Today I finished reading Four Day Planet by H. Beam Piper, which is the fourth of Piper’s novels that I’ve read. He was a pulp sci-fi writer who wrote prolifically for the magazines back in the 50’s and 60’s and I have to say he’s probably one of my favorite writers of the period, so much so that I wish I’d read him much earlier in my life.
There are a couple reasons I say this.
The first reason is because his stuff tends to be of a young adult vein, and is sincerely focussed on helping to really bring the wonders of the universe and its possibilites to the reader. Piper is great at bringing his settings to life, and really revels in detailed characters and settings. Four Day Planet, for example, is essentially a story about a whaling village set on a world that’s largely oceans with a single large port-city. The details he goes into are exquisite, and while many things now seem quaint (he was writing in an age before computers were a part of daily life) it all seems very logical and functional. Not only does he give you the life on Fenris in incredible detail, he makes you the reader a part of it, and makes it all alive and interesting.
I think if I’d read Piper back when I was a teenager, I would have developed a love for science fiction earlier than I did. To me, science fiction was TV Sci-Fi, and the stuff not on TV or in movies was boring. It was actually anime and manga that opened me up to other possibilities, and Piper would definitely have cured me of that idea, and made me read a lot more of the sf classics at an earlier age.
Another reason I wish I’d read Piper earlier was because I didn’t know how influential he was on the stuff I was reading and involved with! Back as a teenager I was really into Role Playing Games (the pen and paper kind) and while I ran and played some of the science fiction games like Traveller, Star Frontiers, Spacemaster, and Mekton I had no idea just how much of what was in them was right out of Piper’s works! Mekton (which was an anime-style giant robot game) was actually less anime than it was H. Beam Piper! Piper is mentioned as an influence in the rulesbook, but now that I’m reading his works I can really see how the whole setting in the book is really based on Piper’s Federation setting more than it is any anime world.
Now, not everything is rosy in Piper’s work, he does have his issues from my perspective.
1) Piper is a gun fetishist. Not a fanatic. A real fetishist- you get the feeling that if he didn’t have multiple weapons within reach he’d feel completely naked. He worked guns into everything, and did it with the loving detail some authors devote to swords, or cars, or whatever their hobby of choice is. So his stories tend to have a real space western feel to them because everyone is packing heat, and there’s always some shootouts. Not lasers, either, always ballistic firearms.
In fact, he even wrote a whole murder mystery novel called Murder in the Gunroom, which sounds like it should be about a killing aboard a ship, but refers to a gun collector’s room. The book, which I’ve read, is like a course in gun history and gunsmithing and gun collecting all rolled together and bound up by a murder mystery plot which actually isn’t interesting enough to hold the whole thing together. I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you like guns a lot, or you’re really curious.
2) Piper definitely has issues about women. (If you read the wiki entry I linked to above, you’ll quickly see they were major issues.) I wouldn’t say he seems to hate them in his work, it’s more like he ignores them. I’ll give an example from Four Day Planet, he gives us the names of pretty much every man we come across in the story, but when there’s a group of women at one point in the story he literally just told the reader they were the wives and girlfriends of the men and that was it. A lack of female characters seems to run through his work that I’ve read so far, which is neither good nor bad, but it can get a little odd sometimes when it seems like the whole worlds he builds are all composed of men. It may simply be that he’s a man of his time, and that I’m looking at it from a modern perspective (both of which are definitely true) but even Asimov and Heinlein had female protagonists.
Despite these two odd points, I really do have to say the quality of his work really outshines anything negative I could generally say about it. His science fiction books are just pure, well-written fun and I do wish I’d read them earlier. Four Day Planet is a good read, but his best I’ve read so far is Space Viking and I can’t recommend that one enough. It’s about a man seeking the killer of his wife in the ruins of a collapsed space federation. (Interesting note- the main bad guy’s ship is called the Enterprise, and the story has many Trek-like elements despite having being written before Trek aired!)
Piper’s works are almost all public domain now, and available at Project Gutenberg, so go check them out!
So, what authors do other people wish they’d read as Teenagers or discovered earlier in life?