Friday, July 4, 2014

Police Operation by H. Beam Piper

Patrolling Paratime
Police Operation was originally published in the July 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The story opens on a farm somewhere in America. A farmer, a state trooper, and a game warden examine the mutilated carcasses of a cow and a dog, debating the question of what or who is killing livestock in the region. Could it be a bobcat, a lynx, or a psycho with a machete? Given that this novella was written by sci-fi visionary H. Beam Piper, you can bet that the real answer is going to be a lot weirder than all of the above.

H. G. Wells may have invented time traveler fiction, but Piper built his whole career around it, perfected the subgenre, and made it his own. Police Operation is the foundational installment in a sequence of stories Piper wrote through the mid-’60s known as the Paratime series. There’s actually an earlier story, He Walked Around the Horses, that touches on the Paratime universe, but the connection is tangential at best, and it’s here in Police Operation that Piper really lays the groundwork for the Paratime concept. As one would expect from Piper, this ain’t your typical time travel. Rather than going back to the past or forward to the future, paratime travelers explore the multiple alternate timelines that form from myriad deviations in historical events. The timeline in which we live, presumably the same as the story’s opening scene, is only one of a possibly infinite variety of timelines that simultaneously exist in parallel universes.

The rather mundane title of the story is actually quite fitting in an ironic way. The police in question are the Paratime Police, an organization that patrols the various timelines, keeping the temporal peace, if you will. One of the fun things about the story is that Piper has written it much in the style and tone of a traditional cop story. The Paratime Police practice their profession and talk shop just like normal cops, except their daily work involves the intricate complexities of theoretical physics and a lot of futuristic gadgets. When the timecops are sitting around the station jawing with one another, it could be an episode of Dragnet or Barney Miller but for the references to “mavrads” and “hypno-mech indoctrination.”

Like any good cop story, this is more than just a police procedural; it’s an action-adventure story as well. As if the fascinating universe Piper has created isn’t enough, there’s also more than enough suspense to keep you interested. For today’s readers, Police Operation offers plenty of pulp fiction nostalgia, yet it’s still remarkably fresh and thought-provoking as if it could have been written just yesterday. If you’ve never read Piper before, this would be a good place to start. I for one am hooked, and look forward to further adventures in the Paratime series.

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