Review: “A Slave Is a Slave”, H. Beam Piper, 1962.
In Typewriter Killer, John F. Carr says this story may have inspired Piper’s later Space Viking. Both are in Piper’s Terro-Human Future History. Here the Space Vikings are mentioned in an almost mythical way, and Piper decided to detail some of their story in the latter novel.
Piper started writing that novel even before this story was accepted by John W. Campbell and published in the April 1962 of Analog Science Fiction – Science Fact. As we’ll see, Campbell’s influence is noticeable.
The story is set on Aditya during the First Galactic Empire which grew up in the age following the Space Vikings and their collapse into decadence. Aditya is, in fact, the same communist planet mentioned in Piper’s “Ministry of Disturbance”, a story written earlier but set later in the series. It takes place in the mid-third century of the Empire, and “Ministry of Disturbance” takes place about 600 years later, and the sense one gets, between the two stories, is that things didn’t change much on the world.
This story is a philosophical examination of the supposed truism that all men yearn to be free and the wisdom of intervening to make them free if necessary.
The viewpoint character is Jurgen, Prince Trevannion (a name probably inspired by James Branch Cabell, one of Piper’s favorite authors). He’s heading an expedition to annex Aditya into the Empire. With him is Lance Debbrend officially,
Assistant to the Ministerial Secretary. In practice, Lanze was his chess-opponent, conversational foil, right hand, third eye and ear, and, sometimes, trigger-finger.
Colonel Ravney is in charge of the Navy Landing-Troops. And there’s our do-gooder, Orbay, Count Erskyll. He’s young and his connected family, fearing he was being radicalized with liberal ideas at university, got him a job as the proconsul when the planet is taken. Trevannion thinks it was a mistake to give him the job, but he’s in charge until the planet if fully under Imperial control.
In a riposte to a saying of Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Eryskyll believes violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. Piper’s authorial voice tells us
Of course, he was absolutely right, though not in the way he meant. Only the incompetent wait until the last extremity to use force, and by then, it is usually too late to use anything, even prayer.
The Space Vikings took Aditya about 900 years ago. When the Space Vikings went decadent, interstellar contact was lost with the planet.
Aditya dropped out of history.
Until this morning, when history returned in the black ships of the Galactic Empire.
Erskyll complains about the violence of the takeover – the usual knocking out of the military and seizing government buildings. Commodore Shastrak tells him they did it that way to save the Adityas from themselves. More would have been killed if resistance had continued.
Colonel Ravney notes some odd things. Aditya had fairly sophisticated Sword Worlds technology, yet no missiles were operative or even in launch facilities. Guidance systems are missing. Detection equipment are completely useless too. Captured army units had arms with no ammunition. Some didn’t even know where their rifles were stored.
Trevannion says it’s pretty obvious what was going on:
We have a petrified authoritarianism. Quite likely some sort of an oligarchy; I’d guess that this Convocation thing they talk about consists of all the ruling class, everybody has equal voice, and nobody will take the responsibility for doing anything. And the actual work of government is probably handled by a corps of bureaucrats entrenched in their jobs, unwilling to exert any effort and afraid to invite any criticism, and living only to retire on their pensions. I’ve seen governments like that before. . . . One thing; once a government like that has been bludgeoned into the Empire, it rarely makes any trouble later.
A couple of governmental delegates ask to visit to the Empire’s “Lords-Masters”. It’s a bit hard to understand their dialect of Terra Basic, but it seems they are not the heads of the government but slaves of Aditya’s Lords-Masters.
Erskyll is a bit indignant. Trevannion tells him there’s really nothing to negotiate. If they pledge allegiance to the Empire, they can stay in power. If they don’t, depose them.
The two delegates arrive on the Empire ship which has landed. They are
the Admirable and Trusty Tchall Hozhet, personal chief-slave of the Lord-Master Olvir Nikkolon, Chairman of the Presidium of the Lords-Master’s Convocation, and Khreggor Chmidd, chief-slave in office to the Lord-Master Rovard Javasan, Chief of Administration of Management of the Mastership,
And the slaves can’t get it through their heads – after infuriating the Commodore by addressing him as a slave – that there are no slaves and masters in the Empire. It’s put to them that they can stay in power if the planet swears allegiance to the Empire. Eventually, they are told the Empire is not going to negotiate with slaves. It will speak to their masters. This shocks Olvir and Khreggor since they can’t conceive of peer-to-peer negotiations between masters. Slaves do the negotiating.
