Tag Archives: Heinlein

323. Five by Heinlein

Most of the reviews of science fiction novels are primarily plot summaries, with personal comments. When they are good, it is usually as much from the voice of the reviewer as for the novel in question. A case in point is Schlock Value, my inevitable Sunday night guilty pleasure, which cracks me up weekly with reviews of novels you couldn’t pay me to read.

I don’t write that kind of review myself. I only review favorite books, so I am usually saying, “Here is something great you may have missed. You should consider finding a copy, because it’s worth reading.” That being the case, I prefer giving an appreciation with a bare minimum of summary.

All this makes for short reviews, so I am able to offer you five of Heinlein’s pre-Stranger, non-juvenile, short and polished novels in one post. They are in order of book publication, although two were serialized in magazines years before they were published independently.

Beyond This Horizon, 1948, original serial 1942, is interesting in part because it doesn’t exactly sound like Heinlein. Future society is gun-toting and very polite, rather slow moving and just a little bit prissy. Beyond This Horizon’s tone reminded me a little of Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which I read because it was mentioned as an early influence on Heinlein.

Hamilton Felix (everybody’s name reads like an alphabetical list with the commas dropped, which is actually a pretty neat bit) is looking for the meaning of life, and finds it, more or less. If you’ve read a dozen Heinleins and are curious about what he sounded like before he was fully formed, I recommend this one.

The Puppet Masters, 1951, is probably familiar to everybody, if only from movie versions. This is not one of my favorites. It’s too much of an alien possession horror story for my taste, although, to be fair, it’s a pretty good alien possession horror story. There is one thing about the novel I don’t understand. Heinlein always complained about Star Trek’s tribbles being a rip-off of his flat cats (from The Rolling Stones), so why didn’t he complain about the Star Trek episode Operation: Annihilate!, which is a full blow rip-off of The Puppet Masters?

Double Star, Hugo winner, 1956, has as a main character an out of work actor who is hired to stand in for a prominent politician who has gone missing. He starts out very much unlike a typical Heinlein hero, but grows into one as the story progresses. Heinlein had several of what he called “the man who learned better” stories, and this is probably the best of them.

Door Into Summer, 1957, is my favorite of the early, short, polished Heinlein novels. Daniel Davis, inventor, is duped out of his work and exiled, only to return for revenge and more. He is a bit of a sap at the beginning, but gets over it. The opening page alone, which sets up the title, it worth the price of admission.

Methuselah’s Children, 1958, original serial 1941, is the first appearance of Lazarus Long who later appeared prominently in just about everything Heinlein wrote during the last third of his career. That alone is reason enough to read the book, but if Heinlein had stopped writing after completing this novel, Methuselah’s Children would still rank as a classic of science fiction.

For those who remember the seventies – or lived through them and therefore don’t remember them – this is the novel that launched the Jefferson Starship album Blows Against the Empire.

(No, not that empire! The Viet Nam bashing American empire.)

322. Time Enough for Love

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Heinlein gets mentioned in this blog fairly often. I can’t really say he is my favorite, although I probably read him more often than any other science fiction writer. He isn’t the smartest writer, or the most thoughtful, certainly his longer novels drag, and his writing style doesn’t sing. But he’s the most fun.

I’ve heard several reviewers bemoan the lumbering style of the novels from the late part of his career, then admit that they still read them all the time. I get that.

It recently occurred to me that I have said I don’t much like his two most famous works, Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, but I’ve never named my favorites.

Favorites. Plural. There have to be two, because books from the first half of his career are utterly different than books from the second half. In the beginning, Heinlein novels were short, tightly plotted, and polished to a high shine. Most of them are very good, but the pinnacle of that era for me is The Door into Summer. It and four others will be presented in tomorrow’s post.

Stranger . . .  was the watershed in Heinlein’s career. It was long, disjointed, and sloppy. He attempted to shake up the status quo after the rest of the culture had already moved on. Worst of all, it was boring.

He wrote other short, polished works in his middle period, but the long novels gradually prevailed. Twelve years later, Time Enough for Love was published and quickly became my favorite among the new type.

(My near favorite is The Number of the Beast. I read the opening to that novel a couple of times a year, but when they all set of for Mars, I close the book. It goes down hill into useless, irritating bickering, then wanders out of science fiction altogether into fairy land. Sorry, that’s not a place I care to go, but that first hundred-plus pages are perfect.)

