Tag Archives: Rereading Heinlein twenty years later

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein

Berkley, 1996 reprint of 1968 original, mmpb, ISBN 042503013X

So here it is; the fourth entry in my Heinlein Re-Read Project, in which I re-read his four Hugo-winning novels, roughly twenty years after first doing so.

I was really looking forward to revisiting 1966’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, largely because I remembered it so fondly.  One of SF’s classic novels, it’s a tale of lunar revolution against an oppressive Earth, augmented by then-top-notch ideas about space warfare, artificial intelligences, unusual social constructs and libertarian ideals.  It was so influential on me when I read it in the mid-nineties that I still have, somewhere in my files, an unpublished novel that takes heavy inspiration from it (along with a generous dose of Babylon 5).  As recently as a few years ago, I reiterated (in my Alternate Hugos list) that it was the best SF novel of 1966, describing it as “One of the great kick-ass hard-SF novels of all time, augmented by the usual playful Heinlein prose.”

Twenty years later… well, I have to own up to the fact that I once wrote those words.

The big difference between now and then, as far as I’m concerned as a reader, is that I have had nearly all libertarian sympathies evacuated out of me by the real-world demonstration that libertarianism is an idiotic ideology, fit for fiction and the daydreams of those deluded that they (of course) would be the masters of a purely libertarian society.  (Meanwhile, in the real world, citizens of libertarian societies such as Somalia don’t read much SF.)  I’m also far more inclined to question the assumptions behind didactic fiction, and not quite so impressed by a mass of plausible-sounding exposition thinly disguised as lecturing narration.

So, knowing all of this, how does The Moon is a Harsh Mistress measure up for the contemporary reader?

Not as well as it once did.

Oh, I’m willing to concede that it’s still a historically important novel, one that deserved the amount of attention that it got at the time.  Published in 1966, three years before Americans even landed on the Moon, it makes not-entirely-dumb extrapolations about the colonization of the Moon, the development of artificial intelligences, possible warfare scenarios between the Moon and Earth and the development of matriarchal polygamous “line marriages” in a place where men outnumber women 2 to 1.  It’s told vividly thanks to Heinlein’s renowned knack for readable prose (even though he handicaps himself by removing articles from the narration, giving it an interesting Russian-accented flavor) and his unequalled ability to make straight-up exposition and lecturing somehow enjoyable.  Much of the first third of the novel feels like a revolution procedural, complete with ideas on how to organize effectively.

Unfortunately, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress may be a bit too smart for its own good, especially when seen from a modern perspective.  For once thing, procedurals are only as effective as our belief in their accuracy.  By now, it’s obvious how much of Heinlein’s fiction was informed by his own dogmatic beliefs; we can see him palming the cards, stacking the deck and shutting down objections by claims of authority.  It’s also unfortunate that the novel was so influential in that reacting to it now also includes reacting to its imitators: there have been countless attempts to re-tell lunar revolutions since then, making the novel a major libertarian classic –it’s a bit too easy to (unfairly) argue against libertarianism by arguing against the novel.

Nonetheless, let’s take a look at the deck-stacking.  Heinlein takes great care to portray his protagonists as unfairly oppressed by an evil colonialist Earth government.  Hearkening back to Australian history, he posits a Moon mostly colonized by prisoners, forced to cultivate grain as a main export.  Neither of those assumptions seem like a viable economic model, especially the idea of having grain (cheap to produce, more useful in bulk) as a main export rather than more profitable products best manufactured in vacuum microgravity –try selling that business plan to would-be moon colonisers and you’ll be laughed out of the room these days.  The Terran influence on the three million lunar colonists (after more than seventy-five years of colonization!) is a curious blend of uninterested custodianship, with no self-government, an implausible lack of communications between Earth and the Moon, and an exploitative economic model that makes practically no sense.  Heinlein somehow portrays this as the vicious impact of government over a libertarian society… which then revolts to become even more libertarian, although not in a social sense but only in an economic sense… wait, what, does this novel even make sense anymore?  At times, I could swear that Heinlein was using TANSTAAFL as a libertarian argument about as effectively as some teenagers shout YOLO.

