Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Mercenaries by H. Beam Piper

Not one of Piper’s best
“The Mercenaries” is a short story by science fiction writer H. Beam Piper. It was originally published in the March 1950 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. The story takes place in 1965. After the dropping of the atomic bomb, the world has been divided amongst four superpowers. The next big arms race is already underway. All are competing to be the first to put a man on the moon, for the purpose of establishing a fortress there. In this alternate future, scientists form their own independent think tanks and hire themselves out to the highest bidder, essentially functioning as independent nations in their own rite. The story follows one of these mercenary scientific teams as they work through the problems of manned spaceflight. When the leader of the team discovers that, much to the discontent of his employers, one of its nine members is leaking information to the Communists, he sets out to discover and apprehend the mole.

Though essentially it has the plot of a mystery story, Piper doesn’t put a whole lot of effort into the mystery itself. It ends up being about as complicated as a typical case one might find in the files of Encyclopedia Brown. Piper is far more concerned with the world he’s created and its historical and political details. Fortunately, creating alternate worlds is what Piper does best, and he’s one of the best at what he does. In this particular story, however, there’s too much sci-fi window dressing and not enough meaty plot. At times it seems like Piper’s intention is merely to see how many proper nouns he can cram into a single sentence. The unique nature of the scientific team’s political autonomy brings up some interesting legal and ethical issues towards the end, but they’re neither as thought-provoking nor as entertaining as what Piper usually delivers.

Fans of Piper’s work may be interested in knowing that this story is one of the “Hartley yarns,” meaning that it takes place in the same fictional universe as an earlier story, “Time and Time Again,” which featured a character named Hartley. That character is briefly mentioned in “The Mercenaries,” but the two stories are so loosely connected that it’s not necessary to have read that earlier story before reading this one. Readers new to Piper, however, would be better off reading “Time and Time Again” simply because it’s a superior story to this one. Although it’s certainly not bad, “The Mercenaries” is not one of Piper’s better efforts. As an alternative I would recommend reading something from his Paratime series, like “Police Operation,” or his Terro-Human Future History series, beginning with “The Edge of the Knife.”
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