Thursday, January 8, 2009

On "Five Sci-Fi Short Stories" by H. Beam Piper ***

I haven't read too much science fiction, though I intend one day to get down to reading a list of the absolute classics, much as I did with mysteries and pulp fiction. In the latter case, I actually became a kind of fan. I learned to appreciate a genre I hadn't paid much attention. Certainly, there is plenty of bad crime fiction, but that's not enough reason to dismiss the whole lot. I figure the same is likely true of science-fiction.

About a decade ago, I read Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I found the writing style to be pretty unmemorable. What intrigued me about it were the plot and the ideas. And I guess, really that's what science fiction usually excels in--ideas or well-crafted plots. Being a literary fiction person, plot is not something I typically read for; though I do enjoy something that is well put together that way, I'm not motivated generally to seek out such works.

I would say that Piper's work falls into that sci-fi mode. Of the five stories presented in this collection, two I could have probably gone without reading. The plots were derivative, the ideas not terribly fresh. But I was digging on Piper by the third story. Now, suddenly, the plots took on a freshness reminiscent of a good movie. A dictator travels in a time machine and ends up in a place he didn't expect with unexpected consequences. A set of farmers chase after some wild creature, little realizing just what that creature is. A young man's return from education on another planet promises much for his home--or maybe nothing at all. In this latter story, the people's hopes become a taking off point for discussion on what gives us hope and how real that hope is. If Piper's stories faulter anywhere, it's probably in that he sees a need to explain the pseudoscience to his readers. Maybe sci-fi people get into that; for me, however, if it's not real science, I'm not particularly interested in the theoretical aspects of space travel.

Piper's collection is in the public domain. You can listen to the stories here.

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