You may remember that I was recently sent a Big Box of Books. I was elated to discover John F. Carr’s 2008 H. Beam Piper: A Biography in the box. I had been wanting to read the book ever since I discovered it existed. It was inevitable that at some point I would review this book. Even if nobody paid me to do so! I am just that dedicated!
Anyone who (as I did) discovered Piper thanks to the late 1970s reprints learned certain facts about Piper from book introductions, magazine and review articles, and (eventually) online discussions about Piper. We learned that he had killed himself believing his career was over, unaware the check was literally in the mail. We learned that he had been a detective for a train company and that he had been victimized by a selfish ex-wife. We read speculations that the H in his name stood for Horace…
Piper did kill himself, but (as Carr discovered) a surprising amount of what is supposedly known about Piper is flat-out untrue. Not entirely because people got their facts wrong: Piper himself went out of his way to obfuscate the facts. In this short biography, Carr sets out to put the facts right, even when they do not reflect well on Piper.
(I wonder if Piper’s taste for improving his own past had anything to do with his friend and role model Henry Shoemaker, a journalist and folklorist with a propensity for making up legends out of whole cloth. Carr seems to think that Piper was unaware of that aspect of Shoemaker, but Piper’s pattern of personal confabulation seems related to Shoemaker’s particular form of creativity.)
My usual piecemeal approach to non-fiction seems inappropriate. Let me try something new.
I am certain there are people whose complicated lives demand a non-linear biography, but Piper isn’t one of them. Carr divides Piper’s life into three broad spans: Part I: The Early Years, Part II: The Writer and Part III: Off to Billtown. The first covers Piper’s life from birth to about to 1947, the second from 1947 to 1957, and the final section from 1957 to his death and beyond.
When I say that the Early Years covers 1904 to 1947, that’s a bit misleading; The book begins before Piper’s birth in 1904; Carr gives us a bit of family context. For various reasons (not least Piper’s habit of burning his own records and diaries), Carr doesn’t seem to have a wealth of information about what Piper was doing in this early period. Carr seems to have begun work on what became this book several decades ago, so he was at least able to interview those of Piper’s friends who survived, as well as their family members. He also had access to letters.
Carr paints a picture of a bright, proud man, who was denied a formal education by circumstances (familial and financial). Nevertheless, Piper was determined to be a writer. It took decades for the self-taught man to realize that dream. Carr also notes that in addition to great literary determination, Piper also gave early evidence of character defects (such as financial improvidence and recklessness) that would catch up with him in the mid-1960s.
In the second section, Carr follows Piper’s literary career as he began to sell to magazines like Astounding, both on his own and in collaboration with John McGuire. Piper never found this smooth sailing; writing was rarely effortless and selling the stories never was. Getting paid for them was even more of a challenge (as it was for many writers of this era; I am afraid Piper’s early agent Fred Pohl doesn’t come off well). To complicate all this, not only was the magazine field imploding in the 1950s, but Piper’s personal life was crumbling. He was downsized from his job (well, he resigned but he would have been let go in any case) and his mother, a constant fixture in his life, died.
The one positive note was that at fifty-one, Piper met, fell in love with, and married Betty Hirst. Unfortunately for Beam and Betty, a man who is a bachelor in his fifties is probably a bachelor for good reason. Although initially happy, the couple soon discovered that they had irreconcilable differences. Unable to adapt to a life where he would have to make concessions to someone else, Piper left his wife in Paris (where she wanted to live) and returned home to America.
The third section is a rolling disaster. Without the railroad job, Piper had to rely on his writing to support him. Living by the pen is always chancy; Piper was trying it in a period when old markets were collapsing and new ones had not yet risen. In addition, Piper’s trusted agent died suddenly and his new agent served Piper very badly indeed. Piper’s finances were generally shaky to awful in this period. When things got bad enough, rather than ask for help (although his friends would have helped had they only known how bad things were), he quietly shot himself.
Carr provides some interesting ancillary material: Piper’s story log, an essay on Piper’s Terro-Human History, an inventory of Piper’s weapons, Piper’s bibliography, chapter notes, a bibliography and an index (which is short but quite functional).
