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.)

Continue reading

Alternate Presidents

A continuation of yesterday’s posting. The theme, tied in with a future posting, will not be alternate U.S. presidents but some more Mike Resnick edited anthologies from the 1990s.

This anthology is actually much better than Alternate Kennedys. The premise is simple: alternate victors in U.S. presidential elections.

Raw Feed (1993): Alternate Presidents, Mike Resnick, 1992.alternate-presidents-2

“Introduction: Playing the Game of What If?”, Mike Resnick — Standard introduction on how book was put together.

The Father of His Country”, Jody Lynn Nye — Not so great alternate history that has Benjamin Franklin as the first president and sort of an eighteenth century media whiz, due to his experience as author and printer, who appeals to the people frequently, making the presidency a more democratic, more modern (in the sense of being like us) institution much to the chagrin of vice president John Adams who likes the more aristocratic, more elite, less populist way of doing things.

The War of ‘07”, Jayge Carr — Tale of how the ambitious Aaron Burr became second president, maneuvers the British into a war in 1807, gives an impetus to David Bushnell’s proto-submarine technology to be developed into a weapon, and successfully founds a dynastic presidency (he marries Napoleon Bonaparte’s daughters and holds on to the presidency long enough to pass it to his beloved grandson, Aaron Burr Alston). While it’s arguable whether pushing submarine technology ahead of the speed it developed in our world is a good thing, other Burr actions seem definitely dangerous – a dynastic presidency – or failures (as compared to our time). In the latter case, it may only cost Thomas Jefferson three million dollars in our world to get the Louisiana Purchase. Burr spends two million on just West Florida and New Orleans. And there are the unexplored consequences of Napleon not being defeated (Wellington dies fighting Americans in Canada). Still, it’s an interesting notion and exploration of easily things could have went very differently in the first 50 years of American history.

Black Earth and Destiny”, Thomas A. Easton — Easton takes an uncommon tack in this story in two ways. First, the turning point of this alternate history is that Andrew Jackson is elected president in 1824. Not embittered by loosing to John Quincy Adams (after striking a deal with Henry Clay even though Jackson beat both in electoral and popular votes) as he did in our history, Jackson thinks of the future. Under the influence of a rumor (I have no idea if this really was a rumor of the time. I’ve only heard reference to it in the song “The Battle of New Orleans”) that the British fired cannonballs from alligators’ mouths in the Battle of New Orleans, he invests in Mendelian engineering which seems to be genetic engineering affected by bacteria “juices”. I liked this alternate scientific history postulated by biologist Easton. The second unusual thing is that in this world, as he did in ours, Carver goes off to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee University – just as he did in ours (the destiny of the title). Although, in this world, he will presumably do more than just think up new uses for non-cotton crops (as he did in our world) since he has “Mendelian engineering” to work with. Continue reading

Sinister Barrier

Presumably, I’m off actually catching up on making my notes for my next article.

Since I covered another Russell novel in the last post, here’s another.

Sinister Barrier

Raw Feed (2002): Sinister Barrier, Eric Frank Russell, 1939, 1948?.

“Introduction”, Jack L. Chalker — Brief introduction about Eric Frank Russell, who was one of John W. Campbell’s favorite short story writers before writing, at Campbell’s suggestion, his first novel, Sinister Barrier.  It was published in the first issue of the fantasy magazine Campbell started, Unknown.  Chalker also talks about Russell’s interest in Charles Fort’s works and the debt this novel owes Fort as well as Russell’s involvement with British Forteans.

Sinister Barrier  — After first reading this novel about 15 years ago, and I read it over again because, having recently read the works of Charles Fort, I wanted to spot the full amount of his influence on this novel.

Fort would be proud.

Not only is he explicitly mentioned in the first paragraph, but the novel may be the most Fortean of all sf works.  The whole premise is taken from Fort’s remark that “I think we’re property.”  Russell mostly uses the metaphor of humanity as cows to serve alien masters, our emotions of violence and anger and agony being milk and meat to them.  (And the question as to the origin — extraterrestrials or native to Earth — of the Vitons is never answered.  It is suggested at one point that humanity is a cattle species brought by the Vitons to Earth from elsewhere.)

But Russell wraps up a lot more Fortean items in his story:  the wonders and miracles of psychics and religious figures may be a Viton disinformation campaign to discredit paranormal observations (sort of the “occult police” idea from Fort’s Lo!); ball lightening is dying Vitons; UFOs are observed Vitons (Russell may have pioneered the idea of alien abduction in this book); odd coincidences of death and odd disappearances; the allegedly superstitious coastal dwellers and sailors are able, because of a diet high in iodine, able to see the Vitons more often; feelings of dread may be Viton tendrils drinking your emotions.

Russell uses other Fortean paraphernalia:  the Fortean magazine Doubt is mentioned, and, after the knowledge of the Viton’s existence is widely disseminated, the U.S. government and newspapers look through newspaper files to spot formerly hidden references to Vitons.  Russell mentions some things (like spontaneous combustion and psychic powers) that are included in Fort’s works. Other mentions of Fortean knowledge postdate Fort’s death in 1932.  I suspect they are real, and Russell used his Fortean Society membership to gain access to them.

I’m curious as to when this novel was revised.  Chalker’s introduction just says it was after WWII which is obvious due to references to Hiroshima and the 1947 harbor explosion in Texas City.  On the other hand, there are some odd omissions, the main one being no explicit references to the Japanese in WWII though, especially since an Asian Combine fighting the West features them, kamikazes are mentioned.  Other signs of post-WWII revision are a reference to Pakistan and UFOS over North Ireland in 1942.  An odd bit of prose is a reference to the 1938 disappearance of a ship Anglo-Australian and Professor Beach saying “no solution had been found in ten years” — an odd thing to say for a story set in 2015.  (I wonder if it originally had a contemporary setting with the war breaking out between American and some portion of the Axis given an original publication date of 1939.)

Russell’s prose is pulpy, sometimes carrying his metaphors on too far, sometimes it has a melodramatic vigor like the first line from Chapter 1:  “’Swift death awaits the first cow that leads a revolt against milking,’ mused Professor Peder Bjornsen.”

The plot is roughly similar to Russell’s other Fortean novel, Dreadful Sanctuary.  Both start out with a string off odd, seemingly coincidental events.  Here it’s the seemingly natural deaths of several prominent scientists.  In Dreadful Sanctuary, it was the destruction of several spaceships bound for Venus.  In both cases, the protagonist uncovers a vast conspiracy of possibly extraterrestrial origin (though in the revision of Dreadful Sanctuary the Martians are really an Earth cult and here the Vitons may be native to Earth).  In both, the protagonists meets a babe related to a dead scientist.  This novel is much more involving and epic with America embroiled in a war with the Asian Combine while simultaneously trying to defeat the Vitons and a deadline counted down in hours (though Dreadful Sanctuary with its rocket launch, also has that).

This novel ends happily with the old problem of man’s violent emotions solved (now that we’re no longer provoked by aliens we can all live in rational harmony — indeed the Asians are not subjected to vengeance but education).  Like Dreadful Sanctuary, this novel also seems to make reference to the quack theories of Albert Abrams with its reference to “shortwave therapy”.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.