“The Return”

Review: “The Return”, H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, 1954.

This is a joke story with a surprise ending. I’ll tread carefully not to reveal it, but I don’t think many readers now will find it surprising. I suspect not many readers of the January 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, where it first appeared, were either.

There are a lot of Piper stories that mention nuclear war breaking out, but this is the only one that comes close to depicting the consequences of such a war albeit 200 years later.

The year is about 2196 and two scientists, Jim Altamont and Monty Loudons, are flying in a helicopter over the wreckage of America after a nuclear war in 1996. Based out of Fort Ridgeway in what was Arizona, they are looking for viable communities that can be linked with radio sets they give them and that can benefit from an exchange of knowledge and experience. It was only in the last 25 years the fort, even with its technical library and trained personnel, were able to make “nuclear-electric engines” and go east of the Mississippi River. Altamont’s an expert on things. Loudons is an expert on people. The only way, incidentally, that Ridgeway has been viable over 200 years is that a large number of female technicians were there when war broke out.

The story opens with them near what used to be Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and they are there because of an old issue of Time magazine which, in 1993, talked about an underground crypt being constructed beneath the city’s Carnegie Library. The crypt contained microfilmed copies of many technical works, and it’s thought some might be books Fort Ridgeway doesn’t have.

The other viewpoint characters in the book are members of the Toon, led by the Tant. Compared to other settlements, they are doing pretty well. They have a walled community to keep the barbarous Scowrers out. They have a water powered mill and sawmill and a foundry. They seem to practice crop rotation and mine the ruins of Pittsburgh for metal. They are definitely candidates for the fourth colony to be set up by the Ridgeway men.

They also have a peculiar religion whose tenets may make Altamont and Loudons revered or regarded as archenemies.

We learn the Toon, as in “platoon” (Tant being a corruption of “lieutenant”), is descended from a troop of US Army soldiers after nuclear apocalypse broke out. Piper and McGuire aren’t shy about telling us how they survived:

“We were originally a platoon of soldiers, two hundred years ago, at the time when the Wars ended. The Old Toon, and the First Tenant, were guarding pows, whatever they were. The pows were all killed by a big bomb, and the First Tenant, Lieutenant Gilbert Dunbar, took his… his platoon and started to march to Deecee, where the Government was, but there was no Government, any more. They fought with the people along the way. When they needed food, or ammunition, or animals to pull their wagons, they took them, and killed those who tried to prevent them. Other people joined the Toon, and when they found women whom they wanted, they took them. They did all sorts of things that would have been crimes if there had been any law, but since there was no law any longer, it was obvious that there could be no crime.”

The Toon decides to help in the quest for that crypt and reserve judgement on how Altamont and Loudons should be judged.

I found this story enjoyable even if its resolution and final revelation are predictable.

(Spoiler ahead)

And what is this strangely logical religion the Toon practices? Who are these Two whose return is debated? And the Sacred Books?

The answers are hinted at in the title The Science-Fictional Sherlock Holmes published in 1960 and edited by Robert C. Peterson. “The Return” would be reprinted there in an expanded version.

John F. Carr, in his Typewriter Killer, talks about how McGuire and Piper, while they were friends, would get together to listen to Sherlock Holmes adaptations on the radio.

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