“The Return”

Review: “The Return”, H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, 1954.

This is a joke story with a surprise ending. I’ll tread carefully not to reveal it, but I don’t think many readers now will find it surprising. I suspect not many readers of the January 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, where it first appeared, were either.

There are a lot of Piper stories that mention nuclear war breaking out, but this is the only one that comes close to depicting the consequences of such a war albeit 200 years later.

The year is about 2196 and two scientists, Jim Altamont and Monty Loudons, are flying in a helicopter over the wreckage of America after a nuclear war in 1996. Based out of Fort Ridgeway in what was Arizona, they are looking for viable communities that can be linked with radio sets they give them and that can benefit from an exchange of knowledge and experience. It was only in the last 25 years the fort, even with its technical library and trained personnel, were able to make “nuclear-electric engines” and go east of the Mississippi River. Altamont’s an expert on things. Loudons is an expert on people. The only way, incidentally, that Ridgeway has been viable over 200 years is that a large number of female technicians were there when war broke out.

The story opens with them near what used to be Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and they are there because of an old issue of Time magazine which, in 1993, talked about an underground crypt being constructed beneath the city’s Carnegie Library. The crypt contained microfilmed copies of many technical works, and it’s thought some might be books Fort Ridgeway doesn’t have.

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It’s a welcome return to another Vernon Lee work this week at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group.

Review: “Dionea”, Vernon Lee, 1890. 

The strange and sinister foundling child is a motif of weird fiction, myth, folklore, and fairy tales, and that’s what Lee gives us here. But, because it’s Lee, the story of that child is mixed in with all sorts of detail and description of the kind she presumably put in her many nonfiction works of art criticism and travel writing.

The story opens on June 29, 1873, and the place is Montemino Ligure in Italy. Our narrator is Doctor Alessandro De Rosis, and the story is told exclusively through his letters to an old frined, the Lady Evelyn Savelli, Princess of Sabina. 

It starts with him asking the Princess for money to take care of some poor people in the area, specifically a girl of four or five found strapped to a plank, presumably the survivor of the wreck of a Greek ship with distinctive eyes painted on its bows. 

The story proceeds casually over the years with the doctor detailing life in the area but increasingly referencing that girl.

Dionea is given to the local nuns for education. Her name comes from a scrap of parchment pinned to her original clothes. The latter seem to indicate her origins are in Cyprus or Crete. There is some dispute whether she should be christened. The consequences of possibly christening her twice are thought by some to be bad. Some of the locals definitely don’t think a girl in a convent should be named after a supposed derivation of the pagan goddess Dione, “one of the loves of Father Zeus, and mother of no less a lady than the goddess Venus.” However, a saint named Dionea is found, so she keeps her name. 

At age 11, Dionea is very pretty. But she’s not well-liked in the convent. She hates lessons, sewing, and washing dishes. She just likes to look upon the sea. She seems to have an affinity for myrtle and rose bushes. The ones she habitually lays near grow unusually large. One nun even claims Dionea makes weeds grow. Dionea also likes to play with pigeons who gather around her in large numbers. 

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Murder in the Gunroom

Review: Murder in the Gunroom, H. Beam Piper, 1953.

Piper begin writing at the age of 16 in 1920. At least as early as 1927, he was trying to sell gangster stories to the pulps, and, according to his friend and would-be biographer Mike Knerr, he wanted to be an historical novelist and mystery writer more than a science fiction writer. 

This novel was not a success. John F. Carr, in his Typewriter Killer, says

The book earned $750.00 (minus a 10% agent’s cut to Fred Pohl) for a total of $675.00 in Piper’s pocket! Using an inflation calculator, the $675.00 is the equivalent of $5,933.00 in 2014 dollars. There is no further mention of any royalties so it’s doubtful the book ever earned out its meager advance; although, the amount was typical of the time for a ‘new’ mystery author. In retrospect, even after sixty plus years of inflation, $750.00 was a piddling sum for a book involving years of labor and at least four different rewrites. 

