Tag Archives: Heinlein

528. Repeat, with Variations

You hear it said — author Joe Doakes has written the same book thirty times. The phrase is sometimes supercilious and often has more than a touch of envy hidden in it. The implication is, “Hell, I could do that.”

True confession: I couldn’t. Sometimes I feel good about that, and sometimes I wish I could do that, because repetition is one of the main paths to $ucce$$. I keep telling myself it is not the only path.

If you are, or want to be, a writer, you should examine this notion from the viewpoint of a reader, standing in front of a shelf of books, with only enough money and time to buy and read one of them.

The one with the naked woman catches your eye (male viewpoint assumed; for alternate gender, insert your own preference) but you’ve been burned by that advertising gimmick before. One looks likely, but you’ve never read anything by that author before, so you hesitate. If you could find a book by a favorite author, you would be reassured. If you could find a book by your favorite author, featuring a favorite character, your satisfaction would be almost certain.

It’s that simple. In addition, the author has the advantage of not having to invent a new main character for each book. It might be that finding something new for an old character to do would become tedious, but I can’t report on that from personal experience. No wonder publishers want books that can become the first of a new series.

We are talking about comfort food books here; true escapist reading for the times when you want to think, but only just a little. Television substitutes. Something for the long-haul trucker to read at night to take his mind off the fact that his wife is two thousand miles away, and what he would really like to be doing is . . .; you get the picture.

For me, during my first twenty years of writing, my go-to escape was Louis L’amour. I was writing science fiction and fantasy; he was writing westerns. He didn’t exactly write the same book fifty times. If he had, I couldn’t tell his good ones from his bad ones, and he had both. (Read Flint or Conagher, but avoid The Haunted Mesa.)

After beating my head against the typewriter (this was pre-computer) for a few hours, I would pick up a Louis L’amour western and ride off across the plains. Thoughts of interstellar travel were banished until the imagination well refilled itself. It was good stuff, but I don’t read him much any more. I have them all memorized.

I also have Heinlein in the photo at the top, which is a little unfair. He was not guilty of writing the same novel over and over (people who have only read from the second half of his career may disagree), but he only had one character. Male, female, both alternating, old, young — it didn’t matter. Every one was the Heinlein character, so if you liked one of his books, you were likely to like the rest. And if not, not.

The Travis McGee books are a clinic in how to do a series character who can continue to repeat with variations. No one ever did branding as well as John D. MacDonald. Every book contained a color in the title. He wrote The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, the Quick Red Fox, and seventeen more shades. You could recognize a McGee book from across the bookstore. MacDonald’s biography was titled The Red Hot Typewriter. In it, he explained that before he committed to the series, he wrote the first two novels to see if he could stand to be married to McGee for decades. For more, see 49. The Green Ripper.

The Spencer novels belong here as well. I read with pleasure through the first ten or so; each one was reasonably unique and expanded his character. The next thirty were increasingly dreary repetitions; they provided a quick escape and as quickly faded from memory. I still occasionally re-read one of the early novels, but the rest were all one-and-done.

Today, when the writing stalls, I rinse my mind out with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I can’t say I really like them, but I always know what to expect.

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519. The Lensmen (2)

Continued from Monday . . .

If you find the style of Galactic Patrol too old fashioned after two chapters, move on; you were born too late to enjoy it. But if you don’t stay, you will miss a menagerie of strange aliens, both sentient and otherwise.

No one has read all of science fiction, but I’ve read a lot. And in my slice of the SF universe, I have never found a writer who created more or weirder creatures than Doc Smith. I’ll describe just two; first Worsel:

. . . there was hurtling downward toward them a veritable dragon: a nightmare’s horror of hideously reptilian head, of leathern wings, of viciously fanged jaws, of frightfully taloned feet,  of multiple knotty arms, of long, sinuous heavily-scaled serpent’s body.

This is the creature who will become the second most formidable Lensman, and Kennison’s best friend. A third Lensman was Tregonsee:

This . . .apparition was at least erect, which was something. His body was the size and shape of an oil-drum. Beneath this massive cylinder of a body were four short, blocky legs upon which he waddled about with surprising speed. Midway up the body, above each leg, there sprouted out a ten-foot-long, writhing, boneless, tentacular arm, which toward the extremity branched out into dozens of lesser tentacles, ranging in size from hair-like tendrils up to mighty fingers two inches or more in diameter. Tregonsee’s head was merely a neckless, immobile, bulging dome in the center of the flat upper surface of his body — a dome bearing neither eyes nor ears, but only four equally-spaced toothless mouths and four single, flaring nostrils.

