the Little Red Reviewer

A little bit about H. Beam Piper

Posted on: January 5, 2012

Yesterday’s post was so lighthearted and nice, that I almost don’t want to offer much biographical information about H. Beam Piper. I don’t want to wreck the magic.

The easy is that he lived in and around Pennsylvania most of his life. Born in 1904 and largely self educated, he sold his first story in 1947.  He mostly wrote stories of cultural misunderstanding (such as the Fuzzy books, First Cycle and Paratime), and Space Opera, (such as Space Viking and Federation), eventually publishing 16 novels and over 20 short stories.

The not so easy is that he simply didn’t have an easy time with life. While most struggling writers took any day job they could find to pay the bills, Piper wanted to write, and that’s all.  Not overly social, he mostly saw himself as a failure.  In 1964, on the brink of starvation and facing dire financial problems, he took his own life.

Even sadder than that is that Piper didn’t live to see how influential his works would be. Charles Stross’s Family Trade series is an obvious homage to Paratime, while Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries series pays tribute to Lord Kalvan, and Elizabeth Bear’s Undertow was inspired by Little Fuzzy, to name just a few.

With most of his works available in the public domain on Project Gutenberg, H. Beam Piper is a science fiction author who shouldn’t be forgotten. He may not have been as social as other writers of his time, but there is much value to be found in his writings.

Have you read any H. Beam Piper? What did you think of him?

My other half, the seasoned Piper fan in the family, has this to say about First Cycle, one of his favorite Piper novels:

First Cycle is about the development of two alien civilizations on planets that orbit each other. Their close orbits have a huge impact on their development, and the story follows them from primitive life to just discovering space travel. One civilization is heavily religious, socialist, hierarchical, and leaning towards slightly dishonest, where the other civilization is very atheistic with no concept of god or any kind of supreme being, self sufficient, intensely honest, and with more a capitalist system.

Both groups know there is another culture on the orbiting planet, and they are eventually able to get in touch with one another. One group develops rockets and shuttles and is able to land on the other planet. At first their communication goes OK, but they have so many differences, socially, so a lot problems come up. There is almost no ability for them to work together in any meaningful way. Suspicions arise between both groups, and they both develop nuclear weapons and wipe each other out.

Many people see First Cycle as a cold war Americans vs the Russians story. But these people aren’t Americans or Soviets. There are a few similar concepts, but very little beyond that. These are two races that have nothing to do with humanity. The most poignant thing is that neither race finds any solution other than nuclear war. Both groups, as good as they see themselves, couldn’t come up with anything better than killing the other group.

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7 Responses to "A little bit about H. Beam Piper"

I’ve already downloaded 5 from Project Gutenberg :) Thanks for the recommendations!

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Just knowing a little bit about the influences on writers of the time, I think many science fiction stories had Cold War themes in them and this one sounds like, among other things, would have been a story that would have examined those themes while making the characters alien so as to be able to tell a good story and not be too “preachy”. That is one of the things I think is so vital about SFF is that you can examine actual issues that effect society or may effect society while still telling a good story. You can make people think about things without it being a bashing them over the head situation. Having grown up at the end of the Cold War and remembering childhood fears of nuclear war, if I would have read First Cycle then I know without a doubt that is what it would have got me pondering. And since the threat of nuclear war is not as dead as we would all like it to be, this is just one more example of a classic work of SF that still has relevance today, a point I argue with those who want to say there is no worth in reading these older works, that they are dated and quaint and sub par.

I’m sorry to read that about Piper. It is always sad to hear of artists of any kind who either are unjustly ignored during their lifetimes or are haunted by their own demons and aren’t able to see their impact or both. It is the kind of thing that makes me want to read their work though and promote them now, despite the fact that it makes no difference in their lives. It is also the reason I feel a bit sad and guilty when yet another SFF author passes away, for any reason, and I haven’t read their work.

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That might be my favorite thing about SciFi – an oblique look at social issues. it gives the reader no choice but to critically think about what’s going on in the world. Classism, racism, cultural issues, speculative fiction is a safe environment to explore all of this, and hopefully, not get too preachy! Other than the amusing sexism and some funny notions about computers, I find very little that’s dated in these older works.

If Piper had been able to wait even a few months longer, he would have gotten news that another one of his works was to be published. :(

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I like that about science fiction and fantasy as well because the really skilled writers can give you a good story too, allowing you to just enjoy it for what it is or dig a little deeper in your thought processes.

For the most part the dated stuff about technology, and the free love ideas don’t bother me if the story is a good one. Of course as a male I don’t have the gender issues to deal with, as so many of the older stories have a very dated idea about women and their role in society. It is always fun to find those works that actually have a more progressive idea about women.

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Oh, how interesting. I will have to check out his books on Gutenberg. Thanks!

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I’ll have to add him to my list. It is a shame that he didn’t live to see how influential he became. I recently read the Awakening by Kate Chopin and she died before her novel was appreciated. So sad not to know the impact one makes on the world.

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Funny coincidence – I read Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (it’s part of a collection called The Complete Paratime; I haven’t read the other Paratime stories yet) a day or two before you made this post!

I really liked Lord Kalvan. Part of this is the premise — as a military history nerd, I’m the target market — but most of it is the execution. Despite Janissaries having pretty much the exact same building blocks as Lord Kalvan, right down to the tough warrior princess, I liked Piper’s writing at the micro level sooo much better than Pournelle’s. Piper’s characterisation and wry prose — check out the scene where Kalvan describes modern Earth’s deities to the here-and-now clergy! — made me actually care about the characters, whereas Pournelle, for me, was _strictly_ an intellectual “alternate military history” exercise.

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