The occasion for reading some H. Beam Piper was his influence on William Barton who I’ve posted a couple of reviews of.
Piper was an interesting author and, except for a bad and disorganized agent, probably would have become a major figure in science fiction instead of what can be regarded as a second tier author.
The version I’ve heard is that Piper, despondent over his financial difficulties, committed suicide — not knowing that his deceased agent actually had sold several of his stories and there was money in the pipeline. He spread some painter’s drop clothes on the floor, took a gun from his collection, and shot himself. (His wiki bio gives different motives though.)
A retro review from September 12, 2008 …
Review: Federation, ed. John Carr, 1981.
These stories are from the time when computers were huge and stupid, when you took your DNA the way you found it, when we were sure there were a bunch of aliens waiting to be met, and you could engineer a culture the way you engineered a bridge. In other words, these stories are all about fifty years old, and you have to make some mental allowances for when, say, characters drag out that ancient bit of technology – the photostat.
If you do that, you’ll be entertained by one of the great practitioners of adventure science fiction, the man who created the popular Little Fuzzy series. The stories in this collection are set in the same universe, Piper’s TerroHuman Future History, specifically during its early days. Aliens are central to most of the stories whether it’s deciphering their history, attempting communication with them, or manipulating their culture.
Piper was a great student of history and often makes specific allusions to the historical event inspiring a certain story. But the plots come off as credible and still readable instead of shoddy analogies with the past.
“Omnilingual” is perhaps Piper’s most famous short story. Its account of finding a Rosetta Stone to decipher the language of dead Martians is mixed with evocative accounts of their ruins and final struggles. “Naudsonce” is one of those alien puzzle anthropology stories. Here the puzzle is whether an alien race is telepathic or just has an astonishingly inconsistent language. The solution is credible and lies in the aliens’ physiology. This is perhaps the only story in the collection not inspired by some bit of history.
“Oomphel in the Sky” seems inspired by what anthropologists call “revitalization movements” similar to the American Indian’s Ghost Dance of the late 1800s. The aliens of Kwannon start murdering and burning out human colonists in preparation for the Last Hot Time, an anticipation of the planet approaching perihelion with one of the system’s suns. In the grand manner of an Astounding story of the time, our hero fixes their culture and fixes the problem. He also has to contend with neo-Marxists in the Native Welfare Commission who are hostile to his plan and critical of the general efficiency of the military and private enterprise in providing for the Commission’s native charges. While sympathetic to Piper’s side of the debate, this story, in some ways, seemed to me the most dated in the book. If the story were written now, the bureaucrats would not be denouncing the influence of Kwannon priests (a la a 1950s Marxist denounciation of religion holding the masses back from their inevitable destiny) but celebrating their diversity – whatever its effects. It’s Piper’s hero that is most respectful of the aliens’ innate abilities if not their specific beliefs. It’s all about working with and accepting “social forces”, alien or human, rather than working against them.
“Naudsonce” is a well-done tale of imperialism, here the Federation of Piper’s Terro Human Future History trying to develop communication with local aliens so they can get their consent for human settlement. Piper gives us an intersting scientific bit of speculation: aliens whose neurology is different enough from humans in that they don’t hear sound but rather feel it, it induces physical sensations in them routinely. This leads to a sort of telepathy amongst them – sensations directly communicated, social struggle (shouting mobs described cynically as democracy by one human character) via chanting, and a peculiar susceptibility to certain sounds. Some sounds are almost like being violated physically (the expedition’s linguist has qualities in the frequency of her voice which leads to this reaction). Other sounds – like a water pump – are addictive. The story ends on an ambiguous note. However much the expedition’s leader wants to treat the natives fairly, he knows that he has probably discovered a means of social control. (Perhaps a bit analogous to opium in China though that is not mentioned.) He knows others may not have his scruples about using it. This is a good puzzle story, and Piper, in his engineering and scientific details, does a very credible job describing the expedition.
“Graveyard of Dreams” is a melancholy story with a hopeful end that has a bit of the air of cargo cults about it. Poictesme’s residents try to hold off their economic decline by scavenging the huge amount of military hardware left behind after a Federation civil war. Their ultimate quest is for a huge, sophisticated battle computer, the alleged key to Federation victory.
“When in the Course – ” is something of an anomaly. Never published in Piper’s lifetime because Astounding‘s editor John W. Campbell rejected the story and its implausible element of parallel evolution, half of it was cannibalized to become part of Piper’s Paratime series, specifically part of the novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. The flavor of the story is similar to that novel with also something of L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall. A group of humans land on Freya, their last chance to get a profitable colonial charter. They introduce all sorts of innovations – like secret police and propaganda as well as gunpowder production – to the natives so they can get a treaty for their company and the natives can throw off a local religious tyranny.
Piper’s work is all in the public domain and freely available online. However, this collection is worth buying for Carr’s attempt to piece together Piper’s future history with its cycles of war, barbarism, expansion, and decline. It was a vast project Piper planned and, unfortunately, since many of his papers vanished after his suicide, the chronology of the series is not always obvious.