If you like tightly plotted novels, don’t waste your time on Time Enough for Love. If you like long winded, rambling stories like your Grandpa used to tell, that is closer, but not fully accurate either. Lazarus Long, the grumpy, selfish, charming oldest man alive is at the center of the novel, but there is also a large cast of (mostly interchangeable) characters to break up the storytelling with current events. Oddly, the most compelling character other than Long is a computer.

One of the stories buried in the middle of the book is of novella length. It isn’t named, but I call it the Happy Valley interlude. If you’ve read the book, you know which part I mean. When I wrote my novel Cyan, it was largely because I had never found a novel that told the story of a planet from exploration through colonization, without getting sidetracked by ray guns and space battles, or some lame bit about lost Earth colonies, parsecs from home. The Happy Valley interlude was the sole exception to that lack, although it was way too short to satisfy me.

After Happy Valley, the story wanders on, stumbling from one interesting bit to another, with lots of throwaway philosophy, and sex about as exciting as seeing your dad pat your mom on the butt as they wander off to bed.

Sounds like I hated it. No, I loved it. i can’t explain it, and I don’t plan to try.

Heinlein is a storyteller with a voice that many find charming – and many dislike intensely. I can’t argue with those who hate him, but he’s got my number. I could sit and listen to him ramble on for hours and, metaphorically, I often do.

319. What’s in a Name

nam-pgIt is said that Louis L’amour wrote the same novel a hundred times. It has been said that Robert Heinlein wrote the same character a thousand times.

Do you remember All You Zombies? No? Well, that’s not surprising. It was first published in 1959 and it isn’t about zombies, but about a man(sic) who is every character in the short story, by means of time travel and a sex change operation.

Even Lawrence Smythe, the lead character in Double Star, who starts out an anti-Heinlein character, becomes a true Heinlein character by the end of the novel.

Before we decide that this is a fault, lets look at the names Heinlein uses.

Valentine Michael Smith
Woodrow Wilson Smith
Maureen Smith
Johan Sebastian Bach Smith
Lawrence Smythe
Max Jones
Oscar Gordon
Wyoming Knot (All right, that one was a bad pun that doesn’t fit the pattern, but I had to include it.)
Thomas Paine Bartlett
Patrick Henry Bartlett
Daniel Boone Davis
Andrew Jackson Libby
D. D. Harriman (Think E. H. Harriman, tyrant of American railroads.)

Good God, what bigger clue do you need? Do you think Heinlein couldn’t think of interesting or unusual last names? Or that he couldn’t think of names not already used by famous Americans? These are American everymen. (Or women. Or both, in alternation.) No wonder they all look alike.

They’re also Bob Heinlein clones. And that’s okay by me.

311. Boys at Work: Starman Jones

By at Wk atwOn August 2 through 4, 2016, I wrote posts on what I called apprenticeship literature. This is another in that series.

I discovered Heinlein’s juveniles after I had already been reading science fiction for a few years. I was past their target age, but those books are good novels as well as good juveniles and I still enjoy reading them.

Most of Heinlein’s juvenile heroes were young men who found their way to maturity through work, but they were not apprentices. Have Spacesuit Will Travel comes to mind. Kip worked hard to win and then restore his spacesuit, but he did it on his own. His distant father was no help at all.

The twin Tom in Time for the Stars gets his berth through an accident of genetics.
Although he works his way to the stars, and has a relationship with a wise elder, it isn’t really an apprenticeship since he is doing a new job that no one has done before.

Max in Starman Jones is also an anomaly with an eidetic memory, but the book is essentially about a young man working his way up through the ranks. In fact, Max works his way up two separate ranks.

In this future, work in space is controlled by hereditary guilds. Max, a near orphan, has an uncle who is an astrogator. The uncle has died, but not before leaving his astrogation manuals with Max. Max memorizes them. When conditions at his step-parent’s home become intolerable, Max head out, hoping that his uncle has declared him his heir.

He meets up with Sam, a mostly honest – by his own standards – con man. This is a stock character for Heinlein. When Max finds out that his uncle has not named him, shutting him out of space, Sam procures false papers and gets them both berths on the Asgard, in the steward’s guild.

Max is almost pathologically honest. He agonizes over the decision to deceive, then worries about what he has done for the rest of the book. Still, his need to go to space outweighs his honesty. Sam, the con-man-with-a-heart-of-gold, becomes Max’s first mentor, showing him how to survive in a world so closed down that honesty is not enough. Max learns from Sam, but his innate honesty keeps him from being like him.

