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The H. Beam Piper Rereads

". . . 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, Little Fuzzy

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"When in the Course—"

"There have been great changes, and none of us can guess what greater changes will come.  Why talk now of things that may happen in a world the very shape of which we cannot guess."
— Roger Barron (H. Beam Piper), "When in the Course—"

Federation cover illustration

Illustration by Michael Whelan

"When in the Course—," H. Beam Piper, novella (25,000 words) originally published, posthumously, in the collection Federation, John F. Carr, ed., New York: Ace, 1981, pp. 201-284.

Spoiler alert:

Adventurers aboard the starship Stellex discover their first habitable planet, after visiting six other systems in four years.  Unfortunately, the planet has indigenous sapients.  To grant the adventurers a "charter" — monopoly rights to colonize and exploit the planet's resources — the Terran Federation requires a "treaty" with the aboriginals.  The adventurers stumble upon a small principality — Hostigos — of the quasi-medieval society which is facing invasion and eager to ally with the Terrans and their advanced technology.

The Terrans name the planet Freya.  Freyans are remarkably human-like which troubles some of the scientifically-minded Stellex crewmembers.  Others develop romantic relationships with Freyans.

Primitive firearms are state-of-the-art among the Freyans but gunpowder — "fireseed" — production is controlled by the Styphon's House theocracy which has banned Hostigos from receiving any.  The Terrans begin producing gunpowder and help Hostigos to gain quick victories.  As gunpowder production fails to meet the demands of warfare against several, more powerful adversaries, a skeleton crew takes Stellex to a nearby Federation planet to trade for the nitrates needed for gunpowder production.  The trading voyage takes several weeks.

In the meanwhile Hostigos and its Terran allies make additional gains against their adversaries as gunpowder production disrupts the influence of Styphon's House.  By the time Stellex returns with more gunpowder — and provisional Federation recognition of the claim to Freya — Hostigos has become a regional power, with former adversaries now vassals or suing for peace. As the Stellex ship's boat is prepared for a trip to Terra, a crewwoman announces that she is pregnant by her Freyan husband.  The Freyans, it turns out, are more human-like than the scientists believed!

Dramatis personæ:

The point-of-view character in this yarn is Roger Barron, a leader of the Stellex expedition and a former Venusian politician.  Reginald Fitzurse, a retired Federation army officer, Nancy Patterson, a former university social science department secretary, and Luther Smith, the chief engineer — and principal skeptic about the "humanness" of the Freyans — are Stellex crewmembers who also play central roles.  Other Stellex crewmembers include Adriaan de Ruyter, pilot and owner of the yacht Voortrekker, Lourenço Narvaes, nuclear engineer, Charley Clifford, doctor, Karl Zahanov, the space-captain, Margaret Hale, hyperdrive engineer, Sylvia Davock, biologist, Julio Almagro, businessman and the largest Stellex investor, Dave MacDonald, "scout, hunter and naturalist," and Lisette Krull, chemist.  Arthur Muramoto and Katherine Gower play such minor roles that their specific crew functions are unclear.  With fifteen Stellex crew there are too many characters for each to play a key role in a novella-length yarn but too few to leave some unidentified.  Given that Piper eventually reworked this yarn into Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, perhaps he'd originally had a novel-length work in mind.

The Hostigi princess, Rylla, is the key character among the Freyans, along with Chartiphon, the captain-in-chief.  Other Freyan characters include Rylla's father, Prince Ptosphes, and his advisor, Xentos, a priest of Dralm.  Harmakros, Chartiphon's son and a captain who fathers a child with Patterson, rounds out the major Hostigi characters.  Other Freyans playing minor roles include Count Phebron, the Nostori castellan deposed from Tarr-Dombra, Prince Sarrask of Sask, and Prince Lykarses of Xanx.

