Book Review: Ministry Of Disturbance (Piper, 2007)

Ministry Of Disturbance
by H. Beam Piper
(Copyright © 2014 by Wil C. Fry.)

Full Title: Ministry Of Disturbance And Other SF
Author: H. Beam Piper
Year: 2007 (trade paperback)
Publisher: Ægypan Press
ISBN 978-1603121927
View it on Amazon
Author’s Wikipedia page

◊ Summary

This book is a collection of five stories, only one of which I’d read before. I did not know, until I sat down to write this review, that all of the stories are available for free — they’re in the public domain — here. I still might have added it to my wishlist because I like to read while lying in bed, not while sitting at my computer.

Oddly, the book does not have a “verso” of the title page — the informative page on the back of the title page that lists the ISBN number, copyright date, etc. I got the 2007 date and ISBN number from the Amazon web page.

The five short stories are (in this book’s order) Ministry of Disturbance (1958), A Slave Is A Slave (1962), Oomphel In The Sky (1960), Omnilingual (1957), and The Keeper (1957) — these dates are the back cover of the book; they’re not mentioned inside anywhere. There is also no “about the author” section anywhere in the book.

◊ What I Liked Least About It

One problem I always had with Piper’s writing (my first experience was “Little Fuzzy”, 1962) is that he has a tendency to list a bunch of characters, most of whom have unusual names — Ranulf XIV, Zhorzh Yaggo, just to name two examples — without any description to differentiate between them. And then expect you to know who they are when mentioned later in the story. Further, he often uses titles in place of names — much like a few British biographies I’ve read — interchangeably without ever connecting the two. In one sentence, it’s “the prime minister”, and in the next it’s “Prince Travan”, and you’re just supposed to know they’re the same person.

Piper also uses personal pronouns without connected them to names. One paragraph will list several people, and the next will begin with “he” — with no clear reference to which “he” it was.

For the above reasons, I tend to enjoy his stories that have fewer named characters (“The Keeper”) more than the stories with many characters (“A Slave Is A Slave”).

Additionally — and I can attribute this to the time period — he uses “girl” when he means “woman” far too often. Today, we’d introduce a character as Lieutenant Jane Smith and let her name tell you it’s a female. He introduces her as “a girl Lieutenant”, which bugged me constantly.

◊ What I Liked Most About It

When he’s not having trouble naming people or describing characters, Piper is an easy writer to read. He comfortably takes the reader through conversations, political discourse, and action scenes without confusion. Sci-fi is full of invented words, but they don’t feel unnatural when Piper invents them. His plot lines could be considered simplistic or idealized, but they make sense, feel realistic and natural (not forced), and he’s fairly good at not giving away a twist ending.

◊ Conclusion

I enjoyed my temporary re-introduction to old science fiction, though I plan to primarily read non-fiction from here on out.

My favorite story of the five was Omnilingual, about a team of archeologists uncovering a long-dead Martian civilization. Despite finding many books, the main character (a woman, not introduced as a “girl”) can’t break the code of the Martian language. Eventually they uncover a wall chart of the periodic table of elements, something that would be fairly universal, and use it as a kind of Rosetta Stone.

EDIT, 2015.02.20: I initially said only three of the stories were available online. As it turns out, all five of them are.

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