Since his name recently came up in some of the discussions about the ongoing “pulp revolution”, I thought I’d pull a couple of items on H. Beam Piper out of the archives.
Raw Feed (2002): Paratime, ed. John F. Carr, 1981.
“Introduction”, John F. Carr — A long and detailed introduction to Piper and his Paratime series. Carr gives a very brief summary of Piper’s life, but he mostly details how Piper’s belief in volitional reincarnation (essentially, being sentient between physical incarnations and being able to choose your next body) and interest in the theory of time put forth by one J. W. Dunne were combined for his Paratime series. Dunne’s theories held that a person’s “supermind” existed outside and apart from a person’s entire life. He also postulated a “supertime” which measured the rate other “times” pass, an infinite number of them. The supermind exists at all points in a person’s life. It exists outside the life. It’s rather (Carr doesn’t note this) like Boethius’ notion of God existing outside of time thereby explaining how he knows the future without causing it. Dunne’s supermind becomes detached, when we are unconscious, from our “ego”. This explains recovered memories and precognitive visions. Piper seemingly combined these notions to conceive of a vast series of parallel worlds where people’s superminds can hop from line to line. Piper’s interest and knowledge of history came into play in conceiving this series in which alternate histories are the central feature. He created a classification system for his multitude of worlds. The most interesting part of his alternate histories is that their basic grouping is based on how successful the Martian attempt to colonize Earth was 75,000 to 100,000 years ago. In some worlds, it succeeds entirely. In others the colony regresses, and the people of Earth forget their origin (our world belongs in this category) and in others the Martians all die out, and quasi-humans evolve a civilization on Earth. Carr also presents pretty conclusive proof that attempts to link the Paratime series (which also includes Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen) with Piper’s Terrohuman Future History series are misguided. [See my review of Piper’s Federation.]
“He Walked Around the Horses” — This story was the motivation for reading this collection since it was inspired by an incident mentioned in a Charles Fort book: the disappearance of Benjamin Bathurst, British envoy to the Austrian Empire, in November 1809 as he walked around some coach horses to inspect them. Disappointingly, Piper simply snatches Bathurst up and transplants him to an alternate Europe of 1809 without rationalizing the mechanism by which this is done. Still, Piper presents an interesting alternate Europe without Napoleon (though there is a Napoleon Bonaparte, he’s just a “brilliant military theoretician” who is loyal to the French crown). The deviation seems to start with Benedict Arnold’s death at the Battle of Quebec in January 1776. He is not there to help win the Battle of Saratoga (thus Piper reminds us that Arnold contributed greatly to the cause he later betrayed), and the Revolution fails (George Washington dies at the Battle of Doylestown though no year is given). The European consequences are that, lacking the inspiration of an American Republic, the French Revolution does not take place, and Napoleon does not become a would-be conqueror. The epistolary story ends on a humorous note as the British officials in this world are puzzled by the documents Bathurst carries from our world. In particular, Sir Arthur Wellesley is puzzled by continual references to the Duke of Wellington. Jerry Pournelle, Piper’s friend, says that Piper claimed this story was based on a past-life experience of his.
“Police Operation” — Even more than Piper’s “He Walked Around the Horses”, this story was inspired by Charles Fort since it opens with a quote from Fort’s Lo!. The quote deals with the notion of an “occult police force” which covers up the work of occult mischief makers so Earth can be exploited systematically by other occult forces. Here the character of Verkan Vall, assistant to the Chief of Paratime Police, is introduced as he cleans up the traces left by a Venusian nighthound accidentally loosed upon the Pennsylvania of our world. He eventually arranges evidence, after killing the beast, so that the slaughter of several farm animals will be blamed on a bobcat thus the legend of the Phantom Killer becomes, at story’s end, another flying saucer type story to be disbelieved. This is a well told action story. Piper actually gives a better and shorter description of Paratime than John F. Carr does in his introduction to the collection. The weather and geographical configuration of Earth remain the same across timelines, but cultures change. They are divided into five levels depending on what happened to the attempt by Martians’ attempt, 75,000 to 100,000 years ago, to colonize Earth. Each level is divided into sectors which represent common cultures and characteristics. Sectors are divided into sub-sectors which, in turn, are divided into belts which represent various alternate possibilities of history. (This is all related in a quite obvious infodump of exposition when a rocket pilot baldly tells Vall he doesn’t understand Paratime.) Each person’s “extraphysical ego” exists outside their personal time line (and all time lines exists simultaneously) and, in moments of unconsciousness, accesses past memories and future memories — precognition. Acting on pre-cognition shifts a person to another time line thereby avoiding the time paradoxes inherent in the extraphysical ego’s knowledge changing the future it knows. Time travel from future to past is not possible along one timeline. The Paratime Police exist to preserve the secret of paratime travel which enables the First Level civilization to exploit other levels. Vall’s boss, the Chief of the Paratime Police, also has a brief aside when, in a discussion about how sometimes physical objects are caught up in the “Ghaldron-Hesthor field-generator” that enables travel between, relates how a man was caught up in the device in one of his journeys and died while trying to escape his captors in the new time line. Given the description and timing of the event, it’s clear that this is an allusion to the reason behind Benjamin Bathurst’s disappearance in “He Walked Around the Horses”.
