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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“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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Null-ABC

Review: Null-ABC, H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, 1953.

It’s a world where department stores launch armed attacks on their competitors. Elections have gangs who beat up and occasionally kill the opposition. (And, if you don’t have your own gang, you can rent one.) Technology has stagnated. High school students assault their teachers regularly. And most of the population is illiterate.

Yes, there’s a Crisis in 2140. That was the better titled selected for the novel when it was republished as part of an Ace Double in 1957. It was originally serialized in the February and March 1953 issues of Astounding Science Fiction, and I suspect editor John W. Campbell gave it a title reminiscent of A. E. van Vogt’s Null-A series which ran in Astounding in the 1940s.

The work is part of a group of 1950s science fiction novels dealing with the theme of anti-intellectualism. They include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Fritz Leiber’s The Silver Eggheads (which I have not read). Like another such novel, James Gunn’s The Burning, it features a population that blames historical problems on intellectuals, and, in particular, has reacted against that basic intellectual tool: literacy.

There has always been, on the part of the Illiterate public, some resentment against organized Literacy. In part, it has been due to the high fees charged for Literate services, and to what seems, to many, to be monopolistic practices. But behind that is a general attitude of anti-intellectualism which is our heritage from the disastrous wars of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. Chester Pelton has made himself the spokesman of this attitude. In his view, it was men who could read and write who hatched the diabolical political ideologies and designed the frightful nuclear weapons of that period. In his mind, Literacy is equated with ‘Mein Kampf’ and ‘Das Kapital’, with the A-bomb and the H-bomb, with concentration camps and blasted cities.

Yes, in this society literacy is so rare – but still a necessary skill – that Literates have their own union, the Associated Fraternities of Literates. And men like Chester Pelton, owner of a department store, resent that their skills are needed. And he can do something about it. He’s a senator in the North American Confederacy.

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“Operation R.S.V.P”

Review: “Operation R.S.V.P”, H. Beam Piper, 1951.

The shadow of a future nuclear war hangs over 1950s science fiction. Piper’s stories frequently mention it. Often, it occurs, but this is a rare story, tongue in cheek, that shows a way it might be avoided.

Piper scholar John F. Carr, in his Typewriter Killer, quotes a March 22, 1963 letter from Piper to his friend Jerry Pournelle:

You know it must have been lovely, living in an era when the Clausewitzian ‘extension of politics by other means’ was accomplished by nothing more lethal or expensive, especially expensive, than black powder…Well, see you in Washington over the Labor Day week-end, if there still is a Washington then.

One suspects for Piper, who had known a world before atomic bombs, their invention was particularly irksome.

This story was first published in the January 1951 issue of Amazing Stories. It’s an epistolary story and not part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History. 

It opens on Jan. 15, 1984 with a letter from Vladimir N. Dzhoubinsky, Foreign Minister of the Union of East European Soviet Republics (the UEESR) and addressed to Wu Fung Tung of the United Peoples’ Republic of East Asia (the UPREA). In diplomatic language, it reminds Tung that the Union’s newest missile has a range more than sufficient to reach Peking. Tung might want to consider that in current negotiations over the Khakum River. 

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The Day of the Triffids

Raw Feed (2006): The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham, 1951. 

Cover by Richard Powers

Brian Aldiss referred to the work of John Wyndham as “cosy catastrophe”. I don’t think, in retrospect, he meant that the disasters of Wyndham’s works are improbably nice and clean. I think he was referring to the narrative strategy Wyndham used in this and The Kraken Awakes: first person narratives centering around one or two individuals who have limited knowledge and explanation of the disaster they face. For instance, the narrator here has no definite proof that the blindness which strikes most of humanity is the result of satellite weapons — an interesting idea for the beginning of the satellite age — or that the lethal plague which breaks out after the blindness is an engineered disease — and limited means of dealing with it. This stands in direct contrast to the best-seller idiom of later American works like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer.  (I don’t know enough about styles of the time to know if something similar to Niven and Pournelle existed in disaster fiction prior to this book.) 

