Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Hunter Patrol by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire

Paradoxically familiar
Hunter Patrol is a short novella by science fiction authors H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire. It was originally published in the May 1959 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories. The story opens in battle. Major Fred Benson is a former high school science teacher who has been drafted to fight for the United Nations in the Turkish Theater against a Pan-Soviet Bloc that includes China and India. Pinned down behind a boulder by an advancing tank, he is just about to face obliteration when he’s suddenly enveloped by a mysterious blue mist. When he awakens, he finds that he has been yanked 50 years into the future by some scientists who have developed a time machine. In this future, the war is over, peace reigns, and humanity has been conditioned for nonviolence. Nevertheless, these future minds have summoned forth Benson because they need him to kill someone.

That plot description is suspiciously similar to Mack Reynolds’s story “Gun for Hire” from 1960, close enough to assume that Reynolds had likely read this story. In fact, many of the plot elements of Hunter Patrol seem as if they were lifted from or appropriated to other works, perhaps even other works by Piper himself. The time paradox that the authors construct is pleasingly ingenious, but it also feels overly familiar. Perhaps the perceived lack of originality is the result of later authors who have ripped off Piper and McGuire’s ideas. Even so, there are few surprises in the story because its twists and turns are telegraphed far in advance.

Piper’s collaborations with McGuire always result in a style that’s sort of “Piper Lite.” In general, Piper’s stories don’t take themselves too seriously, but the stuff he does with McGuire seems even more lighthearted than usual. You can definitely tell the two friends had a good time putting this story together, and their amusement is contagious. What’s missing, perhaps, is some of the challenging ideas and intellectual stimulation one expects from a Piper tale. Hunter Patrol is a fun ride, but it never really rises to a great story.

Fans of Piper’s would probably agree that this novella isn’t quite his best work, but still, it only amounts to about an hour of reading, and it is Piper after all. That’s saying something. It may not ascend to his usual visionary heights, but it’s still a rather good story. Whether familiar with Piper’s writing or not, those who like time travel yarns are likely to enjoy this one.
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