Book Review: Robert A. Heinlein, Vol 2

To even casual readers of science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein needs no introduction, but he made waves outside the genre as well. His three most famous and controversial books managed to scandalize or offend an amazing number of otherwise non-overlapping demographics.
Read my full review at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Skip the Book?

Today on AE, five books you can forgo in favour of the film. I’m a die-hard bookworm, so when I say the movie’s better, well, opinion is still opinion, but you might pay a little closer attention. Of course, the films in question are all genre (with Fight Club perhaps straddling the line a bit). Here’s one more that wouldn’t have fit on the list at AE:

Non-genre Bonus Example!

Into the Wild. The film is a dramatized version of the true story of Christopher McCandless, a thoughtful, adventurous young man with an inspiring zest for life. The book is a stunning example of long-form journalism by a master of the craft. Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction account of the McCandless story grew out of an article he wrote for Outside magazine. The book is a mix of narrative, interviews, the history of adventure travel, and some of Krakauer’s personal anecdotes.

In fine journalistic fashion, speculations are clearly labelled as such, multiple theories are floated and batted around. But in the movie version, a single interpretation is taken, a single cohesive narrative emerges, and it really feels like we see things from Chris’ perspective. In the film, we have a protagonist. In the book we have a subject. Most of us would choose the former.

Book Review: Feynman

And now for something completely different. I was intrigued and delighted when I stumbled across this rather quirky project from First Second Books the other day. It’s a fresh new biography of the famous Feynman: bongo-playing, girl-chasing, and Nobel-winning; physics god of generations of undergrads, as much for his barroom stories as for the ubiquitous diagrams that bear his name.

This isn’t the first Feynman bio, and it likely won’t be the last. James Gleick’s Genius set the gold standard, cutting through legend upon legend – Feynman picking locks in Los Alamos; Feynman spending a summer sabbatical learning molecular biology and immediately making a discovery about DNA; Feynman the Nobelist rubbing elbows with royalty and flubbing the etiquette – and getting at the real character-forming events in-between.

More recently, physicist and author Lawrence Kraus, feeling there was too little said about Richard Feynman’s significant work in fundamental physics, focused on tracing the development of the scientist’s major professional work in The Quantum Man. Before his death, the enormously popular Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? collected many of Feynman’s essays, lectures, and well-practiced anecdotes (as told to his friend Ralph Leighton); a few of these greatest hits plus many new ones were later published post-humously in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. And there are many, many more.

As far as I know, however, Ottaviani and Myrick’s simply-titled new book is the very first one to chronicle the man’s life graphically. And it’s gorgeous. Just look at the brilliant cover.

The clean illustrative style seems a perfect fit for Feynman’s light-hearted approach to life, while still being detailed enough to convey subtle facial expressions and body language. Throughout, the man on the page is recognizably, uniquely Feynman, the graphical and textual elements complement each other so beautifully it is like watching the man on video.

But credit also must be given to Ottaviani for weaving scores of otherwise unrelated stories into a portrait of a truly original life. The major source materials for this book are the famous Surely You’re Joking and its follow-up, but these are self-contained recollections, lectures, and musings. Drawing out and tying together the biographical bits and pieces of these much longer stories, and capturing the flavour of each one while quoting only a tiny bit of it requires an inspired touch. Making full use of the visual medium, Ottaviani and Myrick manage to give us all the punchlines in a fraction of the space, meanwhile creating a sense of continuity that is absent in the original, non-chronological story collections on which they draw.

I really like this book. It fills a gap in the Feynman corpus that I didn’t realize was there. It’s not that we need a briefer or more readable version of Feynman and Leighton’s eminently successful books. With Feynman we have something wholly new, a different perspective and focus make this a worthwhile read even for those of us who’ve heard these stories before. Librarians with librarian degrees may want to look into adding this title to their collections. That the first edition of what is essentially a graphic novel is in a beautiful hard cover form was another unexpected bonus to me, as this item has a place of honour on my shelf.

(First Second, 2011)

Article first published as Graphic Novel Review: Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick on Blogcritics.

Science Fiction to the Rescue in WWII

I reviewed the new Heinlein biography recently, which I quite enjoyed. It’s the first of a planned two-volume project, so I am also eagerly anticipating the second, particularly since by the end of part one, only Heinlein’s first couple of books had been mentioned (along with a few notable shorts).

This volume was surprisingly interesting given that the majority of it covered Heinlein’s life prior to his full-time writing career. After all, the reason anyone would want to read a bio of a famous author is because they’re interested in his work, but it turns out he was also an interesting man before he became an interesting author. Of course, he also lived in interesting times, and having now read several histories and biographies taking place in the first half of the twentieth century, I find I just can’t get enough of it. So much happened in the century of my birth.

One rather surprising tidbit came after the Pearl Harbor attack which precipitated US entry into World War Two. Heinlein, though he had been forced to give up his first career as a naval officer due to pulmonary tuberculosis, tried absolutely everything to get enlisted again for the war. It seems the Japanese attack had an incredible galvanizing effect on US citizenry such that patriotic, able-bodied men (and women) were volunteering left and right, to the point that officers in charge of enlistment couldn’t keep up.

Though still medically unfit to serve, Heinlein was able to use a former officer contact to get in as a civilian engineer at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. His navy contact also requested that Heinlein, working with pulp giant, editor John W. Campbell, try to recruit — no joke — more science fiction writers to come do war work. In fact, in those early days of the new genre of science fiction, many of the writers did indeed have scientific or engineering training. Heinlein ended up bringing in a young Isaac Asimov (a recently minted chemistry PhD), and L. Sprague de Camp to work in the same research facility out of the yard as he.

Heinlein also ended up doing some minor engineering work that, unbeknownst to him, was related to the still top-secret development of radar technology. Across the pond, English SF giant, Arthur C. Clarke, was also working more directly on radar applications.

Pretty cool. When the world was in jeopardy, the allies called on their best genre writers to save the day. SF enthusiasts often claim their favourite authors can see into the future. When the Allies needed help, however, these writers were brought in to help create the future. Along with the bomb, radar was the top-secret, brand-new Allied technology of WWII. Future Nobel-winning scientists gave their best for the war effort, alongside future Hugo-winning sci-fi writers. Who’d have thought?