Review: Four-Day Planet, H. Beam Piper, 1961.
Probably my favorite Piper novel which is somewhat surprising because it’s a juvenile novel published by G. P. Putnam. According to John F. Carr’s Typewriter Killer, Piper was following the example of Andre Norton and Lester del Rey in producing juvenile novels in the wake of the successful Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles from the same publisher.
Carr notes that it was a relatively painless effort for Piper who wrote it quickly and went through only two drafts as opposed to his usual false starts and frequent revisions. Jack Chalker, in an appreciation of Piper, said it was one of his best works, enjoyable for adults as well as teens. Putnam only edited a few words of “violent action” from Piper’s manuscript.
The narrator is Walter Boyd, a 17-year-old reporter for his dad’s newspaper (actually written and then wired to several remote teleprinters) on the planet Fenris.
Fenris is a hellish place where day and night are each 4,000 hours long, and the latter gets cold enough to freeze carbon dioxide out of the air. There are only four days in the planet’s year. The settlement on the planet is now only about 24,000. That’s down 90 percent from the original settlement. It went bust about a 100 years ago when the original Chartered Fenris Company and its mining operation went out of business. The Federation Navy evacuated most of the settlement, but a few people remained behind.
Eventually, a new industry arose—the hunting of large marine beasts, “monsters”, for their “tallow-wax”. That’s a substance of very large molecules (large enough to see in a microscope) which will stop radiation from penetrating anything coated with it. The wax is very inflammable and has its own oxygen, so, once it starts burning, you have to let it burn out. However, it also has a very high ignition temperature.
The main settlement is the underground city of Port Sandor, constructed in a valley between two hills and then the hills bulldozed over it.
Things are not going well on Fenris. It has a corrupt “government” run by Morton Hallstock, the de facto mayor, and this armed thugs. In cahoots with him is Steve Ravick who managed (shades of Stalin) to take over the Hunters’ Co-operative after taking a position as its secretary five years ago. The Co-operative now has an exclusive contract to sell tallow-wax to Kapstaad Chemical Products on Earth. This story takes place 480 Atomic Era meaning 2422 AD.
The story opens with a rocket ship coming to the spaceport on a regularly scheduled visit. The port is run by the Federation with ex-Federation Army personnel providing security. It does not interfere in local affairs.
We’re introduced to several characters, and Piper always keeps them straight without some of the problems in tagging dialogue that show up in his later Little Fuzzy. There’s the minor character Professor Hartzenbosch, Walt’s old school teacher. (School is all of two years on Fenris.) Walt doesn’t think much of him. Walt has haphazardly read a lot of books. There’s not much else to do during Fenris’ long nights. That, coupled with his being a cub reporter, means he knows a lot, but what I liked about this novel is that he’s not one of those obnoxious, wisecracking teens who knows more than the adults and is more competent than them. Throughout the book, he’ll learn there’s plenty he doesn’t know, but he’s willing to learn and offers some helpful suggestions at times.
Tom Kivelson is Walt’s 18-year-old friend. They both are “still digging” for their education. Tom is junior engineer on the monster-hunting ship Javelin. It, like all ships used in the business, is an armored submarine with contragravity. His father Joe is a leader among the hunters who jealously guard the right to possess their tallow-wax until turning it over for shipment. Joe, though, is a bit of a hothead.
And there’s Bish “Bishop” Ware, town drunk who manages to have some good sources of info for Walt since Bish attends to his “flock” and hangs out in bars a lot. Walt likes him and hopes he can one day wean him off the liquor. Bish doesn’t work but gets a bank draft with every ship that comes in. There are various theories about him like he was sent to Fenris after embezzling money from a church. Walt thinks he’s a remittance man.
The first hint we get that Bish isn’t what he seems is during an enigmatic exchange with one of the officials at the port. (They both quote a Sherlock Holmes story. Piper, as we saw in “The Return, was a Holmes fan. As you might expect, we also get some allusions in the novel to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.)
There are a couple of passengers aboard the rocket. One is Leo Belsher, the agent for the Co-operative on Earth. Bish says he’s come there to announce a new contract. The other passenger is a Murell, supposedly a travel writer though Walt has his doubts given he could find no reference to him in the town’s library. The Professor, though, is delighted to have a literary visitor. Walt’s father has invited Murell to stay with them.
Walt interviews Besher who announces that there is now, allegedly, a synthetic substitute for tallow-wax, and the price for the latter has been renegotiated to a lower level. Walt has his doubts about this claim.