“Last Enemy” — This story reminded me, in its speculative topic, of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. Both stories start out assuming the existence of a rather paranormal topic (teleportation in the Bester novel, reincarnation here) and depict how societies would be affected. Here, Piper presents a society where reincarnation has been proven to be a fact, and its reality is in the very marrow of its inhabitants. They talk not of killing or murdering someone but of “discarnating” them. They also have public suicide parties. The dispute lies between the Statisticalists and Volitionists. Each have different notions of the state of consciousness of a soul between reincarnations, the availability of past memories, and how a particular soul comes to inhabit a particular body. Volitionists believe that a soul retains sentience between incarnations and can choose its next body. Statisticalists believe the soul is in a dreamlike slumber between bodies and lands in a body at random. Each side has a particular political agenda. The Statisticalists are egalitarian leftists, socialists who think that society should be made as equal as possible so a person is penalized at each reincarnation. For reasons not entirely clear, the Volitionists practice a laissez-faire attitude (presumably, though Piper never makes this entirely clear, they think personal traits of worth will result in a person choosing a good reincarnation). Definite scientific proof of the Volitionists stand is found in this Second Level world (the Second Level worlds are, in some ways, more technologically advanced than the First Level world of the Paratime Police), and their society begins to unravel. Not only is Piper personally on the side of the Volitionists in regard to their view of reincarnation, but the makes his sympathies quite clear for free markets and limited government. The Chief of the Paratime Police even has a humorous, though confused remark, when he says that the Holy Inquisition is still operating on the Fourth Level (which includes our world), but calling itself the NKVD now. Laws and mores about criminal responsibility and inheritance are being challenged in light of the new findings. The plot itself involves rescuing the scientist (and ex-wife of protagonist Verkan Vall) who discovered the truth of the Volitionists’ stance. The Society of Assassins was interesting in its abhorrence of violence by non-members and politically motivated violence. However, the story was marred by a couple of things. As with his “Police Operation”, Piper is not good at differentiating and handling a large number of characters at once. Frequently (though this could be because I read the story in a less than conducive environment), I got confused as to who was doing what, and this merged with Piper’s other flaw — the surprisingly confusing handling of action scenes.
“Time Crime” — This was, as John F. Carr’s introductory blurb notes, a pretty straightforward police procedural involving the Paratime Police uncovering a slave ring operated by First Level citizens of the highest note. Piper did a good job showing how such an investigation might work given the fact of travel across multiple time tracks — my favorite technique for localizing the exact time track (since the history and geography of adjacent time tracks are very similar) was hagiography, the study of subtle differences between religions on different time tracks. Piper once again gives us one of those 1950s scientifically managed society (this from an author who seems to have been something of a libertarian). It’s just possible this novel inspired the idea of personality demolition in Alfred Bester’s 1956 The Demolished Man (The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction lists a 1955 date for Piper’s story) since a similar process is faced by liberal politician Salgath Trod when he surrenders himself to the Paratime Police. People escaping screening for antisocial and psychological abnormalities is an important part of this plot.
“Temple Trouble” — This was an action story (which did not share my complaint of confusing action in other Piper stories in this collection) built around a simple premise — the rescue of some First Level citizens from the clutches of a nasty, human-sacrificing (by flaying alive) religion on the Fourth Level. The story is mostly interesting because it shows that, unlike other temporal police forces in sf, the Paratime police really have no sort of code against influencing history (because the travel is across time tracks, not back and forth in time on one time track) or manipulating the locals. As long as the secret of Paratime travel is preserved, the one inflexible rule with implications of making sure no anachronistic artifacts full in the hands of the natives of the various time tracks, Paratimers are allowed to wow the locals with bogus religions and miracles. Indeed, in this story, the Paratime employees of a mining company run a local rabbit-sacrificing religion which provides the political control necessary to mine radioactives. Other activities investigated by the Paratime Police are the “flagrantly immoral” activities of slave trading and narcotics traffic across time lines and the practice of piracy and brigandage. Verkan Vall wonders, at story’s end, if the divine right of kings was originally initiated for the convenience of kings or priests. It’s interesting to note that it is also mentioned, in this mid-20th century story, that most of the recent wars on the Fourth Level Europo-American sector (our world and similar time tracks) have been partially motivated by the desire to control oil fields. Of course, this story also expresses the typical ‘50s thought that nuclear energy would eventually replace most petroleum use.