Sat
Apr 3 2010 2:11pm

“Yakking about who's civilized and who's not”: H. Beam Piper's Space Viking

Space Viking (1963) starts out looking like a story of vengeance among the neobarbarian remnants of a collapsed Galactic Empire, and then becomes a meditation on the benefits of civilization and how that is distinct from technology. It contains a fundamentally flawed assumption about the way society works, but it’s a fast fun read. It isn’t my favourite Piper, but I’m fond of it and re-read it fairly often.

One of the things Piper’s very good at is taking a historical situation and translating it to space. Here as you’d expect, it’s the centuries after the fall of Rome, spread out across the stars. The obvious comparison in Asimov’s Foundation—and what a very different kind of book this is. Foundation is all about the centuries and society seen in stop-motion over time. Space Viking is one moment (about a decade) as time goes on heedless. Foundation is detached from time, seeing it from outside. Space Viking is immersed in it.

Another thing Piper is good at is having the one competent man (and it is always a man) who changes the world. Lucas Trask leaves his homeworld of Gram prepared to risk everything to seek revenge on the lunatic who killed his bride at their wedding. On the way to revenge, almost by accident, he builds a star-spanning trade empire, becomes king of his own planet, and realises that he’s become absorbed in building civilization and finds revenge an irritating distraction from that. Trask’s adventures completely change the history of six planets, and possibly more.

In a neat bit of worldbuilding, the Swordworlds, where the Space Vikings come from, are named after famous swords—the first one was Excalibur. The ex-Empire planets are named after gods of ancient pantheons. This means the reader can immediately and easily tell them apart without a scorecard—if a planet’s Baldur, you know it’s an old Empire planet, if it’s Durendal it’s a swordworld. All of the science fictional details make sense and fit together, the contragravity, the nuclear weapons, the wars on planets and in space. Time is given in multiples of hours, which is very authentic but which I find slightly irritating as it means constant mental arithmetic.

The thing Piper gets wrong, and which you have to bite your lip and ignore in order to enjoy the book, is the idea that when you take people out of a society the old society can never recover. If this were true, there would be no Einstein, no Tolkien, no Beatles, because the boldest and best people had already abandoned Europe for America and once that had happened no more intelligent people could ever emerge. It’s true that if all the educated people leave a planet it will temporarily collapse, but if some leave and the schools are still there, which is what we see, in a generation it won’t matter because genes don’t work that way. If you lose a thousand trained engineers out of a population of a billion, which is what Piper says, there’ll barely be a wobble. And the whole eugenics angle is even more distasteful.

One of the things Piper’s interested in here is showing how civilized planets collapse, and how barbarous planets become civilized. There are two examples of the first, Gram and Marduk. Gram is feudal and is decivilizing from the top down, as the leaders squabble and cheat the populace—timarchy decaying into oligarchy. Marduk suffers a classic democracy-collapses-into-tyranny modelled on the rise of Mussolini. Now this is all in Plato (what do they teach them in these schools?) and it’s all very pat—too pat. When you can choose your examples from anywhere you like it starts to look like dice loading. Any writer’s doing this with any choices, but it works better if it doesn’t look like special pleading. If it wasn’t for the whole eugenics thing putting me on edge, I’d probably have let this Platonic cycle thing slide past without thinking too much about it.

In any case, the story begins with a madman committing murder and ends with the same madman dead, and everything else, the rise and fall of civilizations and Trask’s journey back to being able to love, is what happens along the way. Like most Piper, this is a great book for teenagers. I gobbled it up uncritically when I was fourteen, and it did me no harm at all. My copy, with a horrible generic spaceship cover, was bought new for 85p.


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.

33 comments
David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
I love H. Beam Piper. The prose may not be exactly deathless, but when you consider the period in which it was written, it is one of the better examples. This particular book isn't the best, as you note, but it does have something. I actually like it better than the second Fuzzy book and it certainly beats Lone Star Planet.

