(On Cable TV, May 2018) Among Science Fiction readers of a certain age, Destination Moon is famous as “The Heinlein movie”—that is, the movie that famed SF author Robert A. Heinlein went to Hollywood to write. Chapters of his biography are dedicated to his Hollywood adventure, and the episode is greatly enhanced by the recognition that for the time and nearly two decades until 2001: A Space Odyssey, Destination Moon remained the purest hard-SF story ever brought to the big screen. (Well, aside from some truly dumb decisions at the end of the first act that seem motivated by ideology rather than any kind of logic.) Focused on showing how humans could go to the moon and come back, this is a film that eschews aliens, monsters and fantastic situations in order to focus on the nitty-gritty procedural details of space travel. Completed more than a decade before humans went into space and nineteen years before Americans actually landed on the moon, Destination Moon certainly looks dated now, but it remains relatively competent in pure technical details, and its sober treatment of the subject makes it an oddity in the otherwise lurid 1950s SF filmography. A number of legends are found in the credits: Heinlein aside, the film was produced by George Pal and visually informed by noted artist Chesley Bonestell. Much of the film’s heavy exposition is handled through a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, echoing the similar Mr. DNA sequence in Jurassic Park. I’m not particularly charmed by Destination Moon (aside from the film having very little narrative energy, I’m really not happy about the antigovernment pro-business screed at the beginning of the film), but I’m reasonably happy at having seen it at least once.
(On Cable TV, July 2015) I don’t normally approve of movies changing the title of their literary origins, but considering that Robert A Heinlein’s “All you Zombies” is both an instantly-recognizable spoiler and a strikingly misleading title, let’s see the retitling of the story as Predestination as the first of the writers-directors Spierig Brothers’ many good decisions in adapting this seminal SF short story. Given that the short story pack a lot of punch in a few thousand words, it’s not entirely surprising that there’s enough material here for an entire film, along with a slight but pleasing coda that brings us a bit beyond the short story without robbing it of its twisty power (and adding an extra thematic layer to it). Part of the problem in discussing the film is in deciding how much to say – Ethan Hawke is pretty good in the lead role, but Sarah Snook is absolutely spectacular in a far more difficult role. The film is carefully written and directed, taking place in a slightly alternate world that owes much to the fifties’ vision of the future. Predestination’s success is even more remarkable considering that the source material couldn’t be trickier to adapt –one wrong decision, and the sheer preposterousness of the entire story would crush it lifeless. But the result, amazingly enough, holds up –and it also holds up for those readers who know every twist and turn of the original story.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tor, 2014, 672 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-765-31961-6
When the first volume of William J Patterson’s Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his century appeared in 2010, my review reflected the critical consensus: While Patterson had better access to source material (including the cooperation of Virginia Heinlein) than anyone else and was able to shed light on hitherto-unknown aspects of Heinlein’s early life, the result was burdened in trivia, lacking in any critical perspective and so utterly beholden to Heinlein as to approach hagiography. Still, complete judgement had to be suspended until the publication of the second volume, which tackled Heinlein’s better-known era, his marriage to Virginia Heinlein and his accession to best-sellerdom. Now that the second volume is here, it turns out that… much of the critical consensus about the first volume also applies to the second one.
The Man Who Learned Better starts in 1948, roughly coinciding with Heinlein’s third wedding and (after a brief detour via Hollywood where he worked on Destination Moon), gradual home-making in Colorado. Much of this second volume presents a detailed minutia of Heinlein’s life, almost day-by-day as he writes stories, attends events, receives visitors and becomes involved in various causes. Eventually, health issues come to the forefront, from the near-death experience he suffered in 1973, to a lengthy period of ill health, culminating in a series of crises that led to his death in 1988. The immensely detailed narrative often borders on the trivial, but the effect becomes strangely hypnotic, almost as if we were living with the Heinleins on a daily basis. Patterson may not have been a particularly gifted writer (see below for a few examples), but the book does have an affecting melancholy to its latter sections, as a couple struggles and copes with health issues that force them to downsize their life before the inevitable end.
Anyone looking for re-interpretation of Heinlein, or expanded commentary of his work will be disappointed: Patterson is a biographer far more than he is a literary critic, and since he hews so closely to the Heinleins’ point of view, he too regards reviewer as either useless (when they praise Heinlein) or malevolent (when they don’t). Noted critics such as Alexei Panshin and H. Bruce Franklin both turn up as recurring villains, to say nothing about Forrest J. Ackerman. While we get a hint as to what caused the enmity (Ackerman misappropriated Heinlein’s work, Panshin had the annoying habit of making inferences about Heinlein’s character, while Franklin was –horror of horrors- a Maoist), the level of vitriol thrown at these three men is almost ridiculous.
Still, it’s a useful clue at what the biography leaves out. Reading In dialogue with his Century, one gets the impression that Heinlein towers over everyone else. That he is never wrong. That he never changes his mind even as the country moved leftward. (Making a mockery of the title “The Man Who Learns Better”) That everyone who went against him was a simple-minded villain. This somewhat charitable viewpoint can’t quite paper over the fact that Heinlein, by all accounts, was kind of an arrogant jerk. (There’s a better word that rhyme with …hole, but it goes against the PG-rating of this site.) Contemporary accounts of his behavior make it clear that if Heinlein was a member of your family, he’d be the insufferable blowhard uncle who’s always right, always willing to harangue family members for their political opinions and usually ends holiday gatherings by leaving early after having insulted everyone. It’s this dimension of Heinlein’s personality that has so fascinated fans for decades, and it’s that aspect that gets the shortest thrift here.