Yet, in his resolutely unprofessional way, Piper worked on two sequels (Murder in the Conference Room and Murder Frozen Over) until December 1957. They would never be published nor would any of his other mysteries.

Knerr says of Piper’s lack of success selling his mystery novels: 

Beam’s mystery novels were as meticulously planned as anything he had ever written, but the publishers and the public were not much interested in them. Perhaps there was too much of the ‘Victorian’ in them at a time when readers wanted Mickey Spillane, Richard Prather or Fredrick Brown.

As is often noted in reference to this novel, it is mostly interesting to science fiction readers for one of the characters, Pierre’s, description of his work as a science fiction author. His remarks seem relevant to Piper and his Paratime series:

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Review: Null-ABC, H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, 1953.

It’s a world where department stores launch armed attacks on their competitors. Elections have gangs who beat up and occasionally kill the opposition. (And, if you don’t have your own gang, you can rent one.) Technology has stagnated. High school students assault their teachers regularly. And most of the population is illiterate.

Yes, there’s a Crisis in 2140. That was the better titled selected for the novel when it was republished as part of an Ace Double in 1957. It was originally serialized in the February and March 1953 issues of Astounding Science Fiction, and I suspect editor John W. Campbell gave it a title reminiscent of A. E. van Vogt’s Null-A series which ran in Astounding in the 1940s.

The work is part of a group of 1950s science fiction novels dealing with the theme of anti-intellectualism. They include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Fritz Leiber’s The Silver Eggheads (which I have not read). Like another such novel, James Gunn’s The Burning, it features a population that blames historical problems on intellectuals, and, in particular, has reacted against that basic intellectual tool: literacy.

There has always been, on the part of the Illiterate public, some resentment against organized Literacy. In part, it has been due to the high fees charged for Literate services, and to what seems, to many, to be monopolistic practices. But behind that is a general attitude of anti-intellectualism which is our heritage from the disastrous wars of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. Chester Pelton has made himself the spokesman of this attitude. In his view, it was men who could read and write who hatched the diabolical political ideologies and designed the frightful nuclear weapons of that period. In his mind, Literacy is equated with ‘Mein Kampf’ and ‘Das Kapital’, with the A-bomb and the H-bomb, with concentration camps and blasted cities.

Yes, in this society literacy is so rare – but still a necessary skill – that Literates have their own union, the Associated Fraternities of Literates. And men like Chester Pelton, owner of a department store, resent that their skills are needed. And he can do something about it. He’s a senator in the North American Confederacy.

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“The Waters of Death”

This week’s subject of future discussion at the Deep Ones group over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Waters of Death” aka “The Crab Spider”, Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian. 

This story strikes me as being from an era where speculations derived from science and exploration was common grist for rationalized weird menaces, a period I would say extended from 1880 to 1905.

It’s a chatty and discursive story because it is a tale told by one of the principals, the young boy (at the time of the story) Frantz. 

The year is 1801, and the place is Spinbronn, a place renowned in Germany for its mineral waters. The ill, especially those with gout, like to go there. But, in 1801, the spring rains are heavy, and, out of the cavern from which the mineral waters flow, they disgorged a human skeleton. That drives most of the crowd away. 

But the discharge continues with slime and rubbish and the bones of many different kinds of animals. The human skeleton is thought to be a girl who disappeared and was murdered a hundred years ago. The local doctor even issues a pamphlet stating the skeleton was so dry that it was probably centuries old. He even puts forth the theory that the bones date back to the biblical flood. 

One guest doesn’t go away, the gouty and overweight Englishman Sir Thomas Hawerburch, a commodore.

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Uller Uprising

Review: “Uller Uprising”, H. Beam Piper, 1952.

It’s a science fictional retelling of the Sepoy Rebellion.

Military science fiction is often said to start with Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Gordon R. Dickson’s The Genetic General aka Dorsai!. Even the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s entry on Military SF doesn’t mention this short novel by Piper, but I’d argue it should be considered as military science fiction.

