Henry Beam Piper was born on March 23rd, 1904 in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the only child of middle aged parents. From an early age, Piper’s parents doted upon him, and it was from them that he gained a keen interest in history and the Civil War, in which several ancestors had fought. According to a critical biography, H. Beam Piper: A Biography by John F. Carr, he felt somewhat out of place with his generation: “While Piper was too young for the armed services in World War I, he was too old to join up for World War II,” with friends noting that he “felt he’d missed out on a rite of passage.” Otherwise, Piper’s childhood has been described as enigmatic, with the author himself telling several conflicting stories of his childhood and upbringing.
By the age of 18, he worked as a guard for the Pennsylvania Railroad in his hometown and began developing a taste for the genre stories that would later define his career. “In my teens, which would be in the early 1920s,” Piper wrote in a Double-Bill Symposium, a science fiction fanzine, “I decided that what I really wanted to do was write; I wasn’t sure what, but I was going to write something.” Around this time, he began reading speculative fiction, delving into works by H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, as well as stories by newer authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and A. Merritt.
Around this time, he began writing, using the money he earned at the railroad to send stories to various magazines. Carr noted that Piper’s tendency to focus on a sense of realism probably didn’t help him, given that the focus of the science fiction and pulp fiction markets were a bit more outlandish. Indeed, Piper’s first science fiction story, ‘Time and Time Again’ appeared in the April 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, a publication that under editor John W. Campbell Jr., put an emphasis on realism.
Piper was careful about his image and reputation, noting in a letter that he wanted to use a pen name for one particularly unconventional story. “I didn’t want that sort of thing thrown in my teeth when I’m writing good stuff. I regard a piece of poor work in the same light as a bastard offspring — it is wise not to acknowledge it publicly.”
It was in 1947 that Piper broke into the science fiction market with Campbell, and for the next two decades, he continued to place stories to the publication. He shared his editor’s conservative politics and general outlook on the world, but wasn’t simply a mouthpiece for Campbell. “While Piper was respectful of Campbell’s feelings, he was not afraid to speak the truth — even if it was to the man who made his writing career a reality,” writes Carr.
Over the course of the rest of the 1940s and 1950s, Piper continued to place stories at Astounding: “He Walked Around the Horses” (April 1948), “Police Operation” (July 1948), “The Mercenaries” (March 1950), “Last Enemy” (August 1950), but eventually branched out to publications such as Amazing Stories, True: The Man’s Magazine, Weird Tales, Fantastic Universe, and others.
In 1952, he wrote his first novel, Ullr Uprising, which was published in an anthology, The Petrified Planet, and serialized a year later in Space Science Fiction. Other genuinely interesting novels followed: Null-ABC, co-authored with John J. McGuire, looked at the modern world where 90% of the inhabitants were illiterate. The book was serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in the following year’s February and March issues. Piper followed up in 1958 with a series of novels that all shared a larger world in what’s called his “Terro-Human Future History” which included A Planet for Texans (an Ace Double novel, packaged with Andre Norton’s Star Born), Four-Day Planet in 1961, and Space Viking in 1963.
It was in 1958 that Piper wrote a new novel set in his future history for which he would best be known: Little Fuzzy. The story followed a prospector named Jack Holloway on the planet Zarathusta. The planet was owned by a corporation called Chartered Zarathustra Company that had set up colonial settlements, and which mines the planet for valuable sunstones. While prospecting, Holloway comes across a small furred creature that he calls Fuzzies. Learning more about them, Holloway comes to realize that the creatures are sentient, which would trigger some interstellar regulations to protect them and the planet. Faced with the loss of revenue, the company predictably moves to cover up their discovery and kicks off a court case. The novel is an interesting meditation on the nature of sentience, and it holds up nicely, over half a century later.
Piper had trouble selling the story. He and his wife had split up, and he was in a funk for much of the fall, and had continually written and re-written the novel. He didn’t finish the novel until 1959, and began shopping it around. Campbell rejected the book, as did several major publishers, and he continued to tinker with it while he turned to other projects. In September 1961, he finally had a break: his agent sold the book to Avon Books, which published it in January 1962, and asked for a sequel. Fans quickly took to the book, and later nominated the novel for a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963, although it lost out to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.
Piper published a new novel, Junkyard Planet in 1963, which he had written while waiting to sell Little Fuzzy, but turned his attention back to Zarathusta for his Fuzzy sequel, The Other Human Race, later retitled Fuzzy Sapiens, which hit bookstores in 1964. This novel followed the antagonist from the first novel, Victor Grego, after he adopts a Fuzzy that he discovers in his apartment, and works to steer the company he led to cooperate with the planetary government and fend of criminal activity that begins to appear.
Piper began writing a third sequel, Fuzzies and Other People, but committed suicide before he completed the story. In early November, Piper shut off his apartment’s utilities, covered the walls with drop clothes and shot himself. He left a suicide note that simply stated “I don’t like to leave messes when I go away, but if I could have cleaned up any of this mess, I wouldn’t be going away.”
It’s not clear why he decided to end his life. Piper was not good at financial planning and was frequently broke, leading some to suggest that financial hardship was a cause. Others pointed to a recent divorce. Another theory is that he despaired at the state of his career.
One can make the case that Piper saw little future in writing science fiction. Mike Ashley notes in his history Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980 that by “the end of the sixties [,] magazines were having an uncertain time.” Piper was writing at a time when the New Wave of science fiction was growing in popularity, and, once again, largely found himself out of step with the times. However, “the Golden Age never went away,” writes Adam Roberts in The History of Science Fiction. “Science fiction continued to be written according to the protocols against which the New Wave was reacting.” Piper was part of a group of authors that “produced a great quantity of tungsten-hard, mechanically literate and often militaristic SF.”
Following Piper’s death, rumors of a third Fuzzy novel circulated, and author William Tuning put together a new novel in 1981, Fuzzy Bones, which continued the story. Ardath Mayhar Another sequel, Golden Dream: A Fuzzy Odyssey, which took the point of view of the titular creatures. However, Piper had authored a third novel, Fuzzies and Other People, which followed Little Fuzzy after he is separated from Jack Holloway, which was later published in 1984. Little Fuzzy eventually entered the public domain and became a read for dedicated science fiction fans.
Some of these fans have had a hand in bringing his name to a broader attention. In 2010, author John Scalzi posted to his blog an announcement: he had written a science fiction “reboot” of Little Fuzzy, which he called Fuzzy Nation. Unlike the other authorized sequels, this was a book that would stand on its own, separate from the larger Fuzzy canon. He noted that he was “a huge fan of the original novel and of H. Beam Piper’s work. It’s a good story and he’s a very good story teller,” but noted that he “thought there was an opportunity to revisit the story and put a new spin on it to make it approachable to people who had not read the original or did not know about Piper.” The story took the same plot elements that made up the original novel, but reinterpreted them. Where the original novel focused on sentience, Scalzi focused on the legal system. With approval from Piper’s estate, the novel hit bookstores in 2011.
It’s hard to say what would have happened with Piper’s work had he not committed suicide. Genre commentators have universally noted that his death cut short a promising career that likely would have gone much higher. Lester Del Rey noted in a column in Analog that “Piper was rapidly becoming the best adventure writer in science fiction before his tragic death…” His death occurred just a couple of years before science fiction exploded, with authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, and Isaac Asimov commanding impressive figures for new novels, and, in hindsight, it seems as though he was an author who was just ahead of the curve. Given Piper’s growing popularity by the time of his death, it’s possible that he could have become a far more prominent author.