Eryskyll is appalled at “universal slavery” and says emancipation for slaves must be done immediately. Trevannion reminds him that the imperial Constitution requires planets govern themselves in internal matters. Eryskll retorts that the Constitution forbids “chattel slavery or serfdom anywhere in the Empire”. Yes, says Trevannion, but the planet is going to have to eliminate slavery on their own. The Commodore suggests setting up a “nice tight military dictatorship” and rule the planet for five years until a new government can be trained.
Later more is learned about Aditya. It has a population of 20 million of which 10,000 are masters. Erskyll is appalled:
’Why do they stand for it? Why don’t they rebel?’
‘Well, I can think of three good reasons , , , Three square meals a day.’
‘And no responsibilities; no need to make decisions,” Degbrend added.
‘They’ve been slaves for seven and a half centuries. They don’t even know the meaning of freedom, and it would frighten them if they did.’
One imperial says to Erskyll:
The whole society is a slave hierarchy. Everybody curries favor with the echelon above, and keeps his eye on the echelon below to make sure he isn’t being undercut. We have something not too unlike that, ourselves. Any organizational society is, in some ways, like a slave society. And everything is determined by established routine.
Erskyll is puzzled. Shouldn’t the technology Aditya has rendered slavery obsolete? He’s told the Space Vikings had to subjugate the population. Once there were slaves, they had to earn their keep. Automation and robots made no economic sense. (Interestingly, no one discusses the option of genocide for the Space Vikings.) The wealthy of the planet spend all day eating, being entertained, having sex, and vying for social dominance.
Ravney gets some information out of the locals. He has secured the loyalty of the local troops to the Empire by telling them they are slaves of the Emperor. Of course, Erskyll is not pleased. He argues for freeing the troops, but he’s warned that might lead to trouble.
Piper says, in his author’s voice,
Freedom was a Good Thing. It was a Good Thing for everybody, everywhere and all the time. Count Erskyll knew it, because freedom was a Good Thing for him.
Erskyll and Trevannion go to the Convocation Chamber, the local parliamentary building to present a demonstration, via recordings, of Imperial history and might and a delivery of demands:
The Galaxy is not big enough for any competition of sovereignty. There must be one and only one completely sovereign power. The Terran Federation was once such a power. It failed, and vanished; you know what followed. Darkness and anarchy. We are clawing our way up out of that darkness. We will not fail. We will create a peaceful and unified Galaxy. , , , We will not repeat the mistakes of the Terran Federation. We will not attempt to force every planetary government into a common pattern, or dictate the ways in which they govern themselves. We will foster in every way peaceful trade and communication. But we will not again permit the plague of competing sovereignties, the condition under which war is inevitable. The first attempt to set up such a sovereignty in competition with the Empire will be crushed mercilessly, and no planet inhabited by any sapient race will be permitted to remain outside the Empire.
Then he talks about the Imperial Constitution’s articles guaranteeing local autonomy and prohibiting slavery. The actual Lord-Masters Nikkolon and Javasan object to the slavery prohibition and want to know how the Empire is going to free them. Trevannion replies,
My dear Lord Javasan, that is the problem of the Adityan Mastership. They are your slaves; we have neither the intention nor the right to free them. But let me remind you that slavery is specifically prohibited by the Imperial Constitution; if you do not abolish it immediately, the Empire will be forced to intervene.
He suggests they set up a committee of masters to come with a solution.
Erskyll expects trouble, and some of the local troops are armed. Nikkolon and Javasan announce that the slaves will be freed in 150 days. Trevannion suggests they get busy. That would mean less than a second to free each slave.
And the Lord-Masters say the slaves are upset about their pending freedom. It’s suggested they pay their slaves salaries and stop spending money on their upkeep. Pay slaves money? is the indignant response. Tell the slaves, they’re told, that they will not get money if they leave service and also figure out compensation to slaveholders.
More Piper commentary:
Count Erskyll, on the other hand, was almost writhing in his chair. It must be horrible to be a brilliant young Proconsul of liberal tendencies and to have to sit mute while a cynical old Ministerial Secretary, vastly one’s superior in the Imperial Establishment and a distant cousin of the Emperor to boot, calmly bartered away the sacred liberties of twenty million people.
Erskyll complains that Trevannion is just substituting peonage for slavery. We get the following exchange:
’It will take two or three generations. At first, the freedmen will be exploited just as they always have been, but in time there will be protests, and disorders, and each time, there will be some small improvement. A society must evolve, Obray. Let these people earn their freedom. Then they will be worthy of it.’
‘They should have their freedom now.’
