Thursday, November 25, 2010

Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen

I just finished re-reading my beat-up copy of H. Beam Piper's wonderful sci-fi novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. I think we all have a few books in our lives that we read again and again for the sheer pleasure of having a familiar tale unfold for us. And even though we know it all so well, each re-reading is like the first reading all over again. Kalvan is one of those books for me. I've probably read it 20 times since I bought my first copy and it never gets old.

It was Piper's last book. For reasons still unclear, he committed suicide in November 1964, just before Lord Kalvan was published. Speculation is that Piper assumed that his career was heading downhill and that he would never lift himself out of his financial problems. Ironically, Lord Kalvan was his biggest, albeit posthumous, success. He died without knowing the extent of his influence on the genre.

Lord Kalvan's story falls within a familiar theme where a seeming everyman becomes unstuck from his old life by events outside his control and finds a destiny he never imagined possible. Lord Kalvan is the last of the paratime series that started with the short story "He walked around the horses," which appeared in the Magazine Astounding Science Fiction in 1948. Piper had a fascination with the idea of parallel worlds where alternate probabilities worked themselves out. It was a theme he used in several short stories and novels. Most of Piper's work is available online as free e-books.

The story's protagonist, Calvin Morrison, is a Pennsylvania State Trooper who gets accidentally sucked into a paratemporal conveyor while he is apprehending a holed-up prison escapee. After a shoot-out with the conveyor operator, he's ejected to what appears to be the same spot he was before but different. Where there was only scrub, there is now primeval forrest, but other landmarks are correct. He stumbles on a farmstead whose humble inhabitants are clearly not from any part of Pennsylvania's history. He eventually convinces himself that he has been transported to a far-distant future where mankind has bootsrapped itself back up to roughly 16th century technology after being blasted back to the stone age in a nuclear holocaust. However, he is really on a alternate probability timeline (Fourth-Level: Aryan-Transpacific) where the Aryan migrations that went south and west to populate Europe and India before the Bronze Age instead turned east, sailed across the Bering Strait, and populated the Americas.

Morrison has wound up in a princedom called Hostigos, whose capital Tarr-Hostigos occupies what is Bellefonte, PA on Morrison's own timeline. He finds himself in the middle of an enemy raid that reaches his hosts' farmstead. He springs to action and, with his state-issue .38 special, helps to repel the attack and begins a counterattack. However, in the confusion of the fight, he is accidentally shot by Princess Rylla, the daughter of Hostigos' ruling Prince Ptosphes, but saved from death by his badge, which blunts the bullet's effect. This detail is an interesting story glitch because the Pennsylvania State Police do not and never have worn badges. I guess the alternate would be the old Bible in the breast pocket trick, but Calvin Morrison is described as an agnostic.

Badly wounded, Morrison is taken to the castle and nursed back to health by Princess Rylla and the priests of the god Dralm, a sort of kinder, gentler Zeus. Rylla teaches him the local language and Morrison, obviously a fish out of water, is able to explain himself as someone sent there by sorcery. Xentos, the high priest Dralm, declares that he was sent by the gods to help Hostigos. Morrison soon learns that Hostigos is beset by its neighbors at the direction of an evil theocracy called Styphon's House.

In the meantime, the Paratime Police, whose job is to protect the secret of paratemporal travel, track Morrison down to kill him if he's deemed to be a threat to the secret. Verkan Vall, the special assistant to the Paratime Police Chief, takes on the job himself. Coming into Hostigos as a free trader from outside the kingdom, he determines that Morrison's misunderstanding of what happened to him and his cover story in Hostigos pose no problem. Vall befriends Morrison, who has now been raised to the peerage as Lord Kalvan by Prince Ptosphes and betrothed to Princess Rylla. Vall admires Kalvan's character and helps him in his fight.

Kalvan is able to greatly improve Hostigos' military situation, but he remains initially unaware of its real problem: it hasn't enough gunpowder to defend itself when its enemies attack. He soon learns that Styphon's House is the sole maker and provider of gunpowder—called fireseed—in all the kingdoms. Only Styphon's highest priests know the secret and Hostigos is under the ban. It's then that Kalvan drops a bomb and reveals that he can make fireseed and proceeds to do so, making a better product than Styphon's.

Kalvan starts major gunpowder production in Hostigos, but also works to let the secret of gunpowder out of the bag so that anyone can make it, thus weakening the control Styphon's House has over the kingdoms. Kalvan sees Styphon's House as the real enemy and vows to destroy it. Styphon's House reacts by stepping up the pressure on Hostigos and urging its minions, the neighboring princedoms of Nostor and Sask, to attack sooner than they planned.

The war that follows is fought on two fronts. Kalvan smashes a two-pronged attack by Nostor and then prepares for a second war against Sask. The decisive battle against Sask is based on the Battle of Barnet in 1471, where Yorkist and Lancastrians fought a confused battle in the fog unaware that each had outflanked the other.

When the wars conclude, Kalvan is raised up as a Great King ruling the princes of Hostigos, Nostor, Sask, and a few minor states—and of course, he marries the princess Rylla, too. The book ends with the knowledge that the wars against Nostor and Sask are only the beginning of a longer fight to overthrow Styphon's House.

I became aware of Lord Kalvan back in the late 70s when I was all into Pike & Shot wargaming. I bought a set of miniatures rules called Down Styphon! that were written by Mike Gilbert and published by Fantasy Games Unlimited. These are still available (or, rather, again available) for just $4.00 directly from FGU. The rules referred to the novel and included an advert for purchasing the book from Ace Books for $1.50 plus 35¢ shipping. I thought I had been cured of responding to adverts after enough misadventures in my younger days with the schlock products that were the staple of the end sheets of every comic book (sea monkeys, X-ray glasses, etc.). But sending away for the book was the best hunch I ever took, especially since I had never been a sci-fi fan before, or really much since.

A few years ago, I acquired a copy of Roland Green and John F. Carr's 1985 novel Great Kings' War, which extends the story to the next phase of Kalvan's war against Styphon's House. Green and Carr have since written another two novels in the series, Siege of Tarr-Hostigos and Kalvan Kingmaker. I haven't read either. Great King's War was a good read, but it hasn't held me like Lord Kalvan. I've re-read it maybe once before, but now I've pitched into it again.

I've always wanted to game the world of Lord Kalvan. There are enough suitable Pike & Shot rules around, including Down Styphon! However, the descriptions of the troops in Lord Kalvan make getting their exact look very hard to do with the available figures. The men are described as looking part medieval and part 16th–17th century with chain mail, plate mail, high-combed morions, and a kind of unvisored sallet.

The Hostigos troops have a lot of crossbows and what firearms they have are a kind of flintlock with an action that works in reverse. I've always thought that a reverse flintlock was an odd thing for Piper to create in his story. I own a flintlock musket, so I'm familiar with how they throw a spark beyond the frizzen. If the action is reversed, the spark from the flint striking the frizzen goes into the shooter's eye. Piper was a gun nut; he ought to have known that.

The Down Styphon! rules announced a figure line to be created especially for Lord Kalvan's world based on specifications provided by Mike Gilbert. They don't seem to have ever been produced. The rules themselves are fairly straightforward and use mechanics that were standard for the 70s, and very typical of FGU games in particular. I am toying with these rules as yet another project. I have some 30 Years' War figures, but perhaps an intervention is needed instead...

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