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.

More Heinlein

Starman Jones, another rousing adventure tale with nevertheless a bit more edge to it, as bildungsromans must needs have. Romance! Danger! The caprices of fate! No guarantee of a happy ending!

I’ve previously posted about this, but with my current limited series on Heinlein at GMR, it made sense to shine the spotlight again on a review from a couple of years ago. Therefore see here for a little sketch of where Starman Jones fits in the scheme of Heinlein and the Scribner juveniles, which comprise much, though not all, of the material I’m reviewing there over the next couple of months. That brief introductory post ends, of course, with a link to the review proper, also available right here, should you fear switching domains for some reason.

Book Review: The Rolling Stones

There are a number of influences and traditions to parse in this novel. Obviously, it’s Golden Age, 1950s hard science fiction, which means rocket ships, other planets, aliens, et cetera. The technical details are explored with relish. Modern literacy research suggests young males are more likely to be reluctant readers than girls, and one solution is to let them read what they want, which is often technical non-fiction about vehicles or space rather than fictional stories about people and emotions. Heinlein apparently already had that figured out 60+ years ago.

Green Man Review will be publishing my coverage of the recent batch of Heinlein novels I requested from Baen, and will be making it an ongoing series. First read my introductory post, then my first review, quoted above, of The Rolling Stones.

Thanks, Baen

Somewhat out of the blue last week, I found myself thinking of picking up some Heinlein. Maybe it was because I’d recently started a re-read of Jumper (just finished tonight). I went back through my own reviews and realized the last couple of Heinlein books I’d read (a novel and a double-collection) were a good two years ago, when I went on a review request spree just before leaving for Costa Rica, and spent the next few months working through it all during the rainy, tropical days.

The Heinlein books I had requested from Baen Books, which does a lot of military fiction, but after covering those, I haven’t asked for anything from them since. (I was assigned Bujold’s latest some time after that but didn’t get it from directly contacting the publisher myself.)

I went back to Baen last week to see the new Heinlein releases they’d made available in the last couple years, and fired off a quick email requesting five books. I found a mid-sized package in the mail today and there was every single thing I’d asked for.

Baen, I think I love you.

I have a pretty decent-sized Heinlein collection already, including a couple of omnibuses from the Science Fiction Book Club which sometimes contain two, three, or four short novels in one volume. But I wish now that all of them were Baen editions, because with their steady release of new editions, they also get some nice intros and closing remarks, the latter from various individuals, the former from Heinlein’s biographer, William Patterson, who always has some interesting tidbits about the history of the writing of the work in question.

I started reading one of the juveniles tonight. With this latest batch, I have nearly every Scribner book, and the one major middle-period work my collection was missing. Expect to see reviews over the next few months as I’m able to cram the reading in. The old grandmaster has a way of fitting into the smallest cracks of time, so I don’t expect it will take long.

Waiting for Books in the Era of Instant Gratification

The nice thing about reviewing books is, in those rare cases I’m really feeling, shall we say, antsy about an upcoming book release, I can almost certainly get a copy weeks, if not months, before its actual release. It’s the literary equivalent of a backstage pass, except not being really like that at all.

Frankly, aside from the long-worn off novelty, this doesn’t usually matter in any case. I’m always behind in my book reading, so what’s the rush to add to the pile? There are a few titles, however, that I genuinely am impatient for, and you know what? Sucks to be me, because I still have to wait, and wait good.

William H. Patterson wrote an excellent biography on Robert Heinlein, and even though it approached 1000 pages and had lots of end notes, I immediately wanted to jump into Volume Two. The problem, Volume Two was still in manuscript form and far from its publication date. So I’ve waited, and waited, and waited. Every few months I pop over to Patterson’s seldom updated blog to see the progress, if any.

And now? Finally we’re at a point where an actual publication date might be settled on in the next couple of months. The book will probably be out in 2014. Yes, I’ll be going after an early copy. But they haven’t even copy-edited it yet. I’m not getting that early of a copy.

