EMPIRE by H. Beam Piper

TITLE: EMPIRE
AUTHOR: H. Beam Piper
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Collection
FORMAT: Paperback
PUBLISHER: Ace Books, New York, 1981 (ISBN: 0-441-20557-7-250)

CONTENTS:

  • Terro-Human Future History Chronology
  • Introduction, by John F. Carr
  • The Edge of the Knife
  • A Slave is a Slave
  • Ministry of Disturbance
  • The Return (with John J. McGuire)
  • The Keeper

Last time out, I featured FEDERATION, the first of two collections gathering together the short fiction of H. Beam Piper’s classic Terro-Human Future History cycle. This time it’s the turn of EMPIRE, the second collection of stories set in that future history.

The book starts with an excellent three-page chronology of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History, put together from dates, events and other data spread over all of Piper’s short fiction and novels. This is followed by yet another fascinating and detailed ten-page Introduction by Piper scholar John F. Carr, which gives a lot of useful additional details on the future history as related in the five stories in this collection.

The five stories in the FEDERATION collection are from the earlier phase of Piper’s Future History, whereas the five stories in EMPIRE cover the later stages of that Future History, with the exception of The Edge of the Knife, which is unique in that it is set in the more contemporary timeframe of the early 1970s, pre-dating the formation of the Federation, and thus placing the story effectively outside of the future history itself.

I haven’t read this collection for years, but I have fond memories of The Keeper, Ministry of Disturbance, and The Edge of the Knife, although I remember very little about either A Slave is a Slave or The Return (which are lined up for a much-needed re-read in the not-too-distant future). If they turn out to be even half as good as the other stories, that will be the cream on top of the cake, as far as I’m concerned.

The Keeper, in particular, is very moody and atmospheric, and is one of my favourite Piper stories, in my opinion bettered by only Omnilingual (I’ve always found it funny that my two favourite stories in Piper’s Future History chronology are, by their positions in that future history, the very first, Omnilingual, and the very last, The Keeper). The Keeper allows us the only available brief and tantalizing glimpses into the mysterious far future of the Fifth Empire, and is also the only known story written by Piper which is set beyond the end of the First Empire. The rest of the existing Terro-Human Future History Chronology doesn’t go beyond the First Empire, which makes The Keeper seem strange and out of place compared to the other stories, until we accept that it is the only surviving proof that Piper intended to write other stories extending his future history far into the distant future.

Aside from the few snippets of background information contained in The Keeper, we know absolutely nothing about Piper’s plans for developing the details of these distant far-future eras of his chronology. According to Jerry Pournelle, who had a lot of contact with Piper back in the day, he had certainly planned something much bigger. Pournelle has always asserted that he had seen Piper’s folders full of extensive notes and details of a much longer and more complex future history chronology. Tragically, those notes were lost after Piper’s suicide, and all that we’re left with is a big bunch of “maybes” and “what-might-have-beens”, only too aware that the future history material which (fortunately) still exists in print, as good as it is, gives us only a tiny portion of the greatness that might have been.

As it stands, EMPIRE is a very strong collection, and already contains at least three of my favourite Piper stories, plus the excellent chronology and introduction. And as such, it’s definitely well worth adding to any aspiring SF reader’s bookshelf.

Reading Science Fiction

Reading Science Fiction literature has always been one of my main interests in life, and I’ve been reading “proper” science fiction since I first signed out H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine from the local library at the tender age of about eight or nine years old (circa 1969-1970).

I usually prefer older (classic) SF, pre-“New Wave”, with a particular fondness for the vintage SF of the “Golden Age” and the SF “Pulps”. Any list of my favourites classic SF authors would contain some very familiar and famous names:

H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, Robert A. Heinlein, John W. Campbell Jr, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Henry Kuttner, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, Frederik Pohl, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Philip K. Dick, Poul Anderson, Brian W. Aldiss, Harry Harrison, H. Beam Piper, Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys… and many, many others (I’d be here all night listing them).

