Monday, November 3, 2014

Temple Trouble by H. Beam Piper

Get me to the church on (para)time
Paratime Police officer Verken Vall is at it again. H. Beam Piper’s science fiction novella Temple Trouble was originally published in the April 1951 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. In this fourth installment of the Paratime series, Vall is once again tasked with maintaining order and keeping the peace in one of the myriad alternate timelines that exist in a different space-time reality than our own. On many of these parallel timelines, in the Fourth Level Proto-Aryan Sector, there exists a pre-mechanical civilization that worships a six-armed god named Yat-Zar. The same bureaucracy that governs the Paratime Police has co-opted this god for their own ends and installed their transtemporal agents as priests within his temples. They use this religious subterfuge to conceal the fact that they are mining these worlds’ uranium and transporting it back to their own timeline. In Piper’s Paratime universe, there are all sorts of rules and regulations that restrict transtemporal travelers from messing with other timelines, but apparently raping other civilizations of their resources is OK as long as one can go about it undetected. On one particular timeline, however, a political coup has overthrown the existing king in favor of a new ruler, who establishes a new god, Muz-Azin, in place of the convenient Yat-Zar. Some of the priests/miners are captured and sentenced to brutal torture and human sacrifice. It’s up to Vall and his team to rescue these prisoners before the bloodshed starts.

If that sounds confusing as all get out, I assure you Piper’s telling is even more bewildering. The first half of Temple Trouble is basically a disorienting mess of proper nouns which, typical of ‘50s sci-fi, are composed primarily of X’s, K’s, and V’s. It’s difficult if not impossible to keep track of who exactly belongs to which religious sect or political faction. In Piper’s works, overwhelming the reader is intentional; he draws you into his complex world by subjecting you to full immersion. Thankfully, the second half of the book is basically a rescue operation, and an entertaining one at that. As usual, Piper combines familiar action-movie gunplay with mind-bending futuristic gadgets. The fictional universe of Paratime is a brilliant construction, and Piper exploits his creation’s possibilities to the fullest. He never settles for the most simple or convenient solution to a story, but always opts for a complicated plot with political intricacy and philosophical depth.

If you’ve never read H. Beam Piper, this is not the way to introduce yourself to his work. You’d be better off starting with the earlier and more user-friendly novella Police Operation. Those who already enjoy Piper’s writing and are familiar with his Paratime universe will have to admit that this is not the best installment in the series, but it does deliver enough of its author’s visionary imagination and wry sense of humor to satisfy ardent fans. Verken Vall has had more interesting and exciting adventures than this, but a ride-along with him on Paratime patrol is never a waste of time.

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