So, from a modern perspective, the very foundations of the novel have credibility issues, and that’s not even beginning to climb up the ladder to the novel’s other particularities.  In one of the great plot cheats even attempted, Heinlein tries to make us believe that revolution is going to be a risky thing for the colonists… excepts that he gives them the full powers of an Artificial Intelligence that is in charge of just about anything worth anything on the moon, from shipments to communications to personnel databases.  When much of the plotting for the revolution seems to come up on a whim in-between three people and their all-powerful pet AI, we’re somehow expected to doubt that the revolution’s going to fail once they control the information network.

So: As much as I’d like to remember The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as “one of the great kick-ass hard-SF novels of all time”, a re-read with a few more years’ hindsight reveals a far more flawed novel than I remembered.  The exposition is more blustering than sensible, the final act a bit more sadistic than warranted, the events obviously manipulated according to the author’s intention to re-create a valorous American Revolution in Spaaace!  The absence of anything looking like an Internet (or, heck, anything like a free press and basic communications between the Moon and the Earth) makes the novel an irremediable historical curiosity, as the past fifty years have taken us in directions far stranger than anything Heinlein set down in his novel. To a contemporary reader, the details of the AI running things are about as quaintly charming as a description of the Arpanet’s early days – punch-cards almost included.

Still, I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t compare it to the novel of its time.  Heinlein’s “strong female characters” are more informed by his lechery than actual belief in equality of agency (I’m skipping over a number of somewhat icky passages regarding the age and consent of some of the characters…), his portrayal of information technology is a creature of the mainframe world, his willful ignorance of communication networks is required for the novel to work as such, and his didactic tendencies are only a few novel away from spilling out in full cranky solipsism, but The Moon is a Harsh Mistress still holds up better than its contemporaries by a significant margin.  It has scope, daring self-imposed handicaps, an accumulation of technical details and a perspective that at least tries to acknowledge an entire world. This does not ensure that it’s a novel fit to hand to any circa-2014 readers, but it does means that it will remain a historically important SF landmark.

Still, I emerge from this re-read considerably less enthusiastic about this novel than I did beforehand.  Some of the ideas still hold their own, but most of the others have become historical curios.  The political intent of the novel is intrusive enough to alter the plot in ways that just seem dumb to anyone who doesn’t agree.  And for a novel that left such a good impression years later, I was a bit surprised to find out that it leaves much to be desired as sheer story: Much of the first two-third is exposition upon exposition about an internal revolt whose outcome is practically assured by the aces in the rebels’ pockets, while the rest is told in a surprisingly unengaged fashion.  That few imitators have managed to be as good as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is no assurance that a sufficiently-talented author could improve upon it.  But, please, let’s leave the libertarianism out of it, or at least explore it in a way that doesn’t make any politically-savvy reader want to bang their heads against the nearest wall.

* * *

This may as well be the best place to draw a few hasty conclusions about my four-book twentieth-reading-anniversary tour of Heinlein’s Hugo-Winning novels.

I started out with the best of intentions.  Mocking Heinlein has become a bit of an easy target in today’s online fandom, as older readers tssk-tssk younger ones for not knowing Heinlein, and younger ones aw-c’mon their elders by demonstrating that RAH doesn’t hold up as well as memories suggest.  My self-taught SF education was directly inspired by the old-school, and I have read enough disingenuous cheap-shot condemnations of classic SF novels to last me for a while.  I started the re-read project after making my way through a Heinlein biography, and was partially motivated to do so out of yearning for the same flash of excitement that accompanied most of my early Heinlein experiences.

Alas, one never steps into the same river twice, and so my reading today is equally informed by the criticism that have been aimed at Heinlein than by the books themselves.  Even being sympathetic to the idea of Heinlein’s novel as historically-important references, inside and outside the SF genre, wasn’t enough to make me ignore the growing issues in considering those books today.  Yes, Heinlein wrote better female characters than most other SF writers of the time.  Today, that’s nowhere near an excuse for how they read on the page.  Sure, Heinlein’s grasp of politics resulted in unusually complex ideas on the nature of self-determination and power.  But today’s models are a bit more complex, and the current perception of Heinlein has to belabour against the imitators and fans that have dumbed down many of his more nuanced ideas.  (Not that Heinlein, at times, was immune to the exasperating tendency of claiming that there were simple solutions to every complex problems –as long as they were his!)  No one is going to take away Heinlein’s importance in the development of the genre’s history, but it’s probably time to acknowledge (putting it bluntly) that he is dead, that his influence is waning and that soon enough, he will be read for historical purposes far more than straight-up entertainment.  (As it happens to nearly all authors.  That we’re still talking about Heinlein 25+ years after his death is a pretty good achievement in itself.)

