Tag Archives: review

353. Two Times Gordon Dickson

I have on the desk in front of me a book, Ace Double D-449, which was previously owned by Mrs. Elffa E. Philbrick (address redacted) of Urbana, Illinois. I don’t know her. I have never met her, and I don’t know if she is still living. At some point, she placed a return address sticker on the first page – an ordinary person’s version of the ex libris stickers used by fancy people. You don’t see ex libris stickers in Ace Doubles.

I presume Mrs. Philbrick was the first owner of the book. It was published in 1960 and the sticker has no zip code (zip codes came out in 1963). The sticker and the book are equally age-yellowed. That’s all the detective work I could accomplish. There is no way to know how many people owned the book after her, but before I bought it at a local used book store.

One of the minor pleasures of buying used books is occasionally seeing the metaphorical fingerprints of previous owners. They always leave me speculating on how they lived their lives. Was Elffa, perhaps, a suburban housewife with six kids, laundry, PTA, and all the rest, who led a secret life of the mind by traveling, via novel, to distant worlds?

She might also have been a pioneer female engineer working in a local defense plant after a childhood of reading Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But in 1960, which was more likely?

Ace doubles are paired short novels, printed back to back. They are important in the history of science fiction, and will get a post of their own later. This one has The Genetic General on the front, with Time to Teleport on the flip side, both by Gordon R. Dickson.

The Genetic General is part of Dickson’s multi-book Child cycle, AKA the Dorsai books. They include some of my favorites novels and a few that were, in a family phrase, half a bubble off of plumb. Someday I will do a full treatment of them, for the sake of any SF fans – if there are any – who have not already become addicted. Today I’m going to concentrate on Time to Teleport, which is quite a lot better than its title and cover suggest.

(Aside: One of the nicest things about Ace Doubles is that they have two covers, which leaves no space for lying back blurbs.)

Brief summary, sans spoilers:   The world has progressed beyond war, by rearranging its allegiances. Territorial states no longer exist. The Groups which replaced nations are global in scope, and defined by function, such as Communications, Transportation, or Underseas. As the story opens, Groups have been in place for eighty years and have served mankind well, but times have changed and a crisis impends.

The story centers on Eli Johnstone, former head of the Underseas Group. Eli has a secret, deeply buried, that holds the key to the future of mankind.

I bought this book because I realized that, although Ace Doubles had been a staple of my reading during the sixties, I didn’t have one in my library. I chose one which had a proven winner on the front. Since I don’t always like Dickson’s non-Dorsai work, I had small expectations for Time to Teleport, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was a refreshing dip into the-way-things-used-to-be.

It was also a preview of things to come in Dickson’s work. Eli has a bad knee (as did Cletus Grahame), used a cane in the beginning (as did Walter Blunt), and teleportation is a key element. By the second chapter I was expecting an early version of a key scene from Necromancer, but that didn’t happen.

What did happen was a story that tasted like vintage Dickson, and a little like Heinlein’s Lost Legacy (see 148. Lost Legacy). Eli, as the genetically superior man who saves mankind, reminded me of every other science fiction story from the sixties and seventies. So did the heavy reliance on psi forces.

Time to Teleport had an almost naive hopefulness about mankind’s future which I haven’t seen in science fiction lately, and which I miss.

352. A Modern Maverick

The old TV show Maverick has been on local channels lately. It was one of my favorite programs when I was twelve years old, but I’ve pretty much outgrown it. I don’t watch the reruns, but they started me thinking about an American archetype — the lovable con man.

There are a lot of them in literature, and a lot more moving among us in our everyday lives. You know him, weird Uncle Bob who always has a beer in his hand but never buys drinks. Or Uncle Jim who thinks it is wonderful that you are planting trees in your mother’s yard, and drives home to get his favorite shovel, but never comes back.

What all these slick dealers have in common is that they are funny, charming, and it is almost impossible to stay mad at them. They’ll steal your beer, or steal your heart, or steal your money, and leave you laughing at how easy you were to take.

In the movie version of Maverick, he says, “There is no more deeply moving religious experience, than cheating on a cheater.” Cute, but in point of fact, Bret and Bart and Beau cheated everybody. It doesn’t matter though, because they were charming.

