Five Sci-Fi Short Stories
by H. Beam Piper
Published by Librivox
Read by Mark Nelson
By now, regular readers know that I am a great fan of H. Beam Piper. While I do like his stories, I have always been more partial to novels over short stories. However these stories are ones I have read several times, because while I do prefer longer stories, sometimes all one has time for is a vignette.
The Answer takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth in which two scientist-survivors from the USA and the Soviet Union are now working together as partners in port-war Argentina. This is a classic Piper situation. He frequently conjectured that an atomic war between the US and Russia would devastate the Northern Hemisphere, but leave the Southern Hemisphere inhabitable. Even centuries later in his Terro-Human future history most mentions of places on Earth are south of the Equator.
The two scientists are working on a new weapon involving anti-matter-matter annihilation. The war had been hard on both of them and it is implied that it has taken years before they could talk to each other about it. Both sides had claimed they did not fire the first shot that started the war and in the name of a budding friendship, the two men had not argued the point. Now, however, the results of their experiments are looking amazingly like that first “bomb” that began the mutual act of destruction.
Once that is realized the story comes right to the point and ends, which is good for a short story. I like denouement as well as the next reader, but not in a short story. A short tells of a single thing (incident, emotion, etc.) and then stops. I am far too long-winded in my story-telling technique, although there are times I think I ought to practice this sort of word economy if only as an exercise in proper writing.
Temple Trouble is one of Piper’s “Paratime Series” and stars our favorite “Paracop,” Verkan Vall as he goes to the rescue of a paratemporal mining company who on a somewhat backwards version of Earth has set itself up as a religion. Now, however a competing religion has started up and they are in deep trouble. Crusades and other forms of persecution are in the offing and while such para-businessmen are generally on their own, when their employees are kidnapped and set to be tortured to death, it is reasonable they call for help. When Vall arrives he finds it obvious than another paratemporal company is behind the competing religion and they are breaking the rules.
I found myself marveling at cultural differences between the time Piper wrote the story and now. Businesses posing as priests of a religion seem underhanded and manipulative to me, but it’s just typical colonial procedure in Paratime, so I had to put my sensitivities aside, although I did wonder why this company had to mine their Uranium on an inhabited Earth. As Piper set it up, there are untold timelines in which there are no people. Why couldn’t the mining company have taken on one of them instead. Had this been a trading concern buying and selling commodities only available on a certain timeline, I could understand it, but the act of infiltrating and taking over a religion on an inhabited line seems immoral, time-consuming and uneconomical to me, especially when there are better alternatives.
Flight from Tomorrow is interesting in that it is not only a somewhat dated story, but also turns out to be impossible given what we know about radiation and its effects on living creatures. This was not clear at the time Piper wrote the story, however. In it, a deposed, but power-mad dictator comes back in a time machine from one hundred centuries in our future, intent on taking over the world here, building an army and then going back to his home time to conquer the known universe… and all history. It’s an interesting notion by itself, but entirely unworkable as a plan, but then this guy did not impress me as being entirely level-headed to begin with. The problem is that wherever he goes animals plants and people soon sicken and begin to die.
Spoiler alert: skip ahead to the next story description if you do not want to know the twist ending: It turns out the future is another of Piper’s post-apocalyptic Earths in which everything is radioactive, even the people, animals and plants. He postulated that evolution would come to our rescue and eventually life would evolve that was immune to the effects of radiation. It might have been nice, but it turns out that would not happen. No person could be so highly radioactive and still live no matter how hard evolution might try to change that (yes, okay, evolution is a mindless factor and does not try to do anything, but certainly those with some resistance to radiation would be naturally selected to survive, if they could).
In the end, the people of the past disposed of the highly radioactive man (now dead by gunshot) by burying him at the bottom of the deep valley and filling the valley up with concrete which in the future is thought to be an old spaceport. It is a monumental image typical of Piper, though I think it would have been cheaper to just dig a deep well and bury him in that or find a disused mine and cause it to collapse.
I reviewed Police Operation by itself a while back (click here for that), although it was by a different reader so this was definitely worth listening to again. This is another of Piper’s Paratime stories and, like Temple Trouble it features Verkan Vall, the noble paracop on the beat, so to speak.
Finally, Graveyard of Dreams is a story that Piper later expanded into the novel The Cosmic Computer (originally titled Junkyard Planet), albeit with a slightly different cast of characters and a very different ending. In this one, young Conn Maxwell is newly returned from Earth where he was sent to university. While on Earth, his mission had been to find out where a massive super-computer was hidden following the end of the “System State War,” which took place a generation earlier. In this story it is simply referred to as “the brain,” but in the novel it had the name “Merlin” and was reputed to have been instrumental in General Fox Travis’ amazing victories back during that war. As it happens, Conn had learned (from a rather ancient Travis) that the brain never actually existed, it had just been one of those rumors the troops told each other and it was never denied because it was good for morale. Now back on his home planet he must break the bad news to the men who had funded his trip to and education on Earth in the hope of finding the brain. However, when the time came, he was unable to do so, but instead had an idea of how to use the search for the brain as a means by which his impoverished home world could regain its one-time prosperity.
The five are a mixed bag, but entertaining none the less and if you prefer short stories to novels, you might want to consider these.
Mark Nelson is indisputably one of the best readers in the Librivox stable and he sounds as though he is having a lot of fun with this anthology of Piper short stories. Mister Nelson, I should mention is a professional reader who also records, using the name Harry Shaw and has recorded for Audible and other audiobook publishers. The professional experience and equipment comes through in his readings.
I have frequently pointed out that most Librivox readers read rather than perform the books they record. I find that refreshing. So many professional readers go over the top in their performances, but Mark Nelson’s recordings are an excellent blend of reading and performance. He does act out the dialogue portions, but does not overdo it, a trap so many of his professional colleagues fall into.
Summing it up, we have here a quintet of classic SF tales from the 1940’s and 50’s. Some are dated, either by historic events not going as speculated or by the advancement of scientific knowledge, but are still darned entertaining and Mark Nelson’s reading keeps them as alive and vital as they always were.