Friday, June 27, 2014

He Walked Around the Horses by H. Beam Piper

One-trick pony
H. Beam Piper
“He Walked Around the Horses,” a story by H. Beam Piper, was originally published in the April 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Falling somewhere between a long short story and a short novella, it takes about 40 minutes to read.

In 1809, Benjamin Bathurst, a British envoy on a diplomatic mission, is travelling in a four-horse coach from Vienna to Hamburg. Midway through the trip, he and his secretary stop to have lunch at an inn. After their meal, as they return to their coach, Bathurst walks around the horses from one side of the vehicle to the other. As he does so, he momentarily blacks out. When he comes to his senses, his coach is gone, as are his secretary, valet, and coachman. Bathurst reenters the inn, but finds a different innkeeper, and no one on the premises seems to recognize him. At least this is the story that the diplomat asserts when the police find him at the inn, very distraught and raving like a lunatic. But for his momentary anger, he appears to be a sane man, and the authorities wish to assist him in any way they can. Even more puzzling than the alleged vanishing, however, are the mysterious diplomatic documents Bathurst carries in his briefcase.

The narrative of Bathurst’s baffling case is told entirely in the form of police reports, eyewitness depositions, and letters from one Prussian bureaucrat to another. It starts out as a mystery worthy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but anyone who’s at all familiar with the work of H. Beam Piper will surely have an inkling that there’s probably more to this enigma than your typical detective tale. Sure enough, it soon becomes apparent to the reader what’s going on. This story is founded on a very clever idea, but after the initial surprise wears off it becomes somewhat monotonous. The mysterious occurrence is merely described from different viewpoints, but neither developed nor explained any further. As a result, this feels more like a preliminary sketch for a larger work than it does a complete story in and of itself. “He Walked Around the Horses” is in fact very loosely connected to a later series of stories and novels by Piper, but so loosely connected that no prior knowledge of that series is required to read this particular piece.

Piper is a great writer and this is a good story. Compared to 90% of the science fiction that came out of the pulp magazines this could be considered a great story, but by Piper standards this is not his best work. Diehard fans should read all the Piper they can get their hands on, this one included, but casual readers should avoid this story in favor of better pieces like “The Edge of the Knife,” “Police Operation,” or “Flight from Tomorrow.”

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