Sunday, 10 November 2013

He Walked Around the Horses by H Beam Piper

First published in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1948.

This is another one that’s available free from Project Gutenberg.

In a coincidence that Charles Fort himself might have enjoyed, Piper and this story in particular are name-dropped in the latest issue of Fortean Times. An article by Bob Rickard outlines the close relationship between SF and Forteanism, and a photograph of Piper shaking hands with John W Campbell illustrates the article: an example of a writer who used Fortean ideas in his ficiton.

I’ve mentioned this before, of course, in relation to a lot of different stories, including Don’t Look Now and Up There. Science fiction and Fortean interests are also commonly associated in the public mind – SF fans are almost always as UFO nuts in popular culture , and the reverse is even more true. The reason for this is easy to spot, of course: they’re united by a love of UFOs and aliens, animal cryptids and the secrets of lost civilizations.
I, too, was was intrigued by ‘true mysteries’ when I was a child. I recall a book that one or other of my brothers owned that related several of the older, hoarier, true mystery stories: Kaspar Hauser, the Versailles time slip, the Oak Island money pit and – perhaps as a cautionary tale – the tale of Piltdown Man. I read that book over and over again before discovering the wider world of weirdness and eventually Fortean Times.

From my earliest memories to today I’ve loved these things and I think it’s about more than just the shared imagery. Story types bleed back and forth between them, building on and influencing each other: the alien abductee, the mysterious creature in the bushes, the adventurer archaeologist tales that power both Indiana Jones and the likes of Graham Hancock and Erich von Daniken, the free-energy utopias and ruthless oppressive secret dystopias.

I think SF fans are predisposed to this kind of story. Fortean tales ask the reader to make the same kind of imaginative leap that SF does. You need to make connections and build a secondary world, a world implied by a contingent interpretation of the facts in the same way that SF worlds are implied by a contingent interpretation of various scientific theories. Both types of story rely heavily on speculation: for example, what if that light in the sky isn’t the sun reflecting off a flock of migrating geese after all but the beach head of an alien invasion?

This story story is based on the mysterious disappearance of the English diplomat Benjamin Bathurst in 1809. What if, Piper imagines, that rather than being robbed and murdered he slipped through the shackles of time and space itself? Where might he end up?

The sort of alternative history time line he finds himself in is a familiar scenario in SF. This story is often held up as one of the finer early examples but doesn’t really do much with the idea.

The closest we get to a central point is the issue that lies at the boss of all these stories: the key event that lies at the moment of divergence. Here it’s due the absence of of Benedict Arnold from the Battle of Saratoga, which leads to the defeat of the revolutionary army in the American revolutionary war. With no successful revolution in the Americas, the French revolution never occurs and there are no Napoleonic wars.

After he’s made his point about alternative histories, Piper has Bathurst killed off stage and a somewhat limp and irrelevant punchline is provided in the last couple of paras. I recall a few years ago reading a collection of detective stories based in alternative time lines of this sort and most of the stories suffered from the same sort of problem: ultimately the plot is just a vehicle for demonstrating a bit clever world building.

It can be done well. The alternative world forms part of the central metaphor in stories like The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling or The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. Most of the time, though, it’s just a kind of shaggy dog tale and that, ultimately, is what we get here.

Themes: alternative history, time slip, Forteanism, historical clever dickery.

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