Tag Archives: Heinlein

676. Cat A Strophic Fiction

One of my many friends.

I got a long and thoughtful reply to 668. Century Ships from a person (human name not given) whose website is dedicated to cats. I went there, as I always go at least once to the sites of people who like my posts.

Lots of SF people tend to be cat people. Heinlein famously loved cats and wrote about them. Two internet friends who found me through this blog, one a writer of fantasy and one a reviewer of old SF and other schlock, are both cat people. Me, too.

That is the tenuous connection between science fiction and this trip down memory lane.

In the late seventies, I was writing full time and my wife was working at an art and frame gallery. Leaving work one evening, she saw a cardboard box sitting in front of a pet store two doors down. The store was already closed, and she couldn’t walk away without looking. Inside were two abandoned kittens, only hours old. She knew they wouldn’t last the night.

Half an hour later she came in the front door of our house carrying the box and said, “Guess what I found.”

We raised them, cleaned their eyes, cleaned their other ends, burped them, and fed them multiple times a day. They slept in a box next to our bed so we could hear when they were hungry — frequently, as it turned out.

Big Buddy — the internet name of the SF fan who wrote about century ships — posted a study that “explained” why cats bond with us and see us as parents. As if that needed confirmation. (He didn’t think so either. He was making light of the study.) Cats, dogs, and people are herd animals. They naturally live in family groups, so of course they bond.

Bonding goes both ways, as if you didn’t already know that.

My wife suggested we raise the kittens just until they were old enough to give away. Right! They were with us seventeen years.

One was a gray tabby. I was looking into his kitten-blue eyes early on when Don McLean came on the radio singing about how the swirling clouds reflected in Vincent (van Gogh)’s eyes of china blue. China Blue became his name. His orange sister had a one inch tail, so she became Spike, and later Spikey.

It is a testimony to what cats do to us that we talk to them. China Blue was in my lap once, getting petted while I took a break from writing. Music was always playing in the background any time I was at the typewriter. A girl folk singer’s voice caught China’s ear and he looked around for her. I told him, “Don’t worry, buddy. That’s just the way people purr.”

“Sanity” and “cat” are rarely used in the same sentence.

I put a pillow on my desk and they took turns sleeping there, although China often preferred to drape himself around my shoulders while I wrote.

Good times.

The picture at the top is one of my many subsequent friends, resting in his favorite wheelbarrow. I have plenty of pictures of Spike and China, but they aren’t digital.

668. Century Ships

Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations has been running a series of reviews on century ship stories. He does a good job, even providing links so you can read the story itself before or after reading his review. I’ve read two of them, both story and review, picked out because they were by Brunner and Ballard.

Century ship stories are an extreme version of slow starship stories, that is, stories about exploration in ships which do not travel faster than light. Century ship stories assume that the people who start the journey will not live to complete it. It will be completed by their descendants who, when they arrive, will never have lived anywhere but on the ship.

That sounds like a recipe for disaster, and it typically is. A reversion to barbarism along with a superstitious belief that nothing outside the ship actually exists is a common trope. The original Star Trek used it in For the World is Hollow, and I Have Touched the Sky.

I first encountered century ships before I reached high school in The Forgotten Star, a top notch juvenile which has, ironically, been forgotten. It takes place in our solar system, before star flight; the young heroes discover that Ceres isn’t really an asteroid, but a century ship from elsewhere.

The first time I read a century ship story told from the occupants’ viewpoint was Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky. It was such a dreary presentation of the “we forgot this is a starship” trope that I never returned to it, and it pretty much put me off century ship stories for a long time.

On the other hand, slow — but not that slow — starship stories are my bread and butter. They take relativity more or less seriously, and offer all kinds of complications through the slowing of time at the approach of lightspeed. Heinlein did it well in the juvenile Time for the Stars. Other authors had milked the concept for its considerable potential for weirdness.

At nearly the speed of light a trip to the stars will seem quick, no matter how many years pass back on Earth, but getting up to the speed of light is an issue is two senses.

First, it will require power on the order of what would come from the total annihilation of matter. This generally requires a MUD (magical unexplained dingus). Slipstick Libby invented one, but usually Heinlein got there by torch ship (what a wonderful name!), a MUD he never bothered to explain. When I needed that much power in Cyan, I invoked Lassiter’s Anomaly as an ersatz explanation. This gave my core ships a nice philosophical underpinning, like E. E. Smith’s Bergenholm which cancelled inertia, but core ships are still MUDs.