Although I’m mainly a reader of older SF, there are a few types of modern SF that I do like to read, in particular New Space Opera, Hard SF, and good old Classic Space Opera, which never seems to go out of fashion, no matter how hard the literary wannabes among the SF writing and reading fraternity have tried to kill it off over the years. Some of the modern SF authors that I’m a huge fan of would include:

Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Greg Bear, Greg Egan, Linda Nagata, Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, Wil McCarthy, Peter Watts, Ian R. MacLeod, Paul J. McAuley, Iain MacDonald and a few others.

Although I do still like the occasional good SF novel by my favourite old and modern authors, the volume of novels that I read has declined sharply over the years. I used to read a lot more novels when I was younger, particularly during my teens (the 1970s), but that started to drop off sharply from about 1978 onwards, as the increasingly intensive study commitments during my A-Levels and university years totally wiped out most of my previously plentiful free reading time.

Once I finished university (1983, at the age of twenty-two), started work, discovered a social life (I didn’t even know what a social life WAS back in my teens, no going out, no drinking, no women – it’s really no wonder that I’d had so much reading time), and with the many trials and tribulations of adult life kicking in, any free time that I may have had left for reading disappeared as quickly as Roadrunner with Wile E. Coyote on his tail. So the number of novels that I read declined sharply during those years, and has never recovered to its former levels, even now, thirty years later.

I also loved reading short story collections and anthologies back in my teens. At that time, it was pretty much 50-50 between novels and short fiction, but as the number of novels that I read declined sharply during the late-1970s and early-1980s, the balance swung sharply towards short fiction, which began to take up more and more of what reading time I did have remaining. I’ve always considered short fiction to be the bedrock of the science fiction genre anyway, and, if you add to that the fact that it’s simply much easier to fit the occasional short story into a hectic lifestyle, particularly in these days of monstrously bloated and padded novels, nine times out of ten, you’ll find me reading a good anthology or author collection, rather than a novel.

I do NOT like (and never have liked) reading a novel piecemeal, a few chapters at a time, and prefer to do it all in one go. But that pretty much became impossible once the size of the average SF novel went above four hundred pages or so. I can usually manage about 300-350 pages max before I want to call it a day. That was okay with most classic SF novels, which usually came in at about 250-300 pages, and which I can read in one sitting. I can’t do that with these bloated modern bricks. I have to read a few chapters at a time, but I often find it very hard to go back and just pick up where I left off. My train of thought and enjoyment of the story has been broken, and before I start on new chapters of the novel I almost always have to go back and do a recap, and re-read the earlier chapters again (certainly if it’s been days, maybe weeks even, since I’d read the previous chapters), because I’ve forgotten details of the story.

I do still sometimes long for the days when a good SF novel was a mere 250-300 pages, and I could finish it in one sitting. If that were still the case, I’d probably have gotten back into reading SF novels, and I’d be reading a lot more of them today. But I find myself looking at these eight hundred page bricks and thinking “Nah, can’t be bothered”. It’s simply too much time and effort to put into reading a single story, when I can read twenty short stories in a similar-sized anthology much more easily. With a short story collection or anthology, I can read one story at a time, one over lunch, another when I visit the bathroom, another before I go to bed. I can leave the book down for days, weeks even, and start on a completely new story when I lift it up again, without missing out on anything, or having to go back and recap.

While I may be much more a fan of short fiction these days, the real truth is that reading short fiction has become habitual for me over the past thirty years, whereas I seem to have lost the knack (and the patience) for reading novels. I’ve become much more accustomed to reading short fiction in recent decades, and while I can still tackle the much shorter, older classic SF novels easily enough, reading one of those overly-padded modern monsters is a real effort, and one that I’m rarely willing to make, unless it’s one of my favourite modern authors (someone like Alastair Reynolds or one of the others mentioned above).

