chaos on the planet. Piper demonstrates considerably more political sophistication in this one than in some of his earlier work. Although the company is in one sense the bad guy, it becomes apparent that they share common interests with the new colonial government and that both would be better served by working cooperatively against the criminal elements inevitable within the population. The head of the on planet group, who was chief villain in the first book, becomes a major protagonist this time. He has decided to accept the inevitable and acquires a Fuzzy companion of his own, to whom he grows attached. This complete reversal is a bit of a stretch but Piper brings it off pretty well, and it would certainly be completely credible if this was a standalone novel. Although very little actually happens in the novel - which deals with the various problems that arise now that Fuzzies have been recognized as sapient - it is surprisingly engrossing. Piper's storytelling skills were considerable. Eventually the primary problem is that the Fuzzies have a biological problem that will lead to their eventual extinction and there appears to be no way to reverse it.
Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (1965) is actually a fix up of the stories "Down Styphon" and "Gunpowder God." The premise is that there are alternate worlds with varying degrees and kinds of human civilization. One timeline has developed the ability to travel among these worlds and has established the Paratime Police to prevent people from exploiting the other realities other than in the more inconspicuous ways preferred by the authorities. Calvin Morrison is a policeman in our world, one of those realities, who is inadvertently transported from one timeline to another. He walks into the middle of a battle between two lords in a feudal version of North America and his heroics gain him the respect of the people of Hostigos, who are menaced by the aggressive plans of one of their neighbors. He devises a cover story that he was exiled from the far future, although in fact he believes that he has been moved through time to a post-apocalyptic world where civilization is slowly rebuilding and has forgotten its past. What follows is a kind of reversal of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
The manufacture of gunpowder is controlled by the priests of Styphon, but Kalvan knows the secret and sets out manufacturing big enough quantities to give Hotigos a chance against his enemies. He also introduces a few other innovations that the locals can implement quickly, as a result of which he becomes the commander of the army and betrothed to the local princess. Meanwhile, the Paratime Police have sent an agent whose mission it to kill Kalvan before he disrupts things too much, although it's probably too late by the time he arrives and in due course he decides to let things develop as they will. After defeating a variety of enemies, Kalvan is procliamed High King. Most of the book consists of battle sequences but Piper is one of the few writers of military SF who can make these things inherently interesting.
The third Fuzzy novel, Fuzzies and Other People, was not published until 1984 because the manuscript was lost for a long time. It starts only months after events in the previous book. The human government is still working out the various problems caused by the discovery that the Fuzzies are intelligent, and the Fuzzies are being taught to speak so that humans can understand them. This is the first time in the series that we see part of the story from a Fuzzy viewpoint - primarily a group who are not initially aware of the existence of humans. There's a moderately interesting legal case about whether or not the Fuzzies, who are legally children, should actually be considered adults in the courts. The villainous lawyer from the previous book is back defending a pair of humans who used Fuzzies to commit robbery. It lacks, however, the intensity of the legal battle in the first book and in fact this is by far the weakest in the series. There's also a planet wide election thrown into the mix and problems because Fuzzies can't testify because their statements cannot be verified by a kind of super lie detector used in all legal cases. Then the original Little Fuzzy goes missing. Despite the myriad subplots this time around, there is little tension and not much more momentum. It is possible that Piper planned another draft before submitting it, but it's not clear that he could have done much to remedy its problems.
Paratime (1981) brings together the remaining four Paratime Police stories, plus one unrelated one about alternate worlds. "He Walked Around the Horses" is based on the actual disappearance of a British diplomat in 1809 and speculates that he may have stepped into an alternate reality. "Police Operation" was the first actual Paratime story and it includes a lengthy lecture about how the various realities came to exist, which is mostly doubletalk and irrelevant to the story. The plot involves the search for an alien predator inadvertently let loose in what appears to be our timeline by a now dead traveler who broke the rules. Piper really hadn't found his way with the series yet and the story stumbles rather than races to a conclusion. "Last Enemy" is set in an alternative timeline where it is possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead and where reincarnation is routine, which I always felt rather contradicted the premise of the series despite other references to personality surviving the death of the body. There's a woman to be rescued there, along with a host of assassins and the prospect of a civil war. Good in parts but I think Piper threw too many different elements together here to get a consistent mix. "Time Crime" is novella length. Someone has kidnapped scores of people from one timeline and sold them as slaves in another, which is very much against the rules. Although not as good as the two parts of Lord Kalvan, the story is quite good, involving a massive illegal operation and the Paratime Police's efforts to uproot it and reverse the damage they've caused. The final story is "Temple Trouble", which looks in more detail at how inter-timeline commerce works. It's short and pretty minor. Best in the collection is the first.