On the fiction side of things? Lev Grossman wrote a book called The Magicians that I heard a little something about and thought sounded kind of interesting but it wasn’t enough for me to actually seek it out, especially as the particular review I first saw was a little mixed (though a good reviewer gives the reader a sense of what the book is like and allows for a prospective reader to recognize if there’s something they might like even if it wasn’t to the reviewer’s taste).

It came up for review along with its newly-released sequel, which was even better, and I devoured both. Extremely readable, fresh, and with the hallmarks of true classics. Two or three years have gone by and I think Grossman has just now started writing the conclusion of the trilogy this year. Hurry up, won’t you? But also, make sure you take your time and don’t screw it up. That’s reasonable, isn’t it?

Then there’s Murakami, the Japanese writer with an English fan-base most native speakers wish they had. It’s great being a fan of a foreign-language author, because you get to hear about his latest Tokyo book launches and how great this new novel is and what the critics are all saying and you get all jazzed up and then you wait two years for the translation. Awesome.

See you in 2014, English version of 色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年. Unless I die before then.

Book Review: Starman Jones

Baen Books has been releasing new editions of Robert A. Heinlein works for over a decade, at a steadily increasing pace. So far this has included about half of the famed Heinlein juveniles, originally written for Scribner between 1947 and 1958. The latest from Baen is Starman Jones, first published in 1953.

Like other RAH reprints from Baen, Starman Jones includes an introduction from William H. Patterson, Jr. putting the novel in the context of the time and with respect to Heinlein’s other works. I already knew from Patterson’s biography of the grandmaster that Heinlein was consciously influenced by Horatio Alger, a nineteenth-century writer of adventure stories for boys.

Like Alger, Heinlein strove to provide moral training for the young people (especially young men) of his generation. The recurring moral theme of Heinlein’s juveniles (and many of his later adult novels as well) includes such prescriptions as “hard work pays off,” “honesty is the best policy,” and “study hard,” amongst others. By all accounts, Heinlein truly lived and espoused these values, and such universal lessons lend these books greater staying power than some of his more overtly political works.

One thing I didn’t realize, however, was that Heinlein had taken the basic plot for Starman Jones from a real-life event. If you wish to avoid all spoilers, you’ll want to skip over this next (quoted) paragraph, and Patterson’s introduction, as well. In Heinlein’s own words (as quoted by Patterson from the Heinlein Archive at UC Santa Cruz):

“This book was written without an outline from a situation in the early nineteenth century. Two American teenagers took off in a sail boat, were picked up by a China clipper, were gone two years — and returned to Boston with one of them in command.”

Heinlein took that same basic situation and turned it into space opera. At the novel’s opening, our hero, Max Jones (his precise age isn’t given but he seems to be in his late teens) is a farm boy, working the land hard each day to provide for himself and his widowed, but irresponsible step-mother. When she comes home with a new husband, known by everyone in town as a drunk and a lout, announcing that they’ve sold the farm, Max decides his filial duties are over. He leaves the farm with not much more than the clothes on his back and a vague plan of getting into space.

Ultimately, Max finds a friend in the older and wiser Sam, a roguish character with a penchant for bending the rules, but a good heart, and the two of them scam their way onto a starship. Through a series of unlikely but plausibly-written events, Max manages to rise higher and higher in the chain of command. When disaster strikes, his talents turn out to be crucial to saving the ship, its passengers, and his fellow crew members.

Heinlein’s earliest novels did read very much like early “boys adventure stories,” with two-dimensional characters and pulp-novel situations. Books like Rocket Ship Galileo and Space Cadets weren’t bad, mind you. But they weren’t great. By the time he was writing Farmer in the Sky and Starman Jones, however, Heinlein was in the groove.

