“The Edge of the Knife”

Review: “The Edge of the Knife”, H. Beam Piper, 1957.

This story was published in the May 1957 issue of Amazing Stories – because John W. Campbell turned it down for Astounding Science Fiction. Piper’s diary says that was “because it conflicts with the strategy he has adopted in trying to boost psionics.” 

John F. Carr’s Typewriter Killer says this is a important story in Piper’s Terro-Human Future History. However, he also argues it may not be part of that series though he did include it in a Piper collection he edited, Empire. Piper himself considered it for possible inclusion in a collection of Terro-Human Future History stories. The ambiguity seems to stem from it not quite reconciling with later stories in the series. Writing out his “The Future History of H. Beam Piper” for a fan, Piper said the launch of Sputnik “invalidated a lot of my stuff”. 

The basic concept is similar to Piper’s first story, “Time and Time Again”. Except here, it’s not a soldier in World War III being transported back into his body as a child. Here our protagonist, Edward Chalmers, is a history professor at Blanley College in New York state.

At the opening of the story, he finds the students in his Modern History IV class staring at him. Why, they want to know, does he say Khalid ib’n Hussein has been assassinated? He impatiently rattles off the details of the assassination in Basra in 1973 including the fate of the assassin and that he was inspired by the Eastern Axis. The news, however, has Khalid alive and in Ankara.

Kendrick, the “class humorist”, invites Chalmers to speculate on the effects of the assassination.  Realizing his situation and having only five minutes left in class, he utters some generalities on the assassination of Ghandi. He concludes by nothing it’s always hard to keep chronologies straight.

This had been a bad one, the worst yet; he hadn’t heard the end of it by any means. He couldn’t waste thought on that now, though. This was all new and important; it had welled up suddenly and without warning into his conscious mind, and he must get it down in notes before the ‘memory’— even mentally, he always put that word into quotes— was lost. 

But, leaving the classroom, he overhears some students saying they aren’t going to major in history when their grades depend on a lunatic. Another says he’s going to complain to his father who is president of the Alumni Association. 

This was going to raise hell. It hadn’t been the first slip he’d made, either; that thought kept recurring to him. There had been the time when he had alluded to the colonies on Mars and Venus. There had been the time he’d mentioned the secession of Canada from the British Commonwealth, and the time he’d called the U. N. the Terran Federation. And the time he’d tried to get a copy of Franchard’s Rise and Decline of the System States, which wouldn’t be published until the Twenty-eighth Century, out of the college library. 

Chalmers ponders the fallout from Khalid’s assassination. His son will bring the Caliphate into the Terran Federation when war breaks out, a conflict started by Indian communists seizing East Pakistan. He notes the date: October 16, 1973. He wonders if it’s best to give a warning about Khalid’s pending assassination. Would it do any good? Could it do any good? 

At the Faculty Club, we meet the “pompous old owl” Handley, a Latin professor and “unofficial Dean of the Faculty”. Chalmers gets a much warmer reception from Fitch, a psychology professor. 

The next day Chalmers is summoned to see Whitburn, president of the college. Whitburn tells Chalmers he had to intervene and suppress a pending editorial in the student newspaper. Since Chalmers didn’t take the hint to take a vacation, Whitburn wants him to resign. 

Chalmers reminds him he has a tenure contract. It and the Higher Education Faculty Tenure Act of 1963 means he can’t be fired. Whitburn reminds Chalmers his contract can be voided for reasons of insanity. Does Chalmers really want to embarrass himself in a trial? (This is the fourth Piper story to feature guilds or unions. The others being “The Mercenaries”, “Day of the Moron”, and Null-ABC.) 

Chalmers contacts his lawyer, Weill. Chalmers explains the situation to him. Chalmers can “prehend future events” if he concentrates. It started back in 1970 when he was giving a seminar to some postgrad students that extrapolated political and social trends. He started to get very specific ideas of the world in 2050 and 2070. 