Given the power, however you get it, relativistic starflight still has the problem of acceleration time. True, time slows down at near lightspeed, but you have to get there first. If you are an honest writer who takes the time to look at Einstein’s simpler equations, you will realize that it takes a long time to approach lightspeed at an acceleration that wouldn’t squash a human flat.

I did the math for Cyan, and it turned out that a one-way trip to Procyon — accelerating at one gee, coasting, then decelerating at one gee — took three years subjective while twelve years passed on Earth and Cyan. That’s a six year round trip for the ten crewmen, which calls for a lot of games of chess and a lot of intimate human interactions. If you’ve read Cyan, you know what I mean.

As a side note for new writers looking for a useful tip, that coasting stage is a near-freebie. A ten light year or a hundred light year trip would take about the same subjective time, but the time differential between the crew and the folks back home would become immense.

Later in the book, sending colonists took a whole different set of calculations. Accelerating to half the speed of light takes a tiny fraction of the fuel needed to accelerate to near lightspeed, so the colony ships were even-slower-starships, though still not nearly as slow as century ships. Call it twenty years, one way.

How do you get tens of thousands of people into a small space and keep them from killing each other over twenty years? Freeze them. Given the technology of 2107, that meant a twenty percent loss of life among those who chose to go.

Cold blooded? (Forgive the pun.) Not when you consider the conditions they were fleeing.

While the colonist were on their way toward Cyan, a group of beltmen (denizens of the asteroid belt) were also planning an escape. They were already used to living in space; many of them were born there. A long slow trip in a small habitat did not deter them, but the eighty year voyage to Sirius had a lot of unintended consequences. Not quite a century ship perhaps, but close enough.

Of course if you have been following this blog during the last six months you realize that I am talking about Dreamsinger, the sequel I am working on now.

Further down the to-write list is a sequel to the sequel to A Fond Farewell to Dying which concerns a hyper-century ship built around memory taping and a few frozen stem cells. That one doesn’t turn out the way its originators planned either.

I guess the trauma of reading Orphans of the Sky at a tender age hasn’t completely put me off century ships after all.

666. The Beast Crawls Up

The Number of the Beast is a novel by Robert Heinlein. I have referred to it several times, most recently on the January 13th post when I said that the first hundred pages are “my favorite thing to re-read, but the rest of the book is kinderdrivel”. Yep, that pretty much covers it, but it is a fascinating book to talk about because it generates so much hatred. For example, David Langford said of it:

My (fairly) humble view is that the book says nothing and says it very badly.

I like that — brief and to the point, with nothing held back. I don’t fully agree with it, but I don’t fully disagree with it either. There will be more below, after we put things into some perspective.

There is a long history of science fiction works that treat Christianity as fact, and derive either positive or negative results from that assumption. On the positive side is one of my favorite books from high school, Starship Through Space by Lee Corey (aka G. Harry Stein). Ninety percent of the book details the building of the first starship and its maiden voyage to Alpha Centauri. It was a wonderful book until they arrived to find American Indians reading Genesis waiting to greet them. Dumb! Massively, unforgivably dumb to end a great novel on such a note.

Also from my high school library were the Perelandra books by C. S. Lewis which were a kind of space faring John Bunyan. Not good; I got through them and never looked back. They were allegory and they were tedious, but I could at least respect them.

Most of the SF that sees religion in a negative light concentrates on the practitioners and leaves God himself out of the argument. A Canticle for Leibowitz comes to mind. That’s also what I’ve typically done.

The ones that take on God himself tend to be serious and usually angry. James Blish rewrites the outcome of the Revelation in his After Such Knowledge trilogy. (Doctor Mirabilis, Black Easter and The Day After Judgment.) Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star is disturbing and sad, but his The Nine Billion Names of God simply ends all creation in a mild and matter-of-fact way when Buddhist prophesy comes true.

Heinlein does it all differently. In The Number of the Beast he turns Revelation’s beast into an alien species and turns science fiction into a romp. Or a travesty in the eyes of many reviewers. I’ve read everything RAH wrote, save his first two juveniles, and I can attest that no other work is so completely lacking in seriousness.

For those who see him as a guru or a devil, this must be completely infuriating.

For me, I read the whole thing once and I’m glad I did. I’ve read the first hundred pages several times since, not because it is particularly good, but because it is a silly game, an unexpected vacation with old friends. Who? The Heinlein character, in four variations, making love to its/his/her/their self. If you can read between the lines, I’ll skip the “m” word. Since I’m a classy guy, I’ll just say inner directed and very self-admiring.

