Monday, December 14, 2015

The Return by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire

Post-apocalyptic reconstruction
Two centuries have passed since the nuclear war of 1996. Mankind has been decimated, and much of the surface of the earth is still encrusted with a glassy slag. Two scientists fly by helicopter over what once was America, looking for isolated pockets of human population. They have so far encountered several tribes, ranging from beast-like cannibals to more civilized bands experimenting with primitive technology. They seek the latter sort, in hopes of reestablishing communication and cooperation between distant representatives of humanity. In what used to be Pittsburgh, they discover a village showing evidence of agriculture. Like anthropologists descending upon an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon, these two ambassadors of civilization touch down to make first contact with the mysterious strangers.

The Return, a short novella by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, was originally published in the January 1954 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. It is a stand-alone work, not associated with any of Piper’s ongoing series. As typical of a Piper tale, the authors quickly draw you in and immerse you in the futuristic world of the narrative. The first half of the book is very engaging and has the makings of a good post-apocalyptic adventure yarn. Piper has always shown a visionary talent for creating alien worlds, and the new society he depicts here likewise displays an admirable creativity. Though rooted in the history of America’s past, this isolated band of survivors has developed their own technology, culture, and religion. The story starts to weaken in its latter half, as the reader begins to realize that it’s all leading up to a sort of punchline. The authors set up a riddle about this newly discovered tribe, one the scientists struggle to unravel, but enough clues are dropped that one is able to figure it out long before they do. When the big secret is revealed in the novella’s last sentence, it’s already a foregone conclusion to the observant reader.

I consider Piper to be one of the greatest science fiction writers of the pulp fiction era, so I approach his works with high expectations. The Return is a fine story, but not up to the calibre of his typical output. In general, I think his collaborations with McGuire produced some of his weakest material. A mediocre offering from Piper is still probably better than 90% of the sci-fi pulp stories out there, but you’d be better off reading one of his solo works from the Paratime series, like Police Operation or Last Enemy.
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