Jack of Eagles; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Since I mentioned this book in my last post, you get this . . .

The website From an Oblique Angle supplies the parallax on this one.

Raw Feed (2002): Jack of Eagles, James Blish, 1952. 

I looked at this book several times in the Lead High School Library, but I never read it then. 

First, the cover art and jacket blurb made it sound rather boring, and, second, I was less of a fan of psychic powers stories then. I read it now because it was mentioned by Damon Knight as bearing the influence of Charles Fort. 

Indeed, Charles Fort and his Wild Talents are mentioned explicitly in the novel as is the Fortean Society.  However, it’s unclear if Fort is brought in to dress out an idea Blish already had or if Fort inspired him. Protagonist Danny Caiden’s psychic powers are referred to as “wild talents”, and, of Fort, it is said,

He could see why writers loved the man. He wrote in a continuous and highly poetic display of verbal fireworks, superbly controlled, intricately balanced, witty and evocative at once,

So Blish seems to have admired Fort, and it’s quite possible was inspired by him. As Damon Knight notes in his Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained, the head of the Fortean society in the novel, Cartier Taylor, is a thinly disguised (the name certainly is) version of Tiffany Thayer. Both are given to iconoclastically encouraging cranks (including a mention of Dianetics) and attacking political and religious institutions. Taylor, however, actually has a small but significant role in the novel when, at novel’s end, he aids Caiden. 

What struck me most about the novel was that it seemed to be an attack on the notion of van Vogtian supermen and the sort of plots van Vogt would often feature. 

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Typewriter Killer

And with this my look at H. Beam Piper and his works conclude.

Review: Typewriter Killer: H. Beam Piper, John F. Carr, 2015.

While you can a decent sense of Piper the man in this book, you get a clearer and more detailed look at Piper’s complete life in Carr’s earlier H. Beam Piper: A Biography. However, this book succeeds at giving you a better sense of Piper the published writer. In fact, I read this book first.

To be sure, Carr repeats some paragraphs from his early book, but he also condensed the account of Piper’s life before he became published. He also expanded the plot descriptions of Piper’s works, talks about the historical trilogy of 18th century Pennsylvania Piper worked on for decades, and expands the account of Piper’s friendships with other writers, especially with his most significant publishing outlet, John W. Campbell’s Astounding. The chapters are often titled after Piper’s stories and often give a timeline and account of Piper’s problems with a particular work. There is less on Piper’s wife Betty Hirst.

Carr, with the help of Piper’s abortive biographer Mike Knerr (who met Piper in 1959), talks about the business side of Piper’s literary career. He also makes clear that Campbell’s promising Piper’s agents “bonuses” for his work is clear evidence that Campbell used the alleged readers’ votes in Astounding’s AnLab to pay his favorite authors more.

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H. Beam Piper: A Biography

John F. Carr wrote two biographies on H. Beam Piper, this one and, later, Typewriter Killer: H. Beam Piper. (Thus, he has to write another book on Piper to comply with Robert Silverberg’s Law of Research.)

Review: H. Beam Piper: A Biography, John F. Carr, 2008.

A biographer of Piper has a challenge. Piper was a man of habitual secrecy, compartmentalization, and deceit. A habitual diary keeper, he burned years’ worth of diaries prior to his marriage late in life. And why did he divorce his wife? Was she really a golddigger who married him for a vacation in Paris? What did the convivial, hard-drinking Piper do for a living before he became a professional writer? His writing acquaintances variously thought he was a railroad detective or railroad engineer. He really worked for decades as the night watchmen in the yard of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona, Pennsylvania. His friends didn’t even know what the “H.” stood for – Horace?, Henry?. It was really Herbert.

And why did he, on November 6, 1964, put one of his guns to his mouth and pull the trigger?

Carr met the challenge and presents us a biography of an interesting and fatally flawed man who produced some outstanding works of science fiction, a biography that surprised Carr associate Jerry Pournelle, a friend of Piper’s, with its revelation and the lies his old friend told. The sources are the reminisces of friends – sometimes as preserved by their children, Piper’s letters and diaries, letters from John W. Campbell, and the work of Piper friend and abortive biographer Mike Knerr. (Abortive because Knerr turned down the finder’s fee from Ace Books for turning over Piper’s lost manuscript of Fuzzies and Other People in exchange for them publishing the biography. They never did.)

