Friday, January 27, 2017

Ministry of Disturbance by H. Beam Piper

Imperial intrigue in mankind’s distant future
H. Beam Piper’s science fiction novella Ministry of Disturbance first appeared in the December 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. The story takes place in the fictional universe of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History timeline. Though the stories in the series are, for the most part, unconnected and can be read in any order, they do make reference to common historical events in the future of mankind. The reader will find mention of the planet Uller from Uller Uprising, for example, or the Fuzzies and the Space Vikings from Piper novels that weren’t even written yet. You don’t need to know all the details of this alternative timeline to enjoy the story, but it does give you a greater appreciation for the author’s ingenious grand plan. Piper’s visionary fiction is consistently a cut above his contemporaries, and this is one of his better novellas.

The events of Ministry of Disturbance occur in the 50th century of our calendar. The galaxy is ruled by the Empire, which governs 1,365 inhabited worlds populated by 14 or 15 intelligent species. Despite occasional squabbling between worlds, the Empire has managed to maintain relative peace, stability, and economic prosperity for the past half millennium. The story opens in the private chamber of His Imperial Majesty Paul XII, the supreme potentate of this galactic domain. Though he may be the ruler of a trillion and a half subjects, Paul is far from the typical imperious tyrant one usually finds in these situations. Instead, Piper makes Paul a government bureaucrat who’s grown tired of his job. We follow along on his daily routine as he is beset by a host of occupational annoyances.

Through the Emperor’s slate of meetings, conferences, and state dinners, the reader learns the complex ins and outs of the Imperial government. This is the sort of thing at which Piper really excels. He creates intricately detailed worlds in which political, religious, and economic interests collaborate and compete like the pieces in a grand chess game, allowing for myriad narrative possibilities. In its complexity and ingenuity, the fictional universe of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History reminds me a little of Frank Herbert’s Dune, though the story here is briefer and much lighter in tone.

Over the course of his busy day, Paul is presented with evidence that suggests one of his cabinet ministers is planning a coup d’état to oust him from power. Paul isn’t entirely convinced, but must play his cards right in order to ascertain the seriousness of the threat while not tipping off his potential adversary that he is onto his scheme. The suspenseful plot resembles an espionage thriller but with plenty of Piper’s trademark humor thrown in here and there for comic relief.

Although the audience sympathizes with Paul as the protagonist of the book, some of his decisions as Emperor call to mind the back-room machinations of a right-wing cabal. I don’t always agree with the political points Piper makes with his stories, but I still enjoy them. The Empire may not be a regime I’d want to live under, but it sure is fun to visit for a while.
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