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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Murder in the Gunroom

Review: Murder in the Gunroom, H. Beam Piper, 1953.

Piper begin writing at the age of 16 in 1920. At least as early as 1927, he was trying to sell gangster stories to the pulps, and, according to his friend and would-be biographer Mike Knerr, he wanted to be an historical novelist and mystery writer more than a science fiction writer. 

This novel was not a success. John F. Carr, in his Typewriter Killer, says

The book earned $750.00 (minus a 10% agent’s cut to Fred Pohl) for a total of $675.00 in Piper’s pocket! Using an inflation calculator, the $675.00 is the equivalent of $5,933.00 in 2014 dollars. There is no further mention of any royalties so it’s doubtful the book ever earned out its meager advance; although, the amount was typical of the time for a ‘new’ mystery author. In retrospect, even after sixty plus years of inflation, $750.00 was a piddling sum for a book involving years of labor and at least four different rewrites. 

Yet, in his resolutely unprofessional way, Piper worked on two sequels (Murder in the Conference Room and Murder Frozen Over) until December 1957. They would never be published nor would any of his other mysteries.

Knerr says of Piper’s lack of success selling his mystery novels: 

Beam’s mystery novels were as meticulously planned as anything he had ever written, but the publishers and the public were not much interested in them. Perhaps there was too much of the ‘Victorian’ in them at a time when readers wanted Mickey Spillane, Richard Prather or Fredrick Brown.

As is often noted in reference to this novel, it is mostly interesting to science fiction readers for one of the characters, Pierre’s, description of his work as a science fiction author. His remarks seem relevant to Piper and his Paratime series:

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“Time and Time Again

With the list of titles waiting to be reviewed getting longer, I decided, awhile back, to take a break and read some gaming related fiction I wasn’t going to review.

I read the Arkham Horror novel The Sign of Glaaki. I’ve never played Arkham Horror. I’ve never played Traveller either, but I did run a few games for it back, decades ago, in the Classic Traveller era. So, I read Agent of the Imperium from Traveller’s creator, Marc Miller, and I read Shannon Appelcline’s The Science Fiction in Traveller: A Reader’s Guide to Traveller Role-Playing Fiction.

One of the major sources of fictional inspirations for the game was H. Beam Piper. I’ve already reviewed some of Piper’s works, and this marks the start of a series to review the rest. I’ll be looking at them in order of publication and with some material drawn from two books by Piper scholar John F. Carr: H. Beam Piper: A Biography and Typewriter Killer. I’ll also be reviewing them.

Review: “Time and Time Again”, H. Beam Piper, 1947.

This was Piper’s first published fiction and appeared in the April 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and Piper would become a favorite author of its editor John W. Campbell.

While this was Piper’s first published fiction, he had brief articles published in his friend’s Don Coleman’s free advertising circular, one of the first in America: the Williamsport Shopper’s Guide. He had written A Catalogue of Henry Wharton Shoemaker Weapons at Restless Oaks in McElhatten Pennsylvania in 1927. Shoemaker was a friend, and Piper dedicated his novel Murder in the Gunroom to Shoemaker. But Piper had also been writing fiction – science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries – for 20 years.

The story opens in 1975 during World War III and (as we learn later) the siege of Buffalo, New York. Our hero, Captain Allan Hartley of the US Army, is pulled out of the rubble from a nuclear blast ten miles away. He is wounded and not expected to live, but he is shot up with a narcotic.

When he wakes up, he finds he has regressed to the age of 13 and is back in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. (Williamsport was a town Piper was fond of, had friends in, and eventually moved to). It is Sunday, August 5, 1945 – the day before the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Yet, Hartley remembers his future life as a best-selling author and chemist with lucrative patents. He is convinced his memories of that life are no mere dream. 

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Since his name recently came up in some of the discussions about the ongoing “pulp revolution”, I thought I’d pull a couple of items on H. Beam Piper out of the archives.

Raw Feed (2002): Paratime, ed. John F. Carr, 1981.Paratime 

“Introduction”, John F. Carr — A long and detailed introduction to Piper and his Paratime series. Carr gives a very brief summary of Piper’s life, but he mostly details how Piper’s belief in volitional reincarnation (essentially, being sentient between physical incarnations and being able to choose your next body) and interest in the theory of time put forth by one J. W. Dunne were combined for his Paratime series. Dunne’s theories held that a person’s “supermind” existed outside and apart from a person’s entire life. He also postulated a “supertime” which measured the rate other “times” pass, an infinite number of them. The supermind exists at all points in a person’s life. It exists outside the life. It’s rather (Carr doesn’t note this) like Boethius’ notion of God existing outside of time thereby explaining how he knows the future without causing it. Dunne’s supermind becomes detached, when we are unconscious, from our “ego”. This explains recovered memories and precognitive visions. Piper seemingly combined these notions to conceive of a vast series of parallel worlds where people’s superminds can hop from line to line. Piper’s interest and knowledge of history came into play in conceiving this series in which alternate histories are the central feature. He created a classification system for his multitude of worlds. The most interesting part of his alternate histories is that their basic grouping is based on how successful the Martian attempt to colonize Earth was 75,000 to 100,000 years ago. In some worlds, it succeeds entirely. In others the colony regresses, and the people of Earth forget their origin (our world belongs in this category) and in others the Martians all die out, and quasi-humans evolve a civilization on Earth. Carr also presents pretty conclusive proof that attempts to link the Paratime series (which also includes Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen) with Piper’s Terrohuman Future History series are misguided. [See my review of Piper’s Federation.]

He Walked Around the Horses” — This story was the motivation for reading this collection since it was inspired by an incident mentioned in a Charles Fort book: the disappearance of Benjamin Bathurst, British envoy to the Austrian Empire, in November 1809 as he walked around some coach horses to inspect them. Disappointingly, Piper simply snatches Bathurst up and transplants him to an alternate Europe of 1809 without rationalizing the mechanism by which this is done. Still, Piper presents an interesting alternate Europe without Napoleon (though there is a Napoleon Bonaparte, he’s just a “brilliant military theoretician” who is loyal to the French crown). The deviation seems to start with Benedict Arnold’s death at the Battle of Quebec in January 1776. He is not there to help win the Battle of Saratoga (thus Piper reminds us that Arnold contributed greatly to the cause he later betrayed), and the Revolution fails (George Washington dies at the Battle of Doylestown though no year is given). The European consequences are that, lacking the inspiration of an American Republic, the French Revolution does not take place, and Napoleon does not become a would-be conqueror. The epistolary story ends on a humorous note as the British officials in this world are puzzled by the documents Bathurst carries from our world. In particular, Sir Arthur Wellesley is puzzled by continual references to the Duke of Wellington. Jerry Pournelle, Piper’s friend, says that Piper claimed this story was based on a past-life experience of his. Continue reading