Star Runners: a New Book by Clayton J. Callahan

I have always loved the short story, once the foundation of a SF author’s career, it is still a beautiful art form that could use a little more room to breathe in this modern age. And I especially like when short stories share a connection such as in H. Beam Piper’s Federation or Keith Laumer’s Bolos: The Honor of The Regiment, and last but not least David Drake’s Space Dreadnoughts.

So, what the heck, I decided to write one myself.

Having written three novels in the Star Run setting, I decided to use that for the connection. After all, in each novel, I presented the reader with a fully formed universe much of which I only had the chance to refer to obliquely. In Star Runners I gave myself the opportunity to expand on those references in a way that is adventurous, humorous, dramatic, and fun.

I hope you appreciate this exploration of the universe and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Clayton J. Callahan

H. Beam Piper’s Federation

The short story is perhaps a dying art in science fiction. Once, it was the number one venue for new authors to cut their teeth on. Giants like Heinline, Asimov, and Clark all got their start writing fiction for some of the many short story mags of the mid 20th century. In those earlier times, commuters would hit up the magazine stand at their local bus stop or train station for a copy of Weird Tales, Science Fiction Analog, or Galaxy magazine so they could pass the time with a quick yard during the ride home. It was a lucrative business, and many a novel that would go on to win Hugo Awards had its genesis as a pulp story.

H. Beam Piper was no exception of course. Now, I freely admit that Piper is one of my influences. Despite his occasional militarism and misogyny, I appreciate his craftsmanship and storytelling. He created a fully formed and believable future, warts and all, and I cut my teeth as a reader on his Little Fuzzy books when I was but a lad. Sadly, his career was cut short by his suicide in 1964, bringing his story to a rather abrupt conclusion.

However, he had friends and one of them, a guy named Jerry Pournelle, took the pains to collect his short stories and bind them together into one volume. The title of this posthumous pice is Federation, and I must say it’s one of my absolute favorite books of all time.

The stories all take place in Piper’s future interstellar federation, and it’s the same universe that Pappy Jack and the Space Vikings inhabit. Pournelle has taken pains to organize Piper’s stories chronologically so we can see the future unfolding through snippets and venues. My personal favorite has to be Piper’s Graveyard of Dreams, wherein a young man returns from college to a junkyard planet that was once the hub of an interstellar war. Now, possing advanced scientific knowledge, he hasn’t the heart to tell his father’s friends that their dreams of finding a lost military supercomputer are not going to come true and thus their world will forever be in the economic doldrums of the galaxy…unless he can spin a lie of gossamer that will take them to the stars!

If your a fan of Piper’s and haven’t read this amazing book yet, it is still available on Amazon. If your not a fan of pipers, however, the book is still available on Amazon so what are you waiting for?

Happy reading.

Clayton J. Callahan

Libertarianism in Science Fiction

I am a huge fan of old school sci-fi. Robert A. Heinlein, H. Beam Piper, Larry Niven, Gordon R. Dickson and Jerry Pournelle were some of my favorite authors back in my youth and I still enjoy revisiting them today.

However, upon revisiting, I’ve become aware of something that was surely obvious at the time (I simply lacked the context to notice it). Most of my favorite SF authors were Libertarians. And as these were some of the most popular science fiction writers of the time, that makes me reflect on the place of Libertarianism in speculative fiction.

Definition: Libertarianism- an extreme laissez-faire political philosophy advocating only minimal state intervention in the lives of citizens.

Libertarianism is a powerful force in US politics today. With the financial backing of people like the billionaire Koch brothers, it has swept into the philosophic underpinnings of modern conservatism and the Republican party. Libertarianism is an anathema to socialism and its adherence tend to view even modest public support programs like public schools as somehow communistic. And before we go any further–full disclosure, I am not a Libertarian.

