Lone Star Planet by H. Beam Piper and John Joseph McGuire
Originally published in Fantastic Universe, March 1957
Price I paid: 99¢
New Texas: its citizens figure that name about says it all. The Solar League ambassador to the Lone Star Planet has the unenviable task of convincing New Texans that a s’Srauff attack is imminent, and dangerous. Unfortunately it’s common knowledge that the s’Srauff are evolved from canine ancestors – and not a Texan alive is about to be scared of a talking dog! But unless he can get them to act, and fast, there won’t be a Texan alive, scared or otherwise!From the SFGateway sale page
My last review was about Earth Texas (well, kind of) and I didn’t quite get it out of my system with that one, so here’s some Space Texas to make life a little bitty bit better.
This is my second foray into the works of H. Beam Piper, and it’s been entirely too long. I remember enjoying Space Viking, while also being perplexed by its politics. I went back and re-read my review of it before starting this one, and 2014 Thomas was , um, naive? I don’t know if that’s the right word for it, but I think I’d have some new opinions on that book if I were to explore it again. Maybe I will? Would that be something anyone would be interested in? A re-review? Or would that be a copout? Might be interesting.
Anyway, this review isn’t that. It’s about something entirely new to me, either a novella or a really really short novel called Lone Star Planet. It’s also called A Planet for Texans sometimes, and I think I’ve nailed down the timeline on that, but please correct me if you know better than I do.
Something called Lone Star Planet was published by Fantastic Universe in March of 1957. It is only credited to H. Beam Piper on the cover, but the inside also gives co-credit to John J. McGuire. I’ve put the absolutely incredible cover to that issue on the left here. Jeezum Pete, that’s good stuff. The art is by Virgil Finlay. According to the ISFDB, that story was around 60 pages long, although it’s hard to tell exactly. What I know is that it started on page 4 and the next story (“The Lady from Aldebaran” by Evelyn E. Smith) started on page 67, but for all I know the former story could have ended earlier than that and there were pages of ads in between. So I don’t know how long that original story was. Plus theres the fact that magazine pages seem like they’re a lot bigger than paperback pages? Anybody know how many words are on each, roughly?
In 1958, A Planet For Texans was published as part of an Ace Double, along with Star Born by Andre Norton. It was 101 pages long, which is right around the same number as the eBook I read.
Annoyingly, and quite confusingly at first, the eBook copyright page says “Originally published in 1979.” So I had to ask myself, is this some later revision or expansion? Even more confusing, in 1979, H. Beam Piper had been dead for about fifteen years. My guess is that they are referring to a second Ace Double in which the book was once again published under the name Lone Star Planet. In this case, it was paired with another Piper novel, Four-Day Planet.
I’m not sure why I felt the need to dig so deeply into the publication history of this book, other than some vague sense of wanting to have the story straight. But I think I’ve managed that, so let’s talk about the book itself, and why it has also confused me.
Off the bat, there is a lot to like about this story. It was a light and easy read, but also had a good conflict going on that was complex enough to be interesting yet simple enough for a distractible fella like me to understand. It was also deeply funny both in concept and and in execution. This story elicited a few sensible chuckles, and I appreciate that.
Still, while it was clear from the start that this story was meant to be satire, I’m having a few problems figuring out what, exactly, the satire was aimed at. We’ll get to that later.
Our main character is a guy named Stephen Silk. He’s a diplomat, and he starts the story in a bit of hot water. He’d recently published an article, under the pseudonym “Machiavelli, Jr.,” that was critical of the Solar League, the government of the Galactic Empire.
He’s called into the office of the Secretary of State, where he and we meet several other higher-ups in the government. They are generally displeased with him, and as a result of that, they reassign him:
“It’s really not as bad as it sounds, Mr. Silk,” Ghopal hastened to reassure me. “We are going to have to banish you for a while, but I daresay that won’t be so bad. The social life here on Luna has probably begun to pall, anyhow. So we’re sending you to Capella IV.”
“Capella IV,” I repeated, trying to remember something about it. Capella was a GO-type, like Sol; that wouldn’t be so bad.
“New Texas,” Klüng helped me out.
Oh, God, no! I thought.loc 78
(A note on the page numbers, this eBook I got managed to screw them up somehow? It thinks page one starts at location 222, 13% of the way through the book. So I guess I’ll stick with location numbers for citations.)
Silk is not at all happy to be sent to New Texas at first, and the more we learn, the more we come to understand why.