As for the four novels themselves, I note that my initial ranking of them would have been something along the lines of Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Double Star and (significantly lower) Stranger in a Strange Land.  (If you want to rank these novels by cultural influence, absent any personal preference, then the order still remains Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and (significantly lower) Double Star.)  After a re-read, the only change in my order of preference would probably to put Double Star first (surprisingly enough), with the other three novels in the same order.  Double Star has aged pretty well, largely because it’s an interesting story well-told (the other books aren’t as strong in terms of story, and suffer from a lot of excess lecturing) and its universe is now so far away from accepted reality that it’s now charmingly quaint and reflective of the SF of the time.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is probably the book that has suffered the most from a re-read: Like Starship Troopers, I find it more fun to argue against, but while Starship Troopers still had some wit and plausible deniability about its most outlandish statements of opinion-as-fact, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress seems crankier, embittered and easier to dismiss.

It would be dishonest for me not to acknowledge, despite my misgivings about Heinlein’s novel as read today, that I do admire this quartet of novel, as much for their influence than for their willingness to stake out ideological positions that initially seem so starkly at odd with each other.  That the same man would be able to write novels that would be so respected by groups so different (hippies, soldiers, libertarians, with a side-order of parliamentary monarchy for Double Star) is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  Nothing like it will ever be achieved again.

I may, for fun, try re-reading those four novels again in twenty years.  Perhaps I’ll arrive at a more nuanced opinion then, perhaps I’ll be even more dismissive of their failings than I was in 2014.  Perhaps social conventions will evolve closer or farther away from those novels.  I don’t know. That’s what makes the prospect of re-visiting them again so exciting.

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

Putnam, 1991 expanded reedition of 1961 original, 489 pages

When I took on my Heinlein re-read project (all of his four Hugo-winning novels), the one I was dreading most was Stranger in a Strange Land, largely because I didn’t like it all that much when I first read it twenty years ago.  I saw it then as pointless, dull and largely unmemorable (save for the line “You’re four of the six most popular writers alive today.”)  Twenty years later, a re-visit shows that… I’m still not that far off from my initial assessment.

(Before going any further, I should state that the only easily-accessible version of the novel I had at hand was a Book Club copy of the “uncut” 220,000-words 1991 edition, not the 160,000-words 1961 original one.  Since that was also the version I read twenty years ago, I felt that I was comparing apples-to-apples in terms of revisiting my own experience of the novel.  While I’ll admit that this “uncut” version is closer to what Heinlein had in mind when writing the novel, it is not necessarily what original readers experienced in 1961.  So while I think that most of my complaints about the novel are valid no matter the version, keep this piece of trivia in mind when I rant, later on, about the novel’s interminable digressions.)

It’s easy to take pot-shots at Stranger in a Strange Land largely because its place in SF genre history is so secure.  Not only was it a commercial and critical success in the SF genre upon publication (it sold widely and won the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel), but it’s one of the very few genre-SF novels to have broken through the mainstream in a significant way, even though by “mainstream” we here mean “sixties counterculture”.  With a plot that concerned itself with the establishment of a new religion and open-sharing communities, the book became a bible for the hippie movement, became (unfairly) associated with notables such as Charles Manson and even figures in the lyrics of Billy Joel’s retro-anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, rhyming with “Russians in Afghanistan”.  It remains Heinlein’s best-known and reportedly best-selling novel, and has been deeply influential for a significant number of Baby-Boomers.

This being said, it definitely remains a book of the early-sixties.  It has a charming retro-futurist quality borrowing both from perennial future markers and conceptual limitations of the time, mixing flying cars, trips to Mars, film video technology, psi powers, sentient Martians and post-World-War-III world government.  Much of the book is dated and quaint by today’s standards, especially its criticism of organized religion and treatment of female characters.  As usual while discussing Heinlein’s fiction, “pretty good for that time” does not translate into “acceptable by today’s standards.”  For all of their feistiness, the female characters don’t have much agency beyond proudly choosing to serve the nearest male authority figure, while Heinlein’s portrait of the horrors of a church blending fake piousness with cynical exploitation seems almost charmingly naïve fifty years and many televangelists later.