Walt takes Murell on a tour of the city which is cut short when Murell, in a warehouse on the city’s lowest level (where the submarines are penned), is almost fatally stung by a tread-snail, one of the planet’s many poisonous fauna. Bish blasts it before it can attack Murrell. Walt, not a bad pistol shot himself unlike his friend Tom, is impressed by Bish’s drunken shooting and that he carries a rather exotic 10mm pistol rather than the more common 7 mm. (Again, Piper was a firearms enthusiast and usually provides details on the guns in his stories.)
Bish has reflexes that would be impressive even if he were sober. Walt’s seen Bish knock a bottle off a bar and grab it out of the air without spelling the drink in the other hand. Oscar Fujiwara, another monster hunter, has seen Bish shoot the blade of a man’s knife in a bar fight. But Joe thinks Bish is just a drunk no matter what Walt says. Bish asks Walt not to say anything about the incident.
Murell is taken to the hospital for observation, and Bish and Walt go to Walt’s home which is also the newspaper office. There, in a conversation with Walt’s father, Murell is discussed. Bish argues he could be an author who publishes under a pen name. On the tour of the port’s bottom level, they came across a bunch of stored tallow-wax. Obviously, the captains of the monster-hunting submarines are holding out on the Co-operative hoping for a higher price. Ravick and his armed thugs aren’t going to allow that though.
Walt is surprised to that his father, usually a law-and-order guy, is arguing for killing Ravick, Hallstock, and Belsher. Lynch law is bad, he acknowledges, but it’s better than no law and that’s what they have on Fenris. The planet has no legal government under Federation law. Hallstock turned a “town-meeting pseudo-government” into a dictatorship. Bish reminds them that those three men have a 100 armed followers between them. They need to be deposed, but that would mean civil war. Walt’s father argues the Federation won’t care one way or another. It ignores Fenris.
Bish tells him
People are getting killed all the time, in a lot worse causes. But these people will all have friends and relatives who will take it up for them. Start killing people here in a faction fight, and somebody will be shooting somebody in the back out of a dark passage a hundred years from now over it.
Bish advises that, if they start a civil war, to make sure they kill all their opponents. (This would seem another bit from Machiavelli, Piper’s favorite author.) Getting the Federation to clean things up would be better. The Federation ship Cape Canaveral is due in shortly. Maybe they can stop a “blow up” until then.
Joe and Oscar visit the newspaper offices. They are off to a meeting at the Hunter’s Hall. At the meeting, Oscar says the hunters will demand a minimum of 75 centisols a pound for tallow-wax, not the new price of 35.
Walt goes to the meeting to cover it and gets a call from Bish that Ravick’s thugs are on their way to bust up the meeting. Joe, Oscar, and Walt, warned, escape after a brief fight and are picked up by Bish.
They go back to the newspaper. Joe is not pleased to learn that Bish knows the location where they are storing their tallow-wax. Walt reveals he’s figured out that Murell is no writer but an agent for another company that wants to buy tallow-wax. Walt’s father says Joe should have let Ravick offer the new price and then had Murell, at the meeting, make the new bid.
Joe doesn’t like that idea. Having captains privately negotiate their own price would have finished the Co-operative. He worked hard for the organization before Ravick took it over. Walt recalls his father telling him Joe didn’t work hard enough for it and let Ravick take it over. (Thus, like Null-ABC, “The Edge of the Knife”, “Day of the Moron”, and “The Mercenaries”, this is another story featuring labor unions or guilds.)
Joe seems to think that parliamentary procedure is going to be enough against Ravick, but Ravick uses violence to keep control. Walt’s father suggests making Murell’s identity public with the next edition of the newspaper. Walt isn’t so sure Ravick wouldn’t dare to act publicly against Murell. Fortunately, his identity isn’t known to many. Belsher may suspect, though. They were on the same ship. Tom suggests that he and Joe should take Murell and Walt on the Javelin to keep them safe.
They do go onboard and there’s some nice chapters in the novel’s middle about the business of monster hunting. But the ship is sabotaged by a bomb and almost sinks. It’s deduced that a missing crewmember, who excused himself from the voyage, planted the bomb. He also knows the identity of Murell. It’s also speculated that other missing hunter submarines may have been sabotaged.
The crew finds itself stranded on an island with the long night approaching. Bish, however, arranges their rescue.
When the crew returns home along with several other ships’ crews, the Port Sandor Vigilance Committee and Renegade Hunter’s Co-operative is formed.