I grew up spending endless hours listening to my father and two of his brothers sitting around the kitchen table telling tales out of their childhoods, trying to outdo each other in hyperbole, and having a wonderful time laughing together. Heinlein, to me, is like another uncle. I love to listen to his stories because I love the way he tells them.

What else is there to like? His world building? Yes, if you look at his pre-war short stories, but the world building in his novels typically amounts to one or two pithy sentences per book. His characters? He only has one. His philosophy? Discounting solipsism as his joke on the world, he is a realist totally undercut by his own sentimentality. His political ideas? There are enough so that everyone can find something to hate.

David Langford, quoted above, spent a lot of ink taking The Number of the Beast apart at the seams, which totally missed the point. The Number of the Beast isn’t a novel; it’s post-Heinlein Heinlein. It’s the old man reminiscing about all the books he read as a kid, and all the books he wrote as a man (starring himself) in a relatively clever stroll down memory lane. And we get to go with him, which is why I liked it when I read it. But there is no meat, which is why I haven’t gone back.

If you hate it, you’re right. Heinlein doesn’t care. He’s having a wonderful time.

660. Methuselah’s Children

I used a quote from Methuselah’s Children about a half a year ago in my diatribe against driverless cars. Taking a glance at Heinlein is always a mistake. I found myself committed to reading the whole novel, even though I’ve read it often enough to nearly memorize the thing.

The problem is, it’s his best work, from the viewpoint of skilled writing and skilled science fiction plotting. That is opposed to boy-meets-girl plotting or western-shoot-em-up plotting, which are completely different skill sets.

Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers are Heinlein’s best known works, but I find them both to be second rate. The first hundred pages of Number of the Beast is my favorite thing to re-read, but the rest of the book is kinderdrivel.

Methuselah’s Children is the best novel he ever wrote, hands down, despite my deep affection for at least a dozen runners-up. An early version came out in Astounding in 1941, and was expanded to the work we now know when it was published in paperback in 1958. Methuselah’s Children is the book Paul Kantner was referencing when Jefferson Starship suggested we all “hijack the starship” in 1970.

Heinlein has his strengths and his weaknesses. I acknowledge the latter, but I won’t catalog them. There are plenty of people who like him less than I do who are more than willing to do that. For my money, Methuselah’s Children is the book in which those weaknesses are least in evidence.

As the book begins, Lazarus Long (his first appearance) and Phyllis Sterling meet, interact, and are sexually aware of each other without letting it get in the way. Long offers advice without trying to run her life. Danger rears its head, and each of them reacts with maturity and grace, respecting each other’s competence. There is very little boy-girl snarkiness.

It’s too bad Heinlein couldn’t pull this off more often.

As everyone knows, Lazarus Long hijacks a starship to save his fellow long-lifers. If you haven’t read Methuselah’s Children or haven’t read it lately, this might seem preposterous, but he manages the task with a lot of help from people in power. The things he actually does are all well within the powers of any competent space pilot. He pulls it off not because he is a superman, but because he is a sneaky bastard.

Once on board, Slipstick Libby invents a space drive which takes them to the stars.

Assembled odd bits of other equipment, looking more like the product of a boy’s workshop than the output of a scientist’s laboratory, the gadget which Libby referred to as a “space drive” underwent Lazarus’s critical examination. Against the polished sophisticated perfection of the control room it looked uncouth, pathetic, ridiculously inadequate.

. . . but it works, and yes, Libby is a superman. Heinlein got away with that by making him a relatively minor character.

On planets they visit along the way they meet the Jockaira and their “Gods”, as well as the “little people”, and find out that humans aren’t the smartest race in our corner of the galaxy. Another writer would have made this a cause for feelings of inferiority, but Lazarus Long is Heinlein in disguise. He doesn’t have a humble bone in his body.

The refugees, armed with all they have learned, return to Earth to fight for their rights. Flags wave, cannons sound, bands march — well, not really, but that is the feeling.

Everything that Heinlein was, is on display here. It’s great fun, but it’s not slapstick. Heinlein keeps a light touch, but his alter ego “takes his soul out and examines it” just often enough to keep matters in perspective.

Heinlein would revisit every idea, many of the characters, and every character-type in subsequent novels. None of them would be so well balanced, nor have so few groaners.

631. To Grid or Not To Grid

Although I fully believe in it, I normally steer clear of talking about global warming, wind and solar power, and the impending end of civilization. There are plenty of sources for that, and I don’t want to get caught channeling PBS.