I first became aware of John F. Carr, author of this Piper biography, when I read his introductory essay to the H. Beam Piper collection Empire. Although Carr is a published SF writer, I am mainly familiar with his essays, his editorial efforts over in the JEPosphere, and his work in connection with Piper.
Introductory Piper trivia: Piper uses the term companionate marriage at one point (I’d cite the page but my book mark fell out). Huh. Not an author I’d associate with an awareness of other marriage forms.
Introductory lack of Piper trivia: there’s absolutely no evidence Piper was aware of Andre Norton to be found in the biography. I’d say “well, maybe Carr didn’t have room to go into that”—but Carr’s discussion of Piper’s belated study of Heinlein’s juveniles seems to suggest that while Piper was well-read, he wasn’t necessarily well-read in contemporary science fiction. Well, bother. I still think she was reading him. I will explain why in about two months.
Compare and contrast: this biography to Patterson’s wretched pair of books on Heinlein. I think in some ways Carr is well served by his discovery that all was not as it seemed, that Piper cheerfully improved various aspects of the truth when it served Piper to do so, and erased vast swathes of it as well. Carr clearly holds Piper and his work in very high regard, but he doesn’t let his regard convince him to produce a hagiography.
There are assertions in the book that appear to be incorrect, in particular the claim on page 32:
[A number of those hard drinkers later died of alcoholism. Randall Garrett and Bill Tuning come to mind […]
I don’t know about Tuning, but it was my impression Garrett, however hard a drinker he may have been, died after a long struggle with the effects of viral meningitis, a struggle that included hospitalization from 1981 to his death in 1987. In fact, I’ve read claims that Garrett spent the last eight years of his life in a coma (although everyone citing that is quoting a source I have not yet found and cannot verify).
I also raised an eyebrow from time to time over Carr’s interpretation of various events. He does not, for example, seem to be much of a fan of the New Wave, which would explain why he co-edited books with Jerry Pournelle and not, say, Michael Moorcock or Thomas Disch. As well, Carr places more importance on Analog magazine than seems justified by their circulation numbers. That could be an artifact of the long period over which this work appears to have been written.
While some elements of Piper’s writing are clearly based in his personal beliefs, in other cases the link between Piper the man and Piper the writer remain unclear to me. For example, a fellow who writes
violence is […] the foundation of civilization
could easily write something like Space Viking … but where other characteristics of his writing came from, I have no idea.
For instance, he clearly had a penchant for multiracial characters (as evidenced by character names seen in Uller Uprising and other books). Where did that come from? It was certainly not typical of the time.
Ditto the competent women in his fiction. How is it that he was comparatively free from sexism? Was there someone in his life that pointed him in that direction? Did he reason his way to that position? One might speculate that his competent women were modeled on his wife Betty (an interesting figure in her own right) but that’s not the case. He was writing such characters before his marriage. Judging by his comment to John McGuire’s daughter Terry (on a date I cannot pin down), he didn’t seem to share that era’s conviction that there were things girls by their nature just could not do.
People are weird and you cannot cram everything about them into 250-odd pages. Or know everything about them if the records have been destroyed and the witnesses have died.
When I began reading this biography I didn’t expect to see parallels between Piper and Robert E. Howard. Having read it, I wonder that such parallels did not occur to me earlier. Piper wasn’t anywhere near as dependent on his mother as Howard was (or this biography would have ended with a suicide in 1955, when Piper’s mother died). Still, knowing that he waited a month to break the news of his marriage to his mother made me sit back and go “huh.”
I finished reading with the impression that Piper’s inflexible character combined with his unfortunate professional circumstances doomed him. If the check had arrived in the mail, that would only have put off the end. If there had been a Little Fuzzy movie, he might have had a chance at financial security … but he probably would have just burned through that money buying good rum and expensive guns. If he had had a supportive family—if he could have made a happy life with Betty—if he had unbent to ask his friends for help—perhaps he would not have felt driven to suicide. But if he had been able to reach out to and adapt to others, he would not have been Piper.
H. Beam Piper: A Biography is available from McFarland.