Sep 1 2009 1:07pm

“Like the tidal flood beneath the lunar sway”: Lloyd Biggle Jr.’s The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets

I first picked up The Still Small Voice of Trumpets (1968, Wildside Press) because of the title, because it is a truly irresistible title, and especially if you’re familiar with the Quaker hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind in which God is invoked as the “still small voice of calm.” I picked it up to re-read now because I noticed the title as I was re-shelving Voyage to the Red Planet. There’s a lot more to it than a great title, but I have to admit that the great title helps.

Lloyd Biggle Jr. was an American SF writer whose best work, I am delighted to see, is largely in print from Wildside. Biggle’s main themes across all his work are anthropology, music and the effects of colonialism. In The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets he introduces the IPR Bureau, whose motto is “Democracy imposed from without is the severest form of tyranny” and whose work is to bring newly discovered planets up to the point where they have a planetary democratic government and then induct them into the galactic federation. Biggle understood that it’s not the accidents of democracy that are necessary but the substance—the people on the planets have to want it and understand it, and without knowing that aliens are among them encouraging them. It’s an interesting idea, and I realised this time through that there’s absolutely nothing in the text to indicate that the IPR are not at work on Earth even now. (This is a universe where intelligent life seems to very common and entirely humanoid, and the answer to the Fermi Paradox would be that the IPR don’t allow contact with planets that aren’t ready.)

Gurnil is a planet with two continents. One of them, Lanork, has become democratic, the other, Kurr, remains entrenched in monarchy. The Kurrians are obsessed with aesthetics, and uninterested in politics. Their ruler, King Rovva, doesn’t seem particularly oppressive except in his habit of chopping the left arms off people who displease him. The problem with Kurr has been going on for four hundred years, and in desperation the IPR send for a Cultural specialist, Forzon. Forzon gets there and immediately everything gets chaotic. Biggle’s writing is always entertaining, and this is a particularly good example.

It’s a little implausible that the Kurrians should be so interested in aesthetics and so uninterested in politics, but the way Forzon manages to exploit this is ingenious and effective. There’s a complicated plot involving the IPR people and their bad intentions, which I don’t want to spoil, and there’s Forzon’s innovative solution, which I also don’t want to spoil. I’m not sure any of it would really work, but that’s not what this sort of book is about. Like Monument, this is a book about everyone’s right to self-determination. Having more technology does not give anyone higher morals or a right to exploit anyone else. The ideals of the IPR are excellent, the reality can include senile officers and people scheming for their own advantage. Forzon at one point after introducing the trumpets is aghast to realise that he will be damaging the cultural traditions he so much admires.

This is a short book—191 pages in my (Sphere) edition. By the Hugo rules, anything over 40,000 words is a novel, and this probably is around 60,000. Nobody writes things this length any more—there isn’t really a space between a novella and a 100,000 word book—and a 100,000 word book is generally described as “slim.” It’s interesting to compare The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets to Off Armageddon Reef. They make a pretty good paired read. They’re both about people with high technology hiding themselves among people of low technology for benign purposes, but introducing things that change the low tech people’s lives. Weber does much better on women—Biggle has an embarrassingly awful female cipher character there for the hero to fall in love with. (The best thing about the romance in Trumpets is that it doesn’t take up much space.) Biggle completes his story in 191 pages, Weber takes 608 and this is the first volume of three so far with more planned. It’s interesting to consider how much of the length of story that can be told is simply publishing fashion. Would Biggle have written 600 pages with more detail of Kurrian life if that’s what had been wanted in 1968? It’s impossible to know. I’m pretty sure Weber would be horrified to have only 191 pages to tie everything up. There are advantages and disadvantages both ways. There are things Biggle only sketches that might have been much more interesting with more space to go into them—but on the other hand, maybe they work because they go past so fast. If you’re packing this much story into 191 pages there isn’t much room for more than rudimentary characterisation, and it’s much easier to make the economics and aesthetics of a planet look plausible. However, the people who complain that modern SF novels are too drawn out should definitely pick up Biggle while they can.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Jim Henry III
1. Jim Henry III
I love Biggle's work. I just picked up a copy of this one recently but haven't read it yet; my favorites of his that I've read are probably All the Colors of Darkness, Monument, and Silence is Deadly. I think Silence is Deadly is in the same setting as Monument and The Still Small Voice of Trumpets, but I'm not sure.
Jim Henry III
2. TinaBlack
Biggle is so one of my favorites. World Menders, The Light that Never Was -- he was incredible at anthropological SF. I have to say that Monument was actually better in its short form than it was as a novel. Biggle seemed to say things best at short length -- yet what he wrote carried much more freight than the number of words suggests.

He was one of the people who sponsored the oral sf history project.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
TinaBlack: What is the oral SF history project?
Jim Henry III
4. cissa
I LOVE Biggle. I read him a lot lo these many years ago, and am trying to collect a reasonable assortment of his novels again for re-reading.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Cissa: Well, they're in print. I almost didn't bother looking, because I have had to search them out second hand, but good old Wildside has most of them available.
Blue Tyson
6. BlueTyson
Speaking of no-one, has Joe Haldeman ever written a book that actually makes it to 100,000 words?

Pretty sure Camouflage for one would be closer to 60K than 100K.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
BlueTyson: Forever Peace and The Long Habit of Living both look thick enough to break that barrier. But you're right, a lot of his best work is pretty short -- The Hemingway Hoax for instance, which is one of my favourites of his. He's a poet really, of course.
Blue Tyson
8. BlueTyson
Ok. Never seen The Long Habit of Living, and vague recall suggests that Forever Peace was a little longer, sure.

Mike Resnick's Starship and John Justin Mallory books might not be Haldeman short, but would be well short of the ton, I think.

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