Maybe I can re-train myself to read these big novels. And maybe this blog can help me focus, get back into the groove, and give me a reason to start into reading novels on a regular basis. Fingers crossed.

FEDERATION by H. Beam Piper

TITLE: FEDERATION
AUTHOR: H. Beam Piper
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Collection
PUBLISHER: Ace Books, New York, 1981, ISBN: 0-441-23189-6-295
FORMAT: Paperback, 284 pages

CONTENTS:

  • Preface, by Jerry Pournelle
  • Introduction, by John F. Carr
  • Omnilingual
  • Naudsonce
  • Oomphel in the Sky
  • Graveyard of Dreams
  • When in the Course-

The book starts with a brief Preface by Jerry Pournelle, a short but fitting tribute to H. Beam Piper and his writing. This is followed by a lengthy twenty-page Introduction by John F. Carr, which is a much more detailed and even more fascinating essay on the life and writings of Piper.

The five stories themselves are from Piper’s acclaimed TerroHuman Future History cycle, one of the most complex and detailed future histories in science fiction literature. This collection, Federation, is made up of stories from the earlier stages of that Future History, and a later collection, Empire, completes the stories from the later part of the cycle.

There are certainly some very good stories in this collection, but the stand-out for me is definitely Omnilingual, which I first read a long time ago, way back in my teens. Along with He Walked Around the Horses (which isn’t in this collection, and isn’t part of the Future History), this has always been one of my favourite pieces of SF short fiction, and I’ve always regarded both Omnilingual and He Walked Around the Horses as Piper’s two best short stories, although his other stories are also of an extremely high calibre.

As far as I’m concerned, the collection is worth buying just for Omnilingual alone. But the other four stories are nothing to turn your nose up at either. This is H. Beam Piper we’re talking about here, and he simply did not write bad SF stories.

A very good collection.

A Couple of Classic Alternate History Stories

I‘ve recently come upon an unusual (but nice) little paperback anthology of alternate history stories, OTHER EARTHS edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake. I’ll talk more about that one at a later date.

Strangely enough (well, maybe not so much for me), finding this anthology started me on a major alternate history trip, sending me off on an expedition to dig out of the vaults some of the best examples of classic AH in my admittedly large collection of SF books. I’ve just finished re-reading two of my favourite classic alternate histories, and these two stories are a perfect example of just how good AH can be.

The first is the magnificent novelette, He Walked Around the Horses, written by one of my favourite-ever SF authors, H. Beam Piper. The story was first published in the April 1948 edition of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, but I first read it back in 1982-1983, in the anthology THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Kingsley Amis, which is also where I’ve just finished re-reading it. It is set during the Napoleonic War, when a British ambassador to her European allies takes a step sideways into an alternate reality where Napoleon never made it big, there is no war, and the political and military alliances in Europe are quite different from those in “our” world. This world’s alternate version of the protagonist leads a different life altogether, and, understandably, the authorities in this alternate reality consider “our” protagonist to be some crazy guy, so he’s locked up.

The second story is the excellent novella The Summer Isles, written by one of the best SF authors in the UK, Iain R. MacLeod. I first read this little gem back in the October/November 1998 edition of ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, and I’ve just re-read it in MacLeod’s excellent short story collection, BREATHMOSS AND OTHER EXHALATIONS (2004). This is a sensitive tale of a forbidden homosexual relationship, set against a background of fear, paranoia and deadly political skullduggery. It takes place in an alternate 1930s Britain, in a reality in which the Allies lost in World War I, and the Germans were obviously victorious. In this reality, it is, ironically, Britain which has become the repressed fascist dictatorship, and not Germany.

