Tag Archives: Heinlein

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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355. Quotations

As I was listening to Trump’s address to the Coast Guard graduates, and his overnight tweets, I was reminded of another voice from years ago. Let me offer all three, side by side.

No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.
          Trump speaking to Coast Guard graduates.

and also . . .

This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American History.
          Trump tweet.

Setting aside the sound of Andrew Johnson rolling in his grave, let’s hear Robert Heinlein talking about one of his characters:

He had to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

Yep. That sounds about right.

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


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.