First Cycle, by H. Beam Piper, Michael Kurland

first-cycle-by-h-beam-piper-michael-kurland reviewGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ace
Published: 1982
Reviewer Rating: half star
Book Review by David Hart

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In case you haven’t come across his books, H. Beam Piper was one of the better writers 50 years ago, producing mostly space opera and multiverse books. His writing style and characterization, though not wonderful by today’s much higher standards, were well above average for his day. Above all, his books were exciting, kept you wanting to read more.

According to the blurb, First Cycle is “a lost novel”, found in manuscript form after Piper’s death “complete; all that remained was the fleshing-out and polishing process that would ready it for publication”. This was done by Michael Kurland. So what is the result like? The answer in a word: BORING.

We are presented with a freak solar system, with two habitable planets sharing an orbit. The first half of the book narrates the evolution and early history of intelligent life on each planet. Let me say that again: the first half of the book mainly consists of “first this happened, then that happened, followed by such and such, and then…” Occasionally there are episodes with named characters and dialogue, but these last at most a few pages. Then we skip another century or so. It is very tedious.

After 100 pages of this we have reached a point where on one planet there is a nasty totalitarian regime, while on the other there is no government at all, just anarchy and free-enterprise. The latter species is more intelligent and inquisitive, and so has better technology including space travel. The rest of the book relates what happens when the races meet. I won’t reveal the outcome, but it’s not exciting. Though at least here the story is more standard, related by dialogue; in fact there’s a plot.

So what went wrong? Did Piper finally write a turkey? I doubt it: the style is so different from the rest of his books. I suspect, and I stress that this is pure speculation, that the manuscript was not a novel-for-publication at all, but a draft of a short story preceded by copious background notes which were for Piper’s use only. I might be wrong of course, but that is certainly how the book reads.

Who should read this? Piper completists only. Everyone else should read the Kalvan books or the Fuzzy books, or indeed anything but this one.

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