By Bud Webster
Piper at the Gates
Fans of H. Beam Piper (what few are left) are almost certainly aware of at least one salient aspect of his life: he killed himself. What nobody seems to be aware of is why, or exactly when. What is known is that sometime between November 5th, 1964 (the date of the last entry in his diary) and either the 9th or the 11th (again, nobody knows for sure) when his body was discovered, Piper spread tarps on the floor and walls of his apartment and covered his furniture with drop cloths, took a .38 caliber revolver from his extensive collection of firearms, and fatally shot himself.
As to why....Well, it depends on who you ask. The story common in fandom when I was first active 30-35 years ago was that he was despondent over his "failed" career, unaware that his agent had died without telling him of several sales. Jerry Pournelle, a Piper enthusiast who wrote the introduction for the reprint of Little Fuzzy, blames it on that, as well as a messy divorce that caused him extreme financial setbacks. A well-known editor in the field also attributes it to the divorce but maintains that Piper killed himself in order to invalidate his life insurance policy, which would have paid his despised ex-wife a significant amount.
However all (or any) of that may be, it is largely irrelevant, especially when we come to consider the work rather than the man; after all, I come not to bury Piper, but to praise him. Irrelevant, and easy, too: it is, after all, speculation, and that can be done as easily sitting in a bar with a schooner between you and your listeners as it can here, or in a university auditorium.
The work....That's the hard part, really, because Piper was neither a sensational nor a sensationalist writer. He was a careful researcher, meticulous, and such writers are rarely as flashy or flamboyant as those of their colleagues who take chances (and blow it, as often as not).
Piper wasn't the swash-buckling blaster-blazing adventure writer that Brackett was; he didn't appeal to the wistfully nostalgic as Henderson did. His stories are subtle, painstakingly assembled, and as instructive as they are entertaining. To a fault sometimes, as Damon Knight remarked in his review of Piper's novella, "Uller's Uprising," one of three stories published in The Petrified Planet (Twayne 1952) by different authors based on a planetary profile created by Dr. John D. Clark:
H. Beam Piper's "Uller's Uprising," hands-down the best of the three stories, is excellent writing largely wasted, for my taste, on a conventional native up-rising story — full of careful military-historical detail which I find no more bearable here than in a textbook.
Well, okay, but salt-grain that if you will, since Knight was as much curmudgeon as critic and felt that he had to find some fault in everything or he wasn't doing his job well. That same attention to detail was one of the aspects of Piper's work that our own editor-in-chief, William Sanders, respected:
The first thing by him that I ever read was not sf but a mystery, Murder in the Gunroom (Knopf 1953). It wasn't terribly memorable as mysteries go, but I was tremendously impressed by his obvious knowledge of firearms....He always got the gun stuff right.
(As well he should, being a hoplophile with a collection of hundreds of weapons, and being a crack shot to boot.)
Piper's fiction falls primarily into two series: the Paratime Police stories (which include the Lord Kalvan yarns) and the Terran Federation, or the Fuzzy stories. It's the latter, for better or worse, that Piper's best known for.
Not that it's a bad series, not at all, but these days readers unfamiliar with the stories might be too put off by an unfortunate surface resemblance to George Lucas's Ewoks to take them with the seriousness they deserve. That the Fuzzies came first is immaterial; Lucas had a much better PR campaign.
The Federation stories concern a planet of...oh, let's face it, cute and cuddly-looking critters. Therein lies part of the integral conflict, since the humans don't take them any more seriously than you or I would. We'd be wrong, though, as were most of the humans in the first book, Little Fuzzy (not Piper's title, I hasten to point out — blame it on his editor at Avon) would be.
The premise is that these cuddly little dickenses, the dominant indigenous species of Zarathustra, are being exploited by the mining corporation that "runs" the planet, going as far as claiming that they aren't really intelligent, not "people." Piper spends much of the book proving that they are.
It's probably no coincidence that Piper conceived of and wrote this series at this time. The post-war years saw enormous changes in global politics, with indigenous peoples throwing off their colonial bosses seemingly right and left. Speculation once again, perhaps, but Piper didn't live in a vacuum, and he certainly wasn't the only writer around to have noticed and remarked on the phenomenon in their fiction. In true ASF tradition, though, the Fuzzy "revolution" is successful mostly because of benign human intervention.
In his lengthy treatise on the history and conceits of science fiction, Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss says:
Fuzzies could be seen as a symbol of conscience, of lost innocence, of unfallen humanity....But in Piper's novels they were also sapient — not merely animals to be slaughtered....The struggle to prove and then assert the sapience of these creatures lifts these books above their pulp elements, prefiguring genre concern for ecology and the sentience of whales and dolphins.
