Review: “The Mercenaries”, H. Beam Piper, 1950.
First published in the March 1950 issue of Astounding Stories, this is not part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History.
Its central idea is intriguing. It’s 1965, and the world is divided into four power blocs: “the Western Union, the Ibero-American Confederation, the Fourth Komintern and the Islamic Caliphate.”
Piper sold this story in 1949, so it was not influenced by a real-world echo of its central concern: treasonous scientists. In 1950, several arrests were made in connection with Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project – and there were many other agents not detected or arrested. The focus of this story is the disloyalty and treason of scientists working on sensitive projects of national security, and Piper anticipates the idea that some scientists will see themselves above the national loyalties they inherit.
The story opens with Duncan MacLeod, head of the MacLeod Research Team, ruminating on the security measures on a project to develop the first spaceship to get to the Moon and, significantly, build a fortress there. MacLeod has been involved in projects with a “dozen different nations” over the last 15 years, and he has never seen such tight security as at the Tonto Basin Research Establishment of the Philadelphia Project.
The grey-haired veterans working there who also served on the Manhattan Project agree. MacLeod’s wife of fifteen years is Karen Hilquist. When MacLeod goes to meet her, she quietly notes that, despite all the security, leaks are happening on the project.
The military commander of the project, General Daniel Nayland, doesn’t like the team. They are civilians, and their contract is with the Western Union. The United States is simply a member, with a treaty, of the Western Union. Still, the contract does allow team members to be shot if found guilty of espionage.
MacLeod doesn’t think anyone but a member of the team could be leaking information. MacLeod says he wouldn’t take a chance on any team member’s loyalty except one Kato Sugihara. And there are reasons to think Sugihara is innocent. One is that Sugihara isn’t interested in anything
outside nucleonic and binding-force physics, there are only three things he’s interested in. Jitterbugging, hand-painted neckties, and Southern-style cooking.
We learn the team has a separate fund, and they are paid out of the profits. Sugihara, if he defected to the Komintern, would lose the substantial amount of his money he still has in the fund. Another reason for thinking Sugihara innocent is that he follows Bushido which would rule out disloyalty. His father was killed at Guadalcanal, and the Japanese don’t forget the Soviets declared war on them in 1945. (Japan is a member of the Western Union.)
The team is composed of nine members, all of different nationalities. MacLeod is South African. His wife is Swedish. Significantly, since Piper struggled to write a series of novels about this period, the “scientist-adventurers” are compared to Renaissance mercenaries:
The scientist-adventurer may have been born of the relentless struggle for scientific armament supremacy among nations and the competition for improved techniques among industrial corporations during the late 1950s and early ’60s, but he had been begotten when two masses of uranium came together at the top of a steel tower in New Mexico in 1945. And, because scientific research is pre-eminently a matter of pooling brains and efforts, the independent scientists had banded together into teams whose leaders acquired power greater than that of any condottiere captain of Renaissance Italy.
We learn MacLeod is the leader of the team not because he’s the best physicist but because
“he was a bolder, more clever, less scrupulous adventurer, better able to guide them through the maze of international power-politics and the no less ruthless if less nakedly violent world of Big Industry.”
His wife is a metallurgist. Sugihara is an expert on the “orders of structure below the level of nuclear particles. Suzanne Maillard is an expert on cosmic rays. Adam Lowiewski reckons himself the greatest living mathematician. Sir Neville Lawton is an electronics expert. Non-observant Jew Heym ben-Hillel (again showing Piper’s hostility to religion) is an expert on quantum mechanics. Rudolf von Heldenfeld is an expert on magnetism and electro-magnetic fields. Farida Khouroglu is a Turkish girl found by Duncan and Karen begging on the streets of Istanbul ten years ago and adopted by them. She’s the team’s secretary and has a keen grasp of physics.
We learn of their other projects: the West Australia Power Plant, the Segovia Plutonium Works (for which they were made grandees of the restored Spanish Monarchy), a sea-water chemical extraction plant in Puerto Rico, a project on Belgian Congo uranium mines.
This is a world where the experience of soldiers and scientists have mingled:
He thought, too, of the dangers they had faced together, in a world where soldiers must use the weapons of science and scientists must learn the arts of violence. Of the treachery of the Islamic Kaliphate, for whom they had once worked; of the intrigues and plots which had surrounded them in Spain; of the many attempted kidnappings and assassinations; of the time in Basra when they had fought with pistols and tommy guns and snatched-up clubs and flasks of acid to defend their laboratories.
This story seems a sequel to Piper’s “Time and Time Again” since we learn Blake Hartley is President of the United States. John F. Carr merely has the future of both stories as similar, but I think they are part of the same series.