And as much as it pains me to say something nice about Plato (and believe me, it does), his political cycle does make a bit of sense. In more modern terms, he's basically saying that power devolves outward until an eventual state of chaos allows one person to concentrate power in his hands. Steps can be skipped and the inevitability of chaos is definitely debatable, but as a basic theory it works.

IIRC, though, Piper was following Toynbee, rather than Plato. Toynbee's cycles of history were very popular mid-century.

(and what's with the link to The Lion, The Witch, etc. after you cite Plato? I don't see the connection.)
CarlosSkullsplitter
2. CarlosSkullsplitter
Not Toynbee specifically -- Piper has one of his characters "The Edge of the Knife" state:
"History follows certain patterns. I'm not a Toynbean, by any manner of means, but any historian can see that certain forces generally tend to produce similar effects. For instance, space travel is now a fact; our government has at present a military base on Luna. Within our lifetimes—certainly within the lifetimes of my students—there will be explorations and attempts at colonization on Mars and Venus... And when Mars and Venus are colonized, there will be the same historic situations, at least in general shape, as arose when the European powers were colonizing the New World, or, for that matter, when the Greek city-states were throwing out colonies across the Aegean. That's the sort of thing we call projecting the past into the future through the present."
The idea that history might throw up something qualitatively new didn't cross Piper's mind.

The other influences on Piper's historical thought, I think, are fairly easy to find: Spengler as well as Toynbee; the mystic-minded engineer J. W. Dunne; the popular military historians of the late 19th and early 20th century, like Creasy and Oman; and unfortunately, the editor of Astounding/Analog magazine, John W. Campbell, who never met a crank theory of human nature he didn't like.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
DemetriosX: The Professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is always saying "It's all in Plato, all in Plato, what do they teach them in these schools?" And as I read this a long time before I read Plato, whenever I say that something is in Plato, it inevitably comes into my mind.
john mullen
4. johntheirishmongol
This is one I reread regularly too. I enjoy it for the grand space opera it is. Piper thought in big picture and not little details. I got the impression that he was using this as an explanation for the rise of the Nazi's, and the growth of barbarism. It's a fight that is pretty much ongoing today.
Clark Myers
5. ClarkEMyers
#2 - The idea that history might throw up something qualitatively new didn't cross Piper's mind.

Hardly fair - Space Viking is one part of a more or less coherent and certainly planned future history series - as noted all the rage at least with published (paid) authors of the period. See e.g. U.N. Man, Marius (how's that for a Roman tie in) and such for Poul Anderson's fairly quickly abandoned efforts. There is a new record pending for number of women (4 - 3 on Discovery) in space simultaneously but Delialah and the Space Rigger isn't exactly how things worked out - what's invalidated and what's predicted there?

Campbell not only wrote himself about the barbarian inside the gates he paid others to.

FREX in Graveyard of Dreams - Junkyard Planet/ Cosmic Computer We see The fountains are dusty in the graveyard of dreams. and a planet in despair (aftermath of war is despair) beginning to bootstrap based on knowledge/learning = power.
Beam certainly considered what history might throw up all through the Paratime series.

if some leave and the schools are still there, which is what we see, in a generation it won’t matter because genes don’t work that way.
Attilla the Hun certainly had the advantage of access to Roman schooling (likely 12 is too old?) but somehow is not remembered as a scholar - nor did his hypothetical classmates do better (story idea there?).

Absent the devil made me do it I don't suppose any over arching explanation of history really satisfies - again see Paratime where everything happens.
CarlosSkullsplitter
6. CarlosSkullsplitter
Actually, Piper's use of an overriding framework for his fiction makes it an even fairer comparison. Compare Blish, who followed Spengler closely, but who rarely stinted on future novelty. (Perhaps Blish's closest historical analogy -- his wandering cities in space equivalent to Okies and Bonus Marchers -- is the one that falls apart most easily under examination.)

Note that I am not talking about accuracy of prediction.

Incidentally, Campbell's theories of the barbarian inside the gates were closely related to his amply documented theories of white supremacy. Not a man who would enjoy being alive today.
Fragano Ledgister
7. Fledgist
Piper mined history fairly regularly. Uller Uprising, which I first read a few years ago, was based on the Sepoy Rebellion in India. It takes a depressingly pro-imperialist perspective.