John Christopher, another English writer from the time, fits into this style, and a prior American work, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, does too. In fact, as the story progresses and we hear about how the houses and roads and bridges of England were being eroded away by nature, I was very much reminded of Stewart’s novel. Tonally and thematically, though, there is nothing cozy or comfortable about this novel.  There is something very visceral about the blinding of most of humanity, an unclean disaster that requires, for disaster fiction, an unusual amount of lifeboat ethics in that the narrator and some of his fellow survivors realize they are not doing the blind any good by temporarily saving them from death. 

Wyndham’s genius, of course, is combining the blindness with the “invasion” of genetically engineered, ambulatory, poisonous triffids. As with Wyndham’s Re-Birth and The Midwich Cuckoos, we are constantly reminded of the Darwinian struggle for life, of competing species and supplanters in our midst. As the narrator memorably remarks in a book of many memorable, philosophical lines, custom and tradition have been long mistaken for natural law. 

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Timeslip Troopers

In keeping with the World War One theme I started with The Russian Origins of the First World War, I picked this book off the shelf.

Review: Timeslip Troopers, Théo Varlet and André Blandin, trans. Brian Stableford, 1923, 2012. 

Cover by Mandy

When Lieutenant Renard rotates into command of a group of poilu defending on a small French village, he finds out that the officers have a very well-stocked wine cellar. But the Englishman who left it – he was shot as a German spy — also left behind a time machine and his journal. While the tone of the book is closer to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it is explicitly a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine since that Englishman is Well’s time traveler.

When Renard discovers the journal and machine, he shows it to Sergeant Dupuy, the unit’s clever radio man and a mechanic before the war in the factory owned by Renard’s father.

When an accident with a time machine transports a group of French soldiers from the Western Front of World War One to the Spain of 1321, we get a wry, entertaining novel. It’s the first science fiction work I know of in the tradition of radically displacing earthly soldiers in time and space. It blazes – without, presumably, any influence on those later works – the path followed by Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade, David Drake’s Ranks of Bronze, Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries, and Pat Kelleher’s No Man’s World series.

The two take it out on some test flights for a bit of R & R in Paris before and during the war. Both trips are near disasters, and the Germans unexpectedly attack the unit during one, and Renard has to come up with an unconvincing story about why he and Dupuy were gone at such a critical time.

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Stealing Other People’s Homework: “Russell Kirk and the Haunting of Piety Hill”

Russell Kirk

I’ve been reading SD Tucker’s two part series on Russell Kirk in Fortean Times“. It’s part of his “Strange Statesman” series.

The installments mostly look into the strange occult beliefs of various politicians and political philosophers. Kirk, however, was more than a political philosopher. (Jerry Pournelle considered Kirk his political mentor though Pournelle definitely did not share Kirk’s anti-technology views.)

He was a noted a writer of weird fiction, fiction that demonstrated the synthesis of his political and occult beliefs. He was a friend of Ray Bradbury.

Kirk biographer Bradley J. Birzer looks at the professional and thematic relationships between Kirk and Stephen King and how Kirk’s paranormal experiences showed up in his fiction.

Oath of Fealty

The Jerry Pournelle series concludes with one of my favorite Niven and Pournelle collaborations, and, I think a book of some political prescience.

The desire to retreat from crime and social chaos is still with us: gated communities and billionaires buying bolt holes in New Zealand, and survivalist compounds in South Dakota.

And Alphabet’s plans for its workers sounds like a return to feudalism which, of course, is what this book is about.

This is the only work of Niven’s or Pournelle’s to appear in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (1985).

Pringle exhibits a bit of snark in his capsule review of the novel when he says

 . . . memories of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise intrude; but that is a novel which Niven and Pournelle are unlikely to have read.

I suspect that’s true of Pournelle, but Niven’s essay, “The Words in Science Fiction“, hints at fairly broad tastes in the genre.