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Fuzzies and Other People

And here we are at the last work published by H. Beam Piper.

Review: Fuzzies and Other People, H. Beam Piper, 1984.

Cover by Michael Whelan

After The Other Human Race aka Fuzzy Sapiens, Avon Books was done with Piper’s Fuzzy series. At the time of his death on November 5, 1964, the manuscript was out with Ace Books.

Then it became a “lost work” only uncovered in 1982. The story of where it had been all that time and its authentication as Piper’s final draft of the work is covered in an appendix in John F. Carr’s Typewriter Killer.

The novel takes place shortly after the events of Fuzzy Sapiens. Zarathustra still doesn’t have a constitution yet in the wake of the formerly Chartered Zarathustra Company becoming the Charterless Zarathustra Company.

There are three main plot threads. 

First, there are the problems Jack Holloway, discoverer of the Fuzzies and now head of Native Affairs, worries about regarding protecting the Fuzzies. While Fuzzy adoption is popular, they can’t all be adopted. Schools are set up to teach them basic skills they can use to be self-sufficient in the wilderness. Holloway is worried that they will become pitiful like the natives of other Federation planets. Some earn their keep by hunting pests whose population has been boosted by extensive shooting of harpies, a major predator on the planet. The idea of building firearms for them – eventually done – worries Jack because it will make them dependent on humans for ammo. It is pointed out that they already, living with humans, are dependent on the supplement hokfusine to maintain their population. 

Like Little Fuzzy, a legal battle is the overarching conflict here. Ingermann, the villain of the previous novel, is also the villain here. He is the attorney for his criminal associates, the gang that kidnapped the Fuzzies for a theft of sunstones in Fuzzy Sapiens.

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First Cycle

After Fuzzy Sapiens, Piper had “Gunpowder God” and “Down Styphon!” published. They were combined and expanded for Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen which I’ve reviewed. Those two stories are the last mentioned in Piper’s story log. Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen does not seem to have been published before Piper’s suicide on November 5, 1964.

In the mid-1970s, Jim Baen bought Piper’s literary estate and the Piper revival began. “When in the Course — ” made its first appearance in 1981’s Federation.

Review: First Cycle, H. Beam Piper and edited and expanded by Michael Kurland, 1982.

Cover by Wayne Barlowe

This novel doesn’t get a lot of respect among Piper fans and scholars. John F. Carr in Typewriter Killer only mentions it seven times in the body of that book.  First Cycle was written about 1953 for the Twayne Triplets series from Twayne Books. They were the first of what we now called “shared-world anthologies”. Piper’s Uller Uprising was written for the first in the series, The Petrified Planet. The next Twayne Triplet was a fantasy anthology called Witches Three. The next two proposed installments, science fiction anthologies, were never published. 

Piper wrote this story, originally called “The Heavenly Twins”, for the fourth proposed volume which was also to include stories by James Blish and Murray Leinster. It was discovered in Piper’s estate. Michael Kurland made some minor changes and revisions to it, but this version largely matches Piper’s original manuscript. The framing device of having a Terro-Human Federation starship show up was a Kurland addition.

Like The Petrified Planet, the story starts with astronomical history, here the planets Thalassa and Hetaira came to be. They circle a common center of gravity in a system with both yellow and red dwarf stars. Hetaira has much more water than Thalassa. Each planet has its own sentient race.

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The Cosmic Computer

Review: The Cosmic Computer, H. Beam Piper, 1963.

Published in 1963 under the far better title Junkyard Planet, this was an expansion of Piper’s “Graveyard of Dreams”. Like Four-Day Planet, it’s a juvenile novel though with a protagonist older than the usual works in that genre. While Piper did not find the writing of it quite as easy as Four-Day Planet, it was a relatively easy process for him and, to his surprise, it sold well as that other novel. 

