No one really knows what H. Beam Piper’s “H.” stands for: he signed a book to his cousin as “Henry,” and that is what his gravestone reads, but other sources list his name as Horace or Herbert. But isn’t “Beam” a great name for a science fiction writer?
Born in 1904, Piper worked at the rail yards in Altoona, PA. Turning the usual stereotype about writers on its ear, his day job was writer, as for many years his regular employment was as a night watchman.
He didn’t make his first sale until 1946 and was known as a writer of short stories for another decade, with one novel, Uller Uprising, in the mix. Between 1957 and 1964, though, he turned out nine novels, as well as the classic short story “Omnilingual,” which has been repeatedly reprinted since. He wrote seven novels and stories enough for two collections (Federation and Empire) in his Terro-Human future history series.
Piper was a self-taught student of history, and it shows in a number of his works. Uller Uprising, for instance, is a science fiction update of the Sepoy Rebellion (India, 1857), and Space Viking explicitly takes the Norsemen out of their longboats and puts them into starships, and into the middle of a traditional space opera that is practically Wagnerian. It has to be noted, though, that his thinking also reflects the day that he was raised in: in many of his books he sees only humans, born to rule, and lesser races.
His Paratime stories, in which a human species from a parallel universe more advanced than ours finds the secret of moving between all the parallel universes, also draws on his historical knowledge: Paratime operators routinely go to universes less advanced than their own, many of the universes representing periods of our own history. The best known, Lord Kalvin of Otherwhen, takes a 20th century policeman and moves him back to cope in a world of 1600’s technology, politics, and military science, all the time watched by the more advanced humans from the “home” timeline.
Along with history, he was fascinated by the field of semantics, the study of meaning. Semantic issues underlie “Omnilingual,” in which Terran scientists attempt to decipher a dead alien language (and succeed when they find a basic text on chemistry), and one of his best books, Little Fuzzy, in which the Terrans must decide whether an alien species resembling Teddy Bears is sapient.
Piper was also an avid gun collector, and around November 6th, 1964, in what most people assume to be a deep depression about his career and broken marriage, used one of his pistols on himself. He was not found until several days later, and so his exact date of death is as unknown as his first name. But Piper’s work has continued on, guarded and authorized by his biographer, John F. Carr, who has continued the Lord Kalvin story line through five more novels (with a sixth planned for 2016) and authorized books in the Terro-Human future history series. Harry Turtledove’s YA series starting with Gunpowder Empire is also an homage to the Paratime stories, and John Scalzi has “rebooted” Little Fuzzy, telling the old story in a new way. Piper’s Lone Star Planet, in which government office holders are fair targets for well-armed constituents with a beef about their performance, retroactively won a Prometheus award for best libertarian novel in 1999.
Many of Piper’s works are available for free download at Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org
- Space Viking
Collaborations with other authors.