Review: “Ministry of Disturbance”, H. Beam Piper, 1958.
This story was first published in the December 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It’s chockful of stuff on the First Empire of the Terro-Human Future History. We get the first mention of the Fuzzies and the Space Vikings of later Piper works. We have the technologies of semi-sentient robots and mediums of varying powers. We hear about the System States War which forms the background of “The Graveyard of Dreams”.
It’s also chockful of characters and intrigue but Piper manages to keep them all separate though the finer political machinations are somewhat confusing.
The main character is His Imperial Majesty Paul XXII, and the imperial throne has been on Odin for 800 years. The other main character is Prince Travann, Paul’s old friend from college days.
Travann runs security for the empire, and the head of Paul’s bodyguard, General Dorflay, suspects him of several plots against the emperor, but then Dorflay is rather senile and paranoid. But the Prime Minister, Prince Ganzay, also points to some troubling moves by Travann.
As Minister of Security, Travann has assumed personal control of, for the first time in their history, both the capital city of Asgard’s police and the planetary police. He has increased the Security Guard way beyond what would be needed for any conceivable police operation and armed them with heavy weapons. Paul points out that Travann is trying to give “young nonworkers” a job and military discipline. Travann has also scattered the Imperial Navy all over the Empire with only one ship within 1500 light years of Odin.
Ganzay says that, in Asgard, are
“two powerful nonworkers’ voting-bloc bosses, Big Moogie Blisko and Zikko the Nose— I assure Your Majesty that I am not inventing these names; that’s what the persons are actually called— who have been enjoying the favor and support of Prince Travann. On a number of occasions, their smaller rivals, leaders of less important gangs, have been arrested, often on trumped-up charges, and held incommunicado until either Moogie or Zikko could move into their territories and annex their nonworker followers. These two bloc-bosses are subsidized, respectively, by the Steel and Shipbuilding Cartels and by the Reaction Products and Chemical Cartels, but actually, they are controlled by Prince Travann. They, in turn, control between them about seventy per cent of the nonworkers in Asgard.”
Also in the plot is a trade dispute between Durendal and Aditya. A great deal of autonomy is allowed in terms of local planetary governments. King Ranulf XIV of Durendal (a scene has him very foppish, probably homosexual, and a complete contrast to his Space Viking ancestors – another example of decadence and decline in this story) runs a system where large parts of the population are poor and unproductive, supported as prestige symbols by aristocrats. Aditya is a communist state run by First Citizen Yaggo.
There is also bureaucratic infighting about reshuffling and eliminating some Imperial Bureaus.
We also have Paul’s son and his future wife and the current Empress.
Things come to a head with a peaceful student demonstration marching on the Palace and being attacked by Nutchy the Knife’s bloc.
Now there’s riots in Asgard. Conveniently, there aren’t a lot of regular army troops on Odin either, so Travann’s Security Guard has to surround the Palace. Then an old general notices the “riot” is a fake. Nutchy’s and the students are firing blanks at each other.
While this is going on, there’s also a student demonstration at the Imperial University over the firing of a physics professor running an experiment that seems to have discovered a particle that travels back in time. That a professor was sanctioned for advancing Imperial science – which has mostly been relegated to refining measurements – is another sign of stagnation.
Grazny issues orders for Odin’s planetary militia and its regular army to be recalled to Asgard.
In a Plenary Session, it is argued that no external enemies exist for the Empire, so Grazny’s Ministry of Defense should be merged with the Security Guard. The Ministry of Science and Technology, which, at the end, Travann says has proven itself useless, will be dismembered with its functions going to the Ministry of Defense (which Travann has been given it seems) and other ministries.
We learn that most of the story’s events, except that student demonstration over the physics professor, have been planned by Paul and Travann. They know the Empire is dying through petrification. If it can expand again, it may survive.
Travann has been manufacturing civil wars on various worlds (more of Piper’s Machiavellianism) to justify expanding the Imperial Navy. Nutchy the Knife’s bloc was taken out by the manufactured riots. When Big Moogie and Zikko the Nose try to move in to the vacuum, they will be crushed. “I have discovered a plot, and they’re all involved in it,” Travann cynically says.
Other problems are resolved.
The university administrator who fired the physics professor is shipped off to be Yaggo’s scientific advisor. Dorflay is elevated to the Bench of Counselors. Travann is going to promote a Voting Cartel:
“And I’ll guarantee, personally, that in five years the politics of Odin will have become so unbearably corrupt and abusive that the intellectuals, the technicians, the business people, even the nobility, will be flocking to the polls to vote, and if only half of them turn out, they’ll snow the nonworkers under. And that’ll mean, eventually, an end to vote-selling, and the nonworkers’ll have to find work. We’ll find it for them.”