Besides the System States War with the Federation, which John F. Carr in Typewriter Killer sees as an American Civil War analog, the main historical analogy here is the Melanesian cargo cults which sprang up after Allied armed forces left various Pacific islands after the completion of World War Two. (I wonder, before Steven Barnes’ and Larry Niven’s Dream Park, if this is the first use of cargo cults in science fiction.) 

The story is set on the planet Poictesme. The planet’s name is an allusion to one of Piper’s favorite authors, James Branch Cabell.  (In the story, we’re told that the Surromanticist Movement, which was rediscovering the “romantic writers of the pre-Atomic Era”, named a bunch of planets after literary works.)

The hero is Conn Maxwell, returning to Poictesme after a six-month voyage from Terra where he was at university studying computer science for six years. 

Things have changed on Poictesme in his absence. On the penultimate stop at the world’s capital of Storisende, Conn learns there is mass unemployment on the planet, ten men for every job. Gangs armed with shotguns and tommy guns raid merchants coming to pick things up at the spaceport. Some have also taken to piracy like Blackie Perales’ gang which even stole the spaceship Harriet Barne six months ago, and it hasn’t been seen since. The town of Storisende has offered a reward, dead or alive, for pirates in their city limits, and hasn’t been troubled since.

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Space Viking

Review: Space Viking, H. Beam Piper, 1963.

With a title like that, I don’t really have to tell you what historical analogy Piper was working with in this Terro-Human Future History story. But, as we’ll see, Piper works with other historical parallels too.

Piper began this novel around October 1961 and finished it on May 8, 1962. John W. Campbell bought it for serialization in Analog that month even though he had a backlog of material.  Campbell really liked the story and proposed several stories set in the Sword Worlds, but Piper would not write any more stories using that setting. It appeared in the January 1963 issue of Analog.

It would turn out, with the check from Analog and Ace paperback sales, to be Piper’s most profitable book in his lifetime. 

Our story opens with Lucas Traskon, an aristocrat on Gram, one of the Sword Worlds. It’s centuries on from the collapse of the Terran Federation of Piper’s earlier stories.

Traskon is to be married to Lady Elaine that day. Before the wedding, we hear of Andray Dunnan, a man spurned by Elaine and kind of crazy. He’s sort of a stalker and refuses to believe she is willingly marrying Traskon. Dunnan also spreads stories that nobody believes that he was born before his brother. He inherited a barony but squandered his money, and his property is heavily mortgaged. He’s set to ship out soon with a mercenary company he’s formed. 

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Little Fuzzy

Review: Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper, 1962.

And so we come, at last, to Piper’s by far most famous novel. He started it on March 18, 1958 according to John F. Carr in Typewriter Killer. Damon Knight recommended that Berkley publish it, but they didn’t. Bill McMorris, Putnam’s editor thought it was “too adult for the teenage market” and of no interest to the adult reader. It would be rejected by more than twelve publishers and rejected three times by Avon, the company that eventually published it.  He finished it in March 1959 after several false starts.

Janet Wood, editor at Avon, was enthusiastic about the book and envisioned a series and a movie and toys. (Piper did sell the movie rights, but, of course, nothing came of it.) The novel would finally be published in 1962.

John W. Campbell rejected it for serialization in Analog because its many characters made it confusing in his mind. Carr thinks the problem is that the novel’s has many viewpoint characters, and it’s hard to know, in some scenes, which is the viewpoint character. I’d add that Piper doesn’t always tag characters sufficiently in scenes with dialogue. Carr says Piper is much better in his later Space Viking about keeping characters straight, and I would agree. 

Piper did not consider this one of his better works. I agree and would place all the Fuzzy novels in the bottom tier, along with First Cycle, of Piper’s novels. 

However, a lot of authors have written sequels to it. John Scalzi is one, of course, but there’s also William Tuning, Ardath Mayhar, Wolfgang Dieher, and Carr himself (the last two published by Carr’s Pequod Press). William Barton’s dedication to his Acts of Conscience alludes to it. 

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“A Slave Is a Slave”

Between Four-Day Planet and this story, Piper published “Naudsonce”.

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.

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Four-Day Planet

Between “The Answer” and this story, Piper also published “Oomphel in the Sky”.

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. 

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