Friday, January 1, 2021

Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen by H. Beam Piper

Military history of an alternate universe
H. Beam Piper’s science fiction novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen is the final installment in his Paratime series. The novel, published in 1965, is actually an amalgamation of two novellas, Gunpowder God and Down Styphon!, that were previously published in the pages of Analog Science Fiction magazine. In the Paratime series, an advanced human civilization has discovered that multiple universes exist, each with its own unique timeline that varies from the history of our Earth. A law enforcement agency, the Paratime Police, is charged with keeping this discovery a secret and stopping those who criminally use paratemporal travel for their own personal gain.

When paratime travelers jump from one timeline to another, bystanders occasionally get caught in the time displacement field of the conveyor equipment. Calvin Morrison, an officer of the Pennsylvania State Police, is one such hapless victim of this phenomenon. Though he knows nothing about paratime, he is accidentally pulled from our Earth and transported to an alternate world. The Pennsylvania landscape is still recognizable, but the civilization that resides there is very different. Morrison finds himself in an America with a European feudal society that has reached a level of technology roughly equivalent to our Earth’s 17th century. Rather than lament his involuntary displacement, Officer Morrison decides to make lemons from lemonade. As a history buff, he has studied enough wars to enable him to introduce military technologies that the inhabitants of this world have never seen. For example, one religious cult has maintained a monopoly on the manufacture of gunpowder, attributing its powers to magic. Morrison, however, knows the basic underlying chemistry of gunpowder and is able to impart that knowledge to his allies. In reward for his military prowess and scientific contributions, Calvin is dubbed Lord Kalvan of the kingdom of Hostigos and assumes command of that nation’s armed forces.

Given the alternate universe angle, this is technically science fiction, but it reads more like military history. Piper obviously revels in the minutiae of troop movements within the fictional world he has created. The resulting novel is like sitting beside a weapons enthusiast as he plays a solitary wargame you only partially understand. Personally, I didn’t really care much when Hostigos deployed 500 cavalry and 1500 infantry with four eight-pounders of artillery to outflank their enemies. Those sorts of details are what make up the bulk of the text in this novel. Readers who are interested in that degree of specificity in military matters will feel right at home in Piper’s personal military fantasy camp.

The science fiction, fan, however, will likely be more interested in what Piper has to say about Paratime. As always, Paratime Police officer Verkan Vall is on the case. This novel’s opening chapters and epilogue go into much fascinating detail about the mechanics of Piper’s Paratime multiverse. For that reason, this is a valuable book in the Paratime series, but such passages only occupy a small portion of what is mostly a military narrative.

After Piper’s death, a few science fiction writers published a Kalvan series of half a dozen novels set in this alternate history. Though I haven’t read any of those non-Piper works, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen hardly seems to merit such treatment. This is a fine science fiction novel, but not one of Piper’s best works. I prefer other Paratime adventures that focus more on Verkan Vall, such as Police Operation, Last Enemy, or Time Crime.

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