My own issues with the novel have more to do with its plot, or rather its somewhat simplistic one.  Here a human orphan raised on Mars comes to Earth after being rescued by a follow-up expedition, bringing back extreme naiveté along with psi powers made possible by the Martian educational system.  He can make things disappear at will, can discorporate for a while, possesses superhuman intelligence and, after being socialized with humans, easily becomes a cult leader.  Much of the novel is spent witnessing his laborious education, through endless speeches usually involving Heinlein stand-in Jubal Harshaw, a cranky old man who remains the unassailable Voice of Reason throughout the novel.  There is a big break in action midway through that makes the novel even less enjoyable.

Still, it’s easy to understand Stranger in a Strange Land‘s appeal to the counter-culture of the sixties, especially when the novel aims at staid conventional thinking and starts promoting free loving individualism.  No wonder it became a foundational text for much of the late-sixties hippie communes.  Ironically, it’s this deeply influential quality that makes Stranger in a Strange Land feel like such a dated period piece: It suggests something that has been tried and shown to fail such a long time ago that it seems like a relic of another time.  (Heinlein and his apologists will rightfully point out that Heinlein wasn’t suggesting answers as much as he was raising questions about society at the time; in this light the novel was a success in that it anticipated where society was headed far more accurately than other novels of the time.  Alas, the only reward for correctly anticipating the future in SF is feeling ordinary when the future does arrive as expected.)

Is it worth a read today?  It definitely is for SF genre historians, and sixties enthusiasts.  As for other readers… it depends on how much you enjoy lectures by a cranky old guy who thinks he’s seen everything.  Heinlein’s two biggest assets as a writer were his confidence and his gift for easy prose.  Taken together without much interference by the demands of characterisation, you end up with Stranger in a Strange Land‘s passages starring the wit and wisdom of “Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B., M.D., Sc.D., bon vivant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinary, neo-pessimist philosopher, devout agnostic, professional clown, amateur subversive, and parasite by choice.”  Harshaw is extraordinarily fun to read even as he (wrongly) expounds and pontificates and lectures at length.  He’s an idealized figure of how Heinlein wanted to be perceived and what some of his readers wanted to become.  As such, he’s interesting in the same ways any cranky eccentric relatives can be… in small doses.  Heinlein, as canny as he could be, was writing from a less complicated time and from our perspective, much of Stranger in a Strange Land has the interesting quality of being cynical and naïve at once.

In tallying up my reaction to Stranger in a Strange Land, the most telling detail is that the book took me six weeks to finish.  My time when I was guaranteed some reading time every day are gone, so I’d pick it up every so often out of duty, never feeling any urgency to tear through vast swatches of it as I did in reading Double Star or Starship Troopers.  Much of it (including the Harshaw lectures) was instantly forgotten, and I felt some impatience once the action moved away from the Harshaw compound.  It is a major novel in the history of the Science Fiction genre, but it remains a novel of its time.  I didn’t like it much at the time, and I still don’t like it much now.

Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein

Putnam, 1974 reprint of 1959 original, 208 pages, ISBN 0425026051

The second stop on my Heinlein Hugo-Winning Novels tour is a big one: 1959’s Starship Troopers still stands as one of the classics of the genre, a perennial best-seller, and a deeply influential piece of work.  It has spawned a (grotesquely mutated) series of movies, has recognizably shaped what’s known today as military science-fiction and remains a flashpoint for any discussion in the SF community.  Having read it nearly twenty years ago, I remembered fondly as a crackling good story about a young man’s military training and subsequent (early) career.  It was my pick for the best SF novel of 1959 in drafting my list of Alternate Hugos.

Having it read once more, I don’t have to temper my assessment much.  It’s still a heck of a good read.  The training section is just as interesting as I remembered it.  With a two more decade’s reading experience in SF, I can now see even more clearly to which extent it has shaped military SF, and why so many books claim it as influence.

But it’s what I didn’t remember, or how I have evolved in the past two decades that make this re-read so interesting.

First up are the numerous passages in which the story takes a break and Heinlein addresses his reader through a series of classroom conversations and outright lecturing about the nobility of military service.  For a novel in which I remembered mostly the armored suits and boot-camp sequences, it’s amazing how much of Starship Troopers is a frank philosophical treaty discussing what makes a citizen, and the burdens of being a member of the military.  Amazingly enough, those passages remain fascinating despite my now-vehement opposition to the ideas presented here as self-obvious fact.  I may now believe that effective governance and accountability is a far more effective democratic tool than disciplined and engaged voters, but Heinlein’s gift for vivid argumentation is what makes the novel so interesting to read.  There’s far more philosophy than powered armour in this novel, and that’s a good thing.