On board ship, Max’s eidetic memory lets him quickly absorb the steward’s manual. Don’t we all wish it were that easy? He is put in charge of the animals on board, which puts him in contact with a young passenger who learns of his past and uses her influence to get him moved into the astrogation department. There his early training by his uncle is honed by the Chief Astrogator, and he begins to move up the ranks. He has to admit that he came on board by fraud; the issue is tabled pending their return to Earth, but the knowledge of his coming punishment hangs over Max’s head.

Unexpected events plunge the ship into danger and Max is called upon to save the day. I won’t tell you how. Even though the book was published 64 years ago, if you haven’t read it, you deserve my silence on climactic events.

They don’t all die – you could have guessed that much – and Max makes it back to Earth where he has to pay a heavy fine for his false papers, and ends up a junior officer on another ship. He has found a place in space.

Self-reliance, and technical competence make Max a typical Heinlein hero. Add naiveté and clumsiness with girls, and he becomes a typical Heinlein juvenile hero. Heinlein’s young men always work, and always have some kind of older mentor. Starman Jones is the novel where these two factors come together to fully become apprentice literature.

160. Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land proves that Heinlein was a hippie guru. Starship Troopers proves that he was a right wing madman. —-  From last post.

That’s nonsense, of course, but they do seem to stake out the two ends of the Heinlein continuum.

I’m a great fan of Heinlein, but neither of these books is a favorite of mine. I first encountered Stranger hiding in plain sight. It was 1963; we had just moved into a new high school. I was special assistant to an English teacher who was too lazy to shelve books himself. He let me put up all the new arrivals for the new library and Stranger was one of them, looking innocent in hardback with a Rodin statue on the cover. It wouldn’t have lasted long in rural Oklahoma, except no one else ever read it.

Stranger talks a lot about sex, in a fashion the hippie generation (in full disclosure, that would be my generation) took to be an anthem of free love. To many, it was the answer. That was a silly reaction, because Heinlein wasn’t in the answer business; he was in the question business. If you want to know what Heinlein was trying to do, just read what he said:

NOTICE:
All men, gods, and planets in this story are imaginary. Any coincidence of names is regretted.

In other words, “I dare you to to believe I’m not talking about you.” Compare it to the introduction to Huck Finn.

NOTICE
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

If that sounds just a trifle similar, remember that Heinlein was a great fan of Mr. Clemens.

Heinlein had always been a chatty writer. It was a big part of his charm, and why he was able to get scientific ideas across so painlessly. Look at the first part of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. It is a highly technical exposition of how a space suit works, that nobody else could have managed successfully. Heinlein put his technicalities into the words of a naive young enthusiast, and the boy’s personality pulled us along.

Stranger was a project that Heinlein had wrestled with for years, and when he finally wrote it, he took no heed of market pressures – including length. Even after Putnam asked him to cut the book, it still ran 160,000 words.

For the religious right, it was blasphemy; for the hippie generation, it was the word. For me, even as a teenager, it was a wet firecracker. All chit-chat about sex and everything else, but nothing ever happened. A book that sets out to disrupt society cannot be dull. Stranger was dull.

For me, the best thing about Stranger was that its success allowed Heinlein more freedom from constraints, especially length constraints. He had been a master of compression. Look at Time for the Stars or Door into Summer. Every sentence, even the chit-chat, carries the story forward at a brisk pace. 

Heinlein never wrote like that again, but his later, longer stories – despite occasional clunkers – are fine in a new way. They allowed him to sit in a metaphorical easy chair and tell long, rambling stories to those of us who loved to hear him talk.

159. Starship Troopers

Stranger in a Strange Land proves that Heinlein was a hippie guru. Starship Troopers proves that he was a right wing madman.

Nonsense, of course.

I was talking to a book store owner in the early seventies who said, “We get hippies in here who just read Stranger and want something else by Heinlein. We always give them Starship Troopers.” He had a nasty look of self-satisfacton on his face.

Heinlein was an honest workman, who set up cultures and situations to see where they would take him; sometimes we enjoy the ride, sometimes not. Citizen of the Galaxy, for example, is an important book, but it’s not much fun to read about slavery. 

Starship Troopers is one of his views of the problem of the military in a democratic society. One of his views; that is crucial. He has presented other positions in other novels such as Friday and to Time Enough for Love, and in his lost novel For Us the Living.