Bish has been busy. He’s been aware for a while that Ravick had spies on board ships and suspected Devis, saboteur of the Javelin, was one. Bish overheard some conversation in a bar which led him to suspect the sabotage and helped organize the rescue.
Joe wants to gather men and hunt Ravick down. Bish suggests Ravick is hiding somewhere and will have the Mayor’s police on his side. Bish will go looking for Ravick. The Professor will lead the lynch mob which, he says, is not that much different than dealing with children.
The hunters had planned to create a diversion, but Ravick’s gang beats them to it by torching some tallow-wax, and there are some nice scenes describing the problems of battling the blaze. Tom is badly burned in that fire.
The location of Ravick and his men is found, and Bish is supposed to keep an eye on it until the hunters arrive. However, when they arrive, they find no one there. They are enraged when they find out that Ravick and Hallstock are at the spaceport and under the protection of the Federation — and Bish is with them.
After seeing Tom injured and losing lots of tallow-wax in the fire, the hunters are riled up and talk of storming the spaceport. Walt doesn’t think that’s going to work. While they greatly outnumber the guards there, the port security force are trained professionals.
After some negotiation, security Lieutenant Ranjit Singh agrees to allow five of the hunters into the port armed only with their sidearms. He also tells them Tom is at the port’s hospital. He’s fine and getting skin-grafts.
The five men, including Joe, go inside along with Walt in his reporter capacity. Joe is outraged to see Bish in the office of the port’s director. Bish, like “a bishop who has just been contradicted on a point of doctrine by a choirboy” tells him to be quiet
I did not follow this man you call Ravick here to this… this running-hot-and-cold Paradise planet, and I did not spend five years fraternizing with its unwashed citizenry and creating for myself the role of town drunkard of Port Sandor, to have him taken from me and lynched after I have arrested him. People do not lynch my prisoners.
We learn that Bish is actually a Terran Federation Executive Special Agent, a very high and rare rank in the Federation.
Now it’s all clear to Walt: Bish’s fast reflexes, how he could seem sober and then suddenly be drunk. Oscar, who has always suspected something was off about Bish, wonders why he came to Fenris just to bust up a “tallow-wax racket”.
That was not the object, says Bish. He came there for a man named Anton Gerrit, enslaver of the natives on the planet Loki. The Federation, given its distances and slow communication, isn’t really interested in pursuing common criminals like murderers and bank robbers. They do, however, make an exception for slavers since the Federation Constitution guarantees equal rights for all.
Bish has hunted Gerrit for 15 years. Tracing the path of Gerrit’s escape flight he realized Fenris might have been a world he came to. When he found out someone had come there five years ago, he went to investigate. The physical description didn’t match Gerrit but that could be because of facial surgery. Bish finally got Ravick’s fingerprints, and it was eventually learned they matched a dead woman’s. (Ravick basically replaced the skin on his hands with an overlay of the woman’s flesh thus accounting for his trick of impressively stubbing out cigarettes in his palms.) Confirmation of this was delivered through Bish’s odd exchange at the spaceport.
Gerrit is to be taken to be tried on Loki so the natives can see justice done. Bish had hoped to just wait until the Cape Canaveral came to arrest Gerrit, but Belsher’s and Murell’s arrival brought things to a head first.
Bish suggests Walt’s father be made mayor backed up by Rajit’s troops as police. The Co-operative will take legal action on Earth for stolen money in Ravick/Gerrit’s bank account. Tom mends nicely, but the fire damaged the muscles of his back, and he can’t really work on a hunter ship anymore, so he’s going to Earth for training as an engineer.
There’s a nice concluding bit where Bish talks to Walt about the importance of getting an education on Earth, that’s it’s all very well to haphazardly read books, but he needs guidance on which books to read. Walt’s objection that it will take six years out of his life is answered by Bish stating that those six years, in respect, will look well spent in learning, and he can prepare for college exams on board the long trip to Earth. Walt’s father will let other reporters manage the paper until he returns. They will include Linda, Tom’s sister. Walt is rather appalled that a girl would go the places he’s gone but his dad says he hopes those places will become fewer in time. Walt can take over the paper when he returns.
One of the things Walt has considered is the possibility of hunting the monsters to extinction. They don’t know how long the monsters live or how fast they breed. Perhaps tallow-wax could be synthesized in the Port Sandor’s carniculture vats. There is even a new company bidding on the tallow-wax at story’s end.
Action, intrigue, an interesting setting, and Walt’s voice make the story compelling.