Completely unified world, abolition of all national states under a single world sovereignty, colonies on Mars and Venus, that sort of thing. 

He correctly predicted the name of an unmanned rocket that was launched. This prehended knowledge just comes to him, becomes part of the general historical knowledge in his brain. Weill, understandably, suggests the possibility of Chalmers’ subconscious at work. 

No, says Chalmers, his knowledge of the future is full of “unpredictable and arbitrary factors”.

But if you want me to furnish a theory, let’s say that all these things really do exist, in the past or in the future, and that the present is just a moving knife-edge that separates the two. You can’t even indicate the present. By the time you make up your mind to say, ‘Now!’ and transmit the impulse to your vocal organs, and utter the word, the original present moment is part of the past. The knife-edge has gone over it. Most people think they know only the present; what they know is the past, which they have already experienced, or read about. The difference with me is that I can see what’s on both sides of the knife-edge. 

Weill says he’s not a psychiatrist, but he is going to offer psychiatric advice: forget it. Stick with the past and not make any more slips in public. However, if Chalmers contract is threatened with revocation, he will defend him. 

Later, Handley meets Chalmers. Handley’s upset the precedent of voiding a tenure-contract on grounds of insanity may be set. Fitch supports Chalmers though. 

Taking Weill’s advice, Chalmers considers whether maybe he did just make up his future “knowledge”. He decides he is going to forget the whole thing and destroy his notes. But after checking the ones on the Thirty Days’ War, he finds himself tempted to sit and contemplate more details of it. But he doesn’t want to give into the temptation and goes to see a movie. 

It’s a pirate movie and, in the first historical analogy of the story, it sets off associations in Chalmers’ mind: 

“But, as he walked home, he was struck by the parallel between the buccaneers of the West Indies and the space-pirates in the days of the dissolution of the First Galactic Empire, in the Tenth Century of the Interstellar Era.” 

He makes more notes but then decides to lose himself in another historical subject:

“Not the Spanish Conquistadores; that was too much like the early period of interstellar expansion. He thought for a time of the Sepoy Mutiny, and then rejected it— he could “remember” something much like that on one of the planets of the Beta Hydrae system, in the Fourth Century of the Atomic Era. There were so few things, in the history of the past, which did not have their counter-parts in the future.” 

That is, of course, an allusion to Uller Uprising.

Some time goes by and, one morning at the office, Chalmers sees news of Khalid’s assassination with all the details as he predicted.  Fenner, the department’s secretary, is somewhat aghast at Chalmers saying, after he reads the story, that at least now he can talk about it in a history class. 

She was staring at him wide-eyed. No doubt horrified at his cold-blooded attitude toward what was really a shocking and senseless crime.

 ’Yes, of course; the man’s dead. So’s Julius Caesar, but we’ve gotten over being shocked at his murder’.

Chalmers knows the results of the assassination:

. . . dissolution of the old U. N., already weakened by the crisis over the Eastern demands for the demilitarization and internationalization of the United States Lunar Base, and necessitate the formation of the Terran Federation, and how it would lead, eventually, to the Thirty Days’ War.

In his class the next day, Chalmers is surprised when the formerly mocking students give him a standing ovation. When he meets with Whitburn, the latter just dismisses the prediction as a coincidence and wants to know if Chalmers violated his promise not to discuss the matter of his prediction publicly. A local newspaper has written a story about it.  Weill is upset the matter is public now too. But Fitch is elated. The whole affair is proof of precognition. He’s the one that gave the paper the story. Chalmers almost punches him for the trouble he’s caused, but Fitch reminds Chalmers he stood by him when no one else did. 

Chalmers talks to Pottgeiter, professor of mediaeval history and rather the stereotyped image of a professor dedicated to his work and paying attention to little else. He wants to know why people are saying Chalmers is crazy. They discuss, briefly, Khalid since Pottgeiter has a friend who knew Khalid well, the recent assassination. Chalmers wishes he could remember the chronology between Khalid’s death and the Thirty Days’ War.