However, speaking of PBS, there was a bit about the problems of energy storage as part of the solar solution yesterday (Sept. 27) that made me realize I knew a few odd things from a few odd sources that were worth sharing.

I live in California, in the foothills of the Sierras. PG&E provides my electricity, but every time it rains more than a tenth of an inch, my power goes out for six hours. This has been true for decades, not just since PG&E went bankrupt for its role in recent fires and told us all that it was going to shut our power off every time the wind comes up.

It’s enough to make you want to go off the grid.

We’ve all grown up with the grid — even me. The first house I remember, about 1950, had no plumbing, no running water, and an outhouse out back, but it had electricity coming in from elsewhere through the wires. Consequently, I can’t honestly tell Lincolnesque tales of reading by a coal oil light (except when tornadoes took the wires down).

The history of the grid goes back to Tesla and Edison fighting the battle of AC vs DC, and continues through the REA. (That’s the Rural Electrification Administration which brought electricity to isolated farms throughout America in the thirties.)

The grid is wonderful; it has given us our present level of civilization.

The grid is terrible. It is a dinosaur, completely out of date and tying us to the mistakes of the past.

As is so often the case, both of those statements are true. No one decided to choose centralized production of electricity with a massive distribution system. Its alternative, dispersed production, was simply not an option in the past.

That is no longer the case. A system of solar power through electrovoltaic cells can now be built one roof at a time. (There are other alternative sources of electricity, but I’m only going to talk about one in this post.)

There is a big problem, though. Solar cells only generate sufficient power during reasonably sunny days. There is also a solution, but it is only going to work for a few years.

In today’s installation of rooftop solar cells, homes mostly draw on the grid at night and “turn the meter back” during the day. Quite clever, for now. It amounts to using the grid like a giant storage battery. But if enough rooftop solar installations try this trick, daytime generated electricity will become essentially a waste product from the viewpoint of the owners of the grid.

Of course you could have a mega-array of solar cells in America lighting up India at night, and a similar array in India lighting up America at night, but that’s turning the grid into a GRID. It’s good science fiction, but not very practical.

If you want off the grid — and eventually the grid will want you off, if you are a daytime energy generator — you will have to find a way to store your daytime energy for night time use.

Storage batteries are heavy and expensive, not only in the owner’s dollars but also in terms of world resources. They also blow up. I’m not just talking about lithium ion batteries; car batteries blow up too from time to time.

If you could invent the perfect battery — light, safe, cheap, environmentally friendly, capacious — it would make you more money than cold fusion.

If you could invent both, you would solve all the world’s problems except overpopulation and religious strife. You could run for God and probably win.

Heinlein invented the perfect battery, the Shipstone, and built a whole universe around it, but it’s harder to do in the real world.

Coming back down to the individual home owner, what is needed is a non-battery source of energy storage to make those solar cells practical.

I have an idea! Actually it isn’t mine; it already exists, and I can point to it.

Hop in the car with me and let’s take off for the coast. I drive by something every time the foothills get too hot and I need a Monterey fix down by the ocean. I’ll show it to you.

We’ll go there Wednesday.

619. The Crash Heard Round the World

Two days ago on the news, a Tesla driver was caught on camera asleep at the wheel on a freeway. We all got to see him snooze, then eventually got to see him jerk awake. Chit-chat ensued. One talking head said, “Someday sleeping at the wheel will probably be legal and safe.” Another replied, “Not in my car!”

When I was ten years old, everybody knew that men would never walk on the moon. In the subsequent decades, the public’s default position on what science plans to do has switched from can’t to can. The public isn’t any smarter; they’ve just changed their prejudices.

Driverless cars have been around for a long time in science fiction. Here is page 2, paragraph 1 of Methuselah’s Children by Heinlein, first published in 1941.

Mary had no intention of letting anyone know where she was going. Outside her friend’s apartment she dropped down a bounce tube to the basement, claimed her car from the robopark, guided it up the ramp and set the controls for North Shore. The car waited for a break in the traffic, then dived into the high-speed stream and hurried north. Mary settled back for a nap.

Good fun in ’41, but no one would have expected to see it happen this soon. Even science fiction aficionados might have said 2119, or maybe 2219, yet here we are, on the brink.

In 1941, the world was very different. Heinlein might imagine driverless cars, but he never imagined something else that is now part of our world — computer hacking.

