Back to School, Belatedly

Well, time for some updates. I’ve still been writing, just not here. For this September past I penned a little essay for AE, appropriately, on education-themed science fiction. Perhaps just as appropriate a topic as the school year draws to a close.

You’ll notice my opening paragraph refers to the proverbial cocktail party. Often, when a person is going to pontificate on their career, and especially public perceptions thereof, they start off with, “When I meet people at cocktail parties . . .” I don’t actually go to a lot of cocktail parties, but in fine speculative as well as Einsteinian tradition: assume a perfectly spherical cocktail party. . . .

No, I’m half-kidding. But really, if I’m at the proverbial cocktail party, or some near analogue (gas-station nacho bar), and introduce myself as a teacher, I really do find it gets people talking. But I’m more interested in the deep thinking of smart writers on the topic than your typical non-educators. Thus, the essay. Please read it here.

Book Review: The Three Body Problem

As time goes by and I keep thinking about the ideas in this novel, I’m increasingly convinced that Three Body Problem will go down in science fiction history as one of the all-time great works. This novels asks some of the deepest questions there are in science, and in a compelling and imaginative way.

No quote from the review this time. I just wanted to give my heartfelt recommendation for this work. You can read my (perhaps understated) review at the WFP.

Book Review: The Puppet Masters

Because I’m a reader and have always been a reader, I have many, many to-read lists. I hear about yet another must-read author and think, perhaps a little wistfully, “one day. . .” So, certainly I was aware of the existence of a person named Heinlein for some time before I finally started to get to know his work, belatedly in my 20s.

Or at least so I had thought. Only after several years of reading Heinlein did I realize that I had indeed had a childhood introduction to him after all. The Puppet Masters, starring Donald Sutherland, came out when I was 12, and I vaguely remember seeing at least some of it on TV a little while after that.

So now, having read at least half of Heinlein’s corpus (and the majority of the good stuff, by most accounts), it comes full circle, and I revisit the first Heinlein story I ever encountered, but this time in his own words.

Heinlein had two early novels: his unpublished For Us, the Living, and his regrettably published Sixth Column. The Puppet Masters is a first, however. It’s Heinlein’s first adult novel that was any good. And a horror novel, of all things. Science fictional horror, to be sure, and with Heinlein’s inimitable voice, through and through, but still.

Apparently his wife, Ginny, hated it. Icky aliens that take over people’s brains and walk their bodies around like, well, puppets? Not her thing. I can appreciate that. It really is the stuff of nightmares.

It’s also a fairly big metaphor that Heinlein made no secret of. The Red Menace: Communism with a capital C, and American-born traitors in every neighbourhood, walking around like everybody else, like they’re real people. Remember this book was written in the McCarthy era and Heinlein was patriotic to a fault.

This context is interesting but it’s still a real novel, with reasonably well-developed characters and a decent plot that actually works without having to be a metaphor for anything. In fact, taken on its merits as science fiction, The Puppet Masters seems biologically very cutting-edge compared to the pod people of the more famous Invasion of the Body Snatchers film that came out later. Minus the usual minimally-dated elements, this early Heinlein novel could have easily been written today. It really is way ahead of its time.

In fact this novel could have (should have?) been a game-changer for Heinlein. He wrote it in 1951, when he was just beginning to establish himself as a strong juvenile writer, and this was an early success that almost became a career-defining one. The Puppet Masters was poised to become a Hollywood blockbuster before a blatant rip-off of the story beat it to the theatres and killed Heinlein’s movie deal.

If things had gone differently, especially considering the success of Destination Moon, Heinlein might have built up real momentum as a Hollywood icon and had a very different sort of writing career. In an alternate universe, the name Heinlein might have been uttered in the same breath as, not Asimov and Clarke, but Kubrick and Hitchcock. He might never have written Starship Troopers, Stranger, or Mistress. Yet I have to wonder what cinematic masterpieces he might have created instead, and whether they might have been as influential and enduring in their own way.

(Baen, 2009)

Book Review: Lock In

And now, as Rocky (of & Bullwinkle fame) would say, for something completely different. American novelist and blogger John Scalzi has taken a break from his long-running Old Man’s War series to pen a diverting stand-alone near-future sci-fi detective thriller.

My full review ran in the WFP yesterday. The five-syllable or less summary: it’s pretty good. The top spot for Scalzi novels I still assign to Old Man’s War itself, but that’s a pretty difficult one to dislodge, so that’s no sleight. After all, I put it in a category with Heinlein’s original Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s brilliant The Forever War, august but appropriate company, to be sure.

Book Review: Farnham’s Freehold

We have the potential, each of us individually and in our species and society as a whole, to do great good as well as great evil. Anyone can be a slave or a master if we allow the liberal values and civilized trappings we’ve painstakingly built up over human history to slip back just a little. It takes effort and slow, steady social improvement to overcome our worst natures. [And there’s] nothing natural or inevitable about one ethnic group being on top and another being on the bottom, as even a cursory study of the history of nations makes clear.

For a taste of Heinlein’s dark side, read on for a little about Farnham’s Freehold.

Book Review: Strange Bedfellows

It’s true. Science fiction by its very nature has a political stance, one which, hypothetically, can vary infinitely with the author, but which is, in practice, overwhelmingly rationalist, humanist, and socially progressive (though a bastion of conservative and libertarian voices also exists).

Read my full review of the modern political science fiction anthology at AE.