1961’s Four-Day Planet is a standalone young-adult novel set in the Federation period of H. Beam Piper’s Terra-Human future history.
Teen journalist Walt has lived his whole life on Fenris. He’s one of the ten thousand people who call that odd world home. They are isolated and poor; they languish under a corrupt government. Life can only get worse … or so it seems.
At first glance the planet Fenris seemed to be a Class III world, uninhabited but habitable. Fenris has the right air, the right gravity, and a Sun-like star around which it orbits at the right distance to qualify as Earth-like. But … the two-thousand hour day meant that the world was actually a Class II planet: habitable only in domes and tunnels.
At its peak, the colony had a quarter of a million people. A century after it went bust, there are only ten thousand people left on the world. They are the descendants of those who were too stubborn to leave, plus a handful of immigrants who found the idea of living on an isolated world far from the galactic mainstream attractive.
The world has a single export, tallow-wax, which is harvested from the flesh of a local sea monster. All tallow-wax sales are handled by the Hunters Co-operative.
Some years earlier, Steve Ravick mounted an electoral coup and assumed complete control of the Hunters’ Co-operative. Under his management, the Co-op signed an exclusive contract with Kapstaad Chemical Products. Since then, there has been steady decline in the price paid per ton for tallow-wax. At least that’s what Ravick says. The hunters have no other access to galactic markets and must accept whatever pittance Ravick passes on.
There’s no point to appealing to Mayor Morton Hallstock: the bribes Hallstock takes from Ravick ensure his loyalty to the boss. Nor is there much hope that the Federation will intervene in the affairs of a backwater world with the population of a small town.
Off-worlder Glen Murell claims to be an author interested in Fenris’ history. In fact, he may be the key to breaking Ravick’s death-grip on Fenris’ economy. But only if he and his local allies can stay alive, something Ravick and his goons will do their best to prevent.
Journalists are supposed to report the news, not be part of it. Walt gets too close to Murell’s story. Now Walt is in Ravick’s crosshairs too.
Technically I should review this with A Planet for Texans, since I originally read the two in this combined volume:
A Planet for Texans is tedious beyond compare, late-period Astounding-worthy tripe. If I want to review something about crazy-pants Texans in the future, I’ll reread Leiber’s A Spectre is Haunting Texas.
Four-Day Planet, on the other hand, is surprisingly interesting, given that it’s an adventure-focused juvenile novel. Take for example Fenris’ backstory. It’s modeled on actual history, which is full of attempted colonies that ran aground thanks to Lack of Due Diligence. Fenris draws on the grand tradition of Darien, Roanoke, Jamestown, and Popham, from its optimistic business plan to the sudden collapse after reality ensued. If not for tallow-wax, Fenris might have been abandoned entirely. Once the tallow-wax runs out, it may still be.
In the course of his novel, Piper sends brave, naïve Walt off on a tour of his homeworld. Fenris may be hostile from a human perspective, but it is home to a complex, vibrant ecology1. It’s an ecology with a surprising number of aggressive predators. But then an alien who had landed on Earth before humans simplified the ecosystems would have said the same of Earth.
Although Piper was in many ways a small c conservative, in other ways he was not. Readers of a certain tendency who are outraged by multicultural names like Alberto Fujimori, Franklin Chang Diaz, or Hayley Kiyoko would not appreciate Piper’s Federation, whose population has spent the last few centuries energetically intermarrying, with no concern for how this might outrage white racists. As a result, any resemblance between the ethnic origins of names and people’s appearances is purely coincidental.
The novel has very few women characters, let along women with agency. Perhaps Piper felt constrained by the target market. Still, the entire plot is set in motion by Linda Kivelson, who Is mentioned in the book but never present on stage. She went to college on Earth and shared her concerns about the situation on her home planet. That’s why Murell headed to Fenris. Without Linda, Ravick would have remained in firm control.
One would not expect Piper to tell us a story about a struggle between workers and bosses. He sidesteps inadvertent socialism by making the crooked boss the head of the local union. Whether Kapstaad has any idea what Ravick is up to is unclear, but I suspect that if the Co-op had had a straight-arrow chief, it wouldn’t have granted Kapstaad a monopsony.
This book was written by a conservative American who loved his guns. Fenrisians have managed to import an astounding quantity (surplus and unsafe for use) ammunition and firearms. The planet has about as many people as New Hamburg, Ontario, but it seems to be as well armed as a medium-sized army. Surprisingly, this isn’t presented as entirely a good thing. Several characters in the book worry that the planet will slide into civil war and blood feuds. Fenrisians live in fragile artificial habitats; civil war might mean the end of the colony.
Protagonist Walt is an interesting mixture of competent, confident, and not quite as smart as he thinks he is. But he’s willing to admit it when he’s made mistakes, something that many adults might be well advised to imitate.
Four-Day Planet is available here (Project Gutenberg).
1: Possibly less complex than it was a hundred years earlier. Nobody has done a survey of the world in recent years so nobody has any idea what sort of dent the humans have put into the ecosystem. The hunters are well-armed and keen on shooting pretty much everything.