RAH didn’t apologize for a certain degree of formula in these stories, an update of Alger’s from a century earlier: a young man from a modest background, through the virtues of hard work, a bit of luck, and (uniquely, in Starman Jones) perhaps taking some liberties with the truth to get his foot in the door, eventually proves his mettle and resourcefulness and saves the day. Hey, it’s a good formula.

I haven’t read any of Horatio Alger’s books, but other comparisons spring to mind. A young lad on ship, starting at the bottom rung, eventually saving the day — sounds like Treasure Island, albeit without the treasure. In fact, Max Jones bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Jim Hawkins, each having lost a father, each finding a friend and role model in someone of dubious morals, Sam Anderson being Heinlein’s stand-in for Long John Silver.

Yet, though less obvious than the Robert Louis Stephenson comparison, I found myself thinking more frequently of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn during Max’s interstellar adventures. Max Jones is, like most of Heinlein’s scrupulously honest young protagonists, very much more of a straight-arrow than the uncivilized Huck ever was, but he still finds it necessary to lie in order to get a fair shot. For the protagonist of a Heinlein juvenile to profit by something like falsifying shipboard documents is unusual enough to be worth mentioning, and reminds me more than a little of Huck, who had little need for civilization or rules but had little trouble determining right from wrong.

Mark Twain had something to say in his book about the difference between morality and law, particularly with respect to slavery and discrimination; Robert Heinlein had a similar bone to pick as well. The SF Grandmaster’s targets were the unions who, he thought, sought to trample the downtrodden, and make the rich richer. Standing in for them in this novel is an exclusive hereditary guild system, making it almost impossible to get into space if you don’t know the right people. (This is a major plot point in the story, forcing Jones’ hand in the deception.) It seems to me that Heinlein, politically very different in many ways, sought the same sort of social equality and freedom that Twain had, some 70 years earlier.

And it’s these universal themes that make him still so readable. True, the technological aspects haven’t aged well. On the one hand Heinlein describes precision, supersonic bullet trains that never touch the ground. On the other hand, ship’s crew perform calculations by hand and feed the answers into antique computers for interstellar jumps.

Yet I’ll wager that most modern readers will suspend their disbelief on these points. The well-realized characters and smooth plotting represent this writer at his best. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about most of the ideas in this novel; it’s just a solid adventure tale (with a subtle moral undercurrent) that’s as fun to read today as it was 60 years ago. But with no larger goal than that in mind, Heinlein wrote a classic.

(Baen Books, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2012) The Green Man Review

Responses to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers

John Scalzi recently wrote a post for about Starship Troopers the film, listing several reasons for watching it. The film is ostensibly based on Heinlein’s book of the same name, which, amongst other things, is often credited as creating the military science fiction genre.

My own reason for watching it, a couple years ago (or, rather, re-watching it), came from this AV Club post, which told me a lot about director Verhoeven and his intentions with the film I hadn’t picked up on the first time through. On the surface, it’s a crappy, brainless action movie. A little deeper, it turns out to be incredibly satirical, both anti-war and an intentional argument against the very ideas Heinlein put forth in the film’s source material.

Some might suggest he misrepresents Heinlein’s ideas in responding to them. For example, he’s clearly stated his belief that Heinlein’s imagined society was fascist, but this isn’t really a fair reading. Still, I’m of the school “everyone should read Heinlein, but never stop arguing with him”. So I appreciate the effort to refute him, even if Verhoeven does a sloppy job of it.

And I did get something out of re-watching the movie with a more critical eye; I even went back and watched Robocop for the same reason. But when it comes right down to it, I didn’t enjoy either one. They may only be pretending to be crappy, brainless movies — hiding deeper messages just below the surface — but really, what’s the difference between pretending to be and actually being crappy?

For that matter, the messages were pretty vague and simplistic. They’re anti-fascist, and? Can you get a little more specific with that? In the end, I suspect there’s only so much you can do with satire compared to a more detailed argument in a compelling story. That’s why Brave New World can’t live up to 1984. The former is satire at the expense of being real literature.

