by Rosemary Benton
Science fiction is a wonderful genre in that it allows an author the opportunity to pick a discipline – religion, economics, etc. – and create scenarios that are free to play out completely beyond any current restrictions or known facts of nature. Consider James Blish’s The Star Dwellers with its sentient energy creatures or Andre Norton’s Catseye with its telepathic animals.
But then there are the science fiction authors who try to ground their scenarios as close as possible to the discipline they are examining. For H. Beam Piper, it seems as if he wrote his most recent novel with a mission to accurately play out the issues and triumphs of an anthropologist. The results is the well written (if slightly dry) young adult novel, Little Fuzzy, the story of one interstellar prospector’s journey to protect the small, furry family he has adopted, cared for, and believes to be as intelligent as any group of humans.
H. Beam Piper is a prolific author within the science fiction genre. He’s been a published writer since 1947 with his short story Time and Time Again, and since then has averaged two short stories a year with the occasional novel blooming out from these stories.
But if you were to ask me how to best describe the flavor of his writing, I would be hard pressed to place Piper into an exact style. He lacks the poetic flow of words that embody Zenna Henderson’s work, and his ability to balance world-building and exposition is not as smooth as James Blish’s recent work. The pace of his stories is not as intense as Andre Norton, preferring instead to take things minute-by-minute. And yet I enjoyed Little Fuzzy and would recommend it as an intelligent, well written story. But how would I describe the writings of Piper? The best word I can use to describe H. Beam Piper’s writing is methodical.
Piper goes to great length to construct his fictional environments, but he does not achieve this by the use of colorful adjectives. Piper’s world-building is more bureaucratic in nature. In his 1951 short story Temple Trouble, Piper spends a great length of time describing the way that time and dimension traveling beings calling themselves the Paratime Police use a fabricated religion to allow privatized corporations to mine uranium and other commodities right under the noses of the low-tech societies they have converted. Exposition goes into the minute details of how temples are set up in new cities, even in depth on how low level priests are selected to serve the god without being made aware of the advanced technology that creates the god’s “miracles.”
Via conversation between the main characters we are also privy to the internal struggles of the mining company. Is this onslaught of information necessarily vital to the plot? No. Does it help set up the cast of characters? In a way, yes. Does it build a relatable and recognizable setting for the story? Absolutely. So why does H. Beam Piper go into such minutia in all of his stories, not least of which includes Little Fuzzy?
Where other authors employ a liberal use of descriptive adjectives to set a scene, or will go into the extensive details of a character’s emotional state, Piper builds his environments by describing at length how a world or society functions as a whole. Take Graveyard of Dreams for instance. When the main character, Conn Maxwell, returns to his home world after leaving to further his education he sees the people he has left all those years ago and can’t help but think about how their clothing is from salvaged fabric, how their town is in disrepair from the lack of Terran Federation interest in the region, and how that situation has come to be. By and large, Piper will spend relatively little wordage in detailing the facial expressions or internal feelings of his character. He instead reserves his vocabulary for historical accounts, political ramblings, and anthropological observations.
Which brings us to Little Fuzzy. In true Piper fashion the story is set to the tone of a conversation between upper management and underling in which we begin to understand what concerns will drive the plot – a colonized planet’s climate change, its resources, and the rights people have to inhabit and collect its resources. We are also made aware of the divide between corporations and conservationists.
In Little Fuzzy the privatized corporations that own the land rights to territories under Terran Federation jurisdiction must first and foremost consider the natives and whether or not they warrant sapient categorization. If the inhabitants are sapient, the planet will be granted certain protections which severely limit any corporation’s profit margin. If a sentient species were discovered on Zarathustra, the planet on which Little Fuzzy centers, the company would need to renegotiate its charter, conservationists would have fodder for their fight against the industrialists, and corporate heads would roll.
Again, is this onslaught of information necessarily vital to the plot? To an extent, yes, as it sets the stage for people’s loyalties. Does it help set up the cast of characters? In a way, yes, although many more are introduced later. Does it build a relatable and recognizable setting for the story? All too much so.
Knowing how the universe of Little Fuzzy operates is crucial, the same way that a working knowledge of any society plays into all of Piper’s works. From there he weaves in common themes such as self reliance, humble beginnings, exploration, and the ever present military. As I have said before, Little Fuzzy is a little dry since the debates that center around the fuzzies and their levels of sapience unfold in a minute-to-minute fashion, but they are thoughtful and well crafted arguments that give each character a distinct voice. H. Beam Piper is a unique writer, but one worth following. His newest novel only proves this. Three stars.