Fri
Nov 6 2009 10:43am

Competence is really attractive: H. Beam Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen

There’s a feminine kind of sentimentality which is most often seen in stories about True Love. And there’s a masculine kind of sentimentality which is most often seen in stories about Just War. There’s a moment near the beginning of Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (1961) where a man charging into battle says “All right you guys, do you want to live forever?” And there you have it, the violins, the heart stirring, the tears in the eyes—my eyes anyway. That kind of thing has a direct and visceral appeal, and nobody does it better than Piper.

This is one of those books that I read when I was twelve (under the British title Gunpowder God) and loved uncritically. It’s hard to overstate just how much fun it is—this is a vastly enjoyable book. It’s military SF with added history of technology, and I think it might have been the first thing on those lines I read, and it set the pattern.

No spoilers.

Calvin Morrison of the Pennsylvania State Police is picked up by a Para-time-machine as a Paratime cop passes through the place where he is. Morrison is carried along by the machine for a little way and finds himself geographically in the same place but in a completely different timeline. He can tell by the mountains and rivers that he’s in the same place, but the absence of civilization is disturbing. (Places are described in terms of their this-world names as well as their that-world names, so it’s possible to use that Google map to follow the action, which is nifty.) At first he assumes he’s in the past, then he assumes he’s in the far future after atomic war has destroyed civilization, and finally he figures it out. I like his plausible but wrong guesses, and the way he makes plans based on them. He has wound up in the little kingdom of Tarr-Hostigos, which is about to be invaded. His military experience (Korean war), knowledge of gunpowder, and the history of military technology quickly gets him promoted to Lord Kalvan. Meanwhile, the Paratime police are having a bad day trying to get all this sorted out.

Piper knows how to tell a story, and there’s exactly the right amount of story here. He doesn’t go on and on with conquests and introducing new technology—he could have, nothing was stopping him but his innate good sense. (Yes, thank you, I do know about the sequels by other hands, but I’m trying to forget.) He does load the deck in Kalvan’s favour in terms of having a world just ready to fall into the grasp of someone who knows the chemical formula for gunpowder. The evil priests of Styphon who have the gunpowder monopoly are awfully evil, the princess is very brave and very beautiful, the cause is good, the timing is right, everything goes down like ninepins. But that can be fun—there are battles and politics but never too much, and besides that, there’s the real threat of what the Paratime police are going to do when they find him. The way it’s generally smooth sailing for Kalvan contrasts with what is in many ways the model for this—L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall where Padway fails at as many new technologies as he manages to introduce and doesn’t get the girl.

There are a couple of things I winced at in the first chapter—perhaps because I was enjoying it so much after that I missed things. Both of them were in the explanation of the different timelines. Tarr-Hostigos and our world are on the Fourth Level, much more primitive than the Paratime possessing First Level or the high tech Second Level civilizations. Our world is part of the Europo-America cluster—because Europeans settled America. Tarr-Hostigos is in the Aryan-Transpacific. Now Aryan is a linguistic term, and Piper knows this from what he’s doing with Indo-European names and words. But what happened in this history is that white people went east into China instead of west into Europe, and then from China crossed the Pacific and settled America from the west. He does this pretty much entirely so he can have a story set in alternate Pennsylvania with white people. The more you think about this the less it make sense—China’s awfully big, and it would have taken a long time, and they’d have mixed culturally and genetically with Chinese people on the way, and they’d have had those crops at least. And this isn’t a case of a visit from the racism fairy, I remember trying to get my head around the Aryan-Transpacific thing even when I was a teenager.

There’s also a horrible comment about another timeline we don’t see: “Sino-Hindic: that wasn’t a civilization it was a bad case of cultural paralysis.” That’s a standard old-fashioned (and racist!) way of looking at Asian civilizations, and I could have done without it. It was 1961, it’s all just part of the set-up, Piper was generally good in stories set in our future of having characters of all colours and both genders... and I wish it wasn’t there even so. (As far as gender goes Rylla is a kickass princess—she rides and fights like a man, and if she falls in love with Kalvan, well, who can blame her.)

The other paratime stories, collected as Paratime, are also well worth reading.


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.

25 comments
Clark Myers
1. ClarkEMyers
Rylla is indeed a kickass princess - and her lovely and dead face is publicly displayed a timeline over and by implication on many more for a little bit of historical chance vs. prime directive to think about in the background.

The Memorial Fund was founded by Dennis Frank and John F. Carr to collect contributions from fans and readers to purchase a proper granite memorial headstone for Piper’s grave in Fairview Cemetery, Altoona, Pennsylvania and to pay tribute to the memory of H. Beam Piper.

