Saturday, June 08, 2013

H. Beam Piper: A Biography, A Review

     John F. Carr has done a remarkable job of piecing together the life of SF writer H. Beam Piper.  It could not have been easy to do. Piper himself was not much help, as he enjoyed spreading tall tales about himself, from claiming he loathed his first name, "Horace" (it was Henry) to suggesting he'd actually drifted over from a different timeline (along with multiple generations of ancestors?).  Indeed, published biographical blurbs contradict one another on details as basic as his day job.

     Carr picks his way through the underbrush to reveal a man remarkably like his heroes.  Unlike many writers, H. Beam Piper is pretty much the guy you'd expect after reading his fiction.  He was also no overnight success, spending twenty years writing fiction before selling any of it.  Slick as his writing was, he struggled with ideas and execution, frustrated by a self-defeating habit of leaping into the writing before he'd worked out the plot. (A-hem.)

     More than a "writer's story," Carr's well-researched biography shows the reader who Piper was in real life, getting inside his personality as much as that very private man made possible.  I enjoyed most of the book except for the ending, but that's not Carr's fault: Piper's life ended badly.  His finances were never good (nor his money-management) and after his day job had come to an end, he struggled to make a living writing.  When his agent died suddenly, leaving his affairs in disarray, Piper was literally starving.  Too proud to ask for help, he shot himself when he was 60 years old.

     I recommend the book as well as H. Beam Piper's body of work.  While some of the latter is a little dated -- many of his male characters seem unable to refer to women as anything but "girls" and there's a whole lot of smoking* and pencil/paper/film/tape/slide rule use that feels quaint as a Model T -- conversely, his work includes a lot of strong, competent females and the occasionally-clunky details are easly to overlook or even fix.  If you like hard SF along the lines of Campbell's editing or Heinlein's fiction, Piper deserves a look.

     The bio is a bit pricey ($45, American) and I read it courtesy of the generosity of Fuzzy Curmudgeon in loaning his copy. I've ordered my own; it deserves a place on my shelf next to the bios of Verne, Lovecraft, Russell and Heinlein.
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* OTOH, if there was a way to smoke without the stench/mess/heath risks, would I take it up again?  Possibly.  So it's just a reflection of modern bias and smoking really shouldn't make a story feel dated -- but it does.

8 comments:

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

You're right, the ending sucks. Had he lived another 20 years, ah, the books we might have read...

Robin said...

Thanks for giving me a heads up to the book. I'm a huge H.Beam Piper fan (boo hiss on John Scalzi's mangling of Little Fuzzy).

John Carr and Roland Green also published a sequel to Piper's "Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen" as "Great King's War".

Ed Bonderenka said...

I loved Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. Might be the only Piper I read, but I read a lot of SF and conflated authors. I was thinking Kalvan was his, but not sure.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

Carr has also self-published a number of Lord Kalvan books.

Roberta X, remotely said...

He wrote "Kalvan...," Ed.

Earl said...

My favorite authors like many of my favorite bloggers deserve to be noticed by others, but if I dig too deep the magic disappears right before my eyes. Study of Literature and why they wrote that book that way - drives me back to the library to find an unknown author, with a surprising story to tell - I live the story, and don't need the background noise. It seems there is an industry out there.

Roberta X said...

That's interesting -- I find quite the opposite and guys like Avram Davidson and Eric Frank Russell become all the more interesting as I know more about them. Knowing more made better sense of things like the later work of James Blish (probably really by his wife and mother-in-law, in a desperate effort to generate income to care for the ailing writer).

It has also taught me that, sad though it made me at the time, Mom and Dad were right and writing fiction is not a viable career choice for most folks. I do wish they'd found it an acceptable hobby, though.

AM said...

Project Gutenberg has a number of H. Beam Piper novels free for download. I really enjoy this future we live in where a library fits into my little Kobo ereader for a deployment.