Our hero is General Carlos von Schlichten, formerly of the Second Federation Army and now commander of the Uller Company’s troops on Uller. The company has a charter to administer the planet and its sentient aliens, the Uller.

But the story opens on another planet in the same system, Niflheim. It’s the planet the Uller Company is really interested in. It may have a poisonous atmosphere of fluorine, but it’s mineral rich. Ruling Uller was just a requirement of the charter from the Federation.

Mining is being done there using atomic explosives, a process of great interest to one of the Uller laborers there.

And then we go to Uller where things are not tranquil.

As with his model of India before 1857, Piper’s Uller is composed of many native principalities of various degrees of loyalty to the Uller Company and that often scheme against each other. The natives have many gripes. Human technology has disrupted trade patterns and native manufacturing. One Uller, the Prophet Rakeed, is preaching a straight-out anti-Company crusade and wants humans off the planet.

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The Spectre Bridegroom”

While the review series on H. Beam Piper continues, I’m still be doing the usual postings on weird fiction being discusssed over at LibraryThing each week.

Except this, despite the title, isn’t really a piece of weird fiction. Sometimes the nominations work out that way, and, since I’m the one who nominated this one for discussion, I have to take the blame.

Still, it’s worth a look on its own merits.

Review: “The Spectre Bridegroom”, Washington Irving, 1848.

This witty story seems to be Irving’s takeoff on the weird romantic tales of E. T. A. Hoffman.

The story is pretty simple.

It opens with a portrait of desolation: the abandoned castle of the Baron Von Landshort.

The baron doesn’t live there anymore. He’s a “dry branch of the great family of Katzenellenbogen”, and he lives in a far more affordable house in the valley. He has a lot of relatives who mooch off him at feast time and special occasions.

He has one daughter, very beautiful. In the first of many humorous asides, she’s even educated – at least enough to write her name without misspelling it. She is watched over by two aunts, “great flirts and coquettes in their younger days” but

vigilant guardians and strict censors of the conduct of their niece; for there is no duenna so rigidly prudent and inexorably decorous as a superannuated coquette.

We are told, apropos of what will happen later, that the Baron is a

marvellous and a firm believer in all those supernatural tales with which every mountain and valley in Germany abounds. The faith of his guests exceeded even his own: they listened to every tale of wonder with open eyes and mouth, and never failed to be astonished, even though repeated for the hundredth time.

A marriage is arranged for the daughter and the young Count Von Altenburg, and a wedding feast prepared for the future couple at the Baron’s home. It will be their first meeting.

Travelling with Altenburg to the wedding is his friend, a noted chivalric figure named Herman Von Starkenfaust. However, traveling through the forest of Odenwald, they are attacked by bandits, and the Count is mortally wounded.

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Review: “Genesis”, H. Beam Piper, 1951.

This gripping tale of survival and technological devolution appeared in the September 1951 issue of Future

The story opens on a starship with 1,000 colonists. Their leader is Colonel Kalvar Dard, and their voyage from Doorsha to Tareesh is almost done. 

Dard is in the cargo hold with six women helping him to inventory stowed construction materials. The expedition also has small arms, artillery, explosives, prefabricated dwellings, non-steel drill bits, and fissionable materials for its colonization effort.

There was tall blonde Olva, the electromagnetician; pert little Varnis, the machinist’s helper; Kyna, the surgeon’s-aide; dark-haired Analea; Dorita, the accountant; plump little Eldra, the armament technician. 

Tareesh has a melting ice cap at its North Pole. The whole planet has more water than Doorsha, and they plan to land on the border of the grass and forest lands of Tareesh’s northern hemisphere. Dard reminds them the plants of this region will be different than what they are used to.

Varnis hopes some of the local fauna are furred. She likes furs and hopes the Colonel will “shoot something with a nice soft fur”. Dard tells her that, with her “carbine and pistol scores”, she can shoot her own fur.

Just then another crewmember breaks in with very bad news. The meteor detectors went out and, about half an hour ago, the hull was struck. The Colonel is mad that the Air Force’s crew is incompetent. Indeed, the officer who tells him about the accident isn’t even supposed to mention to him. Kard tells him that, unlike the Air Force, his colonists won’t panic.

