Friday, August 4, 2017

Four-Day Planet by H. Beam Piper

Space whalers revolt!
Four-Day Planet, a science fiction novel by H. Beam Piper, was originally published in 1961. The story takes place in Piper’s Terro-Human Future History universe, which deals with mankind’s colonization of the galaxy centuries in the future. Readers of that series will recognize the familiar convention of planets named after Norse deities, as seen in Uller Uprising and Graveyard of Dreams (though no prior knowledge of the Future History series is required).

The story of Four-Day Planet takes place on Fenris, a world that spins so slowly it only makes four complete rotations a year. This creates extremely long periods of sunlight and shade, resulting in extreme seasons ranging from a Mercury-hot summer to a Jupiter-cold winter (I’m approximating). Because of this, the human population is forced to live either underground or in enclosed cities. Not surprisingly, Fenris is a sparsely populated planet, and somewhat of a galactic backwater. The primary attraction for colonization is resource extraction. The main export of Fenris is “tallow wax,” a substance harvested from the corpses of sea monsters, much like the spermaceti taken from the heads of sperm whales. This substance, valued for its radiation-shielding properties, is collected by hunters operating in ships that are essentially submarines that can fly. The hunters see little profit from their dangerous work, however, as their hunters’ co-op has been co-opted by crooked gangsters and corrupt politicians who steal most of the revenue from tallow wax exports. Fed up with this arrangement, the hunters decide to revolt against this tallow wax mafia and regain economic control of the fruits of their labors.

Piper is an expert on crafting bizarre and complicated fictional worlds that nonetheless maintain a ring of authenticity, but Fenris is not one of his more visionary creations. The four-day year concept isn’t really utilized much, except to justify a harsh environment that serves as the backdrop for a survival story. Mostly this is a novel of political and military strategy, a chess game between two opposing factions using economic, political, and combat tactics to outsmart one another. As always, there are plenty of guns to satisfy Piper’s ballistic obsession.

Though it may not blow you away with theoretical sci-fi speculation, Four-Day Planet is a good adventure story. Sometimes the plot gets bogged down too deeply in the business and chemistry of the tallow wax industry, bringing a slow halt to the action. In keeping with Piper’s libertarian bent, the book delivers a subtle message against labor unions (they lead to corruption) and government regulation (it stifles economic growth) in favor of a free market economy, but compared to some of his other works he doesn’t lay it on too thickly. As in many a good western or film noir, the gangsters who oppress the monster hunters merely serve the narrative purpose of setting up the latter faction as freedom fighters struggling for independence. The large ensemble cast of players in this conflict, each with his own often-hidden motives, is confusing at first, but by the end the reader is fully involved with all the various parties and their complex relationships. Though not one of Piper’s more visionary works, Four-Day Planet is an entertaining read that delivers its fair share of fun and excitement.
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