His Space Empire stories, which are in the same timeline as Space Viking presume a more benign version of the Roman empire. Something I find rather hard to believe.
Tex Anne
8. TexAnne
Fledgist: Yucko. Thanks for saving me the trouble.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Clark: I do agree that being sacked by barbarians puts a damper on a civilization -- and indeed, there was technology lost with the fall of Rome. Nevertheless, there was also technology gained from the barbarians and from innovation being allowed to spread -- the stirrup and the waterwheel for example. With Piper it's as if there's a certain level of technology where you can't go any higher -- as if they're in the slow zone, but even in the slow zone there was variation.

But what I was talking about was the problem Piper has Trask angsting about at the beginning -- "The way the Space Vikings loot the Sword Worlds". The loss of people to the new frontier and the loss of those people's genetic potential is not actually going to do any harm to the planets they leave.
CarlosSkullsplitter
10. Doug M.
Well, Piper was a romantic. He loved Great Men and heroic history. He adored the Confederate States, the British Empire, and ancient Rome. Empires were cool. Empire building was an inherently admirable activity. Democracy, well... "There's something wrong with democracy. If there weren't, it couldn't be overthrown by people like Zaspar Makann, attacking it from within by democratic processes."

There's a scene in the book where the fascists (who of course call themselves the People's Welfare Party) are rioting. Trask suggests mowing them down with gunfire.

"That may be the way you do things in the Sword-Worlds, Prince Trask. It's not the way we do things here on Marduk. Our government does not propose to be guilty of shedding the blood of its people."

He had it on the tip of his tongue to retort that if they didn't, the people would end up shedding theirs. Instead, he said softly:

"I'm sorry, Prince Edvard. You had a wonderful civilization here on Marduk. You could have made almost anything of it. But it's too late now. You've torn down the gates; the barbarians are in."

It's not really surprising that Jerry 'fill the stadium' Pournelle was a huge admirer of Piper.

That said, Piper wasn't a fascist, or even a particularly authoritarian conservative. He was a romantic individualist, and his reading of history was colored by that.

Poul Anderson is a useful comparison here -- contrast his "The Man Who Came Early" with Piper's "Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen". TMWCE is a more or less realistic exploration of the "modern man dropped into a medieval world" notion. LKOE is pure Edgar Rice Burroughs wish-fulfillment portal fantasy. ('And he gets the cute princess, too!') Anderson and Piper both believe in historical imperatives. But Anderson's favorite narrative is the hero struggling against the vast impersonal forces of history. Piper prefers his heroes to /master/ history: the superior man can turn history around (by building an empire, naturally) more or less as an exercise of pure will.

This is, of course, exactly the sort of thing Norman Spinrad was thinking of a few years later when he wrote _The Iron Dream_. 'A single, superior individual gathers a devoted band of followers around himself, and sets out to save a decadent society from itself through necessary and righteous violence. Really, science fiction? Have you thought that one through?'

Carlos is ready to talk about John Campbell, and how he was not only a crank but a stone cold racist, white supremacist jackass, and how his views exercised a subtle but malign influence on a generation of SF. And it's not irrelevant, because Piper wrote this book for Campbell, who absolutely loved it and bought it on the spot.

But Carlos is too polite to derail the conversation, and I respect his judgment. So let's say this, then: Campbell and Piper shared the idea that progress depended on a genetic elite. ("That's what happened to the Terran Federation, by the way. The good men all left to colonize, and the stuffed shirts and yes-men and herd-followers and safety-firsters stayed on Terra and tried to govern the Galaxy.") In Campbell's case, he embraced it because it not only fit his racial views, but scratched his crank social theory itch too. In Piper's... well, I'm willing to give Piper the benefit of the doubt and say he was a romantic individualist. Campbell may have liked it for all the wrong reasons, but that's not Piper's fault.


