AUTHOR: H. Beam Piper
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
PUBLISHER: Ace Books, New York, 1981 (ISBN: 0-441-20557-7-250)
- Terro-Human Future History Chronology
- Introduction, by John F. Carr
- The Edge of the Knife
- A Slave is a Slave
- Ministry of Disturbance
- The Return (with John J. McGuire)
- The Keeper
Last time out, I featured FEDERATION, the first of two collections gathering together the short fiction of H. Beam Piper’s classic Terro-Human Future History cycle. This time it’s the turn of EMPIRE, the second collection of stories set in that future history.
The book starts with an excellent three-page chronology of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History, put together from dates, events and other data spread over all of Piper’s short fiction and novels. This is followed by yet another fascinating and detailed ten-page Introduction by Piper scholar John F. Carr, which gives a lot of useful additional details on the future history as related in the five stories in this collection.
The five stories in the FEDERATION collection are from the earlier phase of Piper’s Future History, whereas the five stories in EMPIRE cover the later stages of that Future History, with the exception of The Edge of the Knife, which is unique in that it is set in the more contemporary timeframe of the early 1970s, pre-dating the formation of the Federation, and thus placing the story effectively outside of the future history itself.
I haven’t read this collection for years, but I have fond memories of The Keeper, Ministry of Disturbance, and The Edge of the Knife, although I remember very little about either A Slave is a Slave or The Return (which are lined up for a much-needed re-read in the not-too-distant future). If they turn out to be even half as good as the other stories, that will be the cream on top of the cake, as far as I’m concerned.
The Keeper, in particular, is very moody and atmospheric, and is one of my favourite Piper stories, in my opinion bettered by only Omnilingual (I’ve always found it funny that my two favourite stories in Piper’s Future History chronology are, by their positions in that future history, the very first, Omnilingual, and the very last, The Keeper). The Keeper allows us the only available brief and tantalizing glimpses into the mysterious far future of the Fifth Empire, and is also the only known story written by Piper which is set beyond the end of the First Empire. The rest of the existing Terro-Human Future History Chronology doesn’t go beyond the First Empire, which makes The Keeper seem strange and out of place compared to the other stories, until we accept that it is the only surviving proof that Piper intended to write other stories extending his future history far into the distant future.
Aside from the few snippets of background information contained in The Keeper, we know absolutely nothing about Piper’s plans for developing the details of these distant far-future eras of his chronology. According to Jerry Pournelle, who had a lot of contact with Piper back in the day, he had certainly planned something much bigger. Pournelle has always asserted that he had seen Piper’s folders full of extensive notes and details of a much longer and more complex future history chronology. Tragically, those notes were lost after Piper’s suicide, and all that we’re left with is a big bunch of “maybes” and “what-might-have-beens”, only too aware that the future history material which (fortunately) still exists in print, as good as it is, gives us only a tiny portion of the greatness that might have been.
As it stands, EMPIRE is a very strong collection, and already contains at least three of my favourite Piper stories, plus the excellent chronology and introduction. And as such, it’s definitely well worth adding to any aspiring SF reader’s bookshelf.