Znidd suddabit!

Uller Uprising — H. Beam Piper
Federation, book 1


1952’s Uller Uprising may be one of H. Beam Piper’s minor works but it’s not without its points of interest. It is a relic of a fascinating failed experiment in science fiction publishing; it is the first novel where he played with the basic ideas of his Terro-Human Future History; and it is almost certainly his most problematic work, even counting Space Viking.

Quite unlike the Chartered Zarathustra Company in Little Fuzzy, the Chartered Uller Company AKA the Company knew from the start that Uller, the habitable world of Beta Hydri [1], had natives. In fact, their business plan for Uller depended on it. Borrowing from the East India Company’s playbook, the Company has been slowly taking control of Uller, one principality at a time. The Company also uses Ulleran (or “geek”, as the Company charmingly puts it) recruits on Niflheim, the distant and incredibly hostile world orbiting Nu Puppis.

The Company men on Uller assert firmly that the Company’s efforts on Uller have raised the general standard of living. The various classes who have had their livelihood disrupted by the Company’s vaunted improvements disagree. Some Ullerans also fear that the Company may ultimately intend to terraform Uller, completely displacing the natives. (Humans cannot eat the local food, and growing it locally requires transforming the soil in ways hostile to Ulleran life.)

Discontent might have rumbled along for decades before exploding into open rebellion. Unfortunately for the humans on Uller, the Company overplayed its hand when it decided to use Ullerans on Niflheim. Niflheim is an uninhabitable fluorine-drenched hell world; there, the Company feels free to use flamboyantly destructive mining techniques. Uller’s Prince Gorkrink observes these mining techniques and realizes that they just might have military uses….

General Carlos von Schlichten, commander-in-chief of the Company’s forces on Uller, has an inkling Something Is, as they say, Up with the canaille (local princelings, cult leaders, and rabble-rousers) but he and his compatriots don’t connect the dots quickly enough. Lacking radios of their own, the rebels rather ingeniously arrange for the Company itself to trigger the rebellion. The rebels poison Uller’s Governor General and it is the news of his death, flashing across the planet, that is the signal for a general uprising.

The only native forces who prove unquestionably loyal to the Company are the Kragan Rifles. Most of the others turn on their human masters. The main factor that keeps the humans of the Company from being overwhelmed and exterminated in the first few hours is the fact that most of the native troops, with the Kragans again being a notable exception, are a poorly trained, poorly disciplined rabble better suited to committing atrocities against civilians than to fighting crack military units.

Determined to keep Uller safe for the Chartered Uller Company [2], von Schlichten and his forces settle down into a brutal struggle, with Terran technology and their Kragan troops matched against the armies of a myriad of princes. It comes as an unpleasant surprise when the humans discover that Gorkrink took a strong interest in the nuclear explosives used on Niflheim. For geological reasons Uller has no fossil fuels and the Company has been in the habit of handing out plutonium for atomic power plants as freely as candy. Gorkrink has both the know-how and the materials to make atomic bombs.

The Company, in contrast, has the materials but not the know-how; the only man on the planet who knew anything about constructing nuclear explosives died in the first few hours of the rebellion.


The historical significance of this book (aside from it being the first novel set in Piper’s Federation) is that it appeared in The Petrified Planet,

the first volume in the short-lived Twayne Triplet series. Each volume of the series was to contain three thematically related stories. In this volume, the contributing authors (Piper, Judith Merril, and Fletcher Pratt, who was also the series editor) were given a set background: the worlds of Uller and Niflheim as described in an essay by scientist John D. Clark. This seems to have been a failed experiment. The series ran to a mere two volumes (the other being Witches Three). A third seems to have been planned; Asimov’s “Sucker Bait” and Anderson’s “Question and Answer” [3] appear to have been written for a third volume that failed to materialize. While the Triplets did not succeed, the series is interesting as an early attempt at what later became known as shared-world anthologies.

