H. BEAM PIPER: A BIOGRAPHY
by John F. Carr
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
H. Beam Piper is best known for his stories about the Paratime Police and the Fuzzies. However, despite his popularity as an author and his numerous novels, short stories, and influence on later authors, H. Beam Piper as an individual is far less known. His too short life, from his birth in 1904 until his suicide sixty years later, is all but a mystery. John F. Carr, who has written sequels to Piper's Paratime Police series, attempts to rectify this state of affairs with H. Beam Piper: A Biography.
In the course of the book, Carr comes across almost as many mysteries as he sheds light on. Piper was a relatively reclusive man, although his close friendships with Ferd Coleman resulted in a treasure trove of correspondence which Carr quotes from extensively. These letters give indications of Piper's politics and passions. These letters, which depict a man who is open and generous with his friends, cannot, however, shed light on some of the very basic questions of Piper's life.
The first question which Carr is unable to provide a definitive answer to is what the "H." in Piper's name stood for. Although Henry is the generally accepted name, Carr notes that Horace was a name frequently given by Piper during his life, and Ferd Coleman's son, Don, who provided many of his father's letters, claimed the name was Herbert, also the name of Piper's father.
Throughout his life, Piper saw limited success. Although he had a career as a writer, it started late in his life (his first story, "Time and Time Again" was only published in 1947), He had a steady job that allowed him to indulge in his own activities, but at the same time, did not offer any real hope for advancement. He found a woman, Betty Hirst, whom he loved, but after a whirlwind courtship of a mere couple of months, they married in March, 1955. Piper found that to survive, he needed to use money from Betty's bank accounts and the marriage lasted less than five years.
Of course, one of the major questions of Piper's life was the cause of his suicide. Depression and the sense that his career was stalled certainly played a role. The recent loss of his good friend and agent, Ken White, and his divorce from his wife, Betty, served to work in conjunction with the depression. Financial difficulties were also one of the issues that contributed to his death, as he received a tax bill from the IRS shortly before his death which he saw no way of paying.
The book's major fault is one of production, not anything directly related to Carr's work. His publisher decided that printing the thin (250 page) volume in a small, cramped font, particularly the lengthy epistolary quotations, would be a good idea. Unfortunately, it only serves to make the book more difficult to read. Given the price of the book, which is clearly intended for the library trade, decreasing the page count couldn't have been done as a cost saving measure and the small font only serves to detract from Carr's excellent research.
H. Beam Piper: A Biography offers an intriguing, if not entirely satisfying look, at an influential author. Carr has done an excellent job of portraying Piper from limited, and not always reliable, sources. The work is a nice balance of primary sources, quotations from letters, diary entries, and interviews, with Carr's own commentary on Piper's life and work. Not only is H. Beam Piper: A Biography a nice addition for a library, but it would also fit well into the collection of anyone with an interest in writer's lives, Piper's science fiction, or alternate history.
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