Null-ABC

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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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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“Genesis”

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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“Dearest”

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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“Operation R.S.V.P”

Review: “Operation R.S.V.P”, H. Beam Piper, 1951.

The shadow of a future nuclear war hangs over 1950s science fiction. Piper’s stories frequently mention it. Often, it occurs, but this is a rare story, tongue in cheek, that shows a way it might be avoided.

Piper scholar John F. Carr, in his Typewriter Killer, quotes a March 22, 1963 letter from Piper to his friend Jerry Pournelle:

You know it must have been lovely, living in an era when the Clausewitzian ‘extension of politics by other means’ was accomplished by nothing more lethal or expensive, especially expensive, than black powder…Well, see you in Washington over the Labor Day week-end, if there still is a Washington then.

One suspects for Piper, who had known a world before atomic bombs, their invention was particularly irksome.

This story was first published in the January 1951 issue of Amazing Stories. It’s an epistolary story and not part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History. 

It opens on Jan. 15, 1984 with a letter from Vladimir N. Dzhoubinsky, Foreign Minister of the Union of East European Soviet Republics (the UEESR) and addressed to Wu Fung Tung of the United Peoples’ Republic of East Asia (the UPREA). In diplomatic language, it reminds Tung that the Union’s newest missile has a range more than sufficient to reach Peking. Tung might want to consider that in current negotiations over the Khakum River. 

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“Flight from Tomorrow”

Between “The Mercenaries” and this story, Piper published another Paratime story, “Last Enemy”.

Review: “Flight from Tomorrow”, H. Beam Piper, 1950.

Piper scholar John F. Carr call this a minor story, and he’s right from the central premise right down to it not being published in top tier Astounding Stories but the September/October 1950 issue of Future Stories. It is notable for the introduction of Piper’s A.E. dating system. That’s Atomic Era with the year zero being 1942, the year of the first controlled atomic fission event in human history. Piper would use the system in his later Terro-Human Future History. This story, though, is not part of that series.

The story opens at the end of a revolt. The rule of Hradzka, tyrant lord over our solar system, is on its last legs. The imperial palace is under attack. Hradzka can’t get to his secret spaceship and escape to still loyal colonies on Mars and in the Asteroid Belt.

Army Commander Zarvas Pol leads a group to find Hradzka in the palace. He and others fear that Hradzka will get to his time machine. 

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“The Mercenaries”

In between “Time and Time Again” and this story, Piper had two other works published: “He Walked Around the Horses” and “Police Operation”, both part of his Paratime series.

Review: “The Mercenaries”, H. Beam Piper, 1950.

First published in the March 1950 issue of Astounding Stories, this is not part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History. 

Its central idea is intriguing. It’s 1965, and the world is divided into four power blocs: “the Western Union, the Ibero-American Confederation, the Fourth Komintern and the Islamic Caliphate.” 

Piper sold this story in 1949, so it was not influenced by a real-world echo of its central concern: treasonous scientists. In 1950, several arrests were made in connection with Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project – and there were many other agents not detected or arrested. The focus of this story is the disloyalty and treason of scientists working on sensitive projects of national security, and Piper anticipates the idea that some scientists will see themselves above the national loyalties they inherit. 

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“Time and Time Again

With the list of titles waiting to be reviewed getting longer, I decided, awhile back, to take a break and read some gaming related fiction I wasn’t going to review.

I read the Arkham Horror novel The Sign of Glaaki. I’ve never played Arkham Horror. I’ve never played Traveller either, but I did run a few games for it back, decades ago, in the Classic Traveller era. So, I read Agent of the Imperium from Traveller’s creator, Marc Miller, and I read Shannon Appelcline’s The Science Fiction in Traveller: A Reader’s Guide to Traveller Role-Playing Fiction.

One of the major sources of fictional inspirations for the game was H. Beam Piper. I’ve already reviewed some of Piper’s works, and this marks the start of a series to review the rest. I’ll be looking at them in order of publication and with some material drawn from two books by Piper scholar John F. Carr: H. Beam Piper: A Biography and Typewriter Killer. I’ll also be reviewing them too.

Review: “Time and Time Again”, H. Beam Piper, 1947.

This was Piper’s first published fiction and appeared in the April 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and Piper would become a favorite author of its editor John W. Campbell.

While this was Piper’s first published fiction, he had brief articles published in his friend’s Don Coleman’s free advertising circular, one of the first in America: the Williamsport Shopper’s Guide. He had written A Catalogue of Henry Wharton Shoemaker Weapons at Restless Oaks in McElhatten Pennsylvania in 1927. Shoemaker was a friend, and Piper dedicated his novel Murder in the Gunroom to Shoemaker. But Piper had also been writing fiction – science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries – for 20 years.

The story opens in 1975 during World War III and (as we learn later) the siege of Buffalo, New York. Our hero, Captain Allan Hartley of the US Army, is pulled out of the rubble from a nuclear blast ten miles away. He is wounded and not expected to live, but he is shot up with a narcotic.

When he wakes up, he finds he has regressed to the age of 13 and is back in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. (Williamsport was a town Piper was fond of, had friends in, and eventually moved to). It is Sunday, August 5, 1945 – the day before the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Yet, Hartley remembers his future life as a best-selling author and chemist with lucrative patents. He is convinced his memories of that life are no mere dream. 

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“The New Rays”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is a tale of weird science, alienation, and medical humilation.

Review: “The New Rays”, M. John Harrison, 1982.

London seems to be our setting with the offices of Dr. Alexandre in Camden Town. The time? Well, that’s not so simple to establish. Since we hear of wounded soldiers about in the streets, maybe it’s the First World War. Maybe the Second. It could be either since there is really no mention of automobiles, only of trains.

And it’s a train that our narrator takes from the Midlands with her husband or, perhaps, just a lover, designated only as W.B. 

She is ill. With what, we don’t immediately know. It was her idea to visit Alexandre at his clinic on Agar Grove Street. The treatments are free, but she initially balks at knocking on its door though it was her idea to come. W.B is, not for the last time, impatient.

From the beginning, Dr. Alexandre seems a weird, unsettling character. The narrator, at the clinic, meets a “beautiful crippled girl” whom Alexandra claims he can cure, but the narrator doubts it. She’s Alexandre’s interpreter. The doctor emphasizes that the narrator can’t bother the other patients and that her treatment depends on her full confidence in it. 

Washing his hands of her, W.B. leaves the narrator to stay at a hotel, and he returns home leaving the first of many notes indicating his and the narrator’s estrangement. It urges her to “have some thought for other people”. People calling the narrator selfish is a recurring motif in the story. 

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