Both stories are exquisitely written, and examples of the best of the genre. They’re the sort of story you can show to even mainstream literary snobs without fear of them ridiculing you, and they are also the type of story that the pretentious “mainstream literary wannabies” within SF itself can’t even begin to criticize. I don’t believe in any of the elitist bullshit that these people hold to – a good story is a good story, irrespective of genre. And keep in mind that SF isn’t merely a “genre”, it’s a “state of mind”, a meta-genre, encompassing many other sub-genres. Alternate histories represent one of the many “respectable” faces of SF, a sub-genre with (in the vast majority of cases) no spaceships, laser guns or BEMs, just mankind and the “human condition”, and a lot of history, mixed with a big dollop of “What If?” that really gets the speculation flowing. And one of the main fundamental pillars of SF has always been “What If?”

In my “mundane”/non-SF persona, I’m an historian. I’ve always been fascinated by history, its mechanics, and its possibilities, its futures. And I’ve also always loved SF. So mixing the two in the shape of alternate histories was always going to be a winner in my book. The two stories above are among my favourites, but there are so many other great alternate histories out there that I can’t even begin to list them all. Go track them down, take your pick of a few of the recommended ones, and read some of the best stories that SF has to offer.

It’s a Geek’s Life… (Part Two)

The Golden Years – Geek Nirvana During the Seventies

The start of our teenage years is the sweet spot for the vast majority of us, particularly geeks, the beginning of what is probably the most fondly remembered period of our lives.

It’s long enough ago that most of our memories are fond, rosy ones, but it’s also the first time in our lives from which we retain reasonably accurate and continuous recollections of events (unlike our earlier childhood – most memories from our first decade are pretty vague and fragmented). And it is also during these years that many of us have the most fun and freedom to do what we want (after we finish our homework, of course), before adulthood arrives and the bland banalities, responsibilities and worries of “grown-up” life start to descend upon us.

I mentioned in my previous posting that my childhood was a far from happy one. Things got even worse when I was eleven years old, when my parents separated, leaving my father to raise five kids on his own. He was forced to leave his job, and our descent into poverty became even more severe. To top it all off, my father’s health began to decline sharply after my mother left, and, as the “oldest”, I was shoehorned into the role of “surrogate mother” from this very tender age, taking over the extremely heavy responsibilities of not only looking after my father, but also the other four kids, one of whom was also very severely disabled.

To be blunt, I was a very unhappy young boy as a teenager, one who sought refuge in a world of make-believe. Any kind of an escape from this dreary and depressing reality was a welcome one, and I immersed myself in an alternate world of comics, sci-fi worlds on television, in films, and in great SF literature. I also became very preoccupied with drawing and writing.

To refer to these interests as mere “hobbies” would be a complete understatement. They were obsessions, a vital lifeline for me, and I depended on them utterly to keep me sane, when everything around me was so gloomy and depressing. Since childhood, and throughout my entire life, these “obsessions” have been entrenched as fundamental pillars of my personality and way of thinking, and I simply cannot imagine my life without them.

I may already have been a proto-geek from a much earlier period in my life, but the beginning of my teens marks the time from which I can seriously start referring to myself as a true, hardcore geek. Things may not have been rosy on the domestic and personal front, but my hobbies and obsessions certainly first started to kick into overdrive in a very big way at this age, almost certainly to compensate for my miserable “Real Life”. I was also now growing old enough to be much more sophisticated, systematic and discerning when it came to what I was “into”. And what I was into, and I mean REALLY into, was the Holy Trinity of SF literature, Sci-Fi on television and in films, and Comics.

All through the 1970’s, up until around 1977-78, was a “Golden Age” for me, from a geek perspective anyway, the completely opposing mirror image of my crappy “real life”. All during my teens there was a steady procession of classic sci-fi TV shows and films on local television, and although I had my favourites – Doctor Who, Star Trek, UFO, The Time Tunnel – I loved them all to a lesser or greater extent.

By this stage of my life I was also a totally obsessive reader of both comics (particularly the Marvel UK reprint comics) and SF literature. I’d started off initially in my pre-teens with Wells and Verne, then moving onto Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, and anything else that I could read. By my early teens, the whole world of SF literature was my oyster. I was discovering great new (to me, anyway) authors like H. Beam Piper, Cordwainer Smith, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl, John W. Campbell, Alfred Bester, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Clark Ashton Smith and many, many others.

