Monday, December 29, 2014

Uller Uprising by H. Beam Piper

The perils of (interstellar) colonialism
Uller Uprising, a novel by H. Beam Piper, is the first piece in his series of works known as the Terro-Human Future History, in which he speculatively delineates the future of human civilization, both on Earth and abroad. The story takes place around the year 2400 and focuses on the human colonization of two planets in the Beta Hydrae system—Uller and Niflheim. Uller is an inhabited world with a native population and an established Terran military presence. Niflheim is a harsh, uninhabitable planet utilized for its mineral resources. Uller Uprising was first published in a collection entitled The Petrified Planet, in which scientist John D. Clark described the scientific characteristics of the two hypothetical planets, and then invited sci-fi authors to write fictional stories about them.

Life on Uller is silicon- rather than carbon-based, and the native Ullerans—nicknamed “Geeks” by the Terrans—are intelligent reptilian creatures with four arms and lizard-like heads. They are organized into all manner of confusing races and kingdoms, some of which are friendly towards the Terran colonists and some of which are hostile. Those in the latter category form an organized revolution against the Terran Federation, and it’s up to General Carlos von Schlichten to put a stop to it.

At its beginning and end this book is clever, imaginative, and fun. In the middle, however, there’s about five chapters that wear on you. Piper describes the battle between the Terrans and the rebels with all the detailed minutiae of a scholarly monograph on military history. It’s more like watching pieces on a chess board than experiencing ground-level combat. There are six or seven space vehicles at play, and the reader is continually kept abreast of where they are, what they’re hauling, and where they’re headed. Piper is an unapologetic gun nut, and he lovingly describes the calibre and capabilities of each and every piece of armament employed in the conflict.

Piper’s works often reveal his rather conservative political views, and rarely is that more apparent than in this novel. Early in the book there’s a smidgen of lip service given to “Geek rights,” but overall the book is clearly in favor of the conquerors subduing their primitive subjects and protecting the imperialist interests of the Federation. Independence is clearly not an option for the Ullerans, as they require the helping hand of their big brothers from Earth to guide them through the process of civilizing themselves. What the Terrans finally come up with as the answer to all their prayers—the linchpin that will put an end to the rebellion—will seem ridiculous to today’s readers, but it’s a beautifully kitschy reflection of the American mindset in the early 1950s.

I don’t agree with the message of the book or with Piper’s political views, nor do I share his ballistic enthusiasm, but I do admire his visionary imagination and his ability to create fascinating and intricately detailed alternate worlds. He does a brilliant job of visualizing Dr. Clark’s theoretical planets and crafting a site-specific adventure story around them. If you take Uller Uprising at face value as futuristic pulp fiction, it’s a lot of fun. Though not as entertaining as some of the works in Piper’s Paratime series, I am now sufficiently intrigued by the Terro-Human Future History concept to want to follow the series and see where it leads.

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