Atomic Era:

There is no specific, internal Atomic Era dating of this yarn but there is a variety of secondary information which helps to place the events of "When in the Course—" sometime in the Third Century, A.E.  Hyperdrive and contragravity technology are ubiquitous — and there is a well-developed political culture on Venus, placing the yarn well after the events of "Omnilingual." On the other hand interstellar transport service appears to be rudimentary — Pan-Federation Spacelines seems to have a freight monopoly — and there don't yet seem to be many major, human-colonized worlds outside the Sol system — chartered companies are mentioned on Thor, Loki and Yggdrasil (the "world tree" of Norse mythology), suggesting the yarn occurs sometime before novels like Four-Day Planet and Uller Uprising. One key piece of information in this yarn reveals a key datum for the future historical placement of "When in the Course—" in comparison to other Future History yarns.  Zahanov notes that the Federation "Astrographic Commission won't accept Helleno-Roman names for [planets] outside the Sol System" and that they "prefer names from Norse mythology."[*] That no planet has yet been named Freya — for the Norse Venus — suggests that "When in the Course— " occurs relatively early in the period of interstellar exploration.

"When in the Course—" tells us a great deal about Terra in the aftermath of the "Atomic Wars," when civilization was destroyed in the Northern Hemisphere and the planet was unified under the second Terran Federation.  Fitzurse, who fought the "Eurasian barbarians of North Terra" to "protect the reclamation projects," compares Freyan guns to firearms he's seen in museums in Cape Town and Johannesburg.  Patterson worked at the University of Montevideo, and de Ruyter's yacht is named Voortrekker, the Afrikaans word for early Dutch settlers who fled British control of colonial South Africa.  Terra is "still importing huge quantities of [nitrates from Yggdrasil], for the soil-reclamation projects in the war-ruined Northern Hemisphere."

Atomic Era dating seems to be an emerging practice in this period.  It is used exclusively on Venus but Barron is used to encountering Christian Era dating among Terrans.  That a dating system more common on Venus than on Terra would be used by former Terran academic Patterson suggests an outsized role for Venus in the second Federation.

Venus, a "Federation Member Republic" (which suggests the second Federation is an interplanetary government rather than just a confederation of nation-states like the first Federation), also seems to be renowned for its corrupt politics — a characteristic mentioned in Four-Day Planet too — with Barron having fled from likely criminal prosecution after having been voted out of office.  Mars, and particularly any Terran settlement there, is not mentioned.

Commercial development and exploitation is a key driver of Federation interstellar exploration in this period.  Despite having sapient aboriginals, Thor, Loki and Yggdrasil all have chartered companies charged with development and exploitation.  The Stellex adventurers, who could have expected to gain full control of Freya had it been uninhabited, are intent upon reaching an agreement with some sovereign authority on Freya, granting them rights of "entry and trade" which will enable them to get a charter from the Federation government.

At one point, in musing about the prospect of having children with Rylla, Barron notes that the "curse of overpopulation" results in fewer Terrans considering having children.  It is difficult to make sense of this observation because it suggests that, unexpectedly, overpopulation posed a problem in the aftermath of the Atomic Wars.  (One would expect almost the opposite reaction in a society recovering from mass death and destruction.) Barron's observation is clarified by a character in Space Viking: Lothar Ffayle worries that the Sword Worlds might experience "population pressure like Terra in the First Century."

Perhaps the "curse of overpopulation" comes from an era before the Atomic Wars, due to a belief that "overpopulation" played some role in causing that catastrophe (a not-uncommon fear at the time Piper was writing).  On the other hand, perhaps overpopulation is an issue in this period because so much of Terra's even marginally habitable space — Glenn Murell of Four-Day Planet was "born in Antarctica" — was devastated in the Atomic Wars, leading to excessive population densities in those regions of Terra's Southern Hemisphere where the majority of people live.  Nevertheless, Piper fails to explain further, here or in any other Future History yarn.


