Wednesday, March 02, 2011


By H. Beam Piper

What if you could visit, not another time, but another timeline, a world where things turned out differently? The “alternate universe” story has endless appeal. Consider that it is practically emblematic of the Christmas holidays.

Time travel and alternate universes were a principle interest of H. Beam Piper. Granted they didn’t involve self-sacrificing saving & loan managers (we used to have lots of ‘em in Texas), but something a bit more hard-boiled. Piper created an entire cosmology of them in his Paratime series, it’s not a spoiler to tell you the world we know is just one of them, in fact a rather barbaric and dull one.

This collection leads off with "He Walked Around the Horses", based on the true story of British diplomat Benjamin Bathurst who disappeared in 1809. Piper fills us in on where he went and what befell him.

Most of the stories concern Verkan Vall, a Time cop who keeps order among the various timelines. His universe developed the ability to travel among the timelines and subtly exploit them. Some unscrupulous characters go too far. Often the secret of paratime travel is in danger of being revealed. In "Last Enemy" Verkan has to investigate his ex-wife who has set up shop in a civilization where reincarnation is being developed to an exact science. The rival factions of Volitionists and Statisticalists push the logic of reincarnation in a society deeply divided by class: who gets to reincarnate in a good life? What if your previous incarnation is responsible for a crime? Piper’s conservative libertarianism is at work here, but not oppressively.

Piper walks a fine line between the philosophizing and the action and gets it right in these stories. Sometimes Verkan Vall wins a bit too easily, but there are worse faults. There is also an excellent introduction by John F. Carr that gives background on Piper’s beliefs and the cosmology of Paratime. These stories have also appeared with the tales from Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.

-Dave Hardy

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