Journalism on the frontier
H. Beam Piper's science-fiction novel Four-Day Planet may be styled a "juvenile" in that its protagonist is a teenaged boy and there's no adult romance — and it is a very fine one. If perhaps not quite in the league of Robert A. Heinlein's 1950s juveniles, it is not so far off in imagination, adventure, plot, thoughtfulness of principle, and honesty of presentation.
Here's the engaging opening, virtually an abstract of the novel to follow:
I went through the gateway, towing my equipment in a contragravity hamper over my head. As usual, I was wondering what it would take, short of a revolution, to get the city of Port Sandor as clean and tidy and well lighted as the spaceport area. I knew Dad's editorials and my sarcastic news stories wouldn't do it. We'd been trying long enough.
The two girls in bikinis in front of me pushed on, still gabbling about the fight one of them had had with her boy friend, and I closed up behind the half dozen monster-hunters in long trousers, ankle boots and short boat-jackets, with big knives on their belts. They must have all been from the same crew, because they weren't arguing about whose ship was fastest, had the toughest skipper, and made the most money. They were talking about the price of tallow-wax, and they seemed to have picked up a rumor that it was going to be cut another ten centisols a pound. I eavesdropped shamelessly, but it was the same rumor I'd picked up, myself, a little earlier.
What themes are stated or intimated or foreshadowed in these opening paragraphs?
- We are on an extra-solar frontier planet.
- Scheduled interstellar travel is taken for granted.
- The planetary economy is dependent on a valuable natural product, dangerously acquired at sea, rather like whale oil in earlier centuries on Terra (Earth).
- The interstellar economy is Terra-dominated (currency includes "centisols").
- Being appropriately armed in public is an expected corollary of one's profession.
- Personal, societal, and economic concerns are recognizably similar to those of today.
- Girls in bikinis need not fear being hassled in a rough mixed crowd in a port.
- The society has contragravity inexpensive enough for routine personal tasks.
- The spaceport (private enterprise) is better run than the city (government).
- Our hero is young, but mature enough to do adult work with his father.
- Our hero is a journalist and takes his job seriously.
- Our hero understands some of the principles of liberty, economics, government, and revolution.
That's quite a bit to put on just the first page of a "juvenile" novel, and it may go some way to showing the attentive reader why Piper is so good. There is no routine blather: we cleanly begin a focused, richly thoughtful book. None of the details above is filler; all feature more or less significantly in the plot, the characters' motivations and actions, the private and public issues soon to swirl out of control, and the physical adventures and ethical challenges.
Not bad for a novel about a seventeen-year-old reporter on Fenris, a physically hostile world with a difficult four-day / four-season year; a frontier world sparsely populated with folks both regular and extraordinary — including a number of regular folks who grow and rise, or fall, meeting extraordinary challenges or temptations.
I've read H. Beam Piper's Four-Day Planet a number of times over the years, and strongly recommend it.
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