Piper works in his love of firearms in a discussion about the physics of what happens to metal heated to incandescence. Duncan is a handloader of loads for his .38 special and conducted an experiment relevant to the problem using his bullets which, it is noted, are much more exact than the usual handloads since he has sophisticated tools available. Duncan proposes an experiment to see if the bullets’ mass shrinks and to write up the finding.
After all the other team members leave, Duncan pulls Sugihara aside and tells him to write up the resulting data in an “absolutely worthless” form.
We learn that Nayland has evidence that work from the project has made it to the Komintern’s moon rocket project. Duncan argues that the lead is from Nayland’s own office.
Further cementing the connection between this story and “Time and Time Again”, we learn that Allan Hartley, hero of the latter story, owes the team a favor for their work in Puerto Rico.
Piper wrote a lot of mysteries though he only ever got one published, and we get a list of suspects. Suzanne had to leave France because of “political activities” “after the collapse of the Fourth Republic and the establishment of the Rightist Directoire in ’57.” She worked at a university with commies. Sir Neville is interested in spiritualism and plays with a Ouija board with Suzanne. Perhaps she recruited him for the Komintern with a message from the spirit world. (Thus communication with spirits is held in suspicion here instead of cited as evidence as in “Time and Time Again”.) Lowienski is a Pole. Perhaps he hopes to be allowed to return to Poland by selling the Komintern info. Rudolf doesn’t like democracies though the commies killed his parents. Heym argued, years ago, that they should accept an offer from the Komintern. When the offer was turned down, the Russians tried to kidnap the team in Iraq – “a couple of Russians got rather suddenly dead”.
The team has its own counter-intelligence team made of an Arab, a Greek, two Chinese, a Frenchman, a Malay, and Englishman who insists on going by the name of Bertie Wooster. They monitor phone calls being made out of the center. Lowienski is heard making a call to someone outside to meet him for a game of chess in the Recreation House of the nearby Oppenheimer Village.
Lowienski is rolled up as well as his contact. MacLeod and Sugihara, armed, confront Lowienski. Lowienski has a gun on him. The research “results” are found on him too, and the team is presented with the evidence against the mathematician. It’s speculated that Lowienski probably defected out of egotism. Perhaps the Sovs offered him a professorship at “Stalin University”. General Nayland’s driver was Lowienski’s courier.
We learn that the counter intelligence team stole back the worthless information which, if implemented in Russia, would have caused an explosion worse than Hiroshima in Smolensk.
There’s a political problem though. If a Free Scientist is shown to be a traitor, the precedent of nations trying and executing Free Scientists will be established. Rudolf suggests, in Lowienski’s words, “a typical Prussian suggestion”: the mathematician should shoot himself. Sugihara likens it to seppuku and approves of the idea. Farida suggests killing Lowienski by plutonium poisoning. Sir Neville nixes that idea because it would give the impression that the Team’s experiments are a general danger to the Establishment. Karen ruefully suggests that, since scientists are thought crazy, Lowienski should have a nervous breakdown and kill himself. But ben-Hillel questions whether the team has any more right to kill Lowienski than the U.S. Army. Lowienski is a great mathematician. Lowienski proposes he just leave. He has everything he ready to do that.
Ben-Hillel thinks that’s a good idea. Karen objects that word would eventually get out of Lowienski’s treachery. MacLeod decides to just shoot Lowienski and does so.
Sir Neville notes MacLeod shot Lowienski so far away that there are no powder burns which will render the suicide story implausible. MacLeod says Dr. Lowienski expressed the wish that, upon his death, he be cremated on site. The Team has a doctor on the payroll to write out the appropriate death certificate.
Maillard is indignant that, when their project is successful, “people will eulogize this species of an Iscariot!” Ben-Hillel replies the traitor is dead, the mathematician will be immortal for his Lowienski function transformations.
Given Piper’s love of Machiavelli, the ending has the flavor of the Team being like a small Renaissance Italian state trying to maintain its independence by deceit. MacLeod doesn’t expect their cover story to be believed, but he knows that the word will get out that traitorous Free Scientists will be dealt – by their own Teams.
Piper’s replaying, in a sense, Renaissance Italian history, will be a sign of a major feature of his work. Piper held that history repeated itself in certain ways. In this, he was inspired by Arnold Toynbee, an historian he mentioned several times. It’s possible he also read Oswald Spengler. This story is, in a sense, a reworking of a period in history.
There is an irony in the story, perhaps noticed by Piper. Machiavelli, Piper’s favorite author, famously had a low opinion of mercenaries. If incompetent, they were a waste of money. If competent, they were a danger to those who hired them. Piper’s heroes here are competent mercenaries, but the story also shows they are potentially treacherous. And Piper never returns to this idea so we are left with this as the last word.
To my mind, Piper’s idea of mercenary was reused 30 years later in the early fiction of William Gibson which gave us espionage and treachery among scientists working for multinational corporations, the power centers of Gibson’s future instead of international political unions.