Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Day of the Moron by H. Beam Piper

An intriguing title, but a dull story
Day of the Moron, a novella by H. Beam Piper, was originally published in the September 1951 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. It is considered one of three stories in a series known as the “Hartley Yarns,” which began with the 1947 story “Time and Time Again.” Outside of a brief mention of a President Hartley, however, there’s little or no connection to the other two tales. If you haven’t read any of the previous Hartley Yarns, don’t let that stop you from reading this book. On the other hand, what should stop you from reading this book is that it’s mediocre at best and not one of Piper’s better efforts.

The story is set in the near future of 1968. Engineer Scott Melroy is working at a nuclear power plant in Long Island, supervising the installation of a new cybernetic control system. A number of strict security measures have been put in place at the plant to prevent against sabotage. Melroy, however, is concerned about another deadly threat: idiot employees. He brings in a psychologist to examine everyone on his staff to determine if anyone is mentally deficient. This draws the ire of the Industrial Federation of Atomic Workers, a union which claims such intelligence testing violates the rights of their members. While this controversy heats up, can Melroy keep the reactor running safely and securely?

I can imagine the readers of Astounding Science Fiction being pretty disappointed with this offering from Piper, as I was. The only thing that qualifies it as science fiction is its setting at a nuclear power plant. Mostly it’s a series of legal arguments between Melroy and representatives of the union. Piper uses the story as a voicebox for his anti-union views. Another important issue at hand is nuclear security, a matter that’s still a concern today. Piper doesn’t mention the possible theft of radioactive materials for making weapons, but rather focuses on the possibility that a saboteur or a moron could wipe out the power supply to millions of people. He points out that the consolidation of electricity into giant grids managed by a few companies increases the chances for catastrophe. Along the same lines, he also briefly mentions food and water sabotage. These are all important topics, and holding forth on them is Piper’s prerogative, but in this case they don’t make for an interesting or entertaining story. Piper’s a great writer, and he handles this material in a competent manner, but it’s far from exciting. What’s missing is Piper’s wacky visionary audacity. The intriguing and unorthodox title promises more than this mundane novella delivers.

For Piper fans, pretty much everything he wrote is worth reading, but this is far from his best work. Day of the Moron may be a difficult title to resist, but unless you’re set out to tackle his complete works, you can safely avoid reading this one.
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