Doug M.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Doug M: You know, it's not like you to give someone the benefit of the doubt that way. And I do it too, I bend over backwards to give Piper the any and every benefit of any and every possible doubt every time, even knowing he wrote a Confederate-positive story, even with all the Iron Dream-oid stuff and the ("Aryan-Transpacific") trouble he went to to get white people into the US. I think he must have been a fundamentally likeable person. The personality that comes over in his work feels like a someone we feel fond of, so that even when he's being really wrongheaded one wants to say "To Nifflheim with that, he was just a romantic individualist who happened to be extremely fond of Empires."

As for Campbell, Campbell was well known for getting obsessed with nutty ideas that sometimes made good stories and sometimes were just nutty.
CarlosSkullsplitter
12. CarlosSkullsplitter
Jo, I think this rather bizarre theory appealed at the time for several reasons, but one of them has to do with the American experience. Not only has the United States been vastly enriched by the contribution of its immigrants, a process still going on today, but it has never experienced the widespread destruction of its educated class and rebounded, unlike Britain and Canada -- or even more dramatically, unlike Poland and Serbia and Israel.

(The folk-social-Darwinist explanation there, of course, is that the survivors must be superior in some way yadda yadda. But they weren't superior enough to become part of the educated class beforehand? Okay then.)

Piper I don't believe was racist, and I think he went out of his way -- especially for the central Pennsylvanian who came of age in the 1920s he was -- to show that he believed in the parity of different racial groups' genetic potential. His near-future Terro-Human stories and his Paratime stories I think make this clear.

Campbell of course is a different story, and an unpleasant one.
CarlosSkullsplitter
13. CarlosSkullsplitter
Case in point, from Uller Uprising:
General Carlos von Schlichten threw his cigarette away, flexed his hands in his gloves, and set his monocle more firmly in his eye, stepping forward as the footsteps on the stairway behind him ceased and the other officers emerged from the squat flint keep—Captain Cazabielle, the post CO; big, chocolate-brown Brigadier-General Themistocles M'zangwe; little Colonel Hideyoshi O'Leary.
Granted, von Sclichten is descended from a German war criminal who fled to Argentina... which ties into Piper's unfortunate love of the Man Who Gets Stuff Done... but he doesn't think that ability has anything to do with genetic inheritance.
Mike Conley
14. NomadUK
"That's what happened to the Terran Federation, by the way. The good men all left to colonize, and the stuffed shirts and yes-men and herd-followers and safety-firsters stayed on Terra and tried to govern the Galaxy."

This, of course, is the reverse of what happened quite some time earlier, in which the middle managers and telephone sanitisers were sent off in the 'B' ark...

(And, P.S., I have an edition of Space Viking with exactly that cover on it. It's been ages since I looked at it; maybe I should give it another read...)
Kelly McCullough
15. KellyMcCullough
I too love Piper's stuff and this book in particular to a degree that I almost certainly shouldn't considering how very far my own views are from those expressed in his work. The man could really write in the ripping yarn school and it makes me forgive much. I've got that same printing with all the garish colors and reread it at least once every couple of years. His death by his own hand at such a young age was a real loss to the field and I mourn for all the books he didn't write.
CarlosSkullsplitter
16. Doug M.
"You know, it's not like you to give someone the benefit of the doubt that way."

This touches on the whole biographical criticism issue. In the particular case of Piper, not only does he seem to have been a likable dude, but he was also an autodidact who came, as they say, from Circumstances. I'm just going to cut him a little more slack knowing that.

Then there's the whole fantasy-of-political-agency thing. Unlike (say) Heinlein or Pournelle, Piper doesn't seem to be didactically advancing a particular political or ideological agenda. Putting aside whether you agree with his political analysis (democracies are inherently weak and corrupt, yadda yadda), he comes across as /descriptive/ rather than /prescriptive/: this will happen if you shoot the protesters, and this will happen if you don't. You may disagree with his conclusion, but you don't have the impression he wants you to rush out and vote for the Protester-Shooting Party. (Or that he's breathing heavily and licking his lips at the prospect of protesters being shot.)

Also, as Carlos noted, he was a folk-Darwinist but not a racist. Makes it much easier.