In summary, Starship Troopers presents an Earth under attack by non-human aliens with an ant-like society too different from Earth’s society for understanding or compromise. Earth has a democratic society; the vote is open, but only to veterans. There do not appear to be any prisons; crime is punished by whippings or hangings, both public.

It is a trap to believe that this Earth is at war because it has a militaristic society. Earth is at war because the aliens attacked. Any society would have fought back; many kinds of society would have survived. For a writer to display a militaristic society well, he needs a war and Heinlein gives us a dandy.

Starship Troopers is a fast read, with few challenges to those who are willing to sit back and enjoy the ride. The action is inventive and exciting. There is a lot of talk between bits of action, but that is appropriate to the hurry-up-and-wait reality of military life. Besides, if you don’t like chatty books, Heinlein is not for you.

Troopers and Stranger mimic the right wing/left wing divide in America, making each controversial, and making the contrast between them even more controversial. They get the most ink in the press, but neither is Heinlein at his best.

For me, Starship Troopers is a good, fast read whose central character is a bit too dim to hold my interest. To be fair, he is just the right wattage for what little he has to do in the story.

People who are not fans- who have read Stranger and Troopers and not much else – have a tendency to think Starship Troopers is Heinlein’s prescription for society. Nope. He is presenting one society; whether the reader would like to live there is up to the reader.

Heinlein is a child of the depression, Annapolis, and World War II. I am a child of Viet Nam. You would be right in guessing that I disagree with him often, but he is honestly seeking answers (plural) to knotty problems.  Next post, Stranger in a Strange Land.

157. Heinlein and Harriman

As a science fiction writer, I have many debts to Robert Heinlein. One of those is for his character D. D. Harriman, who is both the inspiration and antithesis of my character Saloman Curran.

D. D. Harriman first appeared in a short story Requiem published in 1940 and then in its prequel The Man Who Sold the Moon which was published in 1951and won a retro Hugo in 2001. There are two collections of short stories called The Man Who Sold the Moon, each containing both its title novella and Requiem.

The Man Who Sold the Moon

At a point in future history when government sponsored spaceflight has temporarily failed, D. D. Harriman decides to send a rocket to the moon. His motivation is not profit, but the sheer love of exploration. The technical challenges are immense,  but the political and economic difficulties are worse. He overcomes all obstacles, first by entrepreneurial brilliance, and when the odds become overwhelming, by chicanery. There is a cost, beyond money. D. D. Harriman himself can’t take the flight. There is only room for one jockey-sized pilot.

Having proved his ideas by the successful flight, D. D. Harriman expands his business to send fleets of ships and begin a lunar colony. But now his co-owners of his enterprise deem him too valuable to the company, and again he is cheated out of his chance to go to the moon.

Much later, Heinlein retold the story from another perspective in his 1987 novel To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

Requiem

Decades have passed. Spaceflight is well established when an old man befriends a pair of down-and-out spacemen who are selling rocket rides in a decrepit, surplus spacecraft. He talks them into taking him to the moon, without letting the authorities know, and they agree. The flight ends in a crash, and the old man – who is , of course, D. D. Harriman – dies there, happy to have finally achieved his life’s ambition.

*****

The Man Who Sold the Moon is a romp and Requiem is a tear-jerker. The two halves of the story are stronger read together.  Heinlein had an ability to bring sentimentality into his story that was rarely seen in science fiction. It was either brilliant or sappy, depending on the reader’s individual taste. For my taste, it was brilliant.

*****

As I said at the top, Harriman was both inspiration for and antithesis of Saloman Curran in my novel Cyan. 1978, the year Harriman “sold the moon” is not 2106, the year Curran set the Cyan colonization in motion. Writing in the 1940s, Heinlein had confidence in the future. Writing through the last third of the last century, I was less optimistic.

Heinlein never paid much attention to overpopulation. When he talked about it, he showed that he understood its dangers, but he usually ignored it. To me, overpopulation is the central problem of the next century – which may well be our last century, if we don’t solve it.

So Curran is no Harriman, because 2016/2106 is not 1940-51/1978. Harriman was a lovable scalawag who would lie, cheat, and steal to get to the moon. Curran is capable of mass murder on the road to the stars. No one would write a Requiem for Curran.

But Curran is not without courage, as he will show in tomorrow’s post.