However, Robert A. Heinlein definitely was. And the heroes of his novels were just the kind of guys that Libertarians strives to be; self-reliant, capable, men of action who earn what they’ve got and feel no need to share. Curiously, Heinlein was also a bit of a militarist. He himself had graduated from the US Naval Academy and served a few years as a naval officer in peacetime. In one of his most well-known works, Starship Troopers, service to the state is considered the highest moral good and military service is prized above all. And, folks, if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction with the freewheeling individualism of an ardent Libertarian I don’t know what does.

This kind of militarized Libertarianism is also found in the works of one Jerry Pournelle, who’s series concerning John Christian Falkenberg (The Mercenary) features a military hero fighting for “freedom” against “socialist” of the colonial frontier led by the morally dubious Grand Senator Bronson. In Pournelle’s future history, a well-meaning but inept bureaucratic government establishes “welfare islands;” neighborhoods where everybody lives on public assistance and no opportunity exists for economic advancement except for crime. Street gangs run rampant in these areas and when the government forces the populations to relocate off-world, criminal gangs pose a threat to the colonial governments. Salvation lies in the hiring of mercenary troops (private enterprise?) to vanquish the gangs and force people to rely on themselves to build sustainable, free market, societies.

Gordon R. Dixon also seems to have taken a big drink at Heinlein’s well just before he penned his Dorsi novels. The Dorsi are soldiers for hire who support their homeworld by fighting in other people’s wars. The planet Dorsi itself is a collection of homesteads where families sustain themselves through farm work and independent living.

Now, to be sure, these old SF authors differed in their ideas concerning a utopian Libertarian society from the ideas of the modern Republican Libertarian movement. True, modern American Libertarianism is rife with military idolatry, but it is also chalk full of religious conservatism that is wholly absent from the authors I’m referring to. The grand master himself, Heinlein, was famously liberal in his sexual morals. And in book after book, he crafted societies where group marriage and libertine sex were not in the least uncommon or looked down upon.

So, what gives? Why was Libertarianism so in vogue with early SF writers?

Well, every culture has a mythology, well-constructed fantasies that work to convince people that they are from a special breed of men and women who fill a role unlike any other in world history. For Americans, that mythos is found in the Western. And all of these authors grew up in the cultural shadow of the American Western. The movies, dime-novels, short story magazines, and later the TV shows of that time were dominated by men in wide hats who wore six-guns and solved problems without help from outside resources.

Western fiction portrays strong pioneer characters who struck out on their own to carve out a homestead with their own two hands. These bold heroes didn’t rely on a government to protect them (although they seemed only too glad to accept help from the sheriff, US cavalry, or even a random masked stranger sometimes). No, my friends, these American cowboys were the real deal; tough, independent, and the perfect example of frontier virtue. It is not hard at all to see how early science fiction writers would gravitate to this mythological model when envisioning life on some far future frontier world.

Of course, the myth hardly ever matches the reality. A lot of the settlement of the American west had to do more with folks pitching in and cooperating with each other than rugged individuals toiling alone. In fact, the Mormons can be argued to be one of the more successful pioneer groups, and they succeeded in large part due to their collective approach to problem-solving. But myth is often more powerful than truth simply because it has the ability to grab our attention and hold it for longer. And what is science fiction, or any fiction, other than a collection of entertaining myths?

As to the militarism, I think World War II had everything to do with that. All of these authors lived through that war and some (Gordon R. Dixon) even fought in it. So there was a respect for the military that had been earned in blood right before these author’s eyes.

And two decades before Vietnam caused America to question the rightness of war, these writers watched young men and women sacrifice wholesale for the collective good of our nation and our world. Therefore, despite the contradictions between selfless service to the state and freewheeling individualism, they personally placed a high value on all things military. And perhaps, as these authors matured in their careers throughout the 1960s and 70s, they felt they had something to say to the Baby Boom generation that viewed war as a less than noble enterprise.

Today, cowboy movies are no longer quite in vogue and there are many more of us are alive who remember the flawed wars of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afganistan than the outright victories of World War II. And with the rise of the Republican party, the American people today are no longer so enchanted with a Libertarianism that clears the way for the rich to get richer but doesn’t do much for the rest of us. Where is the new generation of SF writers you may ask? I would point to Zack Penn and Ernest Cline who gave us Ready Player One.