"Campbell was well known for getting obsessed with nutty ideas that sometimes made good stories and sometimes were just nutty."

The crank stuff was /in addition to/ being a white supremacist and stone racist.

Campbell thought the various races had large, significant, and inherent genetic differences in intelligence, aggression, emotional stability, and general competence. He thought that whites were all-around the best and highest type -- as demonstrated by the fact that they had conquered everyone else, you see -- and that Negroes were the lowest or nearly so. I think that's just qualitatively different from believing in the Dean Drive.


Doug M.
CarlosSkullsplitter
17. Doug M.
"death by his own hand at such a young age was a real loss to the field"

? He was 60 or 61.



60 -- born in 1904. Three years older than Heinlein. His career was short because he started late.

And yeah, it's a damn shame.


Doug M.
Azara microphylla
18. Azara
For anyone who wants to read this right now, it's one of the many Piper works available on Project Gutenberg:
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/20728

I take it no one renewed his copyrights in the US.
Tony Zbaraschuk
19. tonyz
IIRC, it was Aristotle rather than Plato that came up with the theory of political cycles (monarchy devolving to tyranny replaced by aristocracy degenerating into oligarchy overthrown by democracy which collapses into anarchy whereupon a monarch is embraced as an end to chaos, repeat ad infinitum) but the general benefits of a classical education remain a point to be considered.

And Campbell could embrace nutty theories which also gave rise to great stories. ;)

Defining "superior" people runs into the problem of "superior for what?" Aptitude for scientific education and aptitude for survival aren't always the same thing.
Clark Myers
20. ClarkEMyers
On Beam's stuff on Gutenberg et al notice that often the first serial rights has gone out of copyright as the serials themselves (magazines) have often died without successor. The book publications which are often (almost always) somewhat different text fwiw and have a chain of ownership have often stayed in copyright or at least copyright limbo and so are less available. http://www.zarthani.net/bibfirst.htm has good listings and pointers.

As to the questions of genetics - and social Darwinism (as genetic science Darwin has a refutable hypothesis and has pretty much been refuted in the sense of being superseded by work standing on Darwin's shoulders and seeing farther) - I suggest that Beam was touting nurture (optimism and dreams beat despair and corrosive envy) over nature - e.g. during the period Beam was writing it was obvious the then two Germany's shared much heredity and little else so ......
Jerry 'fill the stadium' Pournelle was a an avowed Communist until he became convinced Communism doesn't work. Putting down the Nike Stasis tou Nika rebellion did after all work - once.

In a larger sense Nozick is pretty well the antithesis for Rawls and we are still waiting the synthesis.
CarlosSkullsplitter
21. James Davis Nicoll
Not only has the United States been vastly enriched by the contribution of its immigrants, a process still going on today, but it has never experienced the widespread destruction of its educated class and rebounded, unlike Britain and Canada

Could you expand on this?
CarlosSkullsplitter
22. CarlosSkullsplitter
James, I'm thinking of World War One and the 'lost generation'. A good chunk of the military age male population -- for England and Wales, sixteen percent of the 20-24 cohort, but also seven percent of the 30-34 cohort -- and at least in Britain, disproportionately among those with better educations: officers were killed at a significantly higher rate than enlisted men (except in the Navy, but ridiculously so in the RAF).

Not quite the same as stealing steel mills and plant managers, but close enough. It's the equivalent of a Pol Pot-like dictator shooting one in six college graduates of a entire generation -- for Canada, perhaps closer to one in ten.

(Which happened more directly in other places, like the Nationalist takeover of Taiwan, which also recovered.)

I can think of some possible counterexamples: the former Confederacy, Paraguay. But neither area was exactly a paragon of learning before their wars, either.
Jo Walton
23. bluejo
TonyZ: You're wrong, it's Plato, it's in the Republic. This is a Google books result of the right bit of the book.

I might sometimes just say things off the top of my head and be wrong, but you can trust me on Plato.
Tony Zbaraschuk
24. tonyz
I have learned something today: thank you.
CarlosSkullsplitter
25. Henry Troup (again)
Piper's Sword Worlds were btw, settled by the refugees of the losing side of the System States War - essentially the Confederacy, I recall. The Cosmic Computer was left behind by the "winning" side; the implication was that the cost of the war itself broke the victors.

