Thursday, May 18, 2017

Paratime - H. Beam Piper

    1981; 295 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Classic Science Fiction; Anthology.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    Ah, multiverses!  They're such a wonderful new device for writers of science fiction, particularly those who want to explore what alternate timelines would entail.  And modern-day Quantum Physics predicts such a thing, although, since we can theoretically never detect them, much less travel to them, their existence or non-existence is rather moot.

    And since they’re such a hot new sci-fi topic, the question arises: who was the first author to incorporate them into a science fiction novel, and how long ago did it happen?

    Well, Wikipedia indicates the concept was first proposed by Erwin Schrodinger, he of the cat fame, in 1952 during a lecture in Dublin.  And who are we to argue with Wikipedia?

    So it is curious that, as far back as 1948, H. Beam Piper was writing short stories and novellas featuring multiverses galore wherein a few of them (well, only one of them, to be exact) had succeeded in finding the trick jumping from one dimension to another.

    H. Beam Piper had his own word for this phenomenon; he called it Paratime.  And just like the Prime Directive in the Star Trek series, rule Number One is: Don’t ever EVER let the less-technological universes (which is all the other dimensions) know that such a thing as Paratime exists.  Cuz if you do, the Paratime Police will be called in, and you don’t want to mess with them.

What’s To Like...
    The book is actually an anthology of five short stories, ranging from 25 to 112 pages, that H. Beam Piper wrote in the 1948-1955 years, all set in his Paratime multiverse.  This is “pure” dimension hopping; there’s no time-travel or geography-jumping.  You can land in another timeline, but you’ll still be at the same spot on Earth, and at the same time it is now.

    H. Beam Piper divides the infinite alternate universes into five “levels”.  Level One is where the Paratimers originate from, and our dimension is a Level Four universe.  Which means we’re one step up from the bottom rung of the civilization ladder.

    Briefly, the five stories are:

    “He Walked Around The Horses”(1948).  Epistolary in style, and based on the historical Benjamin Bathurst incident.  See below.
    “Police Operation”(1948).  Introduces two recurring characters - Tortha Karf and Verkan Vall.  Also includes a Venusian nighthound, which you can see on the book cover above.
    “Last Enemy”(1950).   An interesting look at reincarnation, and introduces the other main recurring character, Hadron Dalla.
    “Time Crime"(1955).  The longest story in the book, it focuses on slave trading and has the most detailed look at the Paratime’s First Level world.
    “Temple Trouble”(1951).  The Paratime folks exploit Uranium deposits on a different universe using the cover of a religious sect.

    My favorite story was “Time Crime”, which is also the longest one.  There is a general introduction to the book at the very beginning, which I found to be quite skippable.  But the shorter introductions at the beginning of each story were fascinating.  The details in the stories reveal their age.  Cigarette-smoking is a common habit, “futuristic” videos still need a projector and a screen, and the slave-trading in alternate dimensions only involve white overseers and black slaves.  Just once I’d like to see that color combination reversed.

    Despite the slavery, the stories are essentially G-rated, with the lone other exception being the use of the word “phallic”.  It helps to remember that the target audience for 1950’s science fiction was almost exclusively juvenile-YA boys.  The stories are all standalones, and apparently all appeared in various sci-fi journals way back when.

Kewlest New Word...
Antiphonally (adv.) : in a musical manner which consists of two semi-independent choirs in interaction, often singing alternate musical phrases.

    In November 1809, an Englishman named Benjamin Bathurst vanished, inexplicably and utterly.
    He was en route to Hamburg from Vienna, where he had been serving as his government’s envoy to the court of what Napoleon had left of the Austrian Empire.  At an inn in Perleburg, in Prussia, while examining a change of horses for his coach, he casually stepped out of sight of his secretary and his valet.  He was not seen to leave the inn yard.  He was not seen again, ever.
    At least, not in this continuum...  (pg. 14, and based on a historical occurrence.  Wiki him.)

    “At least, you’ll be getting away from police work.  I don’t suppose they have anything like police on the Dwarma Sector?”
    “Oh, no; they don’t even have any such concept,” Bronnath Zara said.  “When somebody does something wrong, his neighbors all come and talk to him about it till he gets ashamed, then they all forgive him and have a feast.  They’re lovely people, so kind and gentle.  But you’ll get awfully tired of them in about a month.  They have absolutely no respect for anybody’s privacy.  In fact, it seems slightly indecent to them for anybody to want privacy.”  (pg. 156)

“What sharp, furry ears you have, Mr. Elbraz!”  (pg. 245)
    There are a couple quibbles.  First, there are a slew of annoying typos – heresies/hersies; They/Then; into/inot; chained/cahined; and so on.  But this is the publisher’s fault (Ace Science Fiction), not H. Beam Piper’s.  I haven’t seen such atrocious editing since the last “Tor” book I read.  Maybe Ace Sci-Fi was an earlier incarnation of Tor.

    Second, Piper seems to like to inject his personal viewpoints on various topics into the stories, and it is, quite frankly, clunky.  He was apparently anti-socialism, anti-ACLU, and anti-pot-smoking.  None of which fit very well in science fiction tales.

    Finally, the storylines themselves are neither complex nor twisty, and to be honest, they didn’t hold my interest much at all.

    But it should be remembered that these stories were written in a different era.  The late 40’s and early 50’s were at the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism, and we wouldn’t want little Timmy exposed to anything leftist whilst he’s reading a sci-fi story.

    5½ Stars.  Science-Fiction has come a long way since its heyday in the 40’s and 50’s.  Some stories from way back then have worn relatively well over the years, such as those by H.G. Wells and Andre Norton.  Alas, these H. Beam Piper ones have not.  But this is not his best stuff; for that it's best to stick with his Little Fuzzy novels, reviewed here and here.

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