Piper’s Federation seems to have drawn inspiration from a glorified nostalgic vision of the British Empire common to many Brits and some Americans. You’d think the 1776 and 1812 brouhahas, not to mention the determined efforts that the inhabitants of the colonies in Africa and Asia made to exit the Empire, would have inspired Americans, at the very least, to look askance at the imperial enterprise. You’d think that the Americans would have been able to see the Empire as a vast inhuman machine designed to extract wealth from the rest of the world. Wasn’t the fact that the main effect of British rule in India was to freeze Indian per capita income for two centuries enough of a hint? Apparently not [4].

Uller Uprising is very clearly based on the Indian Rebellion of 1857. It’s interesting to see how much effort Piper puts into reshaping the conflict to ensure that the reader will have as little sympathy as possible for the natives (the loyal Kragans aside). The Ullerans are so loathsome that one character, professional bleeding heart Paula Quinton, abandons her romantic views of the natives soon after she makes actual contact with Ullerans. She gives up her fieldwork for the Extraterrestrial Rights Association to serve as one of von Schlichten’s avenging officers. The whole thing reads a bit like propaganda the British East India Company might have commissioned if the British East India Company had been in the habit of commissioning science fiction novels. Though perhaps the portrayal of the Ullerans might have been a bit too extreme even for the British East India Company.

There is no analog in Uller Uprising of Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi, “the most dangerous of all Indian leaders” during the Rebellion.” Perhaps this is because the Ullerans, being hermaphroditic lizards, are not likely to have beautiful queens. However, I suspect that a figure like the Rani, charismatic and bright and whose role in the Rebellion was more complicated than I want to discuss in a book review, didn’t fit the stereotype Piper wanted for his novel. Gorkrink is bright, but for the most part the Ulleran antagonists are unlovable and unpleasant, the sort of entities readers wouldn’t mind seeing mowed down in great numbers, with the mowing-down graphically described.

In addition to the whole “we’re doing this for their economic benefit” angle, thanks to Gorkrink, the Company can now point to another factor mandating the need for central control:

You either went on to the inevitable catastrophe, or you realized, in time, that nuclear armament and nationalism cannot exist together on the same planet, and it is easier to banish a habit of thought than a piece of knowledge. Uller was not ready for membership in the Terran Federation; then its people must bow to the Terran Pax. The Kragans would help—as proconsuls, administrators, now, instead of mercenaries. And there must be manned orbital stations, and the Residencies must be moved outside the cities, away from possible blast-areas. And Sid Harrington’s idea of encouraging the natives to own their own contragravity-ships must be shelved, for a long time to come. Maybe, in a century or so….

Of course the Ullerans only have nuclear bombs thanks to the Company. And it’s a bit rich that an American would use that particular justification, given that not only did it only take the Americans three years to go from a nuclear pile to dropping atomic bombs on people, they then carried out a decades-long campaign of nuclear strikes on their own territory; Nevada alone has suffered in excess of 900 nuclear explosions. Why, to this day, Nevada is a barely habitable wasteland, dotted with a few sparsely populated urban outposts, which I assume are inhabited primarily by mutants and giant ants.

Piper does drop one or two hints that the Company in particular and the Federation in general are not as benevolent as they believe: the use of Ullerans rather than robots on Niflheim, the blithe acceptance of civilian casualties, the common use of torture by Company allies … oh, and the little detail that the Federation is in the habit of using WMDs on native uprisings. CoC von Schlichten several times mentions, with no little admiration, the brilliant tactics used by old Germany; Schlichten is descended from an ancestor who had to leg it from Germany to Argentina in the late 1940s to avoid an appointment in Nuremberg.

