Paying the piper
As I stated in my most recent post, many authors of literary science fiction influenced me as I created Thousand Suns. While I intend to write posts about all of the most significant (and about many of the "lesser" influences as well), I thought it only right to begin this series with an homage to the writer whose stories and ideas had the strongest effect upon me: H. Beam Piper.
Henry Beam Piper was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania on March 23, 1904. Like many writers of the time, his formal education was limited, but he read voraciously, particularly in the fields of history and science. From the age of 18, he supported himself as first a laborer and then a night watchman for the railroad in Altoona. Piper was well into middle age before he published his first short story in 1947.
The short story was Piper's natural medium. With a handful of exceptions, most notably Space Viking, about which I'll write more extensively in a future post, his most well regarded and influential tales are short fiction. That's how I first encountered Piper, reading a 1981 collection entitled Empire that included five of his short stories. This led me to seek out more of his work and began a lifelong appreciation for him and his imagination.
Most of Piper's works belong to what is known as his "Terro-Human Future History." Also called the
history of the Atomic Era (using a dating system beginning in 1942, with the activation of Chicago Pile-1), this series depicts human events over the course of several thousand years. Humanity suffers a nuclear war in the 1973, rebuilds, discovers anti-gravity technology, learns the secrets of faster-than-light travel, and spreads out among the stars. In the process, interstellar federations and empires come into being, grow, prosper, decline, and inevitably fall, according to an ineluctable historical process. This theme was common among science fiction stories of the post-war era, owing some of its inspiration to Oswald Spengler's magisterial The Decline of the West (and, before that, Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Piper's short stories takes place all over his timeline, each illuminating one small portion of the overall arc of his imagined history.
However unoriginal this idea may have been, Piper made, in my opinion, much better use of it than most others. His tales of the far future can be read solely as compelling space operas and that they certainly are. Yet, that's not all they are. Many are also melancholy meditations on the certainty of societal downfall, hidden beneath energetic yarns in the pulp tradition. His characters are often flawed, even broken, people who recognize not only their own foibles but those of all mankind – selfishness, myopia, and a propensity for violence. Despite this, Piper evinces a powerful humanism in his stories, the belief that, while humanity's reach will always exceed its grasp, there's nevertheless something praiseworthy in its fumbling attempts to take hold of the Infinite. This combination of elements are what first attracted me to Piper and what still speak to me decades later. They're also elements I cribbed shamelessly in Thousand Suns.
Sadly, Piper seems to have believed himself a failure as a writer. In early November 1964, he committed suicide, using a handgun from his extensive collection of firearms. Ironically, his agent had sold several of his stories but had himself died before he was able to inform Piper. The copyrights to much of Piper's oeuvre were never renewed, making them in the public domain. If you are unfamiliar with H. Beam Piper's stories, I urge you to read at least a couple of pieces of his short fiction. If you find them to your taste, dive into his longer works, like the aforementioned Space Viking or Little Fuzzy. All of his writing is breezy and unpretentious, yet filled with thoughtful reflections on topics of substance. I owe a huge debt to Piper's imagination; Thousand Suns would not exist without him. I hope that, by directing others to his work, I might in some small measure repay that debt.