In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
The early ’60s were a tough time to be a geek, in many ways. There was no computer industry, that great level playing field which allowed nerds with thick glasses to join the ranks of the rich and famous. There were a few science fiction movies around, and paperbacks and comics you could buy, but you generally didn’t want to be associated with those things, especially not if you had any hope of finding a date for Saturday night. Accordingly, there was a strong undercurrent of wish fulfillment in the science fiction of the day. Stories of heroes and heroines plucked from the mundane world to find adventure and excitement on another world, in another dimension, or in another time. And one of the best of them was a story by H. Beam Piper, about a corporal in the Pennsylvania State Police who is swept into another time, and a world far different than his own.
I myself met Lord Kalvan in the pages of the November 1964 edition of Analog Magazine, during the days when the magazine had gone to a larger, slick format, rather than the smaller digest size of the pulp days. The best thing about the newer format was the art; no longer were the cover paintings and interior illustrations squeezed down to small sizes. And the cover of that issue was glorious. Painted by John Schoenherr in a style that was both loose and detailed at the same time, it captured the essence of the story in a single image: the Pennsylvania State Trooper with a pistol on his hip, surrounded by the medieval soldiers armed with spears. And the story itself, “Gunpowder God,” was compact, simple, and compelling.
The author of that story, H. Beam Piper, was born in 1904, and worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a laborer, and later as a night watchman. He lacked any formal higher education, but was very well read, and had a keen intellect that informed his writing. He was an admirer of adventure writer Raphael Sabatini, and his writing style evoked that of Sabatini: clean, compelling and solidly plotted. Those who met him at science fiction conventions reported that he was usually nattily dressed, and very concerned with his appearance. He was also said to be very conservative politically, an atheist, stubborn, and not averse to lying to keep up appearances. He was not careful with money, a trait exacerbated by the irregular paychecks of the freelance writing trade. He was a gun aficionado, and had a whole room in his apartment devoted to his gun and weapon collection.
Piper was no overnight sensation; he wrote for 26 years before he finally broke into print with a story in Astounding SF in 1947. He received only one Hugo nomination in his lifetime, for the novel Little Fuzzy. He frequently appeared in Astounding/Analog, and was very well liked by the readers, frequently earning bonuses by winning the AnLab reader’s choice awards. His work also appeared in radio drama form. In 1964, estranged from his wife and having financial difficulties, Piper committed suicide in his apartment. His suicide note said that he didn’t want to leave any messes that others would have to clean up. This came as a shock to the SF community, because he had been very prolific in the years preceding his death and his popularity had been building. By all accounts, had he not died, and his career continued at the pace he had established, he would have achieved the financial security he desired. After his death, his work was collected and reprinted by Ace Books, and enjoyed good sales and wide popularity (and in my mind, part of that popularity was due to the skill of emerging SF artist Michael Whelan, who did covers for the books). Much of Piper’s work is now in the public domain and widely available on the internet. If you are interested in Piper’s life, the editor of those Ace collections (and a friend of mine), John F. Carr, has written Piper’s biography. Carr himself has continued the Lord Kalvan series, and hosts occasional “Irregular’s Musters” where Piper fans gather and tour the sites in Pennsylvania where Kalvan’s adventures took place.
Like many popular shorter works in that era, “Gunpowder God” was later expanded by Piper into the novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. The story was set in Piper’s Paratime series, a collection of stories which imagined a cosmos where an infinity of worlds existed side by side—worlds with the same physical form, where history took different turns along the way. The inhabitants of the “First Level” timeline developed a means of traveling between these less developed worlds, and formed the Paratime Police to control the exploitation of the other worlds and keep the inhabitants from discovering the paratime secret that allowed them to move between worlds. One of the earlier stories of the Paratime Police, “Time Crime,” is pictured above in a lovely and humorous illustration from the incomparable Kelly Freas. And in Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, it is the story of Verkan Vall, prospective head of the Paratime Police, which forms the frame for Kalvan’s adventures.
As Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen opens, Corporal Calvin Morrison of the Pennsylvania State Police is part of a team moving in on an armed criminal hiding in a rural home. Suddenly, he stumbles into the vicinity of a First Level time traveler, is swept into the field of his machine and transported into another timeline. The home he had been approaching is gone, replaced by woods. Calvin recognizes the landscape, realizes that he is in the same physical location, and assumes he has been transported into the past. He discovers a farmhouse, and the family, who speak a language like none he has ever heard. He begins to doubt his earlier theory, as these people look European, but do not resemble anyone who lived in Pennsylvania in the past. The home is attacked by soldiers riding horses, armed with swords, spears and muskets. Calvin reacts instinctively, defending his hosts with his service revolver, and then mounts a horse and rallies people fleeing from nearby homes to counterattack. Their efforts are successful, until another cavalry unit sweeps in and Calvin is shot out of the saddle.