This leads directly my second mini-revelation about the novel.  For years, I watched online debates about Starship Troopers and accepted that the universe of the novel wasn’t necessarily as fascistic as its opponents made it out to be: after all, wasn’t there a mention about federal service also including non-combatant, possibly even civilian roles?  After re-reading the novel, I remain a fan but let’s not kid ourselves: there’s enough textual evidence to highlight that Heinlein clearly meant to suggest that military service was the one true path to enlightened citizenship, and that everything else was secondary.  The focus of the novel is such that it doesn’t really allow a look in civilian federal service, but there are countless allusions to the military-first mindset.  (Notably the shame through which people quit boot-camp, forever relinquishing their vote.)  Let’s just accept it: Yes, Heinlein, an Annapolis military academy graduate, meant military service.  If you disagree, write your own novel.

Plenty of people did, with good reason: It’s impossible to read the novel’s first chapter today, as the heavily-armored characters lay waste to a city in a self-avowed nuisance raid, without having a few deep misgivings about the gleeful portrayed destruction, and flashbacks to any of the wars the United States has been involved in for the past fifty years.  Heck, I now consider it mandatory to follow up my reading of Starship Troopers with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.  Times have changed, but if you’re into ballpark comparisons, consider that Heinlein wrote this novel at a 13-year distance from World War 2, roughly the same temporal gap that separates 2014 readers from 2001’s 9/11.  (And we all know how that continues to shape our popular culture.)  Even then, though, the novel hasn’t aged as badly as you may think.  Heinlein pretty much wrote the book on military SF, and everyone else is still riffing off his basic ideas.  (We’ll leave for another time the possibility that interstellar war using infantrymen is a ridiculous concept: if you’re going to cling to the idea of “boots on alien planets”, might as well do it the way Heinlein did.)  I’m not sure how long this may last once the progressive automation of first-world military forces migrates from the air to the ground, but for now the novel is still relevant.

For a genre novel that’s celebrating its fifty-fifth anniversary of publication, “still relevant” is not a bad review.  At the time it was written, Heinlein was hitting his peak as a writer, and the sheer joy of reading the story is more than enough to spackle over the techno-militarism mindset that permeates it.  (Mathematical proofs of political arguments?  Yeah, sure, whatever.)  It’s written with enough verve that it’s easy to misremember that it’s not a wall-to-wall action spectacular, or that our protagonist isn’t exactly the sharpest mind in the toolbox.  It may even earn a bit of respect by being a book that is now impossible to take at face value: You have to argue with it almost as a matter of obligation.  Heinlein’s greatest achievement may have been in crafting an irresistible argument as much as a paean to his own military experience… and a decent coming-of-age story as well.  I went into this re-reading project asking whether the novels still held up, and Starship Troopers sure does, with obligatory caveats.

Double Star, Robert A. Heinlein

Signet, 1955, 256 pages

The first stop in my modest 2014 Heinlein-Hugo-Winning-Novel reading project is 1955’s Double Star.  Written after Heinlein had become a first-rate SF writer but before he hit his all-time highs, it won the 1956 Hugo Award for best novel.  In the list of top Heinlein novels, it usually gets forgotten behind Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Still, re-reading it today, roughly twenty years after I first encountered it, I’m struck at how well it exemplifies the best of early-era Heinlein and much of the SF genre at the time.

For one thing, it’s short: Written at a time when typewriters ruled and serial magazine publication was still very important, it barely exceeds 55,000 words.  (Contemporary adult SF genre novels are around 100,000 words.) As a result, it can be read quickly and, perhaps most importantly, it can focus on the essentials of the story it wants to tell.

It’s not that original a story: In a now-alternate future where much of the Solar System has been colonized and humanity has encountered alien races on Mars and Venus, a down-on-his-luck actor gets hired for a very special job: impersonate an important politician for a crucial event, given how the real politician has been abducted.  This “simple” assignment soon stretches out to include more political shenanigans when the real politician is found incapacitated even as an election campaign heats up.  The conclusion is straight out of the classics (or subsequent homages), but isn’t less effective for it.

