Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Time Crime by H. Beam Piper

Slave trafficking in Paratime
Time Crime, a science fiction novella by H. Beam Piper, was originally published in the February and March 1955 issues of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. It is the fifth story in Piper’s Paratime series. The Paratime Police is a law enforcement agency that governs over the myriad possible timelines in our multiverse. Whenever someone tampers with the natural flow of space-time, these cops, equipped with the technology to travel between timelines, go after the offender and set things right. They attempt to perform this function behind the scenes, unbeknownst to the general populace, so as not to interfere with the development of any civilization or culture.

Time Crime takes place in an alternate Earth where the two major world powers are centered in the Western United States and India, yet the culture appears vaguely Arabic. In the U.S., a food corporation utilizes slave labor on one of its fruit plantations. In this world, slavery is apparently legal, but what’s not acceptable is plucking slaves from some other timeline. That practice messes with the natural order of space-time and threatens to change the course of history. When the Paratime Police discover this slave-trafficking scheme, they attempt to set up a sting operation to infiltrate the slave traders and find out who’s behind the plot. Once again, Paratime agent Verkan Vall is on the scene. This time he’s married, and his wife helps out with the investigation. They discover a shadowy organization called—appropriately enough—The Organization, which may have high-level moles within the very Paratime government itself.

Sound confusing? It is. But like all the Paratime tales, it’s still a fun ride. Time Crime is like an intricately constructed political thriller, along the lines of The Manchurian Candidate, All the President’s Men, or Clear and Present Danger, but loaded with futuristic tech from some dark episode of The Jetsons. Not only does space-time travel play a large part in the story, there’s also a great deal of mind manipulation as well. The police use narco-hypnosis as an interrogation technique, but this can be counteracted by memory obliteration and psycho-rehabilitation. Piper has created this bizarre, complicated multiverse, but he grounds the story with realistic police procedure, government bureaucracy, and military operations. And the names! No one creates better futuristic names than Piper: Phrakor Vuln, Skordran Kirv, Salgath Trod. The slew of V’s and K’s is disorienting at times, but it adds to the fun.

In general, however, Time Crime is a bit heavier than previous Paratime stories, both in length and in subject matter. There is a dystopian feel to this one, due to the nonchalance regarding slavery and a paranoid Cold War-era distrust of government motives. If you’ve never read any of the Paratime stories before, do not start with this one, because you will be lost. Even after reading the earlier adventures of Verkan Vall, like Police Operation and Last Enemy, I felt lost most of the time myself, but Piper has a way of bringing you back into the know after he’s blown your mind with baffling details. Time Crime is not the strongest of the Paratime stories, but it’s better than the previous episode, Temple Trouble. In any case, the Paratime series is my favorite segment of Piper’s body of work. It combines the campy thrills of the ‘50s pulps with the intellectual challenge of hard science fiction. If you’ve enjoyed the previous installments, you’ll like this one too.
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