These are the minions of civilization; the baddies look worse.

Are these aliens too weird to be believable? Actually, the opposite is true. When we move beyond our solar system, if we don’t find aliens so outré that no science fiction writer could have predicted them, I’ll eat my keyboard.

Part of the power of these descriptions comes from E. E. Smith’s writing style. In flipping through the internet while writing this, I ran across a comment that if the Lensman series were to be offered for publication today, it would not be accepted. That is absolutely true, but it is also true that without the Lensman series, there would be no Star Wars, nor any other space opera. The Lensman series set the pattern that all others would follow, and nothing that came after was as good as the original.

Heinlein was Smith’s friend, and our best picture of him comes from RAH. He said that Smith was the original of the Gray Lensman, and that his wife was the original of Clarissa MacDougal, Kinnison’s sometime companion-in-adventure and wife-to-be.

Much of the charm of the series lies in Kennison’s Boy Scout incorruptibility. Those who say he has no personality are wrong. He simply has a personality that is out of the modern norm. Like Jesus. — which is exactly what he should be, as the end product of thousands of years of Arisan work in perfecting human DNA.

All this works, and the hundreds of weird aliens work, because E. E. Smith’s writing style is essentially naive. His rolling cascades of description could only come from someone who is incapable of embarrassment.

It’s been a long time since that kind of writer has been in vogue, and that day will probably never come again. But if you can achieve the right mind-set, you can still be amazed. The six paperback novels are available in any good used book store. Pass the clerk a ten-spot and the wonders of the universe will be yours.

517. The Three Stages of Heinlein

This is one of the fifteen that hit the sweet spot.

As I look back over my five hundred plus posts, I find Heinlein mentioned more than any other writer. I’m not going to repeat all that I have said, but I will provide links for you to see for yourselves.

You might think RAH is my favorite, but he isn’t. That would probably be Zelazny. When I was new to science fiction, in the fifties and sixties, it would have been Andre Norton. However, Heinlein is the one I most enjoy reading. His prose sings, but in an odd kind of way. He is like a weird uncle who sits by the fire telling lies and funny stories, occasionally laughing out loud at his own jokes, and getting serious just often enough to keep from looking like a clown.

But he does it so well.

Heinlein has been through three stages as an author. At first he was the master of compact, carefully plotted works, both short stories and novels. That was what publishers demanded at the time and he produced some masterpieces. I reviewed five of them in one post.

Then came Stranger in a Strange Land, his most popular book, and a dud, for my taste. That was the start of his inflated period, which continued until his death, as his books got longer and more discursive. He gets a lot of criticism for long windedness, and deserves all of it, but some of those works are my favorites.

Alongside his early work, Heinlein produced a number of juveniles (as they were called then) and some of them were of top quality. I reviewed several briefly, just this month. At the end of his list of juveniles is the book that Scribners rejected, Starship Troopers. It is another favorite of many, myself decidedly not included.

Heinlein had a thing for group sex and a short but pleasant relationship with the rock group Jefferson Starship.

Actually, I’ve talked about RAH more than I had realized. Maybe I need to give him a rest for a couple of years.

513. Heinlein’s Time for the Stars

Yesterday (June 25) I had a request from a reader for advice on which Heinleins to read after Stranger and Starship Troopers. I replied that my favorites were Door into Summer for the old compact Heinleins, Time Enough for Love for the later, long-winded ones, and Time for the Stars among the juveniles.

The exchange reminded me of a post I had written but not published, because I had an excess of Heinlein related posts going at the time. Here it is, slightly updated and finally published.

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Time for the Stars is one of my favorite Heinlein juveniles. I am using it here as a foil to Spirit Deer, in talking about core stories.

Spirit Deer was my first novel, written for adults but very short. I later stripped it of wife and adult friends, and turned into a juvenile. It appeared in Serial between June 5th and August 10th of last year. See 364. The Core Story and 398. Summing up Spirit Deer.

If you strip Time for the Stars and Spirit Deer both down to the core, and they are quest stories. The explorers on the torch ship Lewis and Clark are ostensibly seeking knowledge, but for the young communication techs (i.e. telepaths) that quest in inextricably bound up with a search for maturity. Tim, in Spirit Deer, is seeking survival, and a return to normalcy, but he cannot achieve that without finding maturity.

If you haven’t read Time for the Stars (and why haven’t you?), here is a brief summary.