"When in the Course—" moves the Future History firmly into the realm of sci-fi technology, with "Dillingham hyperdrive" starships, "contragravity" aircraft, and "carniculture" and hydroponic food production.  There is portable "nuclear-electric" power but firearms are still gunpowdered slug-throwers.  There are no hand-held computers; the adventurers communicate by radio and write with ink on paper.  Vehicle radios with video displays produce paper images.  Interestingly, while there are coffee-concentrate tablets there are — uncharacteristically, for Piper's fiction — no smokers among the Terrans.

And Other People:

The sapient Freyans are central here, with the question of their "humanness" being a key component of the drama.  By the end of the yarn it's clear that Terrans and Freyans are inter-fertile (as Paula Quinton's "Freyan grandmother" also confirmed in Uller Uprising, written several years before this yarn) though the scientific explanation for this fact remains in question.

Freyans are not the first extraterrestrials Terrans have encountered, with Thor, Loki, and Yggdrasil all mentioned as planets inhabited by indigenous sapients.  The ancient, human-like Martians discovered in "Omnilingual" — perhaps written a couple years before this yarn — are never mentioned despite the central controversy about the "humanness" of the Freyans.  (The premise that Piper intended to resolve this dilemma by connecting Terrans and Freyans via the ancient Martians remains fan speculation.)

On the Viewscreen:

Having only been published in the Piper collection Federation there are no illustrations associated with "When in the Course—." (A John Schoenherr illustration for the original Analog publication of the Paratime yarn "Gunpowder God" — the first serialized instalment of Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen — which shows only the Hostigi characters, and two Kelly Freas illustrations of Rylla for the original Analog publication of "Down Styphon!" would work just as well with this yarn.)


What's surprising about "When in the Course—" is that the general plot — people from a more technologically advanced society finding themselves in a quasi-European medieval culture (essentially Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court) — and the specific setting — the princedom of Hostigos under siege by the Styphon's House "gunpowder" theocracy — are the same as those in Piper's Paratime novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.  "When in the Course—" was discovered among Piper's papers after his death and published many years later.  Piper biographer and editor John F. Carr reports it was rejected for publication in 1960.[] This was in the midst of the period when Piper was writing his Future History yarns and some years after his most recently published Paratime yarn, "Time Crime," appeared.  Piper seems to have successfully reworked the rejected "When in the Course—" into the Lord Kalvan yarn (the first installment, "Gunpowder God," was sold in 1964).

"When in the Course—" has only appeared in Carr's Federation collection.  Unlike much of Piper's work it's not in the public domain — due to its posthumous publication.  The Lord Kalvan yarns — submitted by Piper but not published until after his death — are also not in the public domain.  (The first installment, "Gunpowder God," in the November 1964 issue of Analog, may have been on pulp magazine racks when Piper committed suicide.)

The Review:

Standing on its own "When in the Course—" doesn't succeed.  As a "first contact" story it is hampered by the remarkable similarity between Terrans and Freyans which is raised in the yarn itself and yet never resolved.  It seems likely this was part of why the original yarn was rejected for publication.  (It's also baffling that the ancient, human-like Martians of "Omnilingual," written at least a few years before "When in the Course—," are never mentioned in the debates among the Terran characters here.)

Beyond the fundamental shortcoming of the portrayed inter-fertility of Terrans and Freyans, the resolution of the main plot unfolds too quickly and easily.  The yarn begins well, with the Terrans' initial concerns about the suitability of the planet, the emerging affinity between the Stellex crew and the Hostigi, and the early efforts to produce gunpowder and plan for the military campaigns against Nostor and Sask being well-paced and richly described, almost as if Piper were writing a novel.  (Perhaps he was, and it became the rather different Paratime novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.)  When the Stellex leaves for Yggdrasil to get the nitrates needed to meet the demands of the military campaign for more gunpowder there is a genuine sense of crisis.