Hang on, folks, I’m going to make a prediction.

At a near future date every car on the highway will be driverless. The old curmudgeons like me who wouldn’t even trust cruise control will all be dead, mostly from auto crashes with drivers who did trust cruise control. The text-and-drive crew will have won the battle of the public consciousness. Science will have proved that humans are inferior to computers in driving, and science will be right because it will be comparing computers to the text-while-driving generation. Human drivers will be outlawed as unsafe — which they will be.

Driverless cars will talk to each other and to central control, adding another layer of safety to the whole enterprise. Central control will be heavily protected against hacking, for obvious reasons. Science will prove that central control is impenetrable.

Science always proves something like that, just before the cataclysm. See Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

All that was just set-up for the prediction.  Here is the prediction.

Sometime in August of 2035, a kid named Morrisey, who isn’t even born today, will hack the un-hackable central control. No one will notice. He will place a delayed command, and head for a hill overlooking an LA freeway.

On August 26th, 2035, at peak rush hour, central control will send out an order and every automobile in America will speed to 100 mph, then simultaneously make a ninety degree left turn.

Registering 4.6 on the Richter scale, it will be the Crash Heard Round the World.

St. Peter will have to put on extra staff.

601. Home Court Advantage

Jandrax was the second novel I wrote, and the first that was published, back in the late seventies. You can still find it in used bookstores everywhere. If you were to read it, you would never know that I wrote it twice.

The first time through, I wrote it in first person. It didn’t work for me. I agonized a bit about what was wrong, then bit the bullet and rewrote it from start to finish in third person.

By the way, this was before computers . No cut and paste, no spell check. Just an electric typewriter and gallons of correction fluid — that thin white paint that came in a small bottle with built in brush, and was a lifesaver for poor typists.

Also, I cheated. Two chapters sounded just fine in first person, so I left them that way. One is a main character reminiscing about his childhood, and the other is another main character, alone in a boat, talking to himself as he undergoes experiences that may or may not be real.

I have written fifteen novels, and only that lost iteration of Jandrax was in first person. I could give you good plot-based reasons for that, but the reality is that I like the distance third person put between the author and the work. That may be a mistake.

Recently, I have been analyzing what makes books readable and re-readable, and that has led me to my favorite SF writers, Heinlein and Zelazny. For all their differences, they share a few authorial traits, including the fact that both are masters of first person.

Each author has a stock character that recurs with variations. For Heinlein, it is complicated by the fact that his stock character often comes as a matched pair. There is an older, seasoned man of the world, cynical, with no apparent respect for authority. He will, nevertheless, hurl himself into danger for his own people while pretending that he is doing it for selfish reasons. He reads like your crazy uncle. The matching character is a young smart-ass in training, studying up to become like the oldster. But don’t accuse him of that. He would punch you in the nose if you did. Or at least, threaten to.

Zelazny didn’t limit himself to one stock character, but he did have one that recurred frequently. He was part way between the halves of the paired Heinlein character. He was young, but fully formed. He had the attitude of a smart-ass college student, an upper class-man who had already learned the ropes. The kind who knew which professors had something worth listening to and which ones were dopes. (There are a lot of dopes in academia.) There was a brightness, a newness, about his attitude. He seemed to take nothing seriously on the surface, but underneath he took everything very seriously. And he expected the reader to see this for themselves.

In the Amber series, Merlin was such a character. Corwin was similar, but older and more damaged by time. His responsibilities had risen to the surface, and he got a lot less enjoyment out of life. Consequently the second half of the Amber series is a lot more fun to read (and re-read) than the first half.

Merlin and his clones, and the Heinlein character whatever gender or age he/she happened to be, are what every American youth pretends to be. And what American oldsters claim they once were.

All these characters speak directly to the reader, but not honestly. They hide their nobility under a guise of selfishness, but they expect the reader to know that it is all a sham. They speak in first person. They say “I”, not “he”, and it works.

One suspects that Heinlein and Zelazny — the actual people — said “I” a lot, too. As Harlan Ellison put it, “The thing every writer has to have is arrogance.” And by any definition, Heinlein and Zelazny were writers.

When a writer chooses first person, she/he is giving him/her-self a tremendous home court advantage. If his character if full of sadness and self-pity, there will be readers to say, “That’s just how I feel.” If his character appears to have no fear, there will be readers who share the same pretense.

If the character is a smart-ass, that’s even better. We all have those cutting remarks we don’t make, in order to keep peace with family and friends. We are all smart-asses under the skin.