For that matter, I don’t need Verhoeven’s to refute Heinlein. It’s been done. The Forever War was written maybe 15 years after Starship Troopers, and is a clear, politically-opposite response, written by a veteran just returned from Vietnam, no less. Joe Haldeman had both the writing and military creds to challenge Heinlein, and in so doing may have exceeded his work.

In fact, even Verhoeven’s cheerleader, Scalzi himself, has done this. Old Man’s War is clearly aware of Heinlein’s work, challenges it, and is an excellent novel in its own right. Scalzi should just read his own book next time he feels the urge to watch Verhoeven’s film.

I guess the moral of the story (as I take it) is that even when something is arguably important as part of a body of critically relevant work, it may have few artistic merits of its own.

Book Review: The Green Hills of Earth & The Menace from Earth

The stories of Green Hills have that special just-can’t-wait-for-the-future sheen that science fictional works of the ’40s and ’50s tended to have. Luna City, colonies on Mars and Venus, a new class of adventurers and fortune-seekers rocketing to the outer planets to establish new outposts and write their own tickets. There’s opportunity for the taking, if you just have brains and gumption enough to get it!

Read my complete review on Revolution Science Fiction.

The Rest of the Big Three

I’ve already mentioned Asimov, whose most important works I’ve read, excepting his Robot series. He published over 500 books in his lifetime, however, so I’ll never really be done Asimov. When I see a second-hand copy of an out-of-print story or essay collection, I’ll always pick it up. But what about the other two writers comprising the “Big Three of Science Fiction”?

I think I can equally say I’ve read Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s most important stuff. The entire Rama series (the original works as a stand-alone but the later sequels are also minor gems, I think), the entire Space Odyssey series (which is solid enough, but of course the original, 2001, is the only must-read), one of his most well-known stand-alones, Childhood’s End.

Missing from that list is The City and the Stars, The Fountains of Paradise, and I’d like to read his last published book, co-written with Frederik Pohl, The Last Theorem. It started with Clarke’s outline but he got so sick that Pohl pretty much did all the heavy lifting himself. He finished a final draft, Clarke took a look and was happy with it, and died days later. So all three of those are on my list.

Robert A. Heinlein is possibly less prolific than Clarke, and certainly much less so than Asimov. But I have the most catching up to do with him. I’m definitely considering reading every single one of his novels, which is probably why I’m much further behind than the other two.

His work is generally broken into early-, middle-, and late-period Heinlein. Early Heinlein includes the Golden-Age short stories in Astounding and other magazines (a good chunk of which I’ve read), and his juvenile novels for Scribner (plus a few non-juveniles written under pen-names during the same period). I’ve read about half of the juveniles, leaving perhaps five or six to go. His last book of this period is Starship Troopers, and also the most influential, but there’s a lot of good stuff in this period and it’s worth reading almost all of it.

Middle-period Heinlein includes what are generally considered his greatest works: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land were both written during this period of the 1960s and early 1970s. I plan to read all of these (excepting possibly his fantasy novel, Glory Road), but having read his two most important works, Moon and Stranger, the ones I really need to read next are Farnham’s Freehold and Time Enough for Love.

After a period of ill health, Heinlein began writing again in the ’80s. These last few novels generally aren’t considered his best work, tending to meander and proselytize a bit on his political beliefs. That said, while his plotting was less tight, some of those flashes of brilliance that make Heinlein great still occurred, at least by some accounts.

I haven’t read any late Heinlein, but plan on reading at least The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and we’ll see where I go from there. Job: A Comedy of Justice was, apparently, flawed, but also important, so we’ll see.

I should note, though, there have been far more than three important SF writers the last 70 years. I’m familiar with Pohl but not Bester, Silverberg and Haldeman but not Niven or Ellison, Bujold but not LeGuin. There’s still a lot of catching up to do.