It may be that Piper intended to write a novel but realized a shorter work was needed to make a sale because suddenly the drama is resolved with remarkable speed and unlikely success.  The military crisis is averted before Stellex returns, with other princedoms joining the new kingdom of Hos-Hostigos in rapid succession, with the adversarial kingdom of Hos-Harphax foregoing retribution to seek accommodation, and with the complicated political theocracy of Styphon's House collapsing almost overnight.  Never is there any suggestion that the Terrans are seen by the enemies of Hos-Hostigos as dangerous aliens — or even supernatural demons, perhaps (an idea which Piper did have Styphon's House propagate in Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen).  Instead, this world-shattering development is simply accepted as if Hostigos had gained a very powerful, local ally.

The political collapse of the adversaries of Hos-Hostigos seems to be driven primarily by the overwhelming nature of the Terran technological superiority (perhaps compounded by the realization that it would be impossible for the adversaries to respond in kind).  The idea that the Hostigi and their Terran allies might be overcome with numbers never seems to occur to their adversaries.

The Stellex adventurers also seem to be possessed of remarkably good fortune.  They just happen to choose as their place of first contact a tiny principality under existential threat from all sides.  The Hostigi seem to be unreservedly noble, having no fears of the super-powerful aliens from another world and displaying no cravenness in their newfound friendship.  On the other hand, their antagonists all seem to be both greedy and cowardly, quick to seek what seems to be an easy advantage while just as quick to abandon a difficult fight.  In some ways, the Hostigi themselves seem to be aliens in the larger society in which they live.

Likewise, the fact that nearby Yggdrasil is desperately in need of the foodstuffs that Freya can easily provide and has the very natural resources of which Freya is in most need is amazingly fortuitous.  The early acceptance of the Stellex adventurers' claim to Freya — which also comes with no apparent reservations about or interest in the remarkable similarities between Terrans and Freyans — is another source of undeserved good luck.  Much of this fortune may have been the result of Piper trying to wrap-up a novel-length work in a novella package.

On the other hand, putting aside the conundrum of the inter-fertility of Terrans and Freyans — a point Piper had already established years earlier in Uller Uprising — there is an incredible amount of information in this yarn which illuminates the Future History setting.  The yarn depicts the early days of Terran Federation interstellar expansion, with private adventurers forging the frontier on a shoestring.  The foundations of the great chartered companies, which play central roles in novels like Uller Uprising and Little Fuzzy (and, to a lesser extent, Four-Day Planet), begin in the era of this yarn.  The character of the second Federation and how it is different from the first Federation predicted in "The Edge of the Knife" and portrayed in "Omnilingual" is illustrated in many ways.  Details emerge about the Atomic Wars, the shift from an international order to a planet-wide — and even interplanetary — order on Terra and about the post-war reclamation efforts in Terra's northern hemisphere.  The dominance of the Southern Hemisphere in Federation society — marvellously illustrated by the Terran characters' surnames — and the peculiar nature of the political culture on Venus are also highlighted.  In this sense "When in the Course—" is a treasure trove of information about the early Terran Federation.

On balance though this wealth of setting information cannot salvage a weak yarn.  The details of Freyan society are unsalvageable as elements of the Future History setting given their repetition and expansion in Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.  No credible explanation is offered for the inter-fertility of Terrans and Freyans which was independently established by Uller Uprising.  The story itself is, in essence, a novel which was never completed.  In this sense, "When in the Course—" can only be recommended to committed Piper fans, willing to put aside the weak storytelling in order to glean the rich details about the larger background setting — and perhaps to those interested in the insights the yarn offers into Piper's writing practice when considered mostly as a very early draft of Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.

Out of 10 rating:

Three.  Only recommended for the committed Piper fan.

[*] This idea actually came from John. D. Clark, who wrote the introductory essay to the shared-world omnibus The Petrified Planet, Twayne 1952, in which Uller Uprising, Piper's first Future History yarn, was first published: "The planet is named Uller (it seems that when interstellar travel was developed, the names of Greek Gods had been used up, so those of Norse gods were used)."
[] John F. Carr, Typewriter Killer, Boalsburg, PA: Pequod Press, 2015, pp. 234-240.

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