‘This present generation? What do you think freedom means to them? We don’t have to work, any more. So down tools and let everything stop at once. We can do anything we want to. Let’s kill the overseer. And: Anything that belongs to the Masters belongs to us; we’re Masters too, now.’
And things are heating up on Aditya. Slaves are mutinying and well as some planetary troops in remote areas. Trevannion says its “every slave for himself”. Piper’s suspicion of liberal reformers comes through with Trevannion telling Ravney concerning Erskyll,
He doesn’t want to wait three generations; he wants to free them at once. Everything has to be at once for six-month-old puppies, six-year-old children, and reformers of any age.
In regards to the reforms, one native says
Everything will be just as before, except that the Lords-Master will be called Lords-Employer, and the slaves will be called freedmen, and any time they want to starve to death, they can leave their Employers if they wish.
The idea of circulating money among the general population, rather than just the former Lord-Masters, has to be explained to the rulers and their slave-assistants along with the idea of capitalism, of an employee saving money or switching jobs. One, Khreggor Chmidd, begins to see the possibilities. Erskyll is also upset when he learns Aditya has no legislative body or constitution. He suggests they call their polity a Commonwealth which is interpreted, presaging the state of Aditya in “Ministry of Disturbance”, as communism by the locals.
Khreggor and another Adityan, Yakoop Zhannar, like the idea of being the administrators of this Commonwealth. Trevannion and Erskyll discuss how a currency is to be established for the planet for purposes of interstellar trade. If the ruling elite get Imperial Crowns, argues Trevannion, they will just waste them on imported luxuries.
More stock is taken of Aditya’s degraded tech and sources of fissionable ore are found which may provide exports.
Erskyll proceeds in a socialist direction nationalizing all farms, factories, and transportation, but Trevannion is not going to allow that.
Some old Sword Worlds bases are found on a nearby moon and repaired and arrangements are made for technicians and the Navy to be based on Aditya.
A Convocation has written a rough draft of the new constitution, and Trevannion says he will leave once it is approved since his work will be done. Trevannion thinks the new constitution (written by Khreggor Chmidd and Tchall Hozhet) is a disaster. But that doesn’t matter. It provides stability, and the Imperial aim is to bring every planet settled by humans under its control.
There is a spark of aggressive ambition in every Terro-human people, no matter how debased, which may smoulder for centuries or even millennia and then burst, fanned by some random wind, into flame. To shift the metaphor slightly, the Empire could afford to leave no unwatched pots around to boil over unexpectedly.
Trouble is brewing and factions forming, though. Khouzhik has armed guards in factories and farms calling them the People’s Labor Army. Yakoop has dubbed himself People’s Provost-Marshal. Agricultural production has greatly declined, and the Imperial forces are detecting growing hostility towards them from both former slave and former master. Erskyll thinks this is all harmless status competition.
The big day for the vote on the constitution arrives. Often, as in “The Mercenaries” and Uller Uprising, Piper has a specific historical analogy in mind in his stories. Until this point, it’s a bit hard to figure out if he is using one here. Did he have a specific, violent, and disastrous revolution in mind? Haiti? France? Russia? (Yakoop and Khouzik are vaguely Russian sounding names.) But it now becomes clear he’s also thinking of the Reconstruction of the American South after the Civil War.
As Nikkolon starts to speak, it’s clear this won’t be going as planned:
At one stroke, this Constitution has abolished our peculiar institution, upon which is based our entire social structure. This I know. But this same Imperial Constitution is a collapsium-strong shielding; let me call your attention to Article One, Section Two: Every Empire planet shall be self-governed as to its own affairs, in the manner of its own choice and without interference. Mark this well, for it is our guarantee that this government, of the Masters, by the Masters, and for the Masters, shall not perish from Aditya.
Then troops break into the Convocation at a signal from Nikkolon and slaughter everyone.
I suspect this story may have inspired Piper’s friend Jerry Pournelle’s West of Honor which also features the failure of liberal reforms on a planet and a mass slaughter. Pournelle’s ends his story there, and the massacre is clearly based on Emperor Justinian’s mass slaughter that ended the Nike Riots. Here the parallel is less straightforward though I do wonder if “Nikkolon” is meant to suggest “Nike”.
Ersyll wants to call out the Imperial troops. But Shatrak isn’t going along with that.
This seems to be a simple transfer of power by coup-d’etat; rather more extreme than usual, but normal political practice on this sort of planet. The Empire has no right to interfere. . . . All governments have a little blood here and there on their hands; you’ve seen this by screen instead of reading about it in a history book, but that shouldn’t make any difference.