That is, of course, not all they are. Like most fantasy/sf writers, Piper used his aliens and their culture to make comments about US. His li'l critters live according to a philosophy he'd like humans to live by, a kind of pleasant, non-aggressive libertarianism that seems to permeate every aspect of Fuzzydom. Had he been the boisterous proponent of political libertarianism that, say, Neil Schulman is, or the advocate of personal libertarianism that Eric Frank Russell was, he might have ended up writing his Fuzzies as broadly as Dickson and Anderson did with their Hokas. It's evident, though, that he had little interest in his creations being seen as comic relief; he's holding up a mirror to us, all right, but it's not a fun-house mirror.
Those who love the Fuzzy stories seemingly can never get enough, or so publishers believe. Not quite 20 years after Piper's death, Ace commissioned several sequels, including one based on his notes completed by Michael Kurland, and two others by William Tuning and Ardath Mayhar. They also published Fuzzies and Other People, a complete Piper manuscript long believed lost (see bibliography for details).
The Paratime Police stories gave Piper a far more useful canvas against which to splash his stronger political opinions. Poul Anderson did this, too, of course, in his Time Patrol stories, but Piper occasionally crossed the line between story-telling and polemecizing.
Don't get me wrong; the stories are far more than just readable, and his sense of pacing and his careful, considered style prevents them from ever becoming shrill. If Piper does, from time to time, pontificate in order to make a point, he certainly wouldn't be the first author to do so, in or out of the field.
The idea of policing alternate time-streams wasn't new when Piper began his series, Sam Merwin having gotten there before him with his 1951 novel, House of Many Worlds, but with the publication of "Time Crime" in the February 1955 Astounding, Piper set the stage for his own take on the subject. Comparatively robust and aggressive, they were all but diametrically opposed to the pastoral Fuzzy yarns. Aldiss referred to them as "tough-jawed all-action," but Aldiss has his own axes to grind and is quick to point out what he considers flaws:
Piper was very much an Astounding man, with his Paratime Police series....of a school of writers — mainly technophile — who didn't question the notion that Man was the best thing that had happened to the Universe, and hanging wasn't good enough for anyone who disagreed.
(If you have any granular NaCl left after reading the Knight quote back up there somewhere, snort it now; Aldiss is a brilliant writer and critic, but that doesn't prevent him from being bloviatious when his hobby-horse is a-rockin'.)
Lester del Rey, about as far from Aldiss's perspective as one could get and still be in the same pub, had this to say of the Paratime stories in his own examination of the genre, The World of Science Fiction: The History of a Subculture: "[Piper's] stories remain some of the best and most complicated examples of the idea of many time tracks together."
Piper's affinity for what is considered the typical Astounding template notwithstanding, he was immensely popular from the very beginning, winning first place in the Analytical Laboratory readers' poll with his first story, "Time and Again." (It pleases me no end to boast that Piper and I are the only two authors I know of so honored by the ASF readership, although the AnLab was a much different thing in '47.)
Stepping outside my role as objective historian for a moment, I think it necessary for me to put in a word for my favorite Piper novel, Lone Star Planet (also published as A Planet For Texans as half of an Ace Double with Norton's Star Born). I read this as a kid with no preconceived notions of libertarianism or politics in general. Well, aside from what I'd picked up by reading Heinlein juveniles, anyway.
I remember cackling out loud at the (to me, then) outrageous idea of a planet of "cows" as big as triceratopses (triceratopsi?) being herded by tanks. I damn near wet myself just because of that. The story itself is hardly slapstick, but the built-in humor is inescapable.
It was the first time I'd ever heard of H. L. Mencken, too, for all the good it did me; there was certainly no Mencken in my elementary school library, and I hadn't yet been granted access to the Big Peoples' books at the Roanoke Public Library. The book is based on Mencken's essay, "The Malevolent Jobholder," which in essence declares open season on political hacks, hangers-on, and pork-barrel riders, proclaiming loudly:
...that it shall be no longer malum in se for a citizen to pummel, cowhide, kick, gouge, cut, wound, bruise, maim, burn, club, bastinado, flay, or even lynch a [government] jobholder, and that it shall be malum prohibitum only to the extent that the punishment exceeds the jobholder's deserts.
In the novel, a low-level diplomat pisses off the wrong person and is posted to the Texan planet in hopes that he'll be assassinated, as his predecessor was. The plan is that when he's been offed by the locals, the Powers That Be can use it as an excuse to invade and conquer. Apparently, none of those Powers had ever met a Texan, and...well, much of a comparatively zany nature ensues. It's still in print, by the way, both dead-tree and electronical. Budzilla sez get into it.
