Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Cosmic Computer (a.k.a. Junkyard Planet) by H. Beam Piper

A stagnating planet searches for its techno-savior
This science fiction novel by H. Beam Piper was originally published in 1963 as Junkyard Planet, but the following year the title was changed to The Cosmic Computer. Though the latter title is certainly more attractive, in many ways the former is far more accurate of its contents. This novel is a revised and expanded version of a 1958 novelette by Piper entitled Graveyard of Dreams. The story takes place in Piper’s Terro-Human Future History timeline, at year 2837 of our calendar. Mankind has populated numerous planets, which are united by a Terran Federation. An interplanetary civil war has recently taken place. Rebellion has been quashed and peace restored. The planet Poictesme was an important Federation military base during the war, but now the armed forces have departed, leaving Poictesme to succumb to economic stagnation. The planet is now a sort of Wild West backwater, with its one major export being a melon-based liquor. One good result of the war, however, is that the Federation forces left a lot of their military hardware behind, and salvage becomes big business on Poictesme, hence the title Junkyard Planet.

In need of more sustainable long-term economic solutions, the citizens of Poictesme pin their hopes on a mythical strategic supercomputer that the military supposedly left buried in a secret location. With its ability to run complex models and simulations, this computer, dubbed Merlin, is seen as a techno-messiah that can revitalize Poictesme’s economy and ensure the planet’s longevity and prosperity. The leading citizens of Litchfield, a city on Poictesme, send their brightest son, Conn Maxwell, off to an Earth university to study computer science and hopefully uncover Merlin’s secret hiding place. As the novel opens, Conn returns to Poictesme with bad news.

As told in Graveyard of Dreams, this story felt somewhat half-baked, so it benefits from the expansion it receives here but at times feels a bit overdone. Fascinating at first, it drags in the middle but thankfully picks up at the end with an innovative conclusion. The story includes a few battle scenes for excitement, but although Piper is a ballistics enthusiast and a wannabe military commander, the main attraction here is not combat but commerce. While dangling the carrot of Merlin before Litchfield’s techno-worshipping chamber of commerce, the level-headed Conn encourages everyone to invest in infrastructure that will further their current industries. The book is all about the progress of Poictesme’s economic development, and at times reading Piper’s complex industrial scenarios is like watching a master player in a civilization-building role-playing game. For Piper, the establishment of a limited liability corporation is just as exciting as a laser gun battle, and boy are there a lot of companies chartered in this book. It becomes very difficult to keep track of the large ensemble cast of characters and all the various enterprises they are involved in. The ending, which hinges on an ethical dilemma, is a welcome philosophical respite from the logistical chaos that characterizes the middle of the book.

Nevertheless, in Piper’s novels such frustrating complexity is as much a blessing as it is a curse. Piper really excels at creating fictional worlds, and the intricacy with which he explores every political, economic, and spiritual dimension of those worlds really adds authenticity to his sci-fi visions. The Cosmic Computer is a perfect example of the depth of forethought that he invests into every planet he envisions. Though it is not necessary to know the whole Terro-Human Future History timeline to enjoy this book, the sweeping scope and level of detail in Piper’s grand plan is very impressive and really adds to one’s appreciation of each individual story in the series.
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