Friday, February 9, 2018

A Slave is a Slave by H. Beam Piper

A great sci-fi author’s worst story
A Slave is a Slave, a novella by science fiction author H. Beam Piper, was originally published in the April 1962 issue of Analog Science Fact – Science Fiction magazine. This work is part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series of loosely related stories and novellas that chronicle mankind’s extraterrestrial future. In Piper’s fictional timeline, A Slave is a Slave takes place around the year 4093 of our calendar. By this time, the Terran Federation that features so prominently throughout the series has evolved into the Galactic Empire. A Slave is a Slave follows a recurring template in Piper’s fiction of interplanetary colonization: an expeditionary force from the interstellar government, made up of distant descendants of Earth’s humans, arrive at an outlying planet with the intention of annexing it into the Empire. In order to complete their mission, they must overcome the unusual political, economic, and religious customs of the planet’s inhabitants, also members of the human diaspora who settled this new world centuries before.

In this case, the planet in question is Aditya, which is visited by the Empress Eulalie, an Empire ship complete with an imperial prince, government bureaucrats, military commanders, and a noble viceroy ready to be installed into office. The single unique characteristic of Aditya is its system of universal slavery. The planet is currently ruled by a small oligarchy of masters who own the rest of the population outright. Since chattel slavery is illegal in the Galactic Empire, the new conquerors inform the Adityans that this system of slavery must be abolished. The transition proves to be more difficult than expected, however, not only because of resistance on the part of the Adityans but also because of the difficulty of finding what to do with all these emancipated slaves.

I’m a fan of Piper’s fiction and only a few novellas shy of having read his complete published works. Though I typically find much to enjoy in his work, I have to say that A Slave is a Slave may be the worst Piper story I’ve ever read. That’s not to say it is poorly written. He still manages to skillfully structure and craft the narrative with his usual complexity of detail, but there is little to like or enjoy here, and it all feels rather pointless. Worse, it barely qualifies as science fiction. Unlike other worlds of Piper’s creation, Aditya has no interesting environmental conditions, no unique natural resources or industrial exports, no fascinating native life forms. The only aspect of Aditya that’s even discussed is its system of slavery. The story is merely thinly veiled political commentary dressed up with a few space ships. It could just have easily been told in a third world nation on Earth.

That said, it is difficult to tell what comment Piper is actually trying to make. Early on, he briefly touches on the idea that capitalist wage slavery is just a modified form of chattel slavery. Eventually, he seems to be using the story to justify American imperialism, a stance common to Piper’s fiction. He certainly sympathizes more with the colonizers putting down the rabble than with the rabble itself. Finally, Piper, ever the libertarian, pejoratively compares the slaves to proletariats, which allows him to take a few digs at socialism. Coincidentally, the issue of Analog in which this story debuted also featured the novella Mercenary by Mack Reynolds, another case where sci-fi speculation takes a back seat to boring political and military theorizing. It’s hard to understand why sci-fi magazines would publish such mundane stories of military and political bureaucracy, or why sci-fi fans would want to read them. Just about anything Piper wrote is more exciting and imaginative than A Slave is a Slave.
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