That’s more of Machiavellian’s influence on Piper’s ideas and plotting.
Khouzhik and Zhannar order the mass slaughter of civilians. (I’m pretty sure Piper had Stalin and Trotsky in mind with those characters.)
Now Shatrak will intervene, and Trevannion cites precedent for doing so.
Chmidd contacts Erskyll to protest an interference in local affairs.
’If the Imperial troops we are sending into the city to rescue women and children in danger from your hoodlums meet with the least resistance, you won’t be in a position to find out what his Majesty thinks about it, because Admiral Shatrak will have you and your accomplices shot in the Convocation Chamber, where you massacred the legitimate government of this planet,’ he barked.
So the real Obray, Count Erskyll, had at last emerged. All the liberalism and socialism and egalitarianism, all the Helping-Hand, Torch-of-Democracy, idealism, was merely a surface stucco applied at the university during the last six years.
Seeing the bodies of the former Master class brings harsh Imperial reprisals.
There had been times, after seeing the mutilated bodies of Masterly women and children, when he had been forced to remind himself that he had come out to prevent, not to participate in, a massacre. Some of Ravney’s men hadn’t even tried. Atrocity has a horrible facility for begetting atrocity.
It is decided to settle the surviving rebel leaders off planet though they’ll be wealthy after being compensated for their former slaves.
Erskyll speaks of resigning his post, but Trevannion urges him not to and describes what happened:
We all made this inevitable simply by coming here. Before we came, it would have been impossible. No slave would have been able even to imagine a society without Lords-Master; you heard Chmidd and Hozhet, the first day, aboard the Empress Eulalie. A slave had to have a Master; he simply couldn’t belong to nobody at all. And until you started talking socialization, nobody could have imagined property without a Masterly property-owning class. And a massacre like this would have been impossible to organize or execute. For one thing, it required an elaborate conspiratorial organization, and until we emancipated them, no slave would have dared trust any other slave; every one would have betrayed any other to curry favor with his Lord-Master. We taught them that they didn’t need Lords-Master, or Masterly favor, any more. And we presented them with a situation their established routines didn’t cover, and forced them into doing some original thinking, which must have hurt like Nifflheim at first. And we retrained the army and handed it over to Yakoop Zhannar, and inspired Zhorzh Khouzhik to organize the Labor Police, and fundamentally, no government is anything but armed force. Really, Obray, I can’t see that you can be blamed for anything but speeding up an inevitable process slightly.
Trevannion says Erskyll’s mistake was sympathizing with the servile class and not despising them all like he did. But they were slaves, says Erskyll.
And, of course, their exploiters were a lot of heartless villains, so that made the slaves good and virtuous innocents. That was your real, fundamental, mistake. You know, Obray, the downtrodden and long-suffering proletariat aren’t at all good or innocent or virtuous. They are just incompetent; they lack the abilities necessary for overt villainy. You saw, this afternoon, what they were capable of doing when they were given an opportunity. You know, it’s quite all right to give the underdog a hand, but only one hand. Keep the other hand on your pistol— or he’ll try to eat the one you gave him! As you may have noticed, today, when underdogs get up, they tend to turn out to be wolves.
Trevannion will develop into a slave state, but they can’t do anything about that.
John W. Campbell quite liked this story but wanted some revisions to bolster the idea that the downtrodden, like children, aren’t inherently good – just powerless or incompetent. In a letter to Piper, Campbell even quoted St. Augustine to that effect. Piper, in his diary, noted
I hope I’ve made the point, without overmaking it, that the proletariat aren’t good and virtuous, only stupid, weak and incompetent.
I think he did “overmake” the point and that the story probably was better before Campbell’s input.
I suspect this is one of the Piper stories modern readers often find unpalatable due to its politics. Across most of the political spectrum, it’s argued “people just want to be free”, As American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan showed, it all depends on what you mean by “free”. Piper’s Machiavellian realism comes through strongly in this story.
Still, there is an element of internationalist liberalism here as in many Terro-Human Future History stories – the idea that some super governmental organization is needed to keep humanity from destroying itself. While Piper mocks liberal ideas of political reform (perhaps based on his own observation of American history after the Civil War), he accepts those reforms as far as slavery goes. It’s the sort of “liberalism” that has roots as far back as Alexander the Great (if you believe the claim he wanted a universal state of human brotherhood) or the French Revolution.
This story is an interesting counterpoint to “Oomphel in the Sky” where reforms do work. But not the proposed Marxist ones, but ones that work with innate forces at play in alien psychology and not against them.