“Operation R.S.V.P”

Review: “Operation R.S.V.P”, H. Beam Piper, 1951.

The shadow of a future nuclear war hangs over 1950s science fiction. Piper’s stories frequently mention it. Often, it occurs, but this is a rare story, tongue in cheek, that shows a way it might be avoided.

Piper scholar John F. Carr, in his Typewriter Killer, quotes a March 22, 1963 letter from Piper to his friend Jerry Pournelle:

You know it must have been lovely, living in an era when the Clausewitzian ‘extension of politics by other means’ was accomplished by nothing more lethal or expensive, especially expensive, than black powder…Well, see you in Washington over the Labor Day week-end, if there still is a Washington then.

One suspects for Piper, who had known a world before atomic bombs, their invention was particularly irksome.

This story was first published in the January 1951 issue of Amazing Stories. It’s an epistolary story and not part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History. 

It opens on Jan. 15, 1984 with a letter from Vladimir N. Dzhoubinsky, Foreign Minister of the Union of East European Soviet Republics (the UEESR) and addressed to Wu Fung Tung of the United Peoples’ Republic of East Asia (the UPREA). In diplomatic language, it reminds Tung that the Union’s newest missile has a range more than sufficient to reach Peking. Tung might want to consider that in current negotiations over the Khakum River. 

Tung responds that he’s glad the test of the Marxist Victory wasn’t an accident at the Khatanga nuclear plant which he knows has a bad safety record and bad security. Dzhoubinsky might want to know that Tung’s country has just tested a missile even better than the Marxist Victory – which can be verified by signs of a nuclear explosion over the North Pole. 

The next letter is from Dzhoubinsky to Maxim G. Krylenkhoff, ambassador to Nanking. It requests an investigation be made into the whereabouts of Dr. Dimitri O. Voronoff, a rocket expert who worked on the Marxist Victory

The Ambassador responds he can find out nothing but notes the UPREA is concerned about the disappearance of three of its nuclear weapons experts. 

Tung writes Dzhoubinsky telling them that some experts with radioactivity produced a mutated virus which produces symptoms similar to the plague. He kindly notes it escaped from the lab and warns Dzhoubinsky of the danger in the UEESR. Then he says he finds the UEESR position on the Khakum River unacceptable. 

We then get a New York Times article about the ruler of Afghanistan being feted in Moscow.

The next letter is from a Sing Yu, UPREA ambassador to Moscow. He has found nothing regarding the disappearance of UPREA weapons experts. 

Then we get a letter from Dzhoubinsky to Tung kindly informing him of some new experiments by his government. A virus, sexually transmitted, has been developed rending rats sterile. Strangely, the virus is communicable to humans with the same effect. Most of the people infected were killed except for some convicts who escapes outside the country. He cautions the UPREA to be on the lookout for them. The letter concludes with noting that the UPREA’s position on the Khakum River is unacceptable. 

The next bit is a radio telegram from Dzhoubinski to Krylenkoff asking if he knows anything about the “release of nuclear energy vicinity of Nova Zembla”. A similar message is sent by Tung to the ambassador in Moscow.

(Spoilers ahead)

The next message is from the Ameer of Afghanistan to the Presidents of the UPREA and UEESR. It reveals that all the missing scientists are in Afghanistan where they went willingly. The Ameer thinks that the Khakum River dispute is a ruse by both sides to invade India and threaten Afghanistan. Therefore, in the name of Allah, he orders the two power blocs dissolved into autonomous countries. 

The Ameer’s scientists have been busy. They’ve improved on the missile technology of either bloc. They’ve developed a “radar-radio-electronic defense” to redirect guided missiles shot at them. (Both power blocs are invited to launch them to test the assertion.) They’ve developed means of detecting the virus developed by the blocs’ germ warfare programs and vaccines against the diseases. They have developed a “initiating and controlling the Bethe carbon-hydrogen cycle” for industrial purposes. The Ameer says he can prove the contention by melting the Nova Zemble Glacier. They are developing a lithium bomb and, if the Ameer’s demands aren’t met in 10 days, he will test it out on either Moscow or Nanking. The Ameer has a bet with a Chinese physicist (a star sapphire against the Ameer’s favorite Persian concubine) that the bomb won’t start a chain reaction that will destroy the earth’s crust. 

The Ameer concludes by stating that some “single supra-national sovereignty” is needed to maintain peace, and he nominates himself to head it. We also learn that the Ameer seems to have a doctorate in physics. 

The story concludes with another New York Times headline from Oct.  30, 1984 (four days after the Ameer’s letter) about the leaders of the UEESR and UPREA being feted at Kabul and discussing peace. 

There are a couple of matters of interest here. I don’t imagine too many sf stories envisioned a significance place in the future for Afghanistan. Also, it’s interesting to see Piper, the hard-nosed realist, advocating for a world government though he will do that in again in his Terro-Human Future History.

And, of course, one can see Piper the Machiavellian in this story.

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