- Contains 5 stories by H. Beam Piper, a foreword by Jerry Pournelle and an introduction by John F. Carr
- Part of the Terro-Human Future History
- Published by Ace
- First published in 1981
- Social SF
- 284 pages
In the wake of atomic warfare, humanity expands to the stars. But as worlds are settled, and new life encountered, will humanity repeat the mistakes of the past, or forge a bright new path . . ?
It’s not every day I come across an H. Beam Piper book I haven’t read before. Not because I’ve read a lot of his work (in fact, this is only the sixth book in my Piper library), but because they’re very hard to come by. Piper never saw great literary appeal during his life, and was largely forgotten after his untimely death. And that is just in the United States. Here in the UK, his books had a very limited print run. Ace versions of Gunpowder God and Space Viking are the only definite-UK copies of his work I own. Given how much of his work is now in the public domain, and how active his estate is in promoting said work, I’m surprised he hasn’t seen any modern reprints. Popping into a small London bookshop (Any Amount of Books) during a recent trip, I was overjoyed to find this collection of short stories. And even more delighted to find that it was set in the same continuity of stories as Space Viking.
‘Omnilingual’ is a very strong short story, and the only one I recognised by name upon seeing the contents page. It’s markedly less violent than Piper’s longer works, focusing on issues of translation between humanity and a dead Martian civilisation. There’s a great archaeological thrill to the story, and with all the best fiction of the age, the solution comes from the celebration of science, rather than the shooting of villains.
‘Naudsonce’ and ‘Oomphel from the Sky’ are a thematically linked set of stories that sit at the heart of this collection. Each one depicts humans as invasive settlers on an alien world. Worlds that are already inhabited. Especially considering the period, Piper’s take on colonialism is surprisingly nuanced. Yes, humanity has a tendency to come out on top (possibly John Campbell’s influence at work), but there’s a serious consideration of the moral and ethical consequences of that victory. Piper’s clear and deep interest in politics balances cynicism and optimism rather well, and neither champions nor condemns any one way of life.
‘Graveyard of Dreams’ and ‘When in the Course’ are the weaker of the stories in the book, but both serve to show how the Federation changes and grows over time. The stories in the collection skip across centuries and generations, and have a few connections to the longer novels in the continuity. I expect this is one of those collections that is better the more familiar you are with those longer works, but even having read only a few, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Also included in this collection are two essays by Jerry Pournelle and John F. Carr. the former is a typical celebration of the author, but one that has sufficiently interested me in trying Pournelle’s work at some point in the future. Carr’s essay is much more in depth. As the custodian of Piper’s legacy, Carr clearly has a stake in the matter as he praises Piper’s writing and sensibilities. Nevertheless, his examination of the Future History and how each story fits into it makes for an interesting read, as do his introductions to each story in the collection, which provide historical context both in-universe, and in reality.
All things considered, this is a great slab of storytelling from an author I wish had written more extensively. If you can find a copy, I thoroughly recommend buying it.
Deeper Dive: Publishing a Draft
H. Beam Piper died in 1964, but Federation did not see print until 1981. Of course, it gathers together stories that were published during Piper’s lifetime. The exception is ‘When in the Course,’ which was written by Piper years before his death, but ultimately did not see print until this collection was published. Much of it would go on to become Gunpowder God, leaving the short version itself more of a first draft than a finished story.
I have mixed feelings on the posthumous publishing of drafts. On the one hand, it is a great insight into the writing process. Particularly for a collection of this nature, this is a worthwhile inclusion. It shows how Piper turned rejected ideas and half-formed stories into full novels. However, the version contained here is a first draft. it is a story that was rejected by publishers for a reason. Perhaps Piper himself deemed it unworthy of publicity. Maybe it is better for a story so weak to remain buried in the mines of history.
Ultimately, I think it is good that these rougher versions persist. But I also think it is better viewed as a historical curiosity, than it is read as a story in its own right.
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