Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Piper wrote over an eighteen year period with his first short story published in Astounding in 1947, and works written in his lifetime but still coming to light being published into 1984 with continuing reprints in this century. He was a self-educated man, the son of a minister, and at 18 he went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Hence he was already in his 40s when his first work appeared.

Piper is best known for his two series, the Terran-Human Future History, and the (shorter) "Paratime" alternate history tales. He also produced a one-off mystery, based on his own gun collection and his extensive knowledge of guns – Murder in the Gunroom, (available on the Abandoned Towers website. As a mystery enthusiast I can say that the work is solidly written, not brilliant, but very competent, and of considerable interest to anyone who is knowledgeable about guns.)

But it is his Terran-Human Future history that produced his best work. Books such as Four Day Planet/Lone Star Planet, Uller Uprising, Space Viking, and Cosmic Computer, along with the three ‘Fuzzy’ books that catch a reader. Most of his books are post-conflict, or inter-conflict in some way. In the first book of the duo, the conflict is civil, in the second it is political based on a potential star-wide conflict that may arise with another race. In Uller Uprising there’s potential about it. The entire book is Terrans hauled bodily into a war with the natives on a planet whose resources humanity has been utilizing.(this book was based loosely on the Sepoy Mutiny.)

Space Viking and Cosmic Computer are stories from periods when another star-systems war has swept through leaving ravaged planets in its wake and abandoning whole populations to manage as best they can. But it is the “Fuzzy” books that were the most popular of their time (the early 1960s). Little Fuzzy tells how Jack Holloway, a sunstone prospector on Zarathrustra discovers a small humanoid in his shower. He makes friends with the creature, names him Little Fuzzy, passes on his belief to a friend that the creature is sentient and then the excrement hits the rotary device.

Zarathrustra is owned by the Company – as an uninhabited class IV planet. But if Little Fuzzy is sentient, then the planet isn’t uninhabited, become class III and the Company will lose the lot. The physical, mental, and political shenanigans after that are vividly plausible. However the series fell on its face after the first two books, which are wonderful reads. Piper wrote a third ms which, while it was known to have existed, was lost for some twenty years. In the meantime William Tuning wrote an Ace sequel – Fuzzy Bones. This gave a plausible reason for the existence on the Fuzzies on Zarathrustra but did make something of an abrupt upward jump in their apparent maturity levels that didn’t show in Piper’s books.

Then the lost third book was found and published and the reader could see that Piper had always intended the Fuzzies to be basically an innocent childlike race that never would mature. Both books have their failings, Piper’s Fuzzies and Other People having the one of its time – that tended to think of all too many native races as “childlike and innocent”. While Tuning – Fuzzy Bones - was writing slightly against type in that he was taking Piper’s innocently childlike race and making them the degenerated remnants of something far greater. With all that however, I find that I prefer Tuning’s sequel.

In the Paratime series, most works are shorter or longer stories, but the one book, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen is brilliant. (Originally published in several lengths and formats as Gunpowder God.) Self-educated H. Beam Piper may have been, but he had a grasp on possible histories, both in our possible future, and in alternative histories, that is second to none.

Calvin Morrison is the son of a minister (an unpleasant-sounding man with quite a bit in the book about how unhappy Calvin was with him - perhaps a touch of the biographicals there) and is currently a member of the Pennsylvania police force. He is one of several policemen closing in on a vicious criminal when a Paratime transporter accidentally picks him up and drops him several time lines away.

He lands in the middle of a small country that is about to be attacked. He is offered shelter and a meal by a local family, they are attacked, Calvin ex-army, current cop, and armed, fights back, leads the family and others in a counter-attack, and is shot by mistake by Rylla, daughter of the local ruler. This book has a whole series of threads that will catch a reader. There’s the military stuff, knowledgeable and well-written, there’s the alternate history, very plausible, the Paratime overview – a nice adhesive for this and the other short works, and then there’s Calvin whom you simply like.

Like Tom Godwin, the first author listed in this series, most of H. Beam Piper’s work fell into public availability when copyrights were not renewed and Project Gutenberg has most available as free downloads.

About the author there are several conflicting accounts. He was a very private man, there still seems to be some confusion about his first name, I have seen it listed both as Horace and as Henry although I believe he is listed as Henry on his tombstone. There is also confusion about the date of his death – although none at all about how he died.

Somewhere around the weekend of November 6th (possible dates of his death range from the 6th to the 11th) 1964 he closed off all utilities in his Williamsport apartment in Pennsylvania, carefully draped painter’s drop-cloths over the walls and floor and committed suicide with a handgun from his collection. He left a suicide note that read, “I don’t like to leave messes when I go away, but if I could have cleaned up any of this mess, I wouldn’t be going away.”

Two major reasons have been given for his suicide, one is said to be that he believed his career as a writer was over – (his agent had died without informing Piper of a whole string of recent sales) and Piper, a man who loathed charity, was deep in debt. The other reason rumored was that he had recently endured a very bitter divorce, had a large life insurance held by the ex-wife he despised, and his blatant suicide invalidated that, leaving her penniless.

It is a great pity that Piper could not have held on a few months more. He would have learned of the sales made, would have several editors clamoring for new work, and perhaps fans would have had a chance to make it clear to him just how many of us out there liked what he was writing. I certainly did, I am missing only two of his genre books listed, and all those I have were purchased close to original time of publication.

And it is sometimes saddening to consider, he did very good work. What other books and stories would he have written in his series had he not killed himself? Of how much wonderful work did he deprive us readers when he succumbed to the lure of a loaded handgun?


(There is a sequel again to that, ( KALVAN KINGMAKER) but as I have never managed to obtain a copy I am unable to recommend it. However John Carr is a fine writer, so I’d expect it to be another good follow up to Lord Kalvan.)

by Lyn McConchie

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