The H. Beam Piper Re-reads
". . . and in the evening he dialed through his micro-film library, finding only books he had read and reread a dozen times. . . ."
— H. Beam Piper (Jack Holloway POV), Little Fuzzy
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"The Edge of the Knife"
"Great heavens, did it take the murder of the greatest Moslem since Saladin to convince people that he wasn't crazy?"
— Edward Chalmers (H. Beam Piper), "The Edge of the Knife"
Amazing Stories, May 1957, uncredited interior illustration.
The Edge of the Knife, novelette (16,000 words) originally published in Amazing Stories, Vol. 31, No. 5, May 1957, pp. 6-50, with uncredited interior illustration.
Piper said "The Edge of the Knife" was "about a history professor, who got his past and future confused, and had a lot of trouble as a result."* Edward Chalmers "got his past and future confused" by spontaneous experiences of precognition and "had a lot of trouble" by being careless in distinguishing these "memories of the future" from actual events.
The story begins in class with Chalmers having described the assassination of a foreign leader who is still alive. Chalmers is accused of being unfit by the university president based upon previous similar incidents. Chalmers seeks his attorney's help in fending off dismissal.
A stalemate ensues — though Chalmers has additional "memories" of an impending nuclear war — until, a month later, the foreign leader is assassinated. When Chalmers refuses to dismiss his prediction as coincidence the president moves to dismiss him. A trustee committee is formed to investigate and the conflict comes to a head during an informal meeting. It's going well for Chalmers — his prediction has been corroborated by another professor — until he is challenged to demonstrate his sanity. A psychiatric examination is arranged for the next day.
The examination also goes well for Chalmers, though he is distracted by additional "memories" of the impending conflagration. Realizing the mental hospital is in an area which will be spared Chalmers changes course, working to convince the psychiatrist he's insane. Chalmers is committed but asks a sympathetic colleague to come to the hospital town once his predictions about the war become apparent.
The yarn centers on Chalmers and in some fashion he is the only major character. The university president, Lloyd Whitburn, is perhaps the next most prominent character but his role is mostly there to antagonize Chalmers and provide the basis for the conflict which drives the "insanity" charge against him. Chalmers attorney, Stanly Weill, also plays a key but secondary role.
Other characters in the yarn include Chalmers' colleague, Max Pottgeiter, who speaks on his behalf during the inquiry and agrees to help Chalmers in the end. Their secretary, Marjorie Fenner, is sympathetic to both men and Chalmers asks Pottgeiter to bring her along when he flees San Francisco before the impending war.
There are a handful of other professors on the faculty who become involved in the inquiry, the most prominent of these being Leonard Fitch, the psychology professor who documents and corroborates Chalmers' prediction of the assassination. The paranormal researchers play a minor role but it is their companion, Major Cutler, the intelligence officer, who confirms a key prediction (and his very presence suggests that Chalmers' abilities are taken seriously by federal officials). James Dacre, the trustee heading the inquiry — and the father of one of Chalmers' students — also plays a minor role. The psychiatrist, Doctor Hauserman, arrives near the end of the story and ultimately commits Chalmers to the mental institution. A handful of students and other faculty members round out the cast of characters.
Though the third published, "The Edge of the Knife" is the first Future History yarn, set in 1973 CE (30 A.E.). In considering this yarn, a distinction should be made between background elements established independent of Chalmers' precognition and those revealed through Chalmers' "memories" (which account for much of the background information).
From the narrative we know the United States has established a moonbase. Not yet complete, the base will enable a nuclear missile attack against U.S. adversaries. Those adversaries, the "Eastern Axis" (likely Russia and China, though never explained), have called for UN demilitarization of the moonbase.
Chalmers' "remembers" the "Thirty Days' War," the nuclear conflict which destroys the Eastern Axis. The War, sparked by conflict over the moonbase, begins with an invasion by "Indian Communists" — part of the Eastern Axis — of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). After the leader of the Islamic Caliphate — likely based on the Kingdom of Iraq — is assassinated, a revolt in Syria spreads to Lebanon. Saudi Arabia attacks Jordan. Turkey annexes Syria and Lebanon. Specific relationships among these states are unclear but the Syrian uprising and attack on Jordan threaten the Caliphate while Turkey's intervention is welcomed. There's another "Eastern-inspired uprising" in Iran's Azerbaijan region. War begins with an Eastern Axis nuclear attack on rocketports used to resupply the moonbase. The details are unclear — the moonbase is "completed and ready" but for some reason still needs to be "resupplied" — but after suffering "grievously" the U.S. counter-strikes from the moonbase, resupplied by the secret rocketports of "Operation Triple Cross." The Eastern Axis is "utterly overwhelmed."
An key element revealed by Chalmers' is the Terran Federation, described by Cutler as "a tentative name for a proposed organization to take the place of the U.N. if that organization breaks up." The Federation is formed just before the Thirty Days' War erupts. Besides the U.S. the only member specifically mentioned is the Islamic Caliphate. Intriguingly, Chalmers also "remembers" the "secession of Canada from the British Commonwealth." No explanation — or timing — for this split is given but Canada may have left the Commonwealth for the Federation. (In "Omnilingual" there's a French-Canadian among the Terran Federation officers.)
