Monday, March 28, 2016

The Keeper by H. Beam Piper

Might wanna let this one go
H. Beam Piper’s sci-fi story The Keeper was originally published in the July 1957 issue of Venture Science Fiction magazine. It’s what the pulp fiction mags used to refer to as a “novelette”—not quite long enough for a novella but too long to be called a short story. It amounts to about 45 minutes of reading. The Keeper is part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series, in which he invented a detailed fictional chronology of the future of mankind. It’s not necessary to know the whole story of that series to read The Keeper. On the other hand, this isn’t one of Piper’s best efforts, and it will likely appeal mostly to his diehard fans, who will appreciate it as a small component in his grand vision of future world events.

The Keeper starts out, oddly enough, as a Jack London story. A lone traveler, trudging through a snowy landscape, returns to his remote cabin in the woods, where he’s greeted by his two faithful dogs. Though that may sound like a scene from one of London’s Klondike adventures, Piper lets us know right up front that this is taking place in a distant post-apocalyptic future in which Earth is in the throes of another ice age. The man’s name is Raud, but he is known as the Keeper because he acts as guardian over a valuable artifact from man’s distant past. Though he closely guards the relic, rumors of its existence have spread far and wide. Two foreigners from the stars—members of the human diaspora to other worlds—arrive at Raud’s door, asking to see the ancient object.

Despite all the futuristic trappings, the story is basically a Western (or rather, a Northwestern) gunfight. Piper, a ballistics enthusiast, handles the material with skill, but the wilderness adventure and futuristic sci-fi elements end up watering each other down until neither satisfies. Also problematic is the story’s disappointing ending, which leaves the reader wondering, “Why did we just go through all that?” Though Piper wrote a lot of great science fiction adventures, this isn’t one of them. Unless you’re really obsessed with the Terro-Human Future History timeline, The Keeper—despite its title—is one you can safely skip.
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