Tuesday, March 21, 2017

H. Beam Piper

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.

Until last Friday, I wasn't sure what book I'd kick things off with. I was halfway through C.J. Cherryh's Heavy Time (1992) and H. Beam Piper's Space Viking (1963), plus I'd started Hal Clement's foundational hard sci-fi book, Mission of Gravity (1954). 

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.


  1. I read Piper about the same time you did, maybe a year or two earlier. I haven't read the Kalvan/Paratime stories either, but I do have them. I got burned out on Piper a little bit when I read several of his minor novels back to back one summer. All the characters started to sound the same. I intend to reread them at some point in the near future.

    Piper was one of the science fiction authors who made me really want to know more history. The other, and he probably was the greater influence, was Poul Anderson. I especially loved Anderson's future history, the Dominic Flandry stories in particular. I'm curious how you think the two authors compare.

    Like you, I'm getting a little burned out on fantasy and am wanting to read more science fiction, especially the stuff I read when I was younger.

    I've rambled enough for now. I look forward to what you'll write about next.

    1. I think after I read First Cycle I stopped. I never did get around to Four-Day Planet and A Planet for Texans for the same sort of reason you did - it was turning into a little too much of the same-old-same-old.

      The reason I know anything about the Sepoy Mutiny was because of Uller Uprising. It made me want to get an understanding of the real think.

      You know, I've never read any Flandry stories. By the time I read all the Van Riijn and Falkenhayn stuff, I was burned out. Maybe I'l get to some of them this time around.

      As to how they compare, not much. Anderson's a better writer (maybe due to just more-time-on-job). There are plenty of thematic similarities, but I remember Anderson having a better handle on them. I'll see how those memories hold up when I pick up TROUBLE TWISTERS or TRADER TO THE STARS.

      Right now, I'm finally reading MISSION OF GRAVITY and it's a blast.

    2. I read MISSION OF GRAVITY in the 7th or 8th grade. I remember enjoying it and one or two scenes but not a lot of details. I should probably reread it; I never got around to reading the sequel, STARLIGHT.

      I agree with you about Anderson being the better writer. I always liked the Flandry stories best because Flandry knows enough history to realize that the Empire will fall; all he can do is try to delay the inevitable. The sense of fatalism that hung over the series appeal to my teenage self. Also, most of the Flandry stories were written after the Falkenhayn and Van Riijn, IIRC, so Anderson had probably improved as a writer.

  2. I haven't read H. Beam Piper, but I have been thinking a lot about the Benedict Option, cycles of history, &c., and find the connection interesting. I haven't read Dreher's book myself, but I've read a number of his his pieces and I'm familiar with the basic idea. I don't want to go all culture-war on your sci-fi post, but I'll say (FWIW) that a lot of the ideas Dreher seems to be proposing occurred to me several years ago – especially right around the time of the 2012 election – and went into my Dragonfly stories. Being a Catholic, I actually tried joining a religious order founded in the 12th century; predictably, given my history with such things, that ended in disaster. They were very inwardly focused… I don't know, I guess what I've been thinking is that the answer isn't so much to build a countercultural fortress (which is really only a way of getting assimilated by the dominant culture) but simply to live according to a different logic, which will, in time, transform the whole landscape, just as it did in the time Dreher's referring to.

    1. I want to believe my memories of Piper hold up, but it's been so long. I really want LITTLE FUZZY to still be great. If you can find a copy of it or FEDERATION, give them a try.

      Culture war all you want here, I don't mind ;) I always tended to avoid it because of cowardice/fear, but I'm too old to worry anymore.

      Now, with everything else going on, I've come around to Dreher's and other's basic perspective - the kulturkampf is lost and what do we do next.

      I think ideas similar to Dreher's are burbling up in a lot of places (Cardinal Chaput's Strangers in a Strange Land and Anthony Esolen's Out of the Ashes) over the past eight years. I agree that simple fortress building isn't the answer - instead living out that different logic. Where I think Dreher's most on to something is about connecting with and building community (a turn of phrase I hate) with other orthodox Christians and then just live. His writings about the the Tipiloschi, a group in Italy who met over their love of GKC makes me very jealous.