There were others before Maverick. Starbuck, in The Rain Maker, teaches Lizzie that she is beautiful, but she marries her home town swain. Good thing. If she had run off with Starbuck, it would not have ended well.

Harold Hill, in The Music Man, made a career of separating suckers from their money. He was charming and slick and thinks faster than the locals. When he falls in love with the librarian, it changes his attitude. She reforms him. Okay, fine, but for me that doesn’t saves the movie; the line that saves the movie is when he tells Winthrop, “I always think there’s a band.”

See, he didn’t mean it. He thinks he’s giving something back. He’s a good Joe at heart.

If a con man believes his own lies, does that make us forgive him? In the movies it frequently does. But what if a real Marian the librarian married a real Harold Hill. We would probably find her later with eight kids, hungry and living on skid row, after Harold Hill moved on. I like the movie version better.

Does our charming American con man believe his own lies? Does he even know himself where the truth is? Does it matter to him? Does it matter to us?

If he is slick enough, and fast enough, and plausible enough — if he can tell one lie to cover another until we get lost in the shell game — there is no limit to how far he can go.

He could even become President.

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.

312. Popular Science

full-futurecars-4When I was twelve or thirteen, my great grandfather said to me, “I used to read Popular Mechanics. You should, too.” And he handed me a quarter. It was the best piece of advice any relative ever gave me.

I bought my first popular science magazine, and I was hooked. I was soon buying three a month every month, and occasionally a fourth. Science and Mechanics, no longer published, was the best. Popular Science came next, then Popular Mechanics. Mechanix Illustrated was a lame imitation, but I always looked and occasionally bought, if there was a particularly interesting article.

In school, I usually devoured my science textbooks by the end of the first month of the school year. They provided an important, basic, bare bones understanding. But the popular science magazines put exciting flesh and blood on those bones. I learned more science from those three popular science magazines than I ever learned from a textbook.

Those were the days when GEMs were new. Ground effect machines, that is. There were articles that explained how they worked (what shape plenum chamber do you prefer?) but better still, there were articles that showed guys who had built their own out of plywood and a lawn mower engine, flying down the street of their suburban neighborhoods, six inches off the ground.

When I sent ten scientists to explore Cyan, they used skimmers, which were clearly ground effect machines.

There were always articles on how to take care of your car, and there was the new car issue every fall. You didn’t have to be a science nut to like cars.

There were always stories about the newest, hottest jet plane, including a story about a new safety device that gave pre-recorded error messages into the earphones of a pilot. The Air Force had discovered that the pilot never missed the message if the recording was a sultry female voice. Any thirteen year old boy in America could have told them that. The illustration of that article was a realistic drawing of a helmeted pilot with a tiny, bikini-clad femme whispering into his ear the words that would save him.

These guys knew their target audience.

Not everything between those covers would be politically correct today. I remember the pistol crossbow, a powerful hand-held weapon that shot sharpened six-inch pieces of quarter inch rod. Try making that in your seventh grade shop class. Maybe you could get a merit badge in Boy Scouts?

Probably not.

There were always articles on how to build something in your shop, about the latest tools, or about how to build the tools you couldn’t afford. I was hooked on that, too. My father was a farmer, not a craftsman. If a nail in a board would do the job, he was satisfied, and moved on to the next of an unending set of chores. I wanted more. I wanted to be a craftsman. Today I am, and these are the magazines that got me started on that path.

Eventually, I stopped reading popular science magazines. You can only read so many thousand articles at that level until you have absorbed enough. I moved on, but I didn’t forget how powerfully they ignite young imaginations.

When I became a teacher in a small middle school, all the other teachers were happy to load science onto me, and I was glad to accept. I taught all subjects the first year, but after that it was “science-and”. Every year I taught more science and less “and”.

The first year I subscribed to Popular Mechanics and Popular Science (Science and Mechanics was long dead), and soon I added Smithsonian Air and Space. I bought a magazine rack at a garage sale and put it up in my room. I never threw a magazine away until it was too tattered to read, and after a few years there were a hundred magazines in the rack.

Occasionally, at the end of an hour, there would be a few minutes to spare and I would say, “You can either do homework for another class, or read one of the science magazines.” It was the best advice I ever gave them.

And nobody chose homework.

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.