From here and my twitter feed (what, you don't follow me?), I think it's clear I've been thinking about sci-fi lately. I've also been getting, dare I say it, a little bored with swords & sorcery lately. For three and a half years it's been most of what I read. So, I'm moving on for now. I'll probably get back to S&S, and I'll definitely keep my eye open for good historical novels, but for now I'm going back to my first genre love: science fiction.
Cherryh's book is better written and more complex, but Piper's focus on societal collapse and the rise of barbarism, both cultural and of the sword-swinging, semi-literate type fit right in with some other things I'm reading now (Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option, this interview with Paul Kingsnorth about the Dark Mountain Project, and Jim Cornelius' provocative post Resist!). So, Space Viking it was. It went live over at Black Gate this morning.
The first book I read by Piper was Little Fuzzy in 1984. I'd seen the title praised in Analog and in the Peter Nicholls' original Encylopedia of Science Fiction. When I saw the omnibus edition of Little Fuzzy and Fuzzy Sapiens, I grabbed it. It's been a very long time since I read it last, but I remember being caught up by Piper's story of cute critters and a crusty old prospector at once. Hell, even when it turned into a courtroom drama, the book didn't let me go. As soon as I was done, I started right in on Fuzzy Sapiens. Then I set about finding the rest of Piper's Terro-Human Future History books (for whatever reason, I never latched on to the Lord Kalvan Para-time stories - but my dad did). Later that year, the long-lost Fuzzies and Other People was published and I got a copy form the Science Fiction Book Club.
Over the next year, I read the two collections Federation and Empire, along with the novels Uller Uprising and The Cosmic Computer. They're all good, and it's a damn shame Piper took his life in 1964, when he clearly had more stories in him to tell.
Piper's Future History is a pessimistic one. General civilization seems incapable of persevering. During the rise of the Terran Federation, bureaucracy and cultural decay are unavoidable hazards that set it to rot. During the galactic dark age following its collapse, the beacon of technological survival, the Sword Worlds, are murderous raiders who slaughter and rob any weaker world they encounter. In the end, order and stability can only be imposed with strength from above as exemplified by the birth of the Galactic Empire.
The difference between Piper's dark ages and empires and, say, Asimov's, is that Piper isn't just using about them to tell a cool story. Though he wrote in solid, pulp space opera-style, he was really intent on exploring the fragility of human civilization. He doesn't do it with all that much complexity, but he does it well enough to give a deeper resonance to what might otherwise be just some more space opera adventures (albeit, very good ones).
One of the things I was most impressed with in rereading Space Viking was Piper's his lack of faith in any type of government being able to fend off corruption and collapse. Sure, he makes fun of liberalism and social worker-types, but he knows the other side is just as prone to taking every advantage of the situation to line their own pockets. Few people anywhere are ready to take the long view and do the real dirty work of building and maintaining civilization.
The other thing that impressed me was how freakin' cool the action is. The space battles are something else, with squadrons firing missiles at each other across from a thousand miles apart, then closing in on each other to let loose with volleys of kinetic guns. They would look killer on screen.
I also loved the logistics involved in the reestablishment of trade and civilization on the edge of the old Federation. Discounting the wish-fulfillment of hyperspace travel, Piper makes interstellar trade and expansion seem believable. As much as the book's hero, Lucas Trask, I found myself getting swept up in the building of schools, bringing education to the barbarians, and figuring out what will help reignite society best.
I know I will be reading more Piper in the coming months. Right now I'm in the middle of his oft-anthologized story, "Omnilingual." I'm definitely going to read Little Fuzzy, and probably The Cosmic Computer.
If you haven't read anything by Piper, I'll repeat what I say in my review: pickup Little Fuzzy or Federation and give 'em a go. For 99¢ you can get most of his work in Wild Side Press' H. Beam Piper Megapack. Trust me, it's a worthwhile investment.