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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“Hunter Patrol”

Review: “Hunter Patrol”, H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, 1959.

Piper and McGuire wrote this, their last published collaboration, sometime in 1954 or earlier. Their friendship ended that year, and it wasn’t until the May 1959 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories it saw print. Significantly, it was the only story Piper didn’t list in his story log, but he did find McGuire’s new address to send him his share of the sale.

John F. Carr, in H. Beam Piper: A Biography, says that McGuire would go on to publish four more stories of his own, that are “much more grim and realistic than anything he wrote with Piper”. Still, this story has its grim elements too and, as we’ll see, I suspect it draws on some elements of McGuire’s World War Two experiences as an OSS operative.

The story opens in Armenia shortly after 1977, the year that Captain Frank Benson of Benson’s Butchers, was drafted. They are conducting an operation behind enemy lines with Turkish partisans. Its purpose is to convince the Pan-Soviet forces (the USSR, India, and China) that they are under attack by paratroopers. The Soviets are advancing, and this is to be Benson’s last combat mission before he is discharged. 

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“Lone Star Planet”

In between “The Return” and this novella (reprinted as Planet for Texans as part of an Ace Double), Piper published two works: “Time Crime” and his most anthologized story, “Omnilingual”.

In his Typewriter Killer, John F. Carr describes this as Piper’s only humorous satire. I agree with the humorous part. As to satire, well . . . I think that (Piper at least) didn’t see much wrong with the political order on New Texas.

I don’t put much store in awards, but let’s just say that I think it’s entirely consistent this won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1999 for Best Classic Libertarian SF Novel.

Review: “Lone Star Planet”, H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, 1957.

This novella’s editorial reception was, shall we say, muted. It was first published in the March 1957 issue of Fantastic Universe Science Fiction which John F. Carr calls a “salvage market” only paying a penny a word. It’s not really known when it was written, but Piper’s diary indicates it was written at least as early 1955.

Its hero and narrator is Stephen Silk, a member of the “Hooligan Diplomats”. Unfortunately, he’s also known as Machiavelli, Jr. That was the name he put to his article “Probable Future Courses of Solar League Diplomacy” for Galactic Statesmen’s Journal.

His bosses aren’t that worried that his analysis of a frankly imperialistic agenda will give the Solar League’s Consular Service a bad name. Most of the issues of the magazine are sold to its diplomats and research says the public doesn’t really mind imperialism that much.

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“The Return”

Review: “The Return”, H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, 1954.

This is a joke story with a surprise ending. I’ll tread carefully not to reveal it, but I don’t think many readers now will find it surprising. I suspect not many readers of the January 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, where it first appeared, were either.

There are a lot of Piper stories that mention nuclear war breaking out, but this is the only one that comes close to depicting the consequences of such a war albeit 200 years later.

The year is about 2196 and two scientists, Jim Altamont and Monty Loudons, are flying in a helicopter over the wreckage of America after a nuclear war in 1996. Based out of Fort Ridgeway in what was Arizona, they are looking for viable communities that can be linked with radio sets they give them and that can benefit from an exchange of knowledge and experience. It was only in the last 25 years the fort, even with its technical library and trained personnel, were able to make “nuclear-electric engines” and go east of the Mississippi River. Altamont’s an expert on things. Loudons is an expert on people. The only way, incidentally, that Ridgeway has been viable over 200 years is that a large number of female technicians were there when war broke out.

The story opens with them near what used to be Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and they are there because of an old issue of Time magazine which, in 1993, talked about an underground crypt being constructed beneath the city’s Carnegie Library. The crypt contained microfilmed copies of many technical works, and it’s thought some might be books Fort Ridgeway doesn’t have.

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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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