Chalmers also "remembers" a completely "unified world [with the] abolition of all national states under a single world sovereignty" in 2050-70 CE, nearly a century after the Federation is formed, as well as colonies on Mars and Venus — and their subsequent revolt.
Spanish Conquistadores remind Chalmers of the "early period of interstellar expansion." An uprising "on one of the planets of the Beta Hydrae system" — the Uller Uprising — reminds Chalmers of India's Sepoy Mutiny. The "space-pirates in the days of the dissolution of the First Galactic Empire" remind Chalmers of Seventeenth Century West Indies buccaneers. Those space-pirates plundered in "the Tenth Century of the Interstellar Era," a confusing reference because there's no mention of an "Interstellar Era" elsewhere in the Future History. Perhaps Chalmers is "remembering" the collapse of the Terran Federation — the first interstellar state, if not an "empire" — beginning in the Tenth Century, Atomic Era, and lasting through the Twelfth Century, A.E., (With the Second Century, A.E., advent of hyperdrive, the "tenth century" of the "interstellar era" is the Twelfth Century, A.E.)
Chalmers once tried to get a book from the library "which wouldn't be published until the Twenty-eighth Century." "Franchard's Rise and Decline of the System States" is a history of the rebellion against the Terran Federation in the Ninth Century, A.E. The 28th Century, A.E., a period well into the first Galactic Empire, is two millennia after the System States War and seems an odd era in which to write such a specific bit of "ancient" history. Chalmers though uses Christian Era dating in his own life and work. Though he notes other "memories" with A.E. dating, the date for Rise and Decline is simply placed in the "Twenty-eighth Century." The 28th Century of the Christian Era ends in 857 A.E., three years after the System States War. It seems more likely that Rise and Decline was written shortly after the System States War than two millennia later during the first Galactic Empire. Piper was a Confederate history buff and the System States rebellion was likely modeled on the Civil War. After his release from a Union prison, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote a history titled Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Davis' history may have been Piper's inspiration for Rise and Decline. If so, Franchard may have been more than a mere historian; he may have been the System States leader!
Though "The Edge of the Knife" is set more than fifteen years into the future from when it was written there are few apparent technological innovations other than the limited details of the rocketports and nuclear-warhead missiles associated with the Lunar Base and the original, unmanned rocket, Kilroy, sent to the moon a few years previously. The paranormal researchers travel to San Francisco from the East Coast on a "strato-plane." (When "The Edge of the Knife" was published the first commercial jet service by a U.S. carrier — Pan American World Airways' Boeing 707 service — was still more than a year away.)
And Other People:
There are no references to non-human sentients in "The Edge of the Knife." At one point Chalmers mentions having "remembered" events which appear to be those depicted in Uller Uprising but he does not mention the native, non-human Ullerans.
On the Viewscreen:
With little physical action in the yarn, the two black-and-white illustrations by an uncredited artist in the original Amazing Stories edition are somewhat unremarkable. A two-page spread shows a chaotic crowd scene from one of Chalmers' "memories" as background to a close-up of Chalmers' with a disoriented look on his face while another shows Chalmers being led away by orderlies. There have been no additional illustrations of "The Edge of the Knife" in subsequent reprints before the yarn passed into the public domain.
Piper's sales notebook shows the "The Knife Edge" sold on December 28, 1956, shortly before its publication in Amazing Stories.† It was Piper's twentieth professionally published work.
"The Edge of the Knife" may not be a Future History yarn. Piper himself draws this into question, describing it in "The Future History" as a "possible exception." In the same essay Piper also says the yarn "was written and published shortly before Sputnik I invalidated a lot of my near-future stuff, and made me swear off doing anything within a couple of centuries of now."
Chalmers' ability to "remember the future" makes the yarn problematic. No other Future History yarn features a similarly fantastical element. Chalmers' precognitive ability, assuming he survived the Thirty Days' War, presents substantial continuity challenges for the Future History — Chalmers will, for example, likely "remember" how the Martian language is translated as described in "Omnilingual" long before Martha Dane herself is able to discover it. Perhaps Chalmers' does not survive the War (or at least is never released from mental institution custody).
An "Islamic Kaliphate" appears in Piper's non-Future History yarn "The Mercenaries," written several years prior to "The Edge of the Knife." In "The Mercenaries," the Kaliphate is one of several power blocs trying to launch a rocket to the moon. Despite these similarities, there are also important differences — there is no Terran Federation, instead the U.S. is part of the "Western Union," and there is no "Eastern Axis" — suggesting that the Kaliphate and the Caliphate are two distinct entities.
