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The Complete Paratime
H. Beam Piper
Ace Books, 424 pages

Dave Dorman
The Complete Paratime
H. Beam Piper
H. Beam Piper was born in 1904. He had no formal education and, at 18, went to work as a labourer for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Largely self-educated, he garnered an extensive knowledge of science and history. In his later years, Piper, a solitary and guarded man, did not tell his friends of his precarious financial state. In 1964, H. Beam Piper shut off all the utilities to his apartment in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and took his own life.

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H. Beam Piper Tribute Site
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Steven H Silver

The term classic, meaning something which belongs to the standard authors and literature of science fiction, is frequently thrown about with abandon. Works that have made a sudden appearance, but have not managed to demonstrate their longevity, are frequently referred to as classic within a few years of their publication, only to be forgotten when the next "classic" is published. In the 50s and 60s, H. Beam Piper published a series of stories in which he elaborated on the ideas of multiple planes of existence and the organization whose duty it is to ensure that the timelines remain unpolluted. These stories, collected in The Complete Paratime, are works which are true classics of the multiple world and alternate history.

The first half of the book contains five short stories, only four of which are actually tales of the Paratime Police. The first story, "He Walked Around the Horses," introduces Piper's concept of multiple worlds as he relates the story of Benjamin Brathurst, a British diplomat, who suddenly finds himself in a world slightly different from his own.

The remaining short stories concern themselves with the exploits of Verkan Vall, an investigator of the Paratime Police. These stories are written in the manner of short police procedurals and mysteries, with Verkan Vall and his comrades attempting to discover why things are not behaving appropriately in those timelines. Although his characters are not always fully realized, allowing their roles to dictate their personalities, the stories, themselves, manage to be interesting and well written, avoiding many of the clichés that much "classic" science fiction indulges in. Piper frequently includes subtle humour in the stories to help him make a point or ensure the story will contain elements to make his settings familiar to his readers.

While the majority of the plots take place in a variety of alternative timelines, each one is grounded in the Home timeline, inhabited by the Paratime Police. Piper is not afraid of setting some of his action in this world, but it tends to form a backdrop rather than an arena of action. Piper's vision of Home, apparently reasonably complete prior to the publication of the first story, is only presented to the reader slowly over the course of the stories, implying a coherent and real culture.

The second part of the book, "Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen," is a complete novel, cobbled together from the last two Paratime stories, "The Gunpowder God" and "Down Styphon!" This novel tells the story of a Pennsylvania State Patrol Corporal, Calvin Morrison, who suddenly finds himself in a parallel universe. In addition to finding his own place in the world, eventually a powerful warlord, Morrison must deal with the efforts of the Paratime Police to either return him to his own timeline or kill him to prevent the contamination of the timeline.

Unlike the earlier stories, "Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen" has more of a feel of military science fiction as Piper describes the strategies and tactics Morrison must use to find his place in the new society. This is offset somewhat by the activities of Verkan Vall and the Paratime Police as they try to figure out their best solution to Morrison's incursion.

The Complete Paratime is a collection of well written stories which have influenced much of the alternative history that has been published since they appeared. In order to understand the genesis of works by Harry Turtledove, S.M. Stirling and others, it is essential to have read The Complete Paratime. The fact that these stories are well written and entertaining only makes it easier to read them and be thankful that Ace has elected to keep them in print.

Copyright © 2001 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver was a Hugo nominee for Best Fan Writer in 2000. He has sold three anthologies to DAW Books. Active in con fandom, Steven was programming director for Chicon 2000 and is vice-chairing Windycon XXVIII. He is a contributor to Tangent, SF Site and other on-line and print zines. More of his reviews, etc. can be read at his website:

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