Told through evolving first-person narration (as in; our protagonist often changes his mind during the course of the novel, deliberately reflecting his growth as a person), Double Star straddles two or three worlds at once.  It’s obviously about politics, just-as-obviously about acting but also (while this may be so obvious as to be invisible to genre readers) about fifties-SF notions of the future.  By which I mean that the future explored in Double Star is a reasonably average one by SF’s mid-fifties standards.  It has alien races within the solar system (because no one was certain, at the time, that we could exclude those), system-wide colonization, torch-ships and moon cities.  Of course the technical details are charmingly quaint: video is available on spools of film, the empire has eight billion people scattered throughout the entire system (we recently went just above seven on just this planet) and there’s no information networks beyond news providers.  While Heinlein does include a perfunctory bit of color in his cast of character, gender roles remain firmly steeped in fifties conventions: The only female character of note is the politician’s secretary, and she (of course) is in love with her boss and represents the emotional pole in the story.  As infuriating as this can be, that’s the way most SF of the time envisioned the future.

So Double Star definitely speaks to a fifties Science-Fiction audience.  But what it tells them is a treatise on reasonable government and the demands of acting as a profession, and that’s worth a few words of praise.  For one thing, our narrator is very much an actor, in his instincts as much as his vocabulary.  There are many clever passages in the novel in which the narrator describes his process “getting in character” either physically or mentally, and they offer a fascinating glimpse into the inner thoughts of an actor.  The details through which he perceives the world are a bit different than the stock engineer/hero protagonist of so much fifties SF, leading to exemplary paragraphs like the following:

At turnover we got that one-gravity rest that Dak had promised. We never were in free fall, not for an instant; instead of putting out the torch, which I gather they hate to do while under way, the ship described what Dak called a 180-degree skew turn. It leaves the ship on boost the whole time and is done rather quickly, but it has an oddly disturbing effect on the sense of balance. The effect has a name something like Coriolanus. Coriolis?

The last two words are the point of the quote in which actor-meets-physics, but let’s also notice the confident let-me-explain-complicated-things tone of the entire paragraph, as good an example of the strengths of Heinlein’s writing, mixing technical knowledge (“180-degree skew turn”) with relatable details (“which I gather they hate to do”).  Much of Double Star is written in the kind of prose that can be read effortlessly, from a first chapter that has a rollercoaster of pulp-style adventure plotting to a more wistful concluding chapter that reflects on a life fully lived.

What’s more interesting than the acting prose icing (and, frankly, what I’d forgotten in the twenty years since I’d read the book) is the political content.  Like most people, our narrator starts with a mild loathing of politicians but, by dint of doing the job, comes to appreciate the details and complexity of it all.  Heinlein does a fine job at portraying politics (which he calls “the only sport for grownups”) as a nuts-and-bolt team effort.  There are enjoyable info-dumps along the way.  It’s simplified, sure, but not as much as you’d think in 55,000 words.  Surprisingly enough for some readers, Heinlein presents the empire as a Commonwealth-style parliamentary monarchy (a far better system than American-style politics, but then again I’m Canadian), and finds a respectable use for a king.  Go ahead and square that with the rest of his best-known bibliography.  At the very least, Double Star still offers something to think about, which isn’t bad nearly sixty years later.

Dramatically, there is a lot to like as well in the way Heinlein deals with his narrator.  He starts the novel as a fairly unlikable self-important schmuck, but gradually evolves out of his own narrow limits to become a better man… by playing the role of a better man until he authentically assumes the personality.  His puffery is replaced by earned confidence, his cheap rejection of complexity is replaced by hard-won experience and while that may sound like Drama 101, it’s relatively well-executed, especially within a mere 55,000 words.  (Admittedly, some transitions do look easy: Hypnotism plays a big role in one of his fundamental evolutions, and another is driven by merely hitting the books for a few days.)

It all amounts to a remarkably effective novel even today.  I propose it as a particularly polished example of fifties SF (indeed, it was selected as one of the nine representative novels of the genre and era by no less than the Library of America) and a good blend of influences within that genre.  It’s an ideal approach vector for anyone interested in Heinlein: It doesn’t carry much of the baggage of his later novels, and has a better chance to seduce on length and wit alone.  After re-reading it, I reaffirm its spot on my list of Alternate Hugo winners (or in this case, actual Hugo winners) and am feeling quite a bit better-disposed toward the next title in my Heinlein Re-Read Project.