Review: “Uller Uprising”, H. Beam Piper, 1952.
It’s a science fictional retelling of the Sepoy Rebellion.
Military science fiction is often said to start with Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Gordon R. Dickson’s The Genetic General aka Dorsai!. Even the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s entry on Military SF doesn’t mention this short novel by Piper, but I’d argue it should be considered as military science fiction.
Our hero is General Carlos von Schlichten, formerly of the Second Federation Army and now commander of the Uller Company’s troops on Uller. The company has a charter to administer the planet and its sentient aliens, the Uller.
But the story opens on another planet in the same system, Niflheim. It’s the planet the Uller Company is really interested in. It may have a poisonous atmosphere of fluorine, but it’s mineral rich. Ruling Uller was just a requirement of the charter from the Federation.
Mining is being done there using atomic explosives, a process of great interest to one of the Uller laborers there.
And then we go to Uller where things are not tranquil.
As with his model of India before 1857, Piper’s Uller is composed of many native principalities of various degrees of loyalty to the Uller Company and that often scheme against each other. The natives have many gripes. Human technology has disrupted trade patterns and native manufacturing. One Uller, the Prophet Rakeed, is preaching a straight-out anti-Company crusade and wants humans off the planet.
But, at first, Schlichten’s intelligence officers are interested in a more pedestrian matter. Why are animals brought by the Company to Uller disappearing? Amusingly, the most recent is a dog named Stalin.
Schlichten’s troops, native contingents led by humans, also have to put down a riot that threatens the life of Paula Quinton, an “extraterrestrial sociographer” sent to Uller by the Extraterrestrial Rights Association to make sure the natives aren’t being abused.
After her rescue from a gang of natives trying to kill her, Quinton gets into a discussion of native affairs with various Uller Army officers and Uller Company administrators. This novel has a lot of different characters, native and human, and John W. Campbell frequently complained that character put too many characters in his stories, but Piper manages to avoid confusion and keep all the characters straight.
It seems the Uller Company’s head, Harrington, is less skeptical of native intrigues than Schlichten is. The natives come in several levels of sophistication. There are the primitive swamp dwelling ones. There are cannibal raiders, the Jeels, who the Company has been hunting down and killing, and various kingdoms, many of which have Second Federation technology obtained through trade or given as gifts by the Company.
Quinton complains about the derogatory term “geeks” for the natives and asks about mistreatment of native laborers. The natives have their own slaves she’s told, and the ones on Niflheim are there for less time than the humans. As to floggings, Ullers have a silicon exo-skeleton, so it’s not as bad as it looks.
On a visit to the Kagans, the group the most loyal to the Company and their best native troops, Schlichten admits “geek” is a derogatory term for the natives, but he doesn’t use it for the Kagans who he admires. (In fact, the Ullers generically refer to humans as “sons-of-bitches”, and neither race can articulate the others speech though humans can speak it with devices they put in their mouths.) They lack the usual native superstitions including the taboo about eating around humans. (While Hindu and Muslim dietary taboos played a role in the Sepoy Rebellion, native taboos really play no part in precipitating the uprising here.) They are also very curious about human technology and understand it well. Their leader even wants to visit Earth. Perhaps exhibiting Piper’s interest in General Semantics Theory, Schlichten attributes to the unusual language the Kagans speak which other natives don’t.
But, when Harrington is poisoned – developing a poison for humans was the reason for stealing those animals, the revolt starts. It will be fought with swords, spears, guns, and anti-gravity aircraft with what, for the time, seems the innovative addition of satellite reconnaissance by the Company and massive tv screens to follow battles in real time.
Help from the Second Federation won’t be coming for months, and the Company Reservation, where the humans live, must hold out until then.
Weapons will be improvised, settlements bombed, streetfighting, and aerial combat.
And things go to a whole new level when it’s learned the natives are developing a nuclear weapon. Schlichten realizes that the whole planet must be held and not just the Reservation, and Quinton will prove surprisingly adept as his military adjutant.
It’s a rousing story, well done.
There are several interesting things concerning this story.
It has a a noteworthy publication history and is, notes Piper scholar, John F. Carr, the “first true Terro-Human Future History story” of Piper’s as well as his first published novel.
It was the first of three novels published in science fiction’s first shared world anthology, The Petrified Planet edited (uncredited) by Piper’s idol and friend, Fletcher Pratt. He had the career of publishing both science fiction and historical works that Piper wanted. The other novels in the anthology were by Judith Merrill and Pratt.
The anthology opens, as does the version I read in Wildside Press’ H. Beam Piper Megapack, with a long introduction by John D. Clark, a chemist, rocket fuel developer, and science fiction author, describing the atmosphere, chemistry, and flora and fauna of the novel’s two worlds. Uller has a peculiar lack of carbonates and excess of silicon which results in most of the life having silicon exo-skeletons.
Unusually, after its book publication, a shortened version of the novel, presumably without Clark’s introduction, was serialized in the February and March 1953 of Space Science Fiction as “Ullr Uprising”.
We learn some things about Piper’s Terro-Human Future History, particularly the Second Foundation which came into existence after two nuclear world wars, and, as noted at the end of the novel, humans now have an innate fear and revulsion of nuclear weapons.
The Third and Fourth Nuclear World Wars devastated Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, and the First and Second Federations were based in the Southern Hemisphere. Schlichten and Quinton are both from Argentina. Schlichten’s ancestors were Nazi war criminals who escaped there, and Quinton’s ancestors fled France after being branded collaborators in World War Two.
In Piper’s own chronology of his future history, provided for a fan and reproduced in John F. Carr’s Typewriter Killer, he places this story in the year 2468 or 526 of the Atomic Era.
