Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Last Enemy by H. Beam Piper

Politics in Paratime
Last Enemy, a novella by H. Beam Piper, was originally published in the August 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It is the third story in Piper’s Paratime series, and the second to feature the adventures of Verkan Vall, special agent for the Paratime Police, who was introduced in the 1948 novella Police Operation. (The first story to take place in the Paratime universe, He Walked Around the Horses, is more of a prologue. It barely relates to the Vall stories.)

In this installment, Vall travels to the Akor-Neb Sector, an alternate timeline of Earth’s future, to rescue a psycho-science researcher who happens to be his ex-wife. On the Akor-Neb world, reincarnation is a proven fact. They don’t even have a word for “death,” but rather refer to the end of a life as “discarnation.” Views differ as to the mechanics of this phenomenon, however, and from two opposing views have sprung two opposing political parties. The statisticalists believe that reincarnation occurs at random. They favor a socialistic society, so that each new incarnation gets a fair chance in the world. The volitionalists believe that individual identity lives outside the body, and consciously chooses the newborn vehicle for its next incarnation. They push for a feudalistic society where the strongest individuals will be rewarded for their ability to reincarnate upwards through the social strata. When the scientist’s research begins to tip the scales in favor of the latter party, she draws the ire of the statisticalists and becomes a target for assassination.

Like Police Operation, Last Enemy is essentially a police procedural in which the cops have the ability to travel to alternate realities. Each new story gives Piper the opportunity to create a whole new civilization, a task at which he is extremely gifted. The Akor-Neb Sector is not just a future Earth with rayguns and airboats. It is a rich and complex universe that Piper endows with intricate cultural, philosophical, political, legal, linguistic, and religious details. He uses this parallel world to make statements about our own. On one page he may be criticizing socialism while on the next he’s giving a Malthusian argument for population reduction. I don’t always agree with Piper’s politics, but I love the creatively ingenious way in which he expresses them. Despite being published over 60 years ago, his ideas are still fresh and thought-provoking. The only thing that dates this story is the way he depicts women with an antiquated chauvinism that is more kitschy than offensive.

The world that Piper has created here may be eminently fascinating, but the story that takes place within it has its weak points. The book suffers a major distraction around its mid-point with an extended scene involving the fighting of duels. Though Piper renders the action sequence quite well, the scene really serves no purpose other than to inject some gratuitous violence into the proceedings. Besides being a sci-fi visionary Piper was also a gun enthusiast, and despite all the deep theoretical thinking that goes on in this story, ultimately it all comes down to ballistics. Piper never lets you forget that this is a cop thriller, after all.

Piper may well be the best time travel writer since H. G. Wells, and the Paratime universe is a fantastic creation. This series is screaming for a television or comic book adaptation to explore its myriad possibilities. Last Enemy is not as good as Police Operation, but I still can’t wait to find out where and when Verkan Vall is headed next.

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