Tom and Pat Bartlett are twin brothers who are part of an experiment to see if telepathy exists. They go along as a joke, and find that it is not a joke. The “secret language” they have used all their lives turns out to actually be telepathy. What they think other people can’t understand, they in fact cannot hear.

The discovery that makes this more than a parlor trick is that true telepaths can communicate long distances — proven as far as Pluto — and their contact does not show a speed of light time lag. Now relativistic starships can go out from star to star without having to return home to bring back their data.

Tom goes to space and Pat, the dominating twin, stays behind. Tom learns to assert his independence, especially as his stay-behind twin ages much more rapidly. The trip is grueling, the exploration dangerous, and eventually Tom returns home, still young while his twin has grown old.

That is all the summary I can give without spoilers, but how much do you need?

The voyage of the Lewis and Clark is a long trip away and a quick return. Tim, in Spirit Deer, has a quick plunge into the wild and a long return. They differ in detail, but the arc is home — away — home again.

There aren’t more than a billion stories with that arc, significantly including the Heinlein juveniles Starman Jones, Tunnel in the Sky, and Have Spacesuit — Will Travel, all of which are excellent. Upon returning home, these story’s characters characters are changed by their experiences. Jones’ life is most changed, with some losses and great gains. Rod Walker of Tunnel finds a career. Kip Russell of Spacesuit gets on with plans for his life, but his options are immensely augmented.

All four are Heinlein at his best.

505. Heinlein and the Hippies

I have come to realize the value of a post title in finding readers, but I try to avoid bait and switch. To provide a balancing bit of honesty, this isn’t about the effect Stranger in a Strange Land had on the Free Love generation, but on the relationship between Heinlein and one particular group of hippies, the Jefferson Airplane, aka the Jefferson Starship.

For the relationship of hippies to Stranger, see 160. Stranger in a Strange Land. That way I don’t have to tell you again that I read it early and found it to be a dud.

As for me, I was a half-way hippie. I opposed the war, grew a beard, let my hair go long, and dressed in rumpled casual. The wild, multi-colored garb of TV hippies was largely a media invention. Real hippies wore Army surplus because it was cheap, which was also one of my sartorial motivations.

However, I didn’t do drugs and I was in the wrong place in the wrong time. My college roommate spent the Summer of Love in California; I spent it looking for archaeological sites in the backwoods of Michigan. He told me all about it when he came back in the fall; I had been out of touch and didn’t even know it had happened.

The only thing I understood as it happened in 1967 was the music, blaring out of the car radio as our survey crew drove around looking for archeology sites. I particularly liked that new group the Jefferson Airplane.

Which brings me to the heart of the post. In 1969, Paul Kantner wrote Heinlein a letter asking permission to quote from his work. I knew this, after a fashion, from contemporary gossip, and it was evident in the lyrics soon after, but I didn’t get confirmation until the second volume of Heinlein’s biography came out (see below). I’ll quote some of Heinlein’s reply:

I am pleased by your courtesy . . . Bits and pieces from my stories have been used by many people . . . and it is rare indeed for anyone to bother to ask my permission.

Heinlein gave permission and went on to ask for some autographed albums in return, since he was a fan of their work. Who knew?

The album Blows Against the Empire came out about a year later, by Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship. Despite the title. it was actually a compendium band filling in the time between the breakup of Jefferson Airplane and its later rebirth as Jefferson Starship.

It would be impossible to overstate how much music from this era was fueled by LSD. If you seek out the full lyrics, you’ll see how many drug references I have left out of what follows:

from the cut Hijack

You know – a starship circling in the sky – it ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be building it up in the air ever since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty
And hijack the starship
Carry 7000 people past the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru the cities of the universe

7000 Gypsies swirling together
Offering to the sun in the name of the weather
Gonna hijack – hijack the starship

from the cut Starship

Out – the one remaining way to go
Free – the only way to fall
The light in the night is the sun
And it can carry you around the planetary ground
And the planetary whip of the sun

Mankind gone from the cage
All the years gone from your age

If you are at all familiar with Heinlein, you will recognize that this imagery is from the novel Methuselah’s Children, originally serialized in 1941, which was also the first appearance of Lazarus Long. Of course Kantner reworked it. The hijackers are not Howards fleeing for their lives, but drug-fired hippies whose faith in everything turning out well is a bit laughable in hindsight.

Like all the first half dozen Jefferson Airplane or Starship albums, I loved it. If you are younger than old, there is an excellent change that you’ve never heard music that shows the spirit of innovation and experimentation that was the hallmark of the 60’s. The music that appears on TV flashback programming is fine stuff, but it is also the tame stuff. The raw stuff doesn’t get replayed.