According to Wikipedia, the Space Vikings are raiding the fallen Federation. Later come several empires. I don't think Piper was too hopeful about long-term stability of any government.
Andrew Lambdin-Abraham
26. kd5mdk
Carlos @ 22 - Shouldn't your example be higher? If we're talking an overall loss of 16% of 20-24 year olds, we need to then account for the difference in officer-enlisted deaths. I think we'd be looking at more like 1 in 4 to 1 in 5 college graduates, than 1 in 6. If not more (not knowing the ratio).
CarlosSkullsplitter
27. Greg Weeks
RE #20

I think Space Viking is the only novel that's from only the first serial publication. Hmm, no Null-ABC is only from the serial also. Little Fuzzy, Lone Star Planet, Four-Day Planet, Uller Uprising, The Cosmic Computer are all from book printings. The short stories are all from serial printings. I don't think there was much if any revision of the serial for the book printings outside of Null-ABC and Uller Uprising. Uller Uprising has both the serial and the book printing.
CarlosSkullsplitter
28. Randy McDonald
So Britain and Canada--never mind France and Germany and Russia and, yes, Poland--never recovered from the bloodlettings of the First World War? Um.

Provide facts, please?
CarlosSkullsplitter
29. CarlosSkullsplitter
Randy, I think you've read my comment exactly backwards. Of course they have. But Piper wasn't Canadian or British. He was a security guard at a railroad yard in central Pennsylvania, self-taught, who committed suicide when he found himself in financial straits.

Piper did not have a core cultural knowledge that a decimated society can rebound. Piper's own third act was very short.

Is it a large leap to suggest that Piper generalized a historical pattern of civilization from his own life experience? Not very, I think.
CarlosSkullsplitter
30. CarlosSkullsplitter
Andrew at 26, it depends on the generation size. I'm eyeballing the numbers between 18 and 35 -- there were combat deaths younger than eighteen, of course, and older than thirty-five too.

And British and Canadian society rebounded, visibly and vigorously and obviously.

(Although Piper himself might have thought that British decolonization was a sign of a declining culture.)
CarlosSkullsplitter
31. Randy McDonald
And my very, very bad misreading was my fault alone. Apologies to all.
CarlosSkullsplitter
32. James Davis Nicoll
When are we going to get into Piper's borked model of what happens to trade between two regions as a result of economic convergence?

In Piper, trade between a developed world and an undeveloped world is A-OK, at least for the developed world . As the less developed world acquires its own industry and such, imports from off-world fall. This is hard on the developed worlds and is, I think, one of the things that led to the System States War.

I'm curious what he would have made of the developments of the last 40 years.


1: The underdeveloped world may find itself being hosed by the middlemen, as seen in The Cosmic Computer and Four Day Planet.
CarlosSkullsplitter
33. CarlosSkullsplitter
Well, Piper used a version of the Heckscher-Ohlin model, though I doubt he knew it by that name. It extends David Ricardo and his theories of comparative advantage. Regions, planets, preferentially trade their endowment. In this model, the planet with a lot of capital (technology) would trade capital-intensive goods, the planet with lots of land (resources) would trade primary products, and the planet with abundant labor (workers) would trade labor-intensive goods. Sounds great, makes sense, and it seemed to fit the great era of oceanic and imperial trade through 1929.

Except Wassily Leontief in 1954 showed that the U.S., with the largest concentration of capital in the world, exported proportionally more labor-intensive goods than it imported. Not common knowledge when Piper was writing.

The pattern of advanced economies trading with other advanced economies didn't become obvious in the United States until after Piper's death. The Europeans figured it out earlier, but it's a common blind spot for Americans in the period. Why were France and Germany, traditional enemies, angling for a multilateral coal and steel agreement (which morphed into the European Union) so hard? It confused American observers.

I wonder if Piper read Norman Angell's The Great Illusion? He might have.

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