“Reading in Bed”

The weird fiction being discussed over at Library’s Thing’s The Weird Tradition group a couple of weeks ago.

Review: “Reading in Bed”, Joan Aiken, 2011.

A genial story that’s kind of a tall tale and almost a deal-with-the-devil story. Our protagonist is Francis Nastrowski, a young Polish officer. And the story right up front tells us that being fond of wine and reading in bed may be “Harmless pursuits, one might say, but they nearly led to his downfall.”    

He was once rich but now stationed in former hotel by the sea in a small fishing village. One night, after drinking burgundy with friends and becoming “if not drunk, at least very, very friendly”, Francis retires to do some reading. 

He hears a noise outside the balcony and gets up with a “torch” (the only approximation of a time period for setting). He sees, in its beam and on the nearby pier, the Devil – whom he recognizes because of the “impeccable cut of his evening suit and his horns”. The Devil invites him across the water. 

Francis dresses, dives in the water, and swims to the pier. The Devil, smoking a cigarette and smelling of brimstone (which Francis isn’t particular about), offers Francis a hand up. The Devil puts a black fur coat on Francis which fits quite well and is warm. The Devil asks Francis if he would like to meet his niece. Francis says he would be honored to meet a relation of the Devil’s. 

They go to a waiting boat, the Devil carrying his tail negligently under an arm. Francis rows them across the water and compliments the Devil on his “very ingenious idea”. Disembarking at an unfamiliar part of town, they walk through “dark cobbled streets” and Francis sees an old man very weirdly swallowing poker after poker. 

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“Shift”

A belated look at the weird fiction being discussed last week at the Deep Ones group at LibraryThing.

Review: “Shift”, Nalo Hopkinson, 2017. 

This story rather annoyed me, and I’m not spending a lot of time on it.

It references many characters from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Miranda, Caliban, Ariel, and Sycorax). In fact the protagonist, we find out, is Caliban.

The story alternates between second person passages involving the black Caliban with a blonde white woman and Caliban’s internal thoughts told in what seems to be a Jamican dialect.

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Typewriter Killer

And with this my look at H. Beam Piper and his works conclude.

Review: Typewriter Killer: H. Beam Piper, John F. Carr, 2015.

While you can a decent sense of Piper the man in this book, you get a clearer and more detailed look at Piper’s complete life in Carr’s earlier H. Beam Piper: A Biography. However, this book succeeds at giving you a better sense of Piper the published writer. In fact, I read this book first.

To be sure, Carr repeats some paragraphs from his early book, but he also condensed the account of Piper’s life before he became published. He also expanded the plot descriptions of Piper’s works, talks about the historical trilogy of 18th century Pennsylvania Piper worked on for decades, and expands the account of Piper’s friendships with other writers, especially with his most significant publishing outlet, John W. Campbell’s Astounding. The chapters are often titled after Piper’s stories and often give a timeline and account of Piper’s problems with a particular work. There is less on Piper’s wife Betty Hirst.

Carr, with the help of Piper’s abortive biographer Mike Knerr (who met Piper in 1959), talks about the business side of Piper’s literary career. He also makes clear that Campbell’s promising Piper’s agents “bonuses” for his work is clear evidence that Campbell used the alleged readers’ votes in Astounding’s AnLab to pay his favorite authors more.

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H. Beam Piper: A Biography

John F. Carr wrote two biographies on H. Beam Piper, this one and, later, Typewriter Killer: H. Beam Piper. (Thus, he has to write another book on Piper to comply with Robert Silverberg’s Law of Research.)

Review: H. Beam Piper: A Biography, John F. Carr, 2008.

A biographer of Piper has a challenge. Piper was a man of habitual secrecy, compartmentalization, and deceit. A habitual diary keeper, he burned years’ worth of diaries prior to his marriage late in life. And why did he divorce his wife? Was she really a golddigger who married him for a vacation in Paris? What did the convivial, hard-drinking Piper do for a living before he became a professional writer? His writing acquaintances variously thought he was a railroad detective or railroad engineer. He really worked for decades as the night watchmen in the yard of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona, Pennsylvania. His friends didn’t even know what the “H.” stood for – Horace?, Henry?. It was really Herbert.

And why did he, on November 6, 1964, put one of his guns to his mouth and pull the trigger?

Carr met the challenge and presents us a biography of an interesting and fatally flawed man who produced some outstanding works of science fiction, a biography that surprised Carr associate Jerry Pournelle, a friend of Piper’s, with its revelation and the lies his old friend told. The sources are the reminisces of friends – sometimes as preserved by their children, Piper’s letters and diaries, letters from John W. Campbell, and the work of Piper friend and abortive biographer Mike Knerr. (Abortive because Knerr turned down the finder’s fee from Ace Books for turning over Piper’s lost manuscript of Fuzzies and Other People in exchange for them publishing the biography. They never did.)