If you are curious, give this album an online listen, although you may not care for it.

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Robert A. Heinlein, vol. 2, The Man Who Learned Better by William H. Patterson, Jr, p. 312. FYI, the subtitle does not refer to a change of heart by Heinlein, but is RAH’s idea of one of the three or four basic plots in fiction, and one he often used.

375. Science vs. Magic (1)

This is another set of posts which acts as a backdrop to one of the panels I am scheduled to be on at Westercon this year. In this case the panel is Science & Technology versus Magic: what makes this such a compelling trope? In part it draws on a very old post, 37. Fantasy, Whatever that is.

It has been a grand ride.

Since I started reading science fiction and fantasy in the late fifties, I have seen the rise of Amber, Witch World, the Dorsai, the Lensmen, LeGuin, Zelazny, Ellison, Varley, Ballard, and hundred of others. I was there for the Tolkien revival and the revival of other fantasy writers under Ballantine.

Through the years, avid readers waged war on one another over the most trivial of notions — just like any other family. It used to be that, if you called science fiction “sci fi” (never mind SyFy) you were being disrespectful. You had to call the genre science fiction, or maybe SF.

However, if you called it SF, then you had to argue whether that stood for science fiction of speculative fiction or . . . I’ve forgotten what the lesser contenders were.

Mimeographs and postage stamps were the internet of the early sixties. Whole forests went to the pulp mills to make paper to support arguments about what was or was not science fiction, whether fantasy was worth considering, and where one ended and the other began. Then Heinlein published Glory Road and sent shock waves through the SF community by landing with one foot squarely in each camp.

I mention all this because, although my publications so far have been science fiction, I have spent more time and taken more satisfaction writing fantasy.

Things have changed — somewhat. Today, everything goes, but you still have to declare yourself. I recently dealt with a publisher who required that you shoehorn your submission into one of about forty SF/fantasy sub-categories. Let’s call this generating chaos through an excessive allegiance to order.

All of this is probably subsumed under Clarke’s Third Law. Or, look at it this way: the Creation as given in Genesis is fact, allegory, or fantasy depending on whether you are a fundamentalist, a religious liberal, or an atheist.

Put still another way, if it tastes like fantasy, it is (for you) and if it tastes like science fiction, it is (for you).

But maybe not for the rest of us.

Clarke’s third law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Heinlein on technology:
I try never to get a machine sore at me. There’s no theory for that but every engineer knows it.

“The car won’t start unless you hold your mouth just right.”
folk wisdom known to all owners of elderly automobiles

So what do we mean by science and technology, and what do we mean by magic?

Does anybody care?

I think the general answer is, “No”. Most readers just want a fun ride, whether with ray guns or magic wands. You, on the other hand, did sign up for Science & Technology vs. Magic, so I’m going to assume you do care. Before we go any further, let’s try to answer the question. It may prove difficult — especially if there really isn’t any difference — but let’s try.

Science is a rigorous and careful attempt to discover the nature of the universe by observation and experimentation. Okay, that seems reasonable. I think we can be provisionally satisfied with that, and move on.

Technology is a little trickier. A computer is technology, sure. But so is a flaked stone spear point. That spear point didn’t flake itself. But what about the stick that a chimp picks up and uses to get ants out of an anthill?

Nothing is ever easy, is it? Let’s just file technology as a sub-set of science and move on, or we we’ll never get to the fun stuff.

Magic is harder to define. We’ll tackle that next Tuesday, because on Monday I have to devote a post to things that are happening with Sprit Deer, over on the Serial side of the website.

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Alien Autopsy (2)

This material is the second post of four for the panel “Alien Autopsy: the biology of ET” Posts for the rest of the panels will be published in A Writing Life.

You can write a story and make up aliens – sentient or otherwise –  to fit. Or, you can make up aliens, and write a story about some peculiarity of their makeup. Decades of stories were about human mutants (not technically alien, but close enough) with psi powers. if you didn’t live through the fifties, you probably don’t realize how many ESP wielding mutants there were in science fiction, long before Professor X and his X-men made it to the comic books.

Sometimes a single biological factor, with its secondary ramifications, may suggest a whole species and their culture, as in Gardner Dozois novel Strangers.