By my mid-teens, I was neck-deep in my alternate geek world, spending every available second on my hobbies. I just couldn’t get enough of the whole Sci-Fi/Comics/SF Literature thing, and it seemed like the good days would never end.

But I was wrong.

To Be Continued…

It’s a Geek’s Life… (Part Two)

The Golden Years – Geek Nirvana During the Seventies

The start of our teenage years is the sweet spot for the vast majority of us, particularly geeks, the beginning of what is probably the most fondly remembered period of our lives.

It’s long enough ago that most of our memories are fond, rosy ones, but it’s also the first time in our lives from which we retain reasonably accurate and continuous recollections of events (unlike our earlier childhood – most memories from our first decade are pretty vague and fragmented). And it is also during these years that many of us have the most fun and freedom to do what we want (after we finish our homework, of course), before adulthood arrives and the bland banalities, responsibilities and worries of “grown-up” life start to descend upon us.

I mentioned in my previous posting that my childhood was a far from happy one. Things got even worse when I was eleven years old, when my parents separated, leaving my father to raise five kids on his own. He was forced to leave his job, and our descent into poverty became even more severe. To top it all off, my father’s health began to decline sharply after my mother left, and, as the “oldest”, I was shoehorned into the role of “surrogate mother” from this very tender age, taking over the extremely heavy responsibilities of not only looking after my father, but also the other four kids, one of whom was also very severely disabled.

To be blunt, I was a very unhappy young boy as a teenager, one who sought refuge in a world of make-believe. Any kind of an escape from this dreary and depressing reality was a welcome one, and I immersed myself in an alternate world of comics, sci-fi worlds on television, in films, and in great SF literature. I also became very preoccupied with drawing and writing.

To refer to these interests as mere “hobbies” would be a complete understatement. They were obsessions, a vital lifeline for me, and I depended on them utterly to keep me sane, when everything around me was so gloomy and depressing. Since childhood, and throughout my entire life, these “obsessions” have been entrenched as fundamental pillars of my personality and way of thinking, and I simply cannot imagine my life without them.

I may already have been a proto-geek from a much earlier period in my life, but the beginning of my teens marks the time from which I can seriously start referring to myself as a true, hardcore geek. Things may not have been rosy on the domestic and personal front, but my hobbies and obsessions certainly first started to kick into overdrive in a very big way at this age, almost certainly to compensate for my miserable “Real Life”. I was also now growing old enough to be much more sophisticated, systematic and discerning when it came to what I was “into”. And what I was into, and I mean REALLY into, was the Holy Trinity of SF literature, Sci-Fi on television and in films, and Comics.

All through the 1970’s, up until around 1977-78, was a “Golden Age” for me, from a geek perspective anyway, the completely opposing mirror image of my crappy “real life”. All during my teens there was a steady procession of classic sci-fi TV shows and films on local television, and although I had my favourites – Doctor Who, Star Trek, UFO, The Time Tunnel – I loved them all to a lesser or greater extent.

By this stage of my life I was also a totally obsessive reader of both comics (particularly the Marvel UK reprint comics) and SF literature. I’d started off initially in my pre-teens with Wells and Verne, then moving onto Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, and anything else that I could read. By my early teens, the whole world of SF literature was my oyster. I was discovering great new (to me, anyway) authors like H. Beam Piper, Cordwainer Smith, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl, John W. Campbell, Alfred Bester, Henry Huttner, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Clark Ashton Smith and many, many others.

By my mid-teens, I was neck-deep in my alternate geek world, spending every available second on my hobbies. I just couldn’t get enough of the whole Sci-Fi/Comics/SF Literature thing, and it seemed like the good days would never end.

But I was wrong.

To Be Continued…