Monday, May 15, 2017

Oomphel in the Sky by H. Beam Piper

Plantation colonialism, but in space
H. Beam Piper’s novella Oomphel in the Sky was first pulished in the November 1960 issue of the magazine Analog Science Fact and Fiction. The story is part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series, meaning it takes place in the distant future after mankind has colonized numerous planets throughout the galaxy. For the most part, the stories in the series are only loosely connected, however, so despite references to the Terran Federation, no prior knowledge of the series is required to understand or enjoy Oomphel in the Sky.

The story takes place around the 28th century on the planet Kwannon, part of the Gettler star system. The Terrans (humans from Earth) have already established colonies and a military presence on Kwannon in order to exploit its resources. The planet’s main export is a “bio crystal” which grows from a native plant. These plants are grown on plantations run by Terrans, with labor provided by the planet’s native inhabitants, the Kwanns, a race of intelligent humanoids with blue-gray skin. The Gettler star system is a binary system, so the Kwanns have two suns. One of these suns, Gettler Alpha, is about to make its closest approach to the planet Kwannon. While this is natural phenomenon that occurs periodically, the Kwanns see it as the coming of the end of the world. As a result, the usually benign laborers rise up in a series of attacks on the biocrystal plantations, revolting against their Terran masters. Though the Terrans are able to suppress the attacks, more trouble may be imminent as Gettler Alpha approaches. Miles Gilbert, a news reporter, and Foxx Travis, a military officer—both Terrans—set out to find the reason behind the Kwanns’ erratic behavior and quell further rebellion.

Piper is great at creating fantastic worlds with believable cultures, governments, and industries. On the one hand the reader is fully immersed in a fictional universe, while on the other hand the inhabitants of this new world behave pretty much the way we do on Earth in terms of conducting business and war. This allows Piper to use the happenings on his fictional world as metaphors for political, military, and economic phenomena right here on Earth. He’s usually very good at pulling this off, but Oomphel in the Sky is not as successful as most of his work. A big problem with the story is that the plot revolves around the question of, Why are these Kwanns behaving so strangely? To the reader, a newcomers to this planet, it’s all strange. We can’t possibly know what normal Kwann behavior looks like, yet Piper to some extent expects us to know. He dazzles us with his visionary world, but he doesn’t properly orient us to it before he too quickly launches into the problem and resolution of his story.

The word “Oomphel” in the title is a term the Kwanns use to refer to the Terrans’ technological prowess. To the Kwanns, the workings of the Terrans’ advanced machinery is like magic, so they created a word to signify the inexplicable. The colonialism of the story is a little off-putting, since the goal of Gilbert and Travis is to pacify the natives for further exploitation. It’s hard to tell with Piper, however, whether he is condoning colonialism or satirizing it. With Oomphel in the Sky, the latter seems probable, given the interesting things it has to say about how colonizers use religion to subdue their subjects. As usual, he gets his points across within a story that’s fun and entertaining. I wouldn’t consider this one of Piper’s best novellas, but it’s still a strong entry in his impressive body of work.
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