The new science fiction hero is the rebel who resists the heartless world that the fat cats have imposed and struggles for a better society for us all. And where in all this is the work of your humble Clayton J. Callahan?

Well, I would put myself in the middle. I was once part of the military and do have respect for it, however, I know the army too well to see the services as a panacea for all of socialities woes. I also value individual hard work and believe one should keep what one earns. However, I also feel strongly that wealth is meant to be put to work on behalf of others so that everybody can get a chance at moving up.

After all, none of us got where we are entirely on our own…not even the great authors of the past (don’t believe me? Read their dedications).

 

I Just Read Space Viking by H. Beam Piper.

Space Viking
Never heard of it? Perhaps not, but it’s a trophy sought by old-school science fiction fans and a guidebook to the origins of much space opera that came after it.

Piper is best known for his Little Fuzzy books about cute little aliens who befriend a grumpy old prospector on a far-off planet. Those books have been in and out of print for years and there’s even an updated version of the novel by John Scalzi (author of Old Man’s War). Although a rather prolific author, Piper’s career was stopped short by his suicide in 1964. Coincidentally, that is the year Space Viking was released, a book which his fans often praise as the best work ever.

For decades I’ve hoped to come across a copy at a used bookstore or science fiction convention. Now, due to the magic of the internet, I was able to procure a used original 1964 paperback (and even then it took some doing). So now that I’ve read this legendary book, what do I think of it?

Well…

I found it fascinating how Marc W. Miller cut and pasted so much of Piper’s universe to write the hugely popular role-playing game Traveller. The setting of the novel is the far future, but characters still carry titles such as duke and baron as they fight over interplanetary fiefdoms. The emphasis of Space Viking lives is also very Traveller; they simply strive to amass wealth and power over their enemies. In fact, the plot of the book can be described as: her creates and equips a starship, goes into combat, amass wealth, and uses wealth to upgrade equipment and expand power base–then goes into combat, and repeat.

With this in mind, there is very little exploration of the characters as three-dimensional people. Our hero, Trask, makes rational decisions, builds his empire for…reasons, and only rarely shows any sentimentality or desire outside his political goals. Also, in the tradition of OLD SCHOOL gamers, there are no women playing active roles in this novel. One ship is said to have a female captain, but we never meet her and the ship explodes in battle. All the other female characters are love interests at best and window dressing at worst. This jives with the ascetic of 1964 I suppose (If Mad Men is to be taken as factually based), but without active women in this universe, how impressed am I supposed to be by the men?

It is said that science fiction author Jerry Pournelle and H. Beam Piper were friends, and I can see how the two men had a lot in common. Apparently, this was especially true in the field of politics. As in Pournelle’s works, Piper presents an almost Ayan Randian philosophy; the man in charge who inherits wealth should not be ashamed to use it—for by doing so intelligently, society will prosper as a side effect. Whereas, the man (and yes it’s always a man) who organizes the rabble and fights for social justice is the villain who’s misguided philosophy will destroy the galaxy…or whatever. In Space Viking, characters talk at length about these subjects and it’s clear where Piper stood in the matter.

So, yes, the book is flawed and dated. But I still recommend it as a study in Science Fiction anthropology because it’s clear many major players in science fiction have read this book. For example, Gorge Lucas lifted the name for planet Hoth right off the pages. As a kid in the 1980s, I played an awful lot of Traveller so I must admit that Piper’s last novel influenced my own writing quite a bit (read The Adventures of Crazy Liddy if you don’t believe me).

Space Viking is also a study of what works and what doesn’t work in space opera. When a reader picks up a book with a title such as Space Viking he or she expects lots of action and peril, not a lot of political talks. Besides, there is something “clay pidgin” about expressing one-sided politics in science fiction. The author, after all, sets up the targets and it’s no surprise to the reader when he hits the bulls-eye from two feet away.

By Clayton J. Callahan