New Texas is a planet settled by the descendants of Earth’s Texas. Not just some colonists from Texas, but the whole dang shebang. The whole state packed up and left after the hyperspace-drive was discovered. They settled Capella IV and declared their independence from everybody.
The planet has since become the meat supplier for the entire galaxy. Settlers there discovered “supercow,” a “big mammal looking like the unsuccessful attempt of a hippopotamus to impersonate a dachshund” (loc 162). They weigh about fifteen tons, the meat is delicious, and there are billions of them.
The Solar League wants New Texas to join them. There is an aggressive species called the z’Srauff in that area that would like nothing more than to take the planet of meat away from humans, but the Solar League can’t come to their defense without the planet being a member. Silk is tasked with getting them to join up.
He also learns that his predecessor on the planet, a guy named Cumshaw, was murdered. Silk suspects that the people of New Texas took offense to Cumshaw’s goal and killed him, and that furthermore he himself is being sent there for the same purpose, as having two diplomats killed would probably serve as justification for an invasion and occupation by the Solar League.
It turns out he’s kind of right, but not entirely so.
See, upon arrival, Silk begins to learn about the government of New Texas, such as it is. There’s not much of one. This is where most of the satire in the book lies, and my confusion arises from not knowing, um, from what direction the satire is flowing. In brief, I don’t know Piper’s politics. My only other experience with him is Space Viking, a novel in which we are told repeatedly by characters that democracies inevitably lead to the rise of Hitler-type dictators. I don’t know how serious he was being there, either.
What I do know is that the society presented in this book is based mainly on a 1924 essay by H.L. Mencken, himself a vocal and cynical opponent of democracy (plus an out-and-out racist eugenecist who also spoke out against lynching, and an anti-Semite who called out Franklin Roosevelt for not accepting Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. Turns out people are complicated). I also know that this book won the Prometheus Award for Best Classic Libertarian Science Fiction Novel. So the question is: Was Piper lambasting Mencken, or supporting him? Did the Prometheus Award people unwittingly give the award to someone mocking them, or would Piper have supported their ideals? I don’t know.
Most of the schtick with this planet’s government, which quotes pretty directly from the Mencken essay, is that killing a politician is an acceptable form of free speech, and is not murder. It is justifiable homicide, or to be more precise, can be. When a politician is killed, there is a trial, but the trial is more or less a trial of the victim, to determine whether or not they deserved it, and whether the killer might have been unnecessarily cruel in carrying out their civic duty.
At first I was like, okay, yeah, kinda funny I guess. Horrible, because killing people is horrible, and there’s also absolutely no way of carrying out such a subjective trial system fairly, but I’m willing to ride along with this for the purposes of fiction. As the book went on, I was willing to continue buying into the premise, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that it, as a system, just couldn’t work.
Silk meets a guy named Colonel Hickock who explains things to him. The whole system is set up so that the government doesn’t get too strong. The government is not allowed to have a standing army. One legislator was recently killed for having the audacity to introduce a bill creating an income tax.
On the other hand, it is freely admitted that the real power on this planet comes from the people who own all the big ranches. It is, in fact, an oligarchy of the rich and wealthy. Of course, Hickock tries to explain that if he, one of these extremely rich landowners, were to start “acting like a master,” they’d “find my body in an irrigation ditch by sunset.”
But there’s not anything besides his say-so to suggest that there is any kind of accountability like that, or in fact who would be the person or people to have placed said body into said irrigation ditch. Does he mean his employees? Other big ranchers? I don’t know.
The book also shows us only one set of people who aren’t either government officials or wealthy landowners, and they are all painted with the stripe of shame. That is to say, the only poor people in this book are devious, backward, inbred, and savage. I think I see why this book won a Libertarian literature award, right?
Furthermore, and I’m getting dangerously close to just outright negating the premise, but I have questions. This system is described as having supposed to be a great levelizer—that anyone, no matter their status, can air out their grievances with the government in the ultimate way as long as they have the wherewithal to do it. If that’s the case, why are there still poor people? If they can, say, take out their problems on politicians who pass legislation that aids the rich at their expense, and they’re able to do something about it like everybody in the book says, then why don’t they? Oh, right, I bet it’s because they deserve to be poor due to their own inherent flaws.
And ultimately, why even have a government at all? If the whole point is that the government is kept at a minimum of power, why not just do away with it altogether? The book never says that the government is allowed to do, anyway. It just kind of…exists.
So while I don’t know if these elements are examples of Piper’s own politics, I do know that they’re pretty frikkin’ gross.