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“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt”

This week’s piece of weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group.

Review: “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt”, Charles R. Saunders, 1982, 2010.

Cover by Obrotowy

This is an interesting story that uses the Cthulhu Mythos incidentally.

The story opens in October with the arrival one night of one Theotis Nedeau at the house of Jeremiah Henley. Theotis is a man of imposing physique and some means since he drives a new car, a 1933 Auburn. The location is near Chatham, Ontario.

The two men are black and old friends from their days at Howard University. Theotis has come at Jeremiah’s request.

When asked if he had had any trouble, Theotis says he was “delayed” near at a gas station nearby. Jeremiah thinks back to their college days when they were stopped by white policeman, and Theotis “flattened” them with one blow, and they escaped. Only a large donation from Theotis dad to Howard stopped a “major racial incident”.

Theotis asks after Jeremiah’s wife and sons. Their spending the night elsewhere is the reply.

Theotis hasn’t seen his friend in ten years, but he sees he’s worried.

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Fuzzies and Other People

And here we are at the last work published by H. Beam Piper.

Review: Fuzzies and Other People, H. Beam Piper, 1984.

Cover by Michael Whelan

After The Other Human Race aka Fuzzy Sapiens, Avon Books was done with Piper’s Fuzzy series. At the time of his death on November 5, 1964, the manuscript was out with Ace Books.

Then it became a “lost work” only uncovered in 1982. The story of where it had been all that time and its authentication as Piper’s final draft of the work is covered in an appendix in John F. Carr’s Typewriter Killer.

The novel takes place shortly after the events of Fuzzy Sapiens. Zarathustra still doesn’t have a constitution yet in the wake of the formerly Chartered Zarathustra Company becoming the Charterless Zarathustra Company.

There are three main plot threads. 

First, there are the problems Jack Holloway, discoverer of the Fuzzies and now head of Native Affairs, worries about regarding protecting the Fuzzies. While Fuzzy adoption is popular, they can’t all be adopted. Schools are set up to teach them basic skills they can use to be self-sufficient in the wilderness. Holloway is worried that they will become pitiful like the natives of other Federation planets. Some earn their keep by hunting pests whose population has been boosted by extensive shooting of harpies, a major predator on the planet. The idea of building firearms for them – eventually done – worries Jack because it will make them dependent on humans for ammo. It is pointed out that they already, living with humans, are dependent on the supplement hokfusine to maintain their population. 

Like Little Fuzzy, a legal battle is the overarching conflict here. Ingermann, the villain of the previous novel, is also the villain here. He is the attorney for his criminal associates, the gang that kidnapped the Fuzzies for a theft of sunstones in Fuzzy Sapiens.

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First Cycle

After Fuzzy Sapiens, Piper had “Gunpowder God” and “Down Styphon!” published. They were combined and expanded for Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen which I’ve reviewed. Those two stories are the last mentioned in Piper’s story log. Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen does not seem to have been published before Piper’s suicide on November 5, 1964.

In the mid-1970s, Jim Baen bought Piper’s literary estate and the Piper revival began. “When in the Course — ” made its first appearance in 1981’s Federation.

Review: First Cycle, H. Beam Piper and edited and expanded by Michael Kurland, 1982.

Cover by Wayne Barlowe

This novel doesn’t get a lot of respect among Piper fans and scholars. John F. Carr in Typewriter Killer only mentions it seven times in the body of that book.  First Cycle was written about 1953 for the Twayne Triplets series from Twayne Books. They were the first of what we now called “shared-world anthologies”. Piper’s Uller Uprising was written for the first in the series, The Petrified Planet. The next Twayne Triplet was a fantasy anthology called Witches Three. The next two proposed installments, science fiction anthologies, were never published. 

Piper wrote this story, originally called “The Heavenly Twins”, for the fourth proposed volume which was also to include stories by James Blish and Murray Leinster. It was discovered in Piper’s estate. Michael Kurland made some minor changes and revisions to it, but this version largely matches Piper’s original manuscript. The framing device of having a Terro-Human Federation starship show up was a Kurland addition.

Like The Petrified Planet, the story starts with astronomical history, here the planets Thalassa and Hetaira came to be. They circle a common center of gravity in a system with both yellow and red dwarf stars. Hetaira has much more water than Thalassa. Each planet has its own sentient race.

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“Black Bargain”

This week’s subject of discussion over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group.

Review: “Black Bargain”, Robert Bloch, 1942. 

This is an interesting story from a period when the modern weird tale with urban settings was starting to evolve. 