Empire (1981) collects four longish stories set within a consistent future. "The Edge of the Knife" is a very good story about precognition, a subject I usually don't find interesting, in which a history professor gets into trouble when he inadvertently reveals information he has learned about the future. It falters toward the end, however, because of Piper's gross misunderstanding of how psychiatrists might diagnose insanity. The last few pages are embarrassingly bad. "A Slave Is a Slave" is another thinly disguised political lecture that opens with the forced annexation of a planet into the burgeoning Terran Empire. Piper shows his disdain for democracies right at the outset and quite explicitly, and asserts that the use of force should not be a last resort but a worthwhile option to save time. Much of the story deals with the difficulties of abolishing massive slavery by fiat in a short period of time, and that's handled quite well, if a bit simplistically. Unfortunately the story ends with an extended defense of slavery and autocracy. The lower classes are "just incompetent" and not good enough villains to rule. "Ministry of Disturbance" is set a considerable time later when the new empire is becoming decadent. It's mostly about palace politics and only moderately interesting. "The Return", written with John J. McGuire, is not really in the same future history. It's a standard post-apocalypse story with a cute but minor twist, the sacred text turns out to be a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. Last in the book is "The Keeper", also set on a ruined Earth. An old man laments the fall of civilization - apparently due to a new ice age and the evacuation of most of the population - but finds something to value in the wilderness.
Federation (1981) gathers five stories from earlier in Piper's future history. "Omnilingual" takes place during an archaeological expedition and is marred by some minor but irritating chauvinism. There are "girl lieutenants" and "girl ordinance officers" and lots of other "girls" scattered around among the "men." On the other hand, the protagonist is a competent woman. If we accept the assumption that an ancient Martian civilization had sentence structure similar to human languages and published recognizable books and magazines, then this story of a scientist attempting to decipher it is not unconvincing, but that's quite a hurdle to leap. The introduction claims that no one can fault Piper's "anthropology and cryptography" but in fact it's based on a whole series of anthropomorphic assumptions. The first word deciphered, for example, is the Martian word for "month", except there is no reason at all to assume they divided up time that way, or that the glyphs in question refer to a period of time. The protagonist reaches this conclusion because the page on which she encounters it looks like a magazine and the glyph is in the right position for a month. Another scientist concludes that their speaking apparatus was "identical to our own" based on having seen a few statues - no skeletons having been found. The ultimate key to translation is clever though and despite its manifest flaws, this is one of Piper's best stories.
"Naudsonce" is a first contact story in which a contingent of humans attempts to open communications with a primitive race that seems to be stuck in the bronze age. It includes the unlikely assertion that human society no longer uses the wheel and that most contemporary humans have never seen one, thanks to the existence of contragravity. They have trouble because the inhabitants of the planet don't interpret sound the same way humans do. This is another of Piper's better stories. "Oomphel in the Sky" unfortunately lapses back into political lecturing. A subject planet ruled by a paper tiger Marxist government has fallen on bad times because of its inner contradictions and only private enterprise has any hope of saving the situation. "Graveyard of Dreams" is a short, slightly different version of The Cosmic Computer. The final story in the collection is "When in the Course..." It is apparently an unpublished early version of "Gunpowder God" set on another planet instead of another timeline.
First Cycle (1982) was unfinished at the time of Piper's death and was expanded and completed by Michael Kurland. Characters come and go swiftly in this one. Twin planets give rise to two different intelligent races, and it is there history that is the focus of the book. We follow them through various stages of civilization, the discovery of space travel, first contact with each other, growing tensions, and ultimately their mutual destruction in an interplanetary nuclear war. The depressing conclusion is muted by the fact that we never got to know any of the characters along the way. Very minor.
I believe all of the remaining short fiction is collected in The Worlds of H. Beam Piper (1983). "Time and Time Again" was Piper's first published story. A dying soldier in World War III finds himself back in his own body as a child but with adult memories. "The Mercenaries" posits a group of scientists who have essentially become extra-national and neutral, but who discover that one of their number is a traitor to the organization. "Dearest" is the story of an elderly man who hears another voice inside his head. It's the closest Piper ever came to a story of the supernatural. "Hunter Patrol", written with John J. McGuire, is another time travel story, this time to a future when Earth is ruled by a single man. "Flight from Tomorrow" is a post nuclear war story in which humanity must adapt to living in a radiated world. "Operation RSVP" is a minor epistolary piece about nuclear brinkmanship. "Genesis" involves efforts to colonize primitive Earth by Martians. Survivors of a nuclear war solve a problem in Argentina, one of the remaining habitable parts of the world in "The Answer." "Crossroads of Destiny" is a cute story about parallel worlds and "Day of the Moron" is a minor cautionary tale about putting unqualified people in positions of responsibility.
There has been speculation that Piper might have become one of the major figures in science fiction is he had not taken his own life. He certainly had the storytelling skills to do so, although for some reason his shorter fiction generally lacks the narrative tension of the novels. Almost none of his short fiction is particularly memorable. I suspect that he would have run into some trouble because of his often intrusive political agenda, as well as his habit of referring to all of his female characters as "girls" and all of his males as "men". His polemics often disrupted the momentum of his fiction, but when he had it under control his stories move with great efficiency. He had a rare ability to make even relatively mundane scenes seem interesting. On the other hand, he might have evolved away from these problems and become more like Poul Anderson, who could state his case without making the reader feel like an audience. Unfortunately, we'll never know.