This has now been achieved and the new H. Beam Piper Memorial Stone will be unveiled on November 7th, 2009 at Fairview Cemetery in Altoona, Pennsylvania in the early afternoon

John F. Carr
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
I'm glad they'll have a memorial stone. I mean there's also a bit of me that thinks si monumentem requiris circumspice -- lots of Piper is still in print, forty-five years after he died. But a memorial stone is also good.
Paul Howard
3. DrakBibliophile
Am I the only person who saw the tribute to Piper in S. M. Stirling's Conquistador?

One of the Thirty Families is the Morrison family with the motto "Down Styphon!".
drdave
4. drdave
I read the stories when the were first published and have a (very worn) copy of the book which I still pick up and read every few years. The story is indeed very well told and doesn't get old with re-reading, even when you know how things turn out.

I'm only sorry Piper didn't live longer to write more.
Paul Weimer
5. PrinceJvstin
I'm not surprised,DrakBibliophile, since I've read that Stirling admits being influenced by Piper's work.
drdave
6. CarlosSkullsplitter
Jo, Piper used Charles Oman's military histories extensively -- in fact, Oman is name-checked in Kalvan. But Oman ironically thought that the Chinese origin of gunpowder was a myth, due to misinterpretations made by scholars eager to validate their own pet theories.

This ties into a general strain of thought linking the formation of modern states to the growth of technically advanced armies, which Oman and Piper both subscribed to. China of course was a militarily weak and backwards wreck in their lifetimes.

(Probably more gunpowder was expended during the Mongol invasion of the southern Song Dynasty than during the Thirty Years' War. I've sometimes quipped that we're living in the Song Dynasty's Mad Max future.)
j p
7. sps49
I haven't read Lest Darkness Fall, nor this one (I love the few HBP books I've found), but it sounds like A Connecticut Yankee in a more modern, SF way. What is de Camp's about?
drdave
9. Ghenjei
I too discovered that book at about 12. Def. one of my favorites. Did Piper turn it into a full novel?
Dave Bell
10. DaveBell
One of the differences between Piper's original and the sequels is that Piper ranges far more widely over lade medieval and early pike-and-shot military history. And his models for the battles are rather less obvious for an American reader.

One ofthe sequels is a rather obvious re-run of part of the American Civil War, fought over the same geography. Piper's Lord Kalvan doesn't have to be a genius. In the sequels he almost has to be a clone of Lee or Jackson.
Trey Palmer
11. Pilgrim
And while I know Piper doesn't exactly have deep characterization, I found his versions of the characters more likeable than Carr's.
Paul Howard
12. DrakBibliophile
I have the Complete Paratime collection and wish Ace would let somebody publish it as an ebook.
drdave
13. CarlosSkullsplitter
Reread Kalvan over dinner.

1) Piper paid some attention to material culture. The Zarthani eat cornbread and turkey (no chickens) and use a lot of deerhide, as well as tobacco in three different ways (chewing, in a pipe, and cigars). No mention of peppers, tomatoes, beans or potatoes, but it's explicitly mentioned that they use honey -- honeybees are an Old World import -- and not molasses (no sugarcane). Maple syrup, not so much.

(A Paratime character mentions that the Amerinds were exterminated on this cluster of timelines. Frankly, these people are too disorganized to commit systematic genocide.)

2) The Zarthani characters change their minds incredibly quickly and almost always in the appropriate direction. This isn't a fantasy of political agency, it's a letter to Penthouse.

3) No one else has sussed gunpowder, but it's handled in mass quantities, random people carry it around with their pistols, and the individual components are well-known. No one ever looks at or tastes the grains, or tinkers with other substances to add, or thinks they recognize the smell of the burnt components -- for centuries.

4) Was Piper angling for a job in the Pennsylvania State Police? Or was his praise an oblique jab at their competence?

5) Couldn't help but imagine a non-transported Morrison a few years later, maybe watching the Steelers play on a color TV (and in particular Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception). Like so many military history/displaced person fantasies, there's no room for electricity in Kalvan's new world. (Too hard to research! Disrupts the Penthouse!) But Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee used dynamite and the electric fence. In contrast, Kalvan is of two minds of introducing paper.
drdave
14. Nicholas D. Rosen
I like the book, and I feel a special connection, since I grew up in State College, Pennsylvania. My first sf con, twenty years ago, was Hostigos, in State College (by that time, I had left the nest and come back to attend graduate school); I met Carr, Roland Green, and Jerry Pournelle.
Peter D. Tillman
15. PeteTillman
Hi Jo,

Your nice review is currently titled "Lord Kalvan of Otherwhere."