Piper left us at age 60, hardly his dotage. Had his personal life not been in the mess it was; had his agent's files been as they should have been when he died; had communication between John Campbell and Piper not been interrupted by said agent's demise...well, I'm speculating again, and I'm not sure to what end. Would he have continued to write as he always had, sinking deeper and deeper into a libertarian morass and becoming more and more disputatious, as other writers have? Or would he have embraced what Aldiss calls "the revolution of style," and developed a less Campbellian approach to his stories? Moot, certainly.
At the end, what's left is a body of work which, although small, is nonetheless of a high quality. Say what you will about his politics, or his identity as an Astounding/Analog writer, his stories are as well-written as anyone's, and better than most. Writing of Piper in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute says:
[Piper] was at his best when he applied an ASF [ Astounding Science Fiction]-derived firmness of setting and plausibility of characterization to emotionally arousing adventure plots in which political agendas existed only as subtexts...it is probably wrong to think of HBP as a mouthpiece for [Campbell]: he was, (in the end tragically) his own man.
Brian Aldiss would seem to agree with this, his other comments notwithstanding:
His was a literature of high organization and obscure knowledge; an auto-didact, Piper believed in the reconciliation of problems by logic, common sense or compromise — and, in the last resort, by justifiable force.
If you're not already familiar with him, H. (Henry or Horace — nobody seems to know even that for certain) Beam Piper is an author well worth seeking out, nor would you have to look far. Much of his work is in print in one format or another, and his biographer, John F. Carr, maintains an extensive website for Piper fans and scholars at http://www.hostigos.com. If you enjoy alternate worlds sf, or a lighter style of libertarianism than can usually be found, I urge you to look into Piper further. He, like all those I write about in these phosphoric pages, deserves your close attention.
(The following bibliography is almost certainly incomplete, and is offered here more as a guide than a definitive listing. There are other, far more up-to-date and inclusive bibliographies out there to be found; this one will get you started, though.)
"Time and Time Again" — Astounding Apr 1947
"He Walked Around the Horses" — Astounding Apr 1948
"Police Operation" — Astounding Jul 1948
"The Mercenaries" — Astounding Mar 1950
"Last Enemy" — Astounding Aug 1950
"Flight from Tomorrow" — Future Sep/Oct 1950
"Operation R.S.V.P." — Amazing Jan 1951
"Dearest" — Weird Tales Mar 1951
"Temple Trouble" — Astounding Apr 1951
"Day of the Moron" — Astounding Sep 1951
"Genesis" — Future Sep 1951
"Ullr Uprising" — in The Petrified Planet, ed. Theodore Pratt, Twayne 1952; Space SF Feb-Mar 1953 (abridged)
"Null-ABC" (with John J. McGuire) — Astounding Feb-Mar 1953
"The Return" (with John J. McGuire) — Astounding Jan 1954
"Time Crime" — Astounding Feb 1955
"Omnilingual" — Astounding Feb 1957
"Lone Star Planet" (with John J. McGuire) — Future Mar 1957
"The Edge of the Knife" — Amazing May 1957
"The Keeper" — Venture Jul 1957
"Graveyard of Dreams" — Galaxy Feb 1958
"Ministry of Disturbance" — Astounding Dec 1958
"Hunter Patrol" (with John J. McGuire) — Amazing May 1959
"Crossroads of Destiny" — Fantastic Universe Jul 1959
"The Answer" — Fantastic Universe Dec 1959
"Oomphel in the Sky" — Analog Nov 1960
"Naudsonce" — Analog Jan 1962
"A Slave Is a Slave" — Analog Apr 1962
"Gunpowder God" — Analog Nov 1964
"Down Styphon!" — Analog Nov 1965
"Space Viking" — Analog Nov 1962 - Feb 1963
Murder in the Gunroom — Knopf 1953
Crisis in 2140 (with John J. McGuire) — Ace 1957 (double, with Gunner Cade)
A Planet for Texans (with John J. McGuire) — Ace 1958 (double, with Star Born)
Four Day Planet — Putnam 1961, Ace 1979 (with Lone Star Planet)
Little Fuzzy — Avon 1962, Ace 1981
Junkyard Planet — Putnam 1963
Space Viking — Ace 1963, Garland 1975, Ace 1981
The Cosmic Computer — Ace 1964 (retitling of Junkyard Planet)
The Other Human Race — Avon 1964
Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen — Ace 1965, Garland 1975, Ace 1981
Fuzzy Sapiens — Ace 1976
Lone Star Planet — Ace 1979 (retitling of A Planet For Texans, with Four Day Planet)
The Fuzzy Papers — SFBC 1977, Ace 1981
Federation — Ace 1981
When in the Course — Ace 1981
Empire — Ace 1981
Paratime — Ace 1981
First Cycle (with Michael Kurland) — Ace 1982
The Worlds of H. Beam Piper — Ace 1983
Uller Uprising — Ace 1983
Fuzzies and Other People — Ace 1984
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