The next day a delegation from the American Institute of Psionics and Parapsychology shows up. They’ve interviewed Whitburn and weren’t impressed. One of them, a “man in tweeds”, confirms that there is no way Chalmers could know of the assassination attempt a month ago. Even the assassin didn’t. Chalmers won’t talk to the delegation, and he’s told that a meeting is to be held at Whitburn’s office that evening. (Thus this is another Piper story climaxing with a quasi-legal proceeding.) 

Chalmers calls Weill who tells him the man in tweeds is Cutler from the CIA. Weill spoke to him and got the impression Cutler would like to downplay the whole affair. 

The meeting has thirteen members in all including Dacre, head of the trustees. Of those at the meeting, Chalmers realizes only Whitburn seems his enemy. 

There really isn’t any question, given statements from the students, that Chalmers said what he did. Whitburn is accused of knowing all along what Chalmers said even though he’s been denying the details. He doesn’t want the college’s reputation besmirched and complains about the lack of loyalty displayed by Fitch. 

Whitburn mentions, in passing, Operation Triple Cross, which “saved the country during some fantastic war he imagined”. 

This gets an immediate reaction from Cutler:  “What did you say?” Fitch asks Cutler if there is such an operation. No, says Cutler, but he is interested in this “Terran Federation thing”. It seems that this is a proposed organization to take over if the UN breaks apart. Another Chalmers’ prediction we hear is the prophesized destruction of Reno, Nevada. Isn’t Weill going to Reno in a couple of days, asks Chalmers? 

At this point, Pottgeiter unexpectedly interjects himself. 

’I was talking to him only yesterday, in the back room at the Library. You know,’ he went on apologetically, ‘my subject is Medieval History; I don’t pay much attention to what’s going on in the contemporary world, and I didn’t understand, really, what all this excitement was about. But he explained the whole thing to me, and did it in terms that I could grasp, drawing some excellent parallels with the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades. All about the revolt at Damascus, and the sack of Beirut, and the war between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and how the Turkish army intervened, and the invasion of Pakistan.…’ 

This starts to turn Dacre against Chalmers, and Whitburn attack Pottgeiter: “

Another deadhead on the faculty that this Tenure Law keeps me from getting rid of. He’s as bad as Chalmers, himself.

The abuse of “gentle, learned, old” Pottgeiter angers Chalmers. Against the wishes of Weill, he agrees to submit to a psychiatric examination. 

One is arranged for him the next day with a Doctor Hauserman. Weill isn’t pleased. Hauserman has the authority to commit Chalmers to an asylum, and Cutler might like that. Chalmers again asks Weill if he’s going to Reno. A trainload of explosives will blow up there and devastate the city like (another historical analogy) the Mount Blanc explosion devastated Halifax. 

Weill, disgusted but professional, just tells Chalmers, before he leaves, not to volunteer anything with Hauserman.

(Spoilers and additional thoughts)

Even in the interview with Hauserman, Chalmers finds himself contemplating the details of near future events. Chalmers tells Hauserman

History follows certain patterns. I’m not a Toynbean, by any manner of means, but any historian can see that certain forces generally tend to produce similar effects. 

Hauserman asks if he really thinks he has a “real knowledge of the future”. After talking to the Psionic and Parapsychology people, Chalmers does. 

There would be an Eastern-inspired uprising in Azerbaijan by the middle of the next year; before autumn, the Indian Communists would make their fatal attempt to seize East Pakistan. The Thirty Days’ War would be the immediate result. By that time, the Lunar Base would be completed and ready; the enemy missiles would be aimed primarily at the rocketports from which it was supplied. Delivered without warning, it should have succeeded— except that every rocketport had its secret duplicate and triplicate. That was Operation Triple Cross; no wonder Major Cutler had been so startled at the words, last evening. The enemy would be utterly overwhelmed under the rain of missiles from across space, but until the moon-rockets began to fall, the United States would suffer grievously. 