I just added it (and am adding others) to the Wikipedia article
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Kalvan_of_Otherwhen

Keep up the good work!

Thanks, Pete Tillman
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Thanks Pete, I have fixed it. I think that must be a case of my fingers doing autocomplete -- but I can't believe I didn't notice it.
Peter D. Tillman
17. PeteTillman
Hey, brain-farts happen...

Did you ever make a complete list of your retro-reviews here? The list Tor supplies is woefully incomplete.

And thanks for the pointer to your recent reread panel (the one Kate Nepveu moderated). Fun stuff. And 90% women! Guys, take note....

Cheers -- Pete Tillman
--
"Female Art Students More Sexually Active Than Male Science Nerds: Study"
--headline, Agence France-Presse, Dec. 4
Jo Walton
18. bluejo
Pete: I do link to them all from my livejournal, usually in little clumps. But I never have any problem finding them from the listing here -- the by author doesn't go back forever, but the monthly listings do. I managed to find my Lest Darkness Fall post for someone in this thread by remembering that I'd written it on the train home from Denver and that was therefore August 2008.
john mullen
19. johntheirishmongol
This is one of my two fave HbP books, the other being Space Viking. I think the first time I read them was 40 years ago and loved the adventure parts of the stories, took me really into enjoyment of what used to be called Space Opera, big stories on a big scale that don't really make a lot of sense if you think of them critically, but you have to go with the flow. SF version of a Roland Emerich (sp) movie.
Pete Miller
20. Doc_Savage
Piper is one of my favorite writers of that era. Thanks for the article. Much of Piper's work has fallen into public domain and is easy to get on Project Gutenberg.
Greg Morrow
21. gpmorrow
My favorite Piper is "Four-Day Planet", on account of being the Golden Age of 12 around the time the Ace re-issue with "A Planet for Texans" came out, but "Lord Kalvan" is probably second.

@13, point 3: I have the same reaction to real-world history of medicine. It took us how long to figure out sterile technique?

In the case of Styphon's Best, religion is a powerful tool for deflecting rational inquiry; I'm willing to grant suspension of disbelief for that.
drdave
22. CarlosSkullsplitter
21: That's a very bad analogy. It's not as though there was a cult of priests who knew correct sterile technique and it was widely used and the differential outcomes were well-known but no one ever put two and two together on their own for centuries.

Piper cooked the situation to tell the story he wanted. Thinking that the cooking process has much to do with how history actually works -- as opposed to testament to Piper's skill as a writer -- is something of a mental error.
drdave
23. duncanmac
While I do admire Piper's skill at telling a story, he did have his shortcomings. Perhaps the clearest example may be found at the end of his short story "Last Enemy" (which is a Paratime story). Claiming that A-bombs are useful for preventing a Malthusian-style catastrophe due to over-population requires the use of truly cold-blooded logic. Ouch.

Along with this story, I also enjoyed his book Uller Uprising, though his short-sighted view of humanity shows up there as well to some extent.

Re #22: As for gunpowder, I don't think that Piper was overstating how difficult it would have been to come up with the formula and process for making it under most circumstances. I should note something that Piper didn't directly mention (but I believe Eric Flint did): spy networks. Anyone who tried to experiment with the necessary ingredients without Styphon's House's sanction would probably have been interrupted by them within a week or two, anywhere in their domains. They knew how important keeping their secret was.
drdave
24. S.M. Stirling
Just as an aside on "Aryan-Transpacific":

When Piper was writing this book, the general assumption was that the Indo-European languages started spreading in the 2nd millenium BCE. The Bronze Age, in other words.

It's now generally believed that this occurred rather earlier -- the fourth millenium BCE is the consensus. Which is to say in the Neolithic.

(Some argue it was much earlier, but few Indo-Europeanists accept this.)
The Indo-Aryans were also thought to be a lot closer to the original Proto-Indo-European speakers then, rather than a late and linguistically specialized branch.

If Piper were writing this story today, he'd probably make the Zarthani descended from Tocharians -- the easternmost Indo-European speakers, who lived in what's now Sinkiang and Gansu.
drdave
25. Gilmoure
Don't forget the Tarim Basin mummies found in western China. Tall Caucasians with red hair and clothing woven in same pattern as bog finds from Northern Europe. Some chieftain had a rough night and turned east instead if west, when leaving India. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarim_mummies

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