This was the next novel Niven and Pournelle started after The Mote in God’s Eye, but it was put aside for other novels.

For the 2008 edition, they wrote an introduction, but I have not read it.

If you go to Pournelle’s website and patiently read the search results for “Oath of Fealty”, you’ll find many references to people still thinking about an urban arcology as a shelter in turbulent times.

Raw Feed (1998): Oath of Fealty, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1981.Oath of Fealty

This book was certainly shorter and better than the last Niven and Pournelle collaboration I read, Footfall.

It also stands as the most explicit endorsement of feudalism, a theme which appears in much of Pournelle’s solo work, particularly the John Christian Falkenberg series and a type of corporate feudalism of this novel also shows up in Pournelle’s High Justice (another title seemingly derived from medieval law) and, in a milder, more implicit way in Pournelle’s collaboration with Charles Sheffield, Higher Education.

The title derives from the medieval feudal oath between vassal and lord, and the novel’s plot of Todos Santos fighting for legal and economic independence from LA broadly reflects similar struggles between towns and medieval lords. [Yes, I’m aware that some medievalists argue that feudalism never existed. I just don’t accept the argument.]

That independence is never truly achieved. Indeed, Los Angeles’ reliance on Todos Santos (an emerging economic and social unit like the medieval towns) economically is used as leverage against the city. Continue reading

Footfall

The Jerry Pournelle series continues. This one is another collaboration with Larry Niven and another review probably colored by the circumstances I read a book under.

Raw Feed (1998): Footfall, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1985.Footfall

I found this novel overly long for its subject but not long enough to get into any pleasing, interesting detail.

Next to Fallen Angels, co-written with Michael Flynn, this is the worst Niven and Pournelle novel I’ve read.

Niven and Pournelle provide an interesting rationale while the alien Fithp try to invade Earth: they’re a young race who acquired space travel from the Predecessors, aliens who first evolved intelligence on the Fithp homeworld and then destroyed themselves. Thus the Fithp aren’t too bright or, at least, don’t think of any other option than to invade a planet instead of exploiting space.

But we don’t learn anything more about the Predecessors, really get into the dissension in the Fithp ranks, or learn a lot that much about the Fithp given the time spent on them other than they are herd animals who are used to fighting until a foe unconditionally surrenders for their whole herd.

Nor do we get, a lá Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, neat description of meteor devastation. [I suspect they thought they’d already written that story in Lucifer’s Hammer.] Most of it occurs off stage as does the combat in Kansas and its eventual nuking. Continue reading

Higher Education

The Jerry Pournelle series continues with a collaboration with Charles Sheffield. This is an expansion of their story of the same name in Future Quartet and part of the Jupiter series from Tor. That was an attempt to resurrect, in the 1990s, the tradition of the Robert A. Heinlein juvenile novel. All the Jupiter books were unrelated in their stories.

Raw Feed (1997): Higher Education, Charles Sheffield and Jerry Pournelle, 1996.Higer Education

This book was a pleasant if not great read and, I suspect, a great deal like Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novels of which I’ve only read Starship Troopers and, a long time ago, The Rolling Stones. [In fact, I may have read that before Robert Silverberg’s Revolt on Alpha C, but it was the latter novel which gave me a taste for science fiction.]

It’s the story of a youth learning adult responsibilities and a lot of math and science – the authors deliver some good minor science lessons in passing including one on why rings around planets can’t be solid.

The plot of corporate espionage and sabotage (I liked that the saboteur was allegedly from the Black Hills) was, if my memory is correct, added from the novella of the same name. In the short story, protagonist Rick Luban finishes training and his employer tries to recruit him for training Earthside. The novel ends with a similar pitch but after more training.

The main flaw is, given the supposedly even more decadent, ignorant, and violent schools of the future, Rick Luban and the other delinquents of his school seem way too tame in their behavior and lack of profanity (perhaps toned down for a juvenile reader?) to be the problem children of tomorrow. They seem like problem children of the fifties. Continue reading