There is even a minor character in the novel, Major Falkenberg of the 18th Rifles. I heavily suspect that Piper’s friend Jerry Pournelle named the character at the center of his CoDominium series, John Christian Falkenberg, in tribute to Piper.
Spoilers and Additional Thoughts
Some Uller kings feel threatened and hope to use the rebellion to best their rivals, in one case deliberately not aiding other natives – members of rival groups – in their fight with the Uller Company because they want them killed in the fight before they intervene. This rather reminds me of the Soviets waiting for the Wehrmacht to crush Polish opposition in the final days of WWII rather than continuing their advance. I’m sure there are, however, other historical examples Piper could have drawn from.
At one point in the novel, Schlichten fights a personal duel with King Firkked thus, under native legal tradition, entitling Schlichten to the totemic Spear of Skilk. Rather than giving it to the loyal noble Jonkvank, he keeps it and makes Jonkvank his viceroy even though he knows Jonkvank’s independent state will not last long if the Company quells the rebellion. He gives some advice to Jonkvank on how to consolidate his rule:
‘I intend to hold Skilk. To begin with, there shall be a great killing here. A very great killing: of all those who advised that fool of a Firkked to start this business; of those who gave shelter to the false prophet, Rakkeed, when he was here; of the faithless priests who gave ear to his abominable heresies and allowed him to spew out his blasphemies in the temples; of those who sent spies to Krink, to corrupt and pervert my soldiers and nobles; of those who.…’
‘All that is as it should be,’ von Schlichten agreed. ‘Except that it must be done quickly and all at once, before the memories of these crimes fade from the minds of the people. And great care must be taken to kill only those who can be proven to be guilty of something; thus it will be said that the justice of King Jonkvank is terrible to evildoers but a protection and a shield to those who keep the peace and obey the laws. Thus you will gain the name of being a wise and just king. And when the priests are to be killed it should be done under the direction of those other priests who were faithful to the gods and whom King Firkked drove out of their temples, and it must be done in the name of the gods. Thus will you be esteemed a pious, and not an impious, king. As to why you must be a Skilkan in Skilk, you heard the words of Flurknurk, and how the others agreed with him. It must not be allowed to seem that the city has come under foreign rule. And you must not change the laws, unless the people petition you to do so, nor must you increase the taxes, and you must not confiscate the estates of those who are put to death, for the death of parents is always forgiven before the loss of patrimonies. And you should select certain Skilkan nobles, and become the father of their young, and above all, you must leave none of the young of Firkked alive, to raise rebellion against you later.’
Jonkvank nodded, deeply impressed. ‘By the gods, Karlok vonk Zlikdenk, this is wisdom! Now it is to be seen why the likes of Firkked cannot prevail against you, or against the Company as long as you are the Company’s upper sword-arm!’
‘Honesty tempted von Schlichten, for a moment, to disclaim originality for the principles he had just enunciated, even at the price of trying to pronounce the name of Niccolo Machiavelli with a geek-speaker.’
As Piper once said, Machiavelli was the author that influenced his historical thought most.
There is also a moment of cynical humor by Piper the atheist when Rakeed is captured and his fate to be determined. Schlichten advises:
‘Get the priests of the locally venerated gods to put him on trial for blasphemy, heresy, impersonating a prophet, practicing witchcraft without a license, or any other ecclesiastical crimes you or they can think of. Then, after he’s been given a scrupulously fair trial, have the soldiers of King Yoorkerk behead him, and stick his head up over a big sign, in all native languages, “Rakkeed the False Prophet.” And have audio-visuals made of the whole business, trial and execution, and be sure that the priests and Yoorkerk’s officers are in the foreground and our people stay out of the pictures.’
‘Soap and towels, for General Pontius von Pilate!’ Paula Quinton called out.
When the Company realizes they need to develop their own atomic bomb to counter the natives’ nuclear weapon, a crash program is started to develop one using the radioactive material from the various atomic power plants on the planet. Given that the Company’s one nuclear physicist was killed in the rebellion, that proves to be hard. But salvation comes from an unusual place: an historical novel found in the settlement’s library: Dire Dawn by one Hildegarde Hernandez.
‘I read some reviews of this thing. All the reviewers panned hell out of it— “World War II Through a Bedroom Keyhole”; “Henty in Black Lace Panties”— that sort of thing.’
‘Yeh, yeh, sure,’ Pickering agreed. ‘But this Hernandez had illusions of being a great serious historical novelist, see. She won’t try to write a book till she’s put in years of research— actually, about six months’ research by a herd of librarians and college-juniors and other such literary coolies— and she boasts that she never yet has been caught in an error of historical background detail.
“’Well, this opus is about the old Manhattan Project. The heroine is a sort of super-Mata-Hari, who is, alternately and sometimes simultaneously, in the pay of the Nazis, the Soviets, the Vatican, Chiang Kai-Shek, the Japanese Emperor, and the Jewish International Bankers, and she sleeps with everybody but Joe Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, and of course, she is in on every step of the A-bomb project. She even manages to stow away on the Enola Gay, with the help of a general she’s spent fifty incandescent pages seducing.
“’In order to tool up for this production-job, La Hernandez did her researching just where Lourenço Gomes probably did his— University of Montevideo Library. She even had access to the photostats of the old U.S. data that General Lanningham brought to South America after the debacle in the United States in A.E. 114. Those end-papers are part of the Lanningham stuff. As far as we’ve been able to check mathematically, everything is strictly authentic and practical.’
Is Piper the would-be – and never successful – historical novelist commenting on the ludicrous plots of historical novels in his day? Or making a case that presenting faithful research, however bad the literary trappings around it, has its own value? Or both?