While this is a Cthulhu Mythos story by virtue of witchcraft and mention of Bloch’s own addition to the blasphemous tomes of the Mythos  – De Verimis Mysteriis, it starts out in a soda shop with the complaints of the narrator. He’s observant and catalogs all the annoying types of customers that come in and their routines and what they order. The job annoys him not only because of the customers, but because he is a trained pharmacist and the place sells drugs, but no one ever comes in and orders drugs. Bloch is known for his occasional humor, and the story has various sarcastic comments from the narrator.

One night a milquetoast of a man comes in at closing time. He looks like a bum, and the narrator is initially not going to take his request. When the man requests actonite, the narrator is reluctant thinking the man is suicidal. Not for the last time, the man says he knows what the narrator is thinking. He’s just a chemist looking to get supplies for an experiment.

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Fuzzy Sapiens

Cover by Michael Whelan

Review: Fuzzy Sapiens, H. Beam Piper, 1964.

Jerry Pournelle, H. Beam Piper’s friend, said,

It was those Fuzzy books that killed him! They got his hopes up, then dashed them. Beam’s plan was to write one book, or short story, in each century of his future history, not write three bloody Fuzzy novels, including one he could never sell.

On February 14, 1962, Piper got word that Janet Wood at Avon Books wanted a sequel to Little Fuzzy.

As quoted in John F. Carr’s Typewriter Killer, Mike Knerr, Piper’s friend and would-be biographer, said,

Space Viking, in my not so humble opinion, stands as one of the best novels Beam ever wrote—and just what the hell did the book have to do with the Fuzzy thing? If Janet Wood thought that Piper was just going to sit in Williamsport and crank out Little Fuzzy adventures just for Avon, she had another think [sic] coming.

We laughed about it a lot, while Beam struggled to find a decent plot for the sequel. ‘Hell, yes, We’ll do “Little Fuzzy and the Jewels of Opar;” “Little Fuzzy and the Golden Lion” and “Little Fuzzy at the Earth’s Core”… How’s your drink? I’ll get us a refill.’

But, at this point, Piper hadn’t been a hobby writer for many years. The professional Piper was increasingly short of money and figured he didn’t have much choice than to write that sequel.

But, as is the way with publishers, when Janet Wood left Avon, support for Piper’s second Fuzzy novel went with it. Published as The Other Human Race, the original covers of both novels show how much Avon cared about the sequel:

If I was rating Piper novels on how memorable they are, this would be at the bottom. Making notes on this book a bit over seven months after reading it, the only thing I thought I remembered was that a real estate scam was involved, and that it was notable how quickly the former enemies of Little Fuzzy became friends. Neither of which is precisely true. 

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The Years of Great Silence

Review: The Years of the Great Silence: The Deportation, Special Settlement, and Mobilization into the Labor Army of Ethnic Germans in the USSR, 1941-1955, J. Otto Pohl, 2022.

In order to avoid the undesirable occurrence and to prevent serious bloodshed the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet deemed it necessary to resettle all the German population, living in the region of the Volga, to other regions . . .

Thus 177 years as an ethnic group invited into the Russian Empire as a valuable minority with privileges like free land, interest free loans, limited tax exemptions, local autonomy, and exemption from the draft came to a spectacular end on August 24 28, 1941 in the wake of Nazi Germany invading the USSR.

The Volga Germans were only the largest settlement of Germans in the Russian Empire. Other areas of settlement included the Black Sea (including a group of Mennonites), North Caucuses, Bessarabia, the Transcaucasus, and Volhynia. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the settlers. Privileges, like local autonomy, would be granted, repealed, and sometimes granted again. Emigration out of Russia or internal migration to Central Asia occurred after famines. The requirement for military service was reinstated. There were Kazakh attacks on some settlements.

Still, by 1914, the Germans in Russia had grown in number almost 7% of the Empire’s population and were an economically industrious group with a culture supported by schools, libraries, and museums of their own.

The woes of the German Russians started with the forced resettlement of the Volynian Germans into the Volga region. 

But it was the Bolshevik Revolution that was to turn them into a particularly persecuted minority. While the Volga region was declared, in 1919, an ethno-national state, the Germans, with their successful agricultural operations, resisted Bolshevik collectivism. Confiscation of German Russian grain supplies created a severe famine in the Volga in 1919 through 1922 though it was partially mitigated by international aid. When requestioning of food by the government ended, the Volga Germans were able to recover somewhat. By 1928, there was a record grain harvest. Various institutions – the Komosomol, labor unions – were used by the Communist Party to solidify the German Russians as a “titular nationality” with its own language and culture. Even in Kyrgystan, Germans got a larger autonomy. 

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