As I recall, one of John F. Carr’s essays on Piper, one I cannot at this time identify, pointed out a recurring pattern in Piper’s fiction, Books may end with a decisive victory, but those worlds later vanish from history. This book ends on a positive note:

Kankad had a good idea, at that, a most meritorious idea. He was sold on it, already, and he doubted if it would take much salesmanship with Paula, either. Already, she was clinging to his arm with obvious possessiveness. Maybe their grandchildren, and the Kankad of that time, would see Uller a civilized member of the Federation….

But offhand, I don’t recall Uller being mentioned as a notable successful world in any novel set later in Piper’s time line.

A minor world building detail that jumped out at me: Little Fuzzy had, if I recall correctly, a passing comment that there’s time dilation in FTL. Little Fuzzy didn’t give figures but this does: six months of FTL as measured on a planet [5] is three weeks as measured by the ship. I don’t think Piper ever did much with that detail (aside from it being one more thing that made old Jack Holloway feel out of place) but I note that someone who spent half of a forty year career in FTL transit between worlds would retire to discover nearly two centuries had passed. (This is relevant to Space Viking. Hope I remember to come back to this when I review that in a few months.)

A major world building detail, one that greatly distinguished Piper from his colleagues at the time, is that the Federation, child of nuclear wars that left the Northern Hemisphere a shambles, has completely abandoned any pretense of barriers between the races. Piper unsubtly signals this very early on in the book:

[…] the other officers emerged from the squat flint keep—Captain Cazabielle, the post CO; big, chocolate-brown Brigadier-General Themistocles M’zangwe; little Colonel Hideyoshi O’Leary.

I’ve seen people pop blood vessels on rec.arts.sf.written over apparently unbelievably multi-ethnic names like Alberto Fujimori and Franklin Chang Diaz; I really have to wonder how readers in 1952 reacted to Themistocles M’zangwe and Colonel Hideyoshi O’Leary.

Piper was also atypical for an SF author of this era because his female characters may have been called “girls,” but they weren’t decoration. They did not serve as a source of leading questions, designed to let the protagonist infodump freely (OK, sometimes they did). Nor were they trophies for victorious men. Paula plays a significant role in the plot, and that’s not even getting into the contributions of Hildegarde Hernandez….

Although this book has points of interest, I don’t know that I can particularly recommend this except to people who are enthusiastically and unintrospectively nostalgic for the days when the British could really grind boots into the faces of unfortunates across the planet. If you are curious about the novel, this is one of the Piper novels that fell into the public domain; it is available on Project Gutenberg.

(No links because link embedding has inexplicably stopped working on this site)

1: Called Beta Hydrae in the text. However, not only does the essay by Clark make it clear that the system is supposed to be Beta Hydri, details of the system—age, distance from the sun, the fact that there’s no Alpha² Canum Venaticorum variable star in the system—make it clear that Piper confused Beta Hydri with the similarly named but very different Beta Hydrae.

2: Since the Federation is apparently in the habit of responding to native uprisings with weapons of mass-destruction, a quick end to the uprising would theoretically save Ulleran lives as well. Well, except that the planned reprisals seem to be broad-focused and extremely energetic.

3: Not to divert focus from Piper but … when one tracks the development of shared worlds anthologies and series in SF, Poul Anderson’s name keeps coming up. There was something about the form that must have appealed to him, judging his participation in projects like the Twayne Triplets, A World Named Cleopatra, Thieves World, Medea: Harlan’s World, The Man-Kzin Wars, and Murasaki.

4: Perhaps one can point to the pitfalls of shared language. Americans would have grown up reading British novels that glorified Empire: Kipling, Conrad, Haggard, Henty, Buchan, Bindloss, to name a few. The American authors might have heartily approved America’s own colonial ventures (Hawai‘i, Philippines). It might be hard to see the Rebellion of 1857 without the British framing: noble white men against bloodthirsty, ungrateful brutes.

5: I don’t know why Piper was so fixated on six-month trips. Uller is six months from Earth. A century later in the timeline, Zarathustra is six months from Earth. Since Zarathustra is much farther away, FTL had apparently been greatly improved.

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