He also realizes Blanley College is an area that will be heavily nuked in less than a year.  Hauserman talks about another “knife-edge”, that between sanity and non-sanity, and then he confesses: 

I was so convinced that yours had passed over it that I brought with me a commitment form, made out all but my signature, for you.” He took it from his pocket and laid it on the desk. “The modern equivalent of the lettre-de-cachet, I suppose the author of a book on the French Revolution would call it. I was all ready to certify you as mentally unsound, and commit you to Northern State Mental Hospital.

Then Chalmers has a realization. The hospital is on the other side of the Alleghanies. It will escape the devastation of nuclear war. 

He provokes Hauserman: 

‘And you thought you could commit me to Northern State!’ he demanded, laughing scornfully, and this time he didn’t try to make the laugh sound natural and unaffected. ‘You— confine me, anywhere? Confine a poor old history professor’s body, yes, but that isn’t me. I’m universal; I exist in all space-time. When this old body I’m wearing now was writing that book on the French Revolution, I was in Paris, watching it happen, from the fall of the Bastile to the Ninth Thermidor. I was in Basra, and saw that crazed tool of the Axis shoot down Khalid ib’n Hussein— and the professor talked about it a month before it happened. I have seen empires rise and stretch from star to star across the Galaxy, and crumble and fall. I have seen.…’ 

After that, Hauserman orders Chalmers committed but will allow him to take his papers and work with him.

Chalmers sadly learns Weill has left for Reno, and he is allowed to see Pottgeiter who doesn’t believe Chalmers is insane.  

’It’s a horribly hard thing to believe,’ Pottgeiter admitted. ‘But, dammit, Ed, you did! I know, medieval history is full of stories about prophecies being fulfilled. I always thought those stories were just legends that grew up after the event. And, of course, he’s about a century late for me, but there was Nostradamus. Maybe those old prophecies weren’t just ex post facto legends, after all.’ 

Chalmers tells Pottgeiter that, after Turkey annexes Lebanon and Syria, to leave town and come to the hospital and bring Fenner the secretary with him. “Something very bad.” is going to happen here. He also asks Pottgeiter bring the contents of Chalmers’ file cabinets with him and not let anyone else see them. The story ends with Chalmers being taken to the hospital.

There are several points of interest here.

First, this is the Piper story with the most details on the Terran Federation and how it came to be. After Sputnik, Piper would avoid near-future stories.

Second, we see how Piper explicitly used historical analogies in plotting and some of his views on history and historical processes.

Third, this is yet another Piper story featuring parapsychology whether through precognition or the transmigration of consciousness through time or even across alternate timelines as in his Paratime series. Piper’s interest in such things seems genuine. I’ve already talked about his interest in the theories of J. W. Dunne. His friend Jerry Pournelle said Piper told him that “He Walked Around the Horses” was a true story. However, Piper’s friend and his would-be biographer Mike Knerr said

Piper was an expert at confusing the issues and extremely careful how he did it. He started the same sort of story with me that he had sprung on Jerry but hastily backtracked verbally when I told him that I had read the books of Charles Fort and knew about Benjamin Bathurst. It is no coincidence that his second story ‘Police Operation’ begins with a quote from Fort’s book Lo! . .

To try to dupe me, he shifted to reincarnation rather than the time-line bit. He once asked to read a manuscript I had written based on the so-called ‘Great Runaway of the Susquehanna River in 1778.’ I was reluctant at first, but I finally relented.

‘It’s good,’ he told me after reading it. ‘You stayed with the history and your hero solved his own problems.’

‘What about the runaway? History doesn’t mention Indians attacking the flotilla of rafts.’

Beam’s eyes squinted a little. ‘I once had a dream in which I was dressed in buckskin on a raft. We were shooting at the shore of a river. Yes, I think you wrote it right.’

And, of course, this is another Piper working featuring nuclear war. For him it was an understandably unsettling possibility and not just a stock 1950s science fiction theme to use.

4 thoughts on ““The Edge of the Knife”

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