Calvin awakes in a castle, and finds that he was shot by Rylla, beautiful but willful daughter of, and heir to, the local prince, Ptosphes. Calvin was saved only because her shot hit his police badge. As he recovers, he learns the language and the political situation. The technology of this land appears similar to the early gunpowder era, with smoothbore muskets and primitive cannons—augmented by spears, pikes, and edged weapons—being the primary weapons of war. The stories of these people indicate that they migrated not over the Atlantic, but from the Pacific. Ptosphes is prince of the land of Hostigos, which encompasses a fair portion of what, in our timeline, is central Pennsylvania. His land is in trouble, though, and an attack by their enemies is imminent. He has drawn the disfavor of the Priests of Styphon, who are the only providers of gunpowder, a substance they claim can only be made with the help of their god. Calvin is surprised by this. An amateur military historian, he knows how to make gunpowder himself, and does so, to the amazement of all. The people of Hostigos quickly begin to make their own gunpowder to defend themselves, and take the battle to the enemy. And “Lord Kalvan,” as he comes to be known, starts to introduce other military innovations as well.
Verkan Vall tracks Calvin down, and after he finds what timeline Calvin ended up in, he takes on the guise of a traveling merchant and goes to assess the impact of Calvin’s arrival. His first goal is to protect the paratime secret, and if that means he needs to kill Calvin, then so be it. He is impressed at how quickly Calvin has adapted to his new situation, and how quickly he has made a significant impact on his new home. Vall participates in an attack on the castle of Tarr-Dombra, the first victory led by Calvin. He goes home filled with admiration for Calvin, and convinces the powers that be to leave him alone and to use his situation to study the impact that a single man can have on history.
Kalvan, by now engaged to Princess Rylla, realizes that he has a tiger by the tail. He knows the priests of Styphon will not rest until this threat to their gunpowder monopoly has been eliminated. They will use their influence, power, and powder to rally surrounding rulers to their cause. Kalvan must use every military technology and tactic he knows to organize, train, and equip his forces, and realizes that any misstep could lead to his death and ruin for his allies. To avoid spoiling the end of the book, I will leave his story here—rest assured, Piper is in his best form as he describes the challenges Kalvan faces, and how he overcomes them. Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen is compact and quickly paced, and the characters are well developed and appealing. The story sweeps you up, and by the time it is over, while the end is satisfying, you want it to continue. It is easy to see why the SF community mourned Piper’s loss so intensely, as this book is a masterful piece of work.
Stories of alternate histories are common in science fiction, and clearly precede the modern development of the field. After all, wondering what would have happened if history had taken a different turn is something everyone indulges in, since our lives turn on so many little incidents and decisions. Historians and writers have speculated what things would have been like if Alexander’s conquest had moved in a different direction, if the South had prevailed in the Civil War, or the Nazis had prevailed in World War II. Some alternate history stories, like the Paratime series, focus on the theory of parallel worlds, and depend of viewpoint characters traveling from one to the other to make observations and comparisons. Some stories simply portray the other world, and let the readers themselves see the differences between this world and our own. Other stories don’t dwell much on the differences, simply using the other world as a fresh canvas on which to paint an adventure story. They give writers a chance to spin new tales while staying on the familiar setting of our own planet. Alternate histories do not usually focus on the hard science aspects of science and space travel, but instead use the tools of the softer sciences of history, economics, and sociology. Over the years, they have grown to be a major sub-genre within the science fiction field.
You cannot consider the life of Piper, and the character of Calvin Morrison, without seeing parallels. Piper, like his character, was an amateur historian, with deep knowledge of weapons and strategy. In his work as a laborer and watchman, he was employed well below the level of his abilities, as Calvin is at the start of the tale. Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen is a cry from the heart, and expresses the longing of a man who feels alienated from his own world, a man who yearns to find a place where he can belong and reach his potential. It is no wonder that the book resonated with so many science fiction fans, who often feel out of place, and are also are drawn to tales that transport them to a different world, if only for a few quiet hours.
H. Beam Piper is still remembered fondly by many science fiction fans, but in my opinion, his work is still not nearly as well-known as it deserves to be. His stories are now lost treasures, but treasures that, thanks to the internet, are easy to unearth and enjoy. If you haven’t encountered his work yet, I urge you to seek out novels like Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, Space Viking, Little Fuzzy, and short stories like “Omnilingual,” which stand among the best science fiction ever written. You will find thrilling adventure, thoughtful speculation, and keen insight into the human condition. You will see why Piper’s untimely death left many science fiction fans, like myself, wishing he could have stayed with us, and written more.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for five decades, especially science fiction that deals with military matters, exploration and adventure. He is also a retired reserve officer with a background in military history and strategy.