On Canada Day 2017 I finished re-reading the project Gutenberg text of Piper’s Cosmic Computer (my paperback copy with the wonderful red-and-purple cover is back in Canada). I read this novel every few years, and I always learn something new. Quite a few people who grew up on the American science fiction of the 1940s through 1970s have been reading the news, finding something uncomfortably familiar, and looking back to those Silver Age writers to understand some current madness (Phil Paine reread Revolt in 2100 for the same reason). I can’t talk about that here, but I want to talk about some of the things which I found valuable in this novel.
Beam Piper is more remembered for his storytelling and his settings than his style, but his descriptions of the Junkyard Planet contain some lyrical prose:
Fifty-two years before, they had come to the mesa in the Badlands and dug a pit on top of it, a thousand feet in diameter and more than five hundred deep, and in it they built a duplicate of the headquarters for Third Fleet-Army Force Command. They built a shaft a hundred feet in diameter like a chimney at one side, and they ran a tunnel out through solid rock to the head of a canyon half a mile away. Then they buried the whole thing. Twelve years later, when the War was over, they sealed both entrances and went away and left it.
For a month each winter, cold rains from the east lashed the desert; for the rest of the year, it was swept by windblown sand. Wiregrass sprouted, and thornbush grew; Nature, the master-camoufleur, completed the work of hiding the forgotten headquarters. Little things not unlike rabbits scampered over it, and bigger things, vaguely foxlike, hunted them. Hunted men came, too, their aircars skimming low. None of them had the least idea what was underneath.
Also, Beam Piper takes a Mesopotamian approach to storytelling. The elapse of time between one scene and the next is often vague, without any linking text to give some details. And a conversation can be presented like this:
President Vyckhoven managed to get hold of him and Yves Jacquemont afterward, and steered them into his private study.
“Have you any real reason for thinking that Merlin might be on Koshchei?” the Planetary President asked.
“Great Ghu, no! We weren’t looking for Merlin, Mr. President. We were looking for a hypership. We have one, too. Calling her Ouroboros II. Twenty-five-hundred-footer. We expect to have her to space in a few months. I surely don’t need to tell you what that will do toward restoring planetary prosperity.”
“No, of course not; a hypership of our own. But….” He looked from one to the other of them. “But I understood…. That is, Mr. Kurt Fawzi was saying….”
“Mr. Fawzi is looking for Merlin here on Poictesme. If anybody finds it, that’s where it’ll be found. I’m interested in getting business started again. If Merlin is found, it would help, of course.” He shrugged.
“Don’t look at me,” Jacquemont said. “Mr. Maxwell—both of them, father and son—want some spaceships. They hired me to help build them. That’s all I have in it.” Then he relit the cigar the President had given him and leaned back in his chair, staring at the stuffed alcesoid head with the seven-foot hornspread above the fireplace.
Conn described the interview to his father after they were back at the hotel.
Now, of course there was more to the conversation than that (just like the trapper and Shamkhatu did more than walk for one day, two days, three days before they had come to Enkidu’s waterhole). But Piper does not feel obliged to fill in “The president tried to plump them for hours, offering them whiskeys from his private stash, but they stuck to their stories.” A Mesopotamian would have been horrified about setting a story in the future or basing it on the premise that new technologies never before known by man had been invented, but might have approved of Piper’s refusal to pad his stories with unnecessary details.
Reviewers of older science fiction today usually line up some things which feel dated or bigoted, point at them and sneer. Piper’s fiction is absolutely a product of Pennsylvania in the late 1950s and early 1960s: everyone smokes everywhere, things are measured in feet and controlled with dials, there is a ‘pandenominational’ chapel but the dominant religions seem to be a perplexed atheism or fire-and-brimstone Protestantism, and the main character calls all women younger than his mother “girls.” But the thing is, our own attempts to imagine the future are just as flawed. Fiction written in the last decade, or excited articles about yet-to-come technologies in IEEE Spectrum, are very much a product of our times and our anxieties … I don’t have any more trouble assigning them to a country and a period than I have when reading E.E. “Doc” Smith or Spider Robinson. Just like Piper could not imagine computers getting smaller as they became more powerful, or that robots could replace factory workers and farm tramps just as well as house cleaners and cooks, there must be consequences of today’s technologies which are only obvious in retrospect, and some things which will happen will be totally unexpected. And if you want to prepare for that, a good way is to read things from outside your culture, written by people with different blindspots.
Old science fiction and futurism is not telling us that the authors were stupid for failing to predict the future! It is giving us a priceless lesson not to take our own attempts too seriously! Some people are too proud to take that lesson, but that is because they are people … and Beam Piper understood people, and he understood pride.
And while Poictesme is strongly gendered, and the story is told from the point of view of male society, there are some hints that this is not the only possible perspective or a situation of which the author approves. It is not just that Poictesme after the War is a society in decline, one whose attempts to rebuild itself will fail in the long term (while the main characters dream of building their world into an important local power, there is not a hint of Poictesme in his stories set later in the same setting). Anyone who thinks that readers are supposed to admire the local customs is not reading very carefully. But we also get Conn Maxwell’s vague frustration that most of the women on Poictesme are not like the girls who he knew at the University of Montevideo on Terra, and an exchange with his girlfriend the engineer:
Conn, is my father going back to Koshchei?”
“As soon as we can round up some people to help us on the ship.”
“Then I’m going along. I’ve had it, Conn. I’m a combat-fatigue case.” [She has been a houseguest in the middle of a family feud between her hosts]
“But, Sylvie; that isn’t any place for a girl.”
“Oh, poo! This is Sylvie. We’re old war buddies. We soldiered together on Barathrum; remember?”
“Well, you’d be the only girl, and….”
“That’s what you think. If you expect to get any kind of a gang together, at least a third of them will be girls. A lot of technicians are girls, and when work gets slack, they’re always the first ones to get shoved out of jobs. I’ll bet there are a thousand girl technicians out of work here—any line of work you want to name. I know what I’ll do; I’ll make a telecast appearance. I still have some news value, from the Barathrum business. Want to bet that I won’t be the working girl’s Joan of Arc by this time next week?”
That cheered him. A girl can punch any kind of a button a man can, and a lot of them knew what buttons to punch, and why. Say she could find fifty girls….
She finds quite a few more female technicians than that, and while Conn has no more interest in the topic once the technical problem has been solved, its not too hard to see that the same story told from Sylvie’s perspective could look quite different. (Someone who likes literary games might try a story about one of the people who while pursuing their own ends just happens to make the friendships, rub the backs, and run the errands which make it possible for a Piperian Competent Man to devote himself singlemindedly to his trade; a reviewer to whom I won’t link thinks that another novelist did this to Piper’s Space Viking).
Also, I had forgotten that this story is the one about computer science and electronics engineering: there are drones and weaponized drones, improvised explosive devices, worries about communications security, and problems when one part of an automated system fails and the other parts continue to function. Beam Piper is more remembered as a storyteller than for his imaginary technologies, but he considered some aspects which many of his contemporaries did not like to address (just like he centred plots around ideas in linguistics, ecology, and biology rather than the physics, economics, and parapsychology which were more in fashion in John W. Campbell’s circles). I hope that readers don’t let the fact that this book was published in 1963 distract them from the ways in which it can be a story for our times.
I got my ebook of The Cosmic Computer from Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/ ; there are reviews of The Cosmic Computer on Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1663350.The_Cosmic_Computer
Edit 2022-05-04: converted to Block Editor, fixed links broken when WordPress introduced the block editor. Added donation link.