Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #3: H Beam Piper

H Beam Piper wrote mostly in the fifties and early sixties. He died thinking himself a failure, before receiving word that may have made a difference. Piper is a personal favorite, so I have more trouble than usual judging which of his works a new reader would enjoy today.

The political tenor of Piper's works is fairly consistent: On the one side, reasonable men, willing to do what needs to be done and competent to do it. On the other side, corrupt officials, crooked lawyers, hypocritical or misguided (liberal) idealists, and the mob. The mob is important: Piper was well-read in history, and his future history features what he perceived to be a perennial tendency for the barbarians at the gates or the barbarians within to short-sightedly pull down civilization. Many contemporary authors duplicate his stance, but not the gently ironic tone of much of his writing.

Most of Piper's works (except for two novels) have been reprinted. The majority form a future history of humanity in space repeating the errors of the past. The majority of the rest belong to his 'Paratime' sequence, about a civilization that spans (or at least interacts with) a multitude of alternate Earths, and whose Paratime Police attempt to oversee those interactions. Piper's books include

Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (***+). Sometimes the Paratime Police mess up, and this particular mess drops a member of the Pennsylvania State Police into an alternate medieval-tech land which is about to be conquered and destroyed at the behest of a theocracy which owns the local gunpowder monopoly. Fortunately Calvin (soon Kalvan) remembers his chemistry and -- even more important -- his military history. This book is probably the main inspiration for the entire military-sf subgenre whose main contemporary practitioners are Drake, Pournelle, and Stirling. It focuses as much (or more) upon the technological, logistical, and political problems Kalvan faces as it does upon his battles.

"Little Fuzzy" (***+) is the Piper novel that readers have probably found most charming. The Little Fuzzy of the title is a furry foot-high hominid who wanders into the camp of Jack Holloway, an old prospector on the planet Zarathustra. Holloway 'adopts' him without thinking of the implications, which are obvious to the Company that controls the profitable planet: If Zarathustra has an intelligent species, the law makes it clear that the planet is theirs, and not the Company's. So the Company becomes motivated to prove that the Fuzzies aren't intelligent -- and might be willing to settle for proving that they're extinct. This book spawned sequels -- "Fuzzy Sapiens" (**), "Fuzzies and Other People (**+), and lesser works by other authors.

"Space Viking" (***) is his most history-repeats-itself novel. In the dark age that follows the collapse of the Federation, worlds that still maintain space-faring technology have found it easier and more profitable to raid the less fortunate worlds than to stay home and build. Trask is one of the few who does want to stay home, but when a madman kills his wife and flees offplanet, he finances a space-viking expedition and follows. His story intersects that of another space-faring planet on which history is repeating itself -- only in this case the history that is being repeated is that of the Weimar republic.

"A Planet for Texans" (**+), reprinted as "Lone Star Planet", was written with his occasional coauthor, John J McGuire. This tongue-in-cheek tale features a planet of Texans whose dinosaur-sized cattle that have to be herded with tanks, and whose system of government has some unique features. The protagonist is a Machievellian diplomat who was appointed as ambassador to this planet after the previous ambassador was assassinated. The crux of the story is the trial of the assassins -- under a legal system which classifies the shooting of a politician as justifiable homicide.

%A Piper, H. Beam
%T Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen
%T Little Fuzzy
%T Fuzzy Sapiens
%T Fuzzies and Other People
%T Space Viking
%T A Planet for Texans
%O APfT coauthored by John J McGuire.


Standard introduction and disclaimer for Belated Reviews

Dani Zweig
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity." -- W.B. Yeats