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Kozmic Blues


By H. Beam Piper 

18 Sep, 2022

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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1981’s Federation is a collection of novellas and novelettes set in H. Beam Piper’s star-spanning Federation[i].

The Federation is essentially a highly romanticized British Empire IN SPACE, except for the fact that there is no monarch. Oh and there is some degree of democracy (although not for alien subjects). The Federation rises out of the ashes of World War Three and, despite setbacks, flourishes in one form or another for a thousand years before collapsing in the 11th century Atomic Era (AE). I’ve lifted dates for the stories from this site.

Omnilingual is the best story in the collection. It’s a bit of pity it’s also the first story in the collection, which is not to the advantage of the later stories. The stories aren’t bad (despite a tendency towards abrupt endings) but they aren’t as interesting as Omnilingual.

Miscellaneous other thoughts:

Modern readers should be aware that Piper characters drink like Nick and Nora Charles while chain-smoking like Roger Zelazny. 

Readers should also be aware that contrary to cover artist Whelan’s usual practice, the cover features two characters — Jack Holloway and a Fuzzy Sapiens — who do not feature in any of the stories in this collection. However, the point was to signal to readers that Federation was by the same author as Little Fuzzy, Piper’s most popular book. 

Of interest to me and some of my readers: it’s odd that that aside from FGU’s Down Styphon! (based on Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen), I cannot think of any game adaptations of Piper’s books. You’d think there would be at least one GURPS supplement based on Little Fuzzy. Traveller, clearly influenced by Piper (even lifting the name Sword Worlds from Piper’s work as a hat tip to Piper), seems to be as close as one gets to a Federation RPG.

Federation is out of print. 

Many of Piper’s works are available at Project Gutenberg. Federation, dating from 1981 as it does, is among the exceptions. 

Now let’s get down to details.

Piper’s Foundation • (1981) • essay by Jerry Pournelle

Pournelle reminisces about Piper, who was a personal friend.

Introduction (Federation) • (1981) • essay by John F. Carr

Carr relates what was known in 1981 of Piper’s life and discusses Piper’s work. The Federation setting gets particular attention.

As noted in Carr’s 2008 Piper biography, Piper delighted in serving up misleading non-facts about himself. Much of what we thought we knew about Piper was incorrect. 

Omnilingual • [Federation ] • (1957) • novelette by H. Beam Piper

By 1996, Earth has recovered from the Thirty Day War sufficiently to dispatch expeditions to Mars. There, relics of a long-dead civilization are discovered, complete with abundant quantities of written materials. Martian books and magazines could be a window into that long-dead culture … if only Terrans could find some Rosetta stone with which to decipher Martian. It falls to Harappan expert Martha Dane to crack the problem despite significant impediments, not least of which are her unsupportive coworkers. 

In Piper’s Paratime stories, humans were descended from Martians fleeing their dying world seventy-five to one hundred thousand years ago. It seems pretty clear that the Federation is in the Paratime setting (which encompasses all possible history) and that Martians are humans. However, this is never explicitly stated as far as I know.

This is a reasonably cunning puzzle story, made more notable by Piper’s highly uncharacteristic (at least for Astounding authors) habit of giving women important roles. Omnilingual is my pick for the best work in this collection. 

Naudsonce • (1962) • novelette by H. Beam Piper

In 650 AE, a privately financed expedition locates a promising world ripe for highly profitable colonization … if a suitable arrangement can be made with its natives. This should be a simple matter of cracking the language barrier before enticing the naïve natives into a one-sided treaty that opens the flood-gates to a tidal wave of colonists. In this case, communication is hampered by the aliens’ extremely alien sensory system.

Officially, the legal arrangements serve to protect the natives. However, at least one of the characters is explicitly aware the official story and what will actually happen are two very different things. In general, aliens are second-class even on their own worlds and these aliens are especially vulnerable. 

Oomphel in the Sky • (1960) • novelette by H. Beam Piper

In 812 AE, the impending periastron of sunlike Gettler Beta’s 90-year orbit around the giant M‑class star Gettler Alpha promises calamitous climate change for Gettler Beta’s Earthlike planet Kwannon. The native culture arose in the context of such disasters. In the past, their coping skills preserved a full third of the population, sufficient to avoid extinction and preserve cultural continuity. The coming of the Terrans may have doomed the Kwanns. 

The Marxist liberals who dominate colonial government on Kwannon are adept at theorizing and speechifying, but not at completing vital projects. Secondly, the shoonoon — witch doctors — have convinced themselves that the unprecedented appearance of humans signals the Last Hot Time, against which preparations are futile. With the commie liberal academics of less than no use, it falls to the military to salvage the situation by explaining the crisis in terms the shoonoon will accept. 

In retrospect, it is a bit odd that political nomenclature has not evolved at all over the next thousand years. 

Somewhat surprising given how much Pournelle liked Piper, the solution does not involve machine-gunning Das-Capital-waving liberals in a sports arena, but treating the shoonoon with respect. Of a sort. 

Graveyard of Dreams • (1958) • novelette by H. Beam Piper

By 894 AE, the effects of the System States War have left the economies of Federation worlds in dire straits. The Tri-System was particularly hard hit by the economic downturn, a crisis in no way helped by the local tendency to focus on legends of Merlin, a fantastic supercomputer that would surely solve all their problems if only it could be found, rather than the resources at hand. 

Conn Maxwell was dispatched to Earth to seek clues to Merlin’s location. He returns with something even better than a godlike AI: a Big Lie that will surely save civilization! 

This is a shorter version of The Cosmic Computer. As Carr points out, Piper loved ending books on triumphant notes, only for later books to reveal that the characters’ efforts had no discernable effect on history. 

When in the Course— • (1981) • novella by H. Beam Piper

A 200 AE(?) private expedition stumbles over the extraordinarily Earthlike planet Freya, whose natives prove inexplicably humanoid. While this is no doubt the result of parallel evolution, Freyans are human enough to have human power politics, something the explorers cheerfully exploit for their own benefit. 

Handwaving about parallel evolution aside, Terrans and Freyans are so closely related that they can interbreed. Clearly, the Martians launched at least one interstellar expedition. The geographical distribution of Freyans on their world supports this. 

When in the Course— was not published in this form until Federation appeared in 1981. However, a radically reimagined version appeared as the 1965 Paratime novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. Freya becomes an alternate Earth, and the Federation explorers are replaced by a lone crosstime castaway cop. Expanding novellas to novels often produces padded, flabby books, but in the case of Lord Kalvan, the recasting, which gives the protagonist considerably fewer resources with which to assist his allies, improves the story immeasurably. 

[i] Not that Federation. While a starship Enterprise does put in an appearance at one point, it is not until the 18th Century AE, centuries after the Federation’s fall.