Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lone Star Planet by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire

Libertarians in space
Prior to its annexation into the United States, the state of Texas was once an independent nation. What if future Texans decide to relive the glory days of their 19th-century autonomy by relocating to another planet? That’s the premise that underlies the 1958 science fiction novel Lone Star Planet, written by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire. The story takes place in the year 2193. Stephen Silk is a diplomat working for the Solar League, an interplanetary coalition. After publishing an essay that criticizes his government’s policies, he is promoted to the undesirable post of Ambassador to Capella IV, also known as New Texas. A century earlier the planet was founded by a group of colonists from the Lone Star State, and many of their homeland’s traditional customs live on in the planet’s present culture. Silk’s mission is to persuade the reluctant New Texans to join the Solar League, while also investigating the assassination of his predecessor. His task is complicated by the fact that, in the New Texas legal code, the killing of politicians is legal, as long as you can prove that they deserved it.

Piper and McGuire take obvious delight in poking fun at Texan cultural stereotypes. New Texas is the meat supplier of the galaxy. The preferred livestock is a dinosaur-sized race of supercows. The native costume consists of boots, loud shirts, and a pistol on each hip. A raucous barbecue accompanied by square dance music and gunshots is considered a state dinner. While cleverly lampooning the popular image of Texas, the authors simultaneously celebrate the independent spirit and self-sufficiency for which the Lone Star State is famous. This novel is chiefly a work of political satire, but it’s not so much the Texans that are being satirized. It’s the bureaucracy and imperialism of the Solar League. The Texan philosophy of government is pithily summed up as, “Keep a government poor and weak and it’s your servant; let it get rich and powerful and it’s your master.” Thus, the ideological conflict between the Solar League and New Texas is one of big vs. small government. As a result, the novel has been praised by Libertarians.

Lone Star Planet is clever and hilarious at first, but the further one gets into it, the less interesting it becomes. Despite the lively sense of humor and all the sci-fi trappings, its difficult to ignore the fact that you’re reading a book about government, and at times it’s about as much fun as a policy debate. The centerpiece of the plot is a trial, which requires delving deeply into the minutiae of the planet’s fictional judicial system. There is a subplot about an alien invasion by a race of dogmen called the z’Srauff—who may perhaps be intended as the 22nd-century allegorical surrogates for Mexicans—but this intriguing aspect of the book is never satisfactorily developed. This element could have added some much-needed action to the story, but instead it’s treated almost as an afterthought. The book just can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a science fiction novel, a tongue-in-cheek satire, a political thriller, a murder mystery, a philosophical dialogue, or an old-fashioned Western. In striving for all of the above, the different approaches compete with one another and none succeeds.

Piper is a great sci-fi writer, and I’ve never read a bad book by him, but this one is mediocre at best. If you’re a fan of his writing, it won’t be a total waste of your time. The novel inspires some laughs, makes some good points, and at times is surprisingly prescient of contemporary politics and current ideological debates.

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