Simply on its face, as speculative fiction about someone who "got his past and future confused, and had a lot of trouble as a result," this is an enjoyable yarn. The drama is compelling and the pacing works well, right through to the surprise ending. Chalmers' reliability as a narrator is sufficiently drawn into question that one can reasonably conclude either that he has lost his mind or that he is, in fact, having premonitions of the future (though the accuracy of his prediction of the assassination suggests that Piper intended for Chalmers' experience to be genuine). Bottom line is this is a good yarn standing on its own.
One shortcoming is that Chalmers' character is inconsistently written. At times he's remarkably confident while at others his "memories" almost seem to have him unhinged. Sometimes he seems to be a stereotypically "bumbling professor" while at others he seems dynamic and competent. Some of this may be Piper's effort to portray the impact his "memories of the future" — and the difficulties his recounting of them are generating in his professional life — are having upon his mental well-being. Chalmers' final solution, allowing himself to be committed to the mental institution in order to escape destruction in the impending war, seems ill-considered at best. Ultimately, Piper doesn't quite pull this off effectively.
Chalmers is perhaps the Future History character who most seems to be like Piper himself. His solitary lifestyle, his fascination with history, his refined manners and tastes, his rich — to say the least — inner life, his appreciation of his pipe and a good drink, all — according to his biographer, John F. Carr — seem to have been characteristics of the author himself (though whether or not some of these characteristics were affectations on Piper's part is something about which reasonable people might disagree). If Jack Holloway of Little Fuzzy was the heroic character Piper imagined he could be, Edward Chalmers may perhaps be the character Piper most imagined himself to be.
Unlike in some of his other yarns, Piper treats his minor characters effectively here. Many are not named and those which are serve specific purposes, even in minor roles such as his students or the professor who is worried that Chalmers' plight will have a negative impact on the tenure of other faculty members. Correctly but atypically, Chalmers doesn't even give minor characters like the paranormal researchers or other trustees names.
Another shortcoming arises with the character Cutler, the Central Intelligence officer who arrives at Blanley College with the paranormal researchers. The paranormal researchers seem to look to Cutler for direction and Cutler himself, if we can believe attorney Weill's account of his encounter with him, is not particularly reticent about his position. Given this, it seems odd that Cutler never seems to intervene on Chalmers' behalf during the final confrontation with Whitburn and the trustees. Surely he must have found Fitch's corroboration of Chalmers' precognitive capabilities compelling. It seems odd, as is suggested at one point, that perhaps Cutler would prefer that Chalmers be confined to the mental institution. Surely, having discovered someone with Chalmers' ability the people who employ Cutler would want to avail themselves of that ability? (Or, alternately, would prefer a more "effective" means of Chalmers being silenced.) Perhaps it's merely the case that Cutler isn't very good at what he does — his embarrassing slip-up when Chalmers' mentions the super-secret Operation Triple Cross certainly suggests as much — but if that's the case one is left wondering why Piper placed Cutler's character in the yarn at all.
Besides the narrative of the yarn itself the most compelling aspect of "The Edge of the Knife" is the window it provides into the broader Terro-human Future History. In this regard it is — as Piper intimated — unlike any other Future History yarn because Chalmers' "memories" allow Piper to provide information about the Future History setting which is not necessarily related in any manner to the story at hand. The most extensive bit of background information here is about the impending Thirty Days' War and the formation of the Terran Federation. Other information about the early days of space exploration, interstellar colonization and formation of a world government are also mentioned. For Future History fans, these elements are perhaps nearly as interesting as the drama of the story.
Finally, as is often the case in Piper's yarn-spinning, one must draw a pessimistic conclusion about the protagonist's ultimate fate. Though Chalmers envisions himself surviving the Thirty Days' War by virtue of being at the mental institution he "remembers" having survived, it seems Chalmers never managed to get any of his "memories" recorded effectively. We know this because none of the "surprise" events of subsequent future history — the discovery of the lost Martian civilization (and the means of translating of its language), the succession of the "first" Terran Federation by the "second" Federation, the question of Fuzzy sapience (or any encounter with extraterrestrial sapients) — are ever anticipated in advance, as one would expect if Chalmers' "memories of the future" had ever been recorded. It's possible, of course, that Chalmers survived the Thirty Days' War, even that Max Pottgeiter and Marjorie Fenner joined him at the post-War relief center, but we must conclude that a reliable record of Chalmers' "memories" ultimately died with him. Piper's own uncertainty about Chalmers' fate may be why Piper himself was not sure whether or not "The Edge of the Knife" was a Future History yarn.
Out of 10 rating:
Eight. Six for the quality of the yarn itself and two more for the rich background detail.
* "The Future History," H. Beam Piper, in Zenith (fanzine), No. 4, Peter Weston, ed., May 1964, pp. 11-14.
† Excerpts from Piper's sales notebook were first published in Elwanda Holland, "H. Beam Piper in Paperback (1957-1965)," in Books Are Everything (fanzine), No. 8, R.C. & Elwanda Holland, eds., Vol. 2, No. 2, March 1989, pp. 14-21.
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