Hellburners and Philology
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Categories: Modern

Hellburners and Philology

a woodcut of a bastioned fort with fireworks in the background and riders and carts in the foreground
Fireworks upon the Entry of Maximillian II into Nürnberg, 7 June 1570, by Jost Amman. Metropolitan Museum of Art https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/335994 c/o Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Entry_of_Maximilian_II_into_Nuremberg,_June_7,_1570_MET_MM26201.jpg

There is now a Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction (https://sfdictionary.com/) which got started with help from the Oxford English Dictionary. When I encounter a new historical dictionary or encyclopedia, the first thing I do is check some entries to see if they exist and how good they are.

H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History features two weapons, planet-busters and hellburners. Planet-busters are some especially powerful kind of atomic weapon, like a hydrogen bomb but even more destructive, while hellburners are atomic weapons which create some kind of self-sustaining incendiary reaction (Piper alluded to Hans Bethe’s solar phoenix reaction). Planet-busters go back to a popular article on the hydrogen bomb from 1950 and appear in many writers’ stories, but hellburners are rare outside Piper’s works. In a chat with Jesse Sheidlower, I realized where the name ‘hellburner’ may come from.

They were too late. Seshat had had it already, and on the evidence of the radioactivity counters, not too long ago. Four hundred hours at most. There had been two hellburners; the cities on which they had fallen were still-smoking pits literally burned into the ground and the bedrock below, at the center of five hundred mile radii of slag and lava and scorched earth and burned forests. There had been a planetbuster; it had started a major earthquake. And half a dozen thermonuclears. There were probably quite a few survivors—a human planetary population is extremely hard to exterminate completely—but within a century they’d be back to the loincloth and the stone hatchet.

The magazine text of Beam Piper’s Space Viking (1962, 1963) https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/20728
An original illustration to Beam Piper’s Space Viking (1962, 1963)

During the Eighty Years’ War for the independence of the Netherlands, the Hapsburgs besieged Antwerp and cut it off from the sea. To try to break the pontoon bridge over the river Scheldt, the Antwerpers let their engineer Federigo Giambelli build two special fireships. Deep in the holds of the ships special fire chambers were constructed of bricks and tombstones to protect the three-ton charge of gunpowder. Around the chambers were packed rocks, iron, and other debris. Each ship had a timed fuse: one was clockwork, the other was a traditional burning match. On a propitious day in 1585 the sails were raised, the pilots guided the ships into position and jumped overboard, and the Antwerpers waited for the results. The two hellburners were hidden in a fleet of 32 smaller fireships which were simply loaded with incendiaries and set on fire to burn anything they crashed in to. One hellburner ran aground, but the other crashed onto the bridge and exploded just as Hapsburg troops had boarded it to put out the fires and see if it could be pushed away. Hundreds of soldiers were killed with horrifying violence (some blown to pieces, others dead from shock without a visible wound), and the bridge was badly damaged. While the blockade continued and Antwerp fell, the hellburners of Antwerp became famous.

Beam Piper was very interested in the military history of the 16th century. In many ways, his science fiction was a better-paying way of writing about the history and alternate history which he really wanted to write. He was working on a historical novel about the Italian Wars entitled Only the Arquebus when he died in 1964, and he destroyed the manuscript along with his other papers before his death. So its likely that he remembered the Hellburners of Antwerp and borrowed the name for his imaginary nuclear weapons.

As I write this, the Wikipedia page on the Hellburners cites Wm. Jherek Swanger’s class handout on European warfare in the 16th century. Swanger was one of the leader of the historical fencing movement’s 20 glorious years, who saw which way things were heading and quietly dropped off the stage around 2010. Everything is interconnected!

One of the most delightful aspects of classic science fiction was its creative use of language. Today phrases like pocket dimensions and matter transporters seem like cliches, but they all had to be invented, named, and fitted into a cohesive kind of English. A few of the best classic writers such as H. Beam Piper and L. Sprague de Camp wrote explicitly about linguistics in stories like Naudsonce and articles like “Language for Time-Travellers.” If you enjoy that playful use of language, check out the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction and see if you can send some more examples the author’s way! This dictionary is a work in progress and nobody is paying the author to research.

H. Beam Piper died because he was too proud to ask for financial help after he was forced to quit his job and his agent died. I’m not too proud to ask for donations on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay

(scheduled 11 October 2022)

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