Junkyard Planet
by H. Beam Piper
  

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

expanded from the novelet —
"Graveyard of Dreams", Galaxy, February 1958

Putnam: New York, 1963
212 pages

also as —

The Cosmic Computer April 2006

  
"The fountains are dusty in the graveyard of dreams."

H. Beam Piper now and again takes a neat twist in an otherwise common plot-line, or strikes an odd note in an apparently straightforward science fiction adventure. Junkyard Planet (in paperback as The Cosmic Computer) has both.

The novel takes up a theme that has been employed often in various ways: a poor backwater culture mining the leftovers of a richer culture, now departed. But Piper's approach is not like stripping marble sheathing from the Great Pyramid or disassembling pagan Greek temples; not near-savages venturing into ruined cities after a great war, nor space-travelers striving to comprehend subtle alien monuments.

Instead, Piper gives us a realistic future version of the logistical backwash of a war, when for a number of scattered human planets, salvaging the materiel left behind by vast interstellar fleet and army forces is the best way to make a cash living. Discovering another hidden and sealed base on their planet gives them something to sell and keeps them going until the next base is found and dismantled. As with all military surplus, the scavengers sell arms and equipment at a wholesale fraction of the original cost. It's a fine world with millions of people, but economically, it's a sparsely-populated junkyard plus some expensive-to-export crops.

And then we get to the odd note. The note is despair. The prime ambition here is to scrounge for logistic leftovers from the interstellar war boom. The postwar bust dried up their economy and their hopes. The fountains are dusty in the graveyard of dreams.

Yet they have one giant, pie-in-the-sky, eldorado hope: the enduring rumor that on their planet is a major secret installation, containing a fabulous military strategic computer. If they can find that base with the supercomputer, they'll have the greatest salvage treasure of the age, and thence the riches to revive their whole planetary economy.

But does the supercomputer exist at all?
  

Sages have debated whether human action is ultimately profitable; if the prize is worth the candle; or if the journey is the reward. Could there really be an oasis or fountain out ahead in the trackless wasteland?

Would but the Desert of the Fountain yield
One glimpse — if dimly, yet indeed, reveal'd,
    Toward which the fainting Traveller might spring,
As springs the trampled herbage of the field!
Omar Khayyam
The Rubaiyat
translated by Edward FitzGerald
2nd ed No. 105 (1868); 5th ed No. 97 (1889)  

If a living, life-giving fountain still is out there, should we go? And if not, what shall we do? What is worthwhile? And precisely to the point: what is economics anyway, if not human action, as Ludwig von Mises says? Junkyard Planet is H. Beam Piper's adventure-meditation upon this theme, and it is a solidly enjoyable story.

  

© 2006 Robert Wilfred Franson

  
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