It is the bittersweet story of a love affair between an Earth man and an alien woman of a people called the Cian. Throughout the novel, Dozois drops hints about the central paradox of Cianian culture, but Farber, his hero – if that is the right word – doesn’t pick up on them. Because he doesn’t understand his wife’s culture, he chooses to have children by her, thinking that is what she wants, and in the closing chapters Dozois drops a house on all of us when Farber – and we – discover that Cianian culture is all built around the fact that, because of a biological defect, its women always die in childbirth.

Technically, this is a gimmick story, but it is so well done that it doesn’t feel like one. Strangers is build around Cianian culture, but Cianian culture is built around the structure of its aliens’ reproductive biology.

There have also been a lot of less salutary books written about aliens with odd reproductive structures, but lets not go down that road.

(Aside: My novel Cyan, named after the planet which was named after the color, has no relationship to Dozois Cian, or the thousand other Cians — characters, book titles, and authors names — to be found if you type cian into Goodreads.)

Those of us that grew up with the original Star Trek knew aliens as humans with big masks and padded clothing. CGI made quite a bit of progress in removing that limitation in movies and subsequent TV programs, but the wildest aliens aren’t products of technology. They have been around for more than a century in novels. Remember War of the Worlds? Great monster. Even better radio broadcast.

Larry Niven’s Puppeteers might be hard to reproduce in a movie, but that doesn’t stop readers of Ringworld from enjoying them. In fact, that may be part of the appeal. We science fiction readers enjoy having a cadre of writers producing phalanxes of weird critters that would leave lesser readers shaking their heads.

No one has read all of science fiction, but I’ve read a lot. And in my slice of the SF universe, I have never found a writer who created more or weirder creatures than E. E. Smith, PhD; aka Doc Smith.

Smith was not available in either of the two libraries that were the centers of my childhood universe, but when I got to college, one of my roommates was a fan. He wisely started me on Galactic Patrol, and I read through to the end, then circled back. Take my word for it — keep the same order. If you start on the putative book one, Triplanetary, you’ll probably never make it past page five.

(Another aside: books four through six were written from 1937 through 1948, all appearing in Astounding. Smith wrote “book one” in 1934, unconnected to the rest. When he got a chance to see the complete series published, he rewrote Triplanetary to fit the others, wrote an entire new “book two”, First Lensman, and tweaked the rest. They fit together, and the first two have moments of excellence, but the last four are the essence of the tale. If you find the style too old fashioned after two chapters of Galactic Patrol, move on; you were born too late.)

You will, however,  miss a menagerie of strange aliens, both sentient and otherwise. I’ll describe just two; first Worsel:

. . . there was hurtling downward toward them a veritable dragon: a nightmare’s horror of hideously reptilian head, of leathern wings, of viciously fanged jaws, of frightfully taloned feet,  of multiple knotty arms, of long, sinuous heavily-scaled serpent’s body.

This is the creature who will become the second most formidable Lensman, and Kennison’ s best friend. The third second-stage Lensman was Tregonsee:

This . . .apparition was at least erect, which was something. His body was the size and shape of an oil-drum. Beneath this massive cylinder of a body were four short, blocky legs upon which he waddled about with surprising speed. Midway up the body, above each leg, there sprouted out a ten-foot-long, writhing, boneless, tentacular arm, which toward the extremity branched out into dozens of lesser tentacles, ranging in size from hair-like tendrils up to mighty fingers two inches or more in diameter. Tregonsee’s head was merely a neckless, immobile, bulging dome in the center of the flat upper surface of his body — a dome bearing neither eyes nor ears, but only four equally-spaced toothless mouths and four single, flaring nostrils.

These are the minions of civilization; the baddies look worse.

Part of the power of these descriptions comes from E. E. Smith’s writing style. In flipping through the internet while writing this, I ran across a comment that if the Lensmen series were to be offered for publication today, it would not be accepted. That is absolutely true, but it is also true that without the Lensmen series, there would be no Star Wars, nor any other space opera. The Lensman series set the pattern that all others would follow, and nothing that came after was as good as the original.

Heinlein was Smith’s friend, and our best picture of him, from RAH, shows Smith as the original of the Gray Lensman, and shows his wife as the original of Clarissa MacDougal. Much of the charm of the series lies in Kennison’s Boy Scout incorruptibility. Those who say he has no personality are wrong. He simply has a personality that is out of the modern norm. Like Jesus. Which is exactly what he should be, as the end product of thousands of years of Arisan work in perfecting human DNA.

All this works, and the hundreds of weird aliens work, because E. E. Smith’s writing style is essentially naive. His rolling cascades of description could only come from someone who is so sure of himself that he is incapable of embarrassment.

It’s been a long time since that kind of writer has been in vogue. more tomorrow

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