The Cosmic Computer
The Cosmic Computer. H.Beam Piper
Original Publication: 1963 (as Junkyard Planet)
Current Availability: eBook (public domain, Project Gutenberg)
This review originally appeared on rpg.net in March 2017 and was reprinted with permission here and in the March/April 2023 issue.
This review, the twenty-fourth in the series, discusses one of Traveller’s influences, The Cosmic Computer. It’s set in the same universe as Space Viking, the first book I reviewed.
About the Story
The System States War uplifted some of the backwaters of the Terran Federation, but when it ended those planets were allowed to descend into poverty as technology and trade fell away. On one such world, Poictesme, Conn Maxwell returns from school on Earth to fulfill the hopes of a planet. He is to rediscover Merlin, a lost artifact of the Terran Federation. However, Maxwell has plans of his own.
The Cosmic Computer is a tale of a man trying to return his planet to greatness, while at the same time fooling his fellow citizens for their own good. It’s a story of archaeological digs, space travel, commerce, and trade within a trisystem, but its biggest focus is on the exploration of the human species.
Genre & Style
Often times, science fiction of the ’50s and ’60s is hard to classify. In those days, the genre lines weren’t as rigid because the expectations for science-fiction books weren’t as precise. Authors could imagine what they wanted without having to write to specific formulas. This is the case for The Cosmic Computer, which crosses many subgenre lines.
Today, The Cosmic Computer is usually classified as a space opera. Certainly, there’s a Galactic Federation: the story of its past war, its modern neglect, and its future downfall is central to the book. However, that’s all in the background; describing The Cosmic Computer as a space opera would be a superficial description of the book.
You could instead call The Cosmic Computer a history, since that was Piper’s own inspiration. To be precise, The Cosmic Computer is based on the story of the Pacific Islands that were uplifted during World War II, then fell back after the war ended; the people of Poictesme’s near-worship of the lost computer Merlin is practically a Pacific cargo cult. Or if you prefer, The Cosmic Computer is a future history, after Robert E. Heinlein’s series of short stories and novels (1939-1950+) that portrayed a science-fiction future for mankind. Not only is The Cosmic Computer just a single point in a longer timeline, but it’s also the history of a pivotal time on the planet of Poictesme.
However, the best categorization for The Cosmic Computer might be a scientific romance, particularly as British writers approached the genre. In other words, it's more like the novels of H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, and Jules Verne than modern science-fiction novels. It takes what Brian Stableford calls an “evolutionary perspective”, looking at how technological transformations can recreate the world.
Whatever its precise genre, The Cosmic Computer does a good job at depicting a world undergoing a monumental change. Its scope moves from the galactic to the local and back again, demonstrating how the larger world affects the smaller one and vice-versa — creating an intriguing connection between a star-spanning civilization and a planetary society.
The Cosmic Computer is a bit weaker in its plot, which wavers back and forth between returning Poictesme to the stars and finding the computer Merlin, often on a chapter-by-chapter basis. It also has cardboard characters. None of them have much depth, and it’s hard to keep track of anyone but the protagonists. None of this is too unexpected for a science-fiction novel of this time.
Consider The Cosmic Computer an idea book … and it’s got some intriguing ones, put together in a way that’s unusual for the modern market, and all the more interesting for that.
Applicability to Traveller Gameplay
Marc Miller has described The Cosmic Computer as a “strong influence”, and that comes across best in the interaction between a single local planet and a larger galactic empire. On the one hand we have Piper’s Terran Federation, which could just as easily be Miller’s Second Imperium, the Rule of Man. On the other hand we have a single planet, Poictesme. Poictesme briefly became a part of galactic society when it was an advance base during the System States War, but then it backslid when the War ended. This is largely the result of the Federation being immense. Though the Federation has “hyperships”, it still takes six months to travel from Terra to Poictesme.
The Cosmic Computer’s depiction of these two different societies would be just as true for the universe of Traveller, where the scope of stellar travel is very similar. The story also offers a great explanation for how individual planets in Traveller could have Tech Levels so much lower than the Imperium as a whole. The search for abandoned technology that’s the main thrust of the novel then offers a very natural response to that technological difference. Put these ideas together and you get a story that’s important to a single planet, but still interacts with a galactic body — which is a good description of how to write Traveller adventures, too.
Though most of the worlds name-checked in The Cosmic Computer don’t appear in the Official Traveller Universe, the OTU does contain a Poictesme, which might be an homage to this novel. It’s in the Capella subsector of the Solomani Rim. Traveller’s Terra and Poictesme are just two subsectors apart, but there’s a dearth of good jump-2 routes between them. The best option requires about 13 jumps. Add together thirteen weeks for jumping and thirteen weeks for refueling … and you have exactly a six-month trip!
The Cosmic Computer contains a few other possible influences. Most notably, the novel is largely about reestablishing interplanetary trade, something that’s at the heart of many a Traveller game. The search for old tech has more often appeared in Traveller as a hunt for ancient artifacts, but hunting for caches from past Imperiums or for bases used during past wars could be a great adventure seed in any Traveller game. The Cosmic Computer also contains robots and computers that could come straight out of Traveller — with the computers being ridiculously huge, of course, though that’s more a factor of the era’s technology than a true connection to the Traveller RPG.
About the Series
The Cosmic Computer is part of H. Beam Piper's (never completed) Terro-Human Future History. It starts with the short story “The Edge of the Knife” (1957), set in 1973, runs through The Cosmic Computer (1963), Space Viking (1963), and others, and ends with the far-future “The Keeper” (1957). Piper’s Fuzzy novels (1962-1964, 1984) are probably the best-known books in the series.
Piper envisioned his history as a cycle where many of the same themes recurred across the millennia. This trope was influenced by Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History (1934-1939, 1954, 1959-1961), which theorizes that civilizations cycle through multiple phases, including “the universal state”, “the time of troubles”, and “the interregnum”. In The Cosmic Computer, the Terran Federation has already entered its time of troubles, with a fall soon to follow. At least five Empires rise after the Terran Federation — a history that Piper once dreamed of chronicling with a book set in every century.
This cyclical idea of history may have influenced Traveller as much as any of Piper’s individual books, as the universal state of Traveller (1977) entered its time of troubles in MegaTraveller (1987), then an interregnum during Traveller: The New Era (1993). Of course, this was just the latest cycle of rise and fall, as two Imperiums preceded the Imperium of Traveller. Marc Miller’s Traveller [T4] (1996) reminded players of that by turning back the Third Imperium’s clock and detailing Milieu 0, just after the last interregnum.
The Cosmic Computer started out as a short story called “Graveyard of Dreams”, which appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction Vol. 15 No. 4 (February 1958). It was published in hardcover novel form as Junkyard Planet (1963), but was quickly returned to Piper’s preferred name, The Cosmic Computer (1964)
The Cosmic Computer reads like it was a strong influence on Traveller. Beyond that, it remains a great source for understanding how a local planet could be affected by changes in galactic society.