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“Day of the Moron”

After “Dearest”, Piper published “Temple Trouble” which I reviewed as part of Paratime.

If the recent Piper stories I’ve reviewed don’t seem like anything particularly special, I’d agree with you. While I’m covering Piper’s work chronologically, I’ve reviewed some of his better work in my reviews of not only Paratime but also Federation and Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. By this point in his career, though, he had only written stories showing up in Paratime.

But this is the first story of the current review series on Piper to that is interesting on its own merits.

Review: “Day of the Moron”, H. Beam Piper, 1951.

This story didn’t beat the most famous 1950s science fiction work with “moron” in the title: C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl’s “The Marching Morons”. That story saw print in the April 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Piper’s story appeared in the September 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. However, Piper sent his story off to editor John W. Campbell in 1947. Why Campbell didn’t buy it right away is interesting, and we’ll be getting to that.

While Kornbluth’s and Pohl’s story had a eugenics theme, Piper was just aghast at what he saw as a general drop in intelligence. Piper scholar John F. Carr says:

To Piper the average working man was a creature of minimal competence at best, a prejudice I expected he picked up on the job while working with the laborers at the Pennsylvania Railroad. 

The science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s is full of massive, centralized technological projects, and this is one. Here it’s the Long Island Nuclear Reaction Plant which is getting a replacement of its manual control system with a “fully cybernetic” one.

I said in my review of Federation that the stories are from a time when you “you could engineer a culture the way you engineered a bridge”, and there is some of that here.

He is Scott Melroy, an engineer. He owns the company installing that cybernetic control system. And, as we’ll see, he knows something about social engineering too.

There were still, in 1968, a few people who were afraid of the nuclear power plant. Oldsters, in whom the term ‘atomic energy’ produced semantic reactions associated with Hiroshima. Those who saw, in the towering steam-column above it, a tempting target for enemy— which still meant Soviet— bombers and guided missiles. Some of the Central Intelligence and F.B.I. people, who realized how futile even the most elaborate security measures were against a resourceful and suicidally determined saboteur. And a minority of engineers and nuclear physicists who remained unpersuaded that accidental blowups at nuclear-reaction plants were impossible.

Melroy is in the last category. He already knows that there have been several “near-catastrophes” at the plant. The retro-fitting job has been going on three months, and work on the reactors is just starting. Melroy schedules a meeting with a psychologist, Dr. von Heydenreich. He’s surprised when a Dr. Doris Rives shows up instead. She is, of course, quite an attractive woman.

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Review: “Dearest”, H. Beam Piper, 1951.

Piper scholar John F. Carr, in Typewriter Killer, says that this is one of Piper’s strangest stories. It’s his one and only fantasy work and its publication in the March 1951 issue of Weird Tales marks his only contribution to that magazine. 

Carr says

For a life-long atheist, he wrote a number of stories about life after death and reincarnation. I suspect Piper longed for some greater purpose to life, than material existence and survival, but never found a religion or belief system that he could believe in. Or one that would measure up to his rigorous intellect. 

The story centers around Colonel Ashley Hampton at his Wyoming Ranch of Greyrock.

Hampton’s career reminds us of what a professional army officer would have experienced during a certain part of American history. He fought in the last part of the Indian Wars, in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, battled guerillas in the Philippine Insurrection, commanded a regiment in World War One, a

Home Guard company of 4-Fs and boys and paunchy middle-agers through the Second World War.

Hampton is wealthy, and the story opens with him 78 years old and gathered with five of his enemies at Greyrock. They are his nephew Stephen Hampton and his wife Myrna. For them, he feels “implacable hatred”. The rest of the party are merely their tools. There’s T. Barnum Powell, “an honest man, as lawyers went; painfully ethical.” There’s a psychiatrist, Doctor Alexis Vehmer with a “Viennese accent as phony as a Soviet-controlled election”. And there’s Vehmer’s goon, an unnamed “attendant and bodyguard”. 

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