Couple that with the later introduction of a lawyer named Clement A. Sidney, “a member of what passes for the Socialist party on this planet,” who turns out to be an ineffective and shrieking ninny.
But whereas the politics of this book—serious or not—set me on edge, the story here is a pretty good one. There is a trial for the murder of Silk’s predecessor, but Silk thinks that there are several things wrong with the situation.
He realizes first that the murder was probably done on behalf of the z’Srauff, who have a vested interest in New Texas not joining the Solar League and thus gaining the protection of its fleet. He has to prove it, which turns out not to be that difficult.
But the real problem is that the murderers are being tried in the court reserved for the killing of politicians. Silk knows that if the killers, three brothers named Bonney, are found guilty, that this will set a dangerous precedent. See, if it’s declared that Cumshaw was murdered for political purposes, then that means that now diplomats are considered to be members of the New Texas government, not the governments of the groups or planets they represent. This will mean an end to the sovereignty of embassies, to diplomatic immunity, and several other things.
The stakes are kind of abstract and political unto themselves, but it sets up an interesting situation. Silk has to help prove the Bonney brothers, who are obviously guilty, worthy of punishment, but also not guilty in this particular court, for the reasons listed above. Also, according to New Texas law, double jeopardy means that a person can’t be tried more than once for the same act, as opposed to the same crime. So Silk can’t just get them off the hook for a political killing but then later take them to court for a regular murder. This is his one chance, and that makes for an interesting premise!
What it means is that the back half of the book is predominantly courtroom drama, which is fine. It was well-written enough and I didn’t get bored with it. The solution, in the end, was to prove that the Bonney brothers were, in fact, working on behalf of the z’Srauff, and thus the killing is not politically motivated, which means that the case has to be dismissed. Folks are mad for Silk getting these dastardly Bonney brothers off the hook, but then he declares that, since the result also means that he, Silk, is not a representative of the New Texas government, that he can now try them under the laws of the Solar League, and also he finds them guilty, so he draws a gun and kills them then and there.
New Texas joins the Solar League pretty much then and there, after Silk promises that they will retain a significant degree of autonomy and get to keep their ridiculous governmental system. The z’Srauff fleet arrives but the Solar League fleet also arrives, there’s a battle, and the Solar League wins, and everybody is fine.
So that’s that. Silk decides to stay behind and marries the beautiful daughter of a rancher and enters local politics, which doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea? Whatever.
I forgot to mention some bits, like how the Socialist Lawyer was painted as a clownish figure but in fact everything he said was, um, completely true, like how the poor people of Bonneyville are being exploited and held down by the Capitalist Oligarchy that rules this planet, and how the Solar League wants to take over the planet for entirely Imperialist reasons. This irritated me.
On the flip side, what little we saw of the z’Srauff was pretty interesting. They’re a canine species, and they have names like “Ppmegll Kkuvtmmecc Cicici.” Also, they speak have trouble speaking English or whatever the equivalent is, so they speak something called Basic, which the authors rendered well and interestingly. It comes across as one of those things where people write in only the most common thousand words in the language, or such, which is probably exactly what the authors were going for. We get dialogue like
This person who is here has no need to make answer to any question if it may put him in trouble or make him seem less than he is.loc 1451
by which he simply means that he is invoking his right not to self-incriminate in the court of law.
So there’s plenty of neat stuff going on in this book, and I recommend it on those grounds. It was a lot of fun to read! In many ways it felt very modern, in tone and particularly in how it handled its funnier elements. Every animal on New Texas was a super-something. Supercows, in particular, are so large and numerous that they have to be herded using tanks and helicopters. I love the way the book played with the “everything’s bigger in Texas” trope by making everything ludicrously huge.
So yeah, I enjoyed what I read, even though I don’t know what to make of some of it. I didn’t have time to do much of a deep dive into what Piper’s politics might have been. There’s not much on Wikipedia about it, so I might have to do more research. And then there’s the question of this other guy, John J. McGuire, whom I know even less about. Most of what I can find is that he co-wrote some books with H. Beam Piper! Curious. The SFE says “These books are not readily distinguishable from Piper’s solo efforts,” which is a pretty devastating thing to say about a person.
I’m glad I read this, and I look forward to reading more Piper somewhere down the line. I might even review it. Most of his work is in the public domain, after all. I’ll be happy to take some recommendations down in the comments!
And lastly, have a wonderful holiday season. I know it’s hard, but please, do your best to be safe and keep other people safe. Stay home, or at the very very least, wear a mask and avoid hugging Nana. Let’s keep as many people around for future holidays as we can, right?
I’ll see you next year.