It really doesn’t help that Patterson, being an ardent fanboy, doesn’t just idolize Heinlein (the introduction starts with “Mr. Heinlein”, always a bad sign for a biographer), but seems more than willing to co-opts Heinlein’s opinion into the current right-wing mindset. So it is that Heinlein-extended-by-Patterson gives us gems such as the Baltic states being enslaved by the USSR because they didn’t want to “do what must be done”, unlike the Scandinavian states (has Patterson ever looked at a map?) [P.198]. Such overreach of contemporary political opinion over historical events were easier enough to accept in the first volume of the biography which discussed a time too far away to be controversial, but it proves harder to tolerate with more contemporary events and figures.
Furthering the problem is Patterson, graceless style. There are moments so clumsily written that they jar any reader out of the narrative. Take, for instance, this paragraph about a visit to Rio de Janeiro…
…they drove up Corcovado mountain to see at first hand the monumental Christ the Redeemer status overlooking the steep hills over Rio –and, what the Heinleins may not have realized they were overlooking, Rio’s favelas, some of the worst slums in the world, so legendary in their poverty, violence, and crime that they are still being used as the setting for many “shooter” video games. [P.105]
…and tell me how we can justifiably go from an account of a 1950s trip to a faintly reprobate mention of contemporary video games. Worse yet is the following:
…During the course of the operation, Heinlein received blood transfusions collected from five anonymous donors. Since Robert had an uncommon blood type (universal recipient – Ginny had the even rarer universal donor type), it was almost certain that his life had been saved by the efforts of the National Rare Blood Club he had come across while researching I Will Fear No Evil. [P.320]
As written, this makes almost no sense: Heinlein did have a rare blood type (AB+, roughly 3.4% of the population) but as a near-universal recipient, he could have received blood by nearly everyone –hence instantly debunking the assertion that his life had been saved by the National Rare Blood Club. (Notwithstanding the above blunder, the two chapters covering Heinlein’s year-long involvement with Blood donations reveal much about one of Heinlein’s most underrated life achievements, and stand as a highlight of the book.)
Insufficiently copy-edited, the book also contains a number of typos and small annoying mistakes. Even my casual read of the text showed typos such as “Candian”, or “crities” (this one quasi-maliciously incorrect, as it refers to a section of Alexei Panshin’s web site), or more seriously “November 23, 1963” as the date of JFK’s assassination, when it actually took place on November 22nd.
I hope that my exasperation with the text comes through. In details and in larger interpretation (or rather a lack thereof), In Dialogue with his Century is an immensely well-documented book that nonetheless seems to avoid commenting on the man at its center. Patterson seems to know everything about Heinlein but understand quite a bit less. To see this, the work of two lifetimes, result in a biography that falls substantially shorts of the gold standard of the genre is an exercise in frustration. This biography should have looked at its subject sympathetically but not uncritically. Even today, Heinlein does not need hero-worshipping –he needs someone willing to do what Heinlein himself couldn’t bear to do, which is to explain who he was. Readers can work from inferences (it’s no surprise that a trained military officer would later turn out to be particularly paranoid about threats to US hegemony) but for a biography claiming high that Heinlein avoided simplistic reductions, the fawning uncritical look at Heinlein seems unworthy of the subject. On related matters, we get some information in this volume about Leon Stover, first chosen biographer to Heinlein (and who was later removed from the project by Virginia Heinlein for “unauthorised” enquiries) but little about Patterson’s involvement itself.
Still, it’s a heck of a scholarly work. There’s a lot of stuff in this second volume (from a scholarship aspect alone, I expect it to be nominated for a Hugo next year… even if the book really isn’t as good as it could have been), and I hope that it will become a reference for anyone writing a better biography. It’s also a tremendously rich book to discuss: My list of notes and items of interest from the book easily contains twice as many things I have the time to write about, and as a reviewer this is the kind of book that I love to discuss endlessly, largely because it isn’t perfect and could be improved.
I’m also saddened to report that Patterson died barely a month before this second volume was released. For all the faults we can find with The Man Who Learned Better, his death leaves the ensuing conversation about Heinlein without a crucial voice, and without someone to receive and collect information that could have been raised during this discussion. (As Patterson himself writes in the appendix to his second volume unearthing new information about Heinlein’s early years, “the good stuff” invariably comes out shortly after publication.) Still, Patterson does leave in his wake a massive work of scholarship that will hopefully inspire others to further examination in Heinlein’s life.
I also suspect that this biography will act as another lightning rod in the current fracture within the SF field, the old-guard of fans trying to preserve the memory of Heinlein against younger, more progressive and far more diverse fans. In the old-guard’s minds, In dialogue with his century is an attempt to prove that Heinlein is still of relevance today; that his fiction remains exemplary of what SF means to do, and that his philosophy is still valid. In claiming the good old dodge “I didn’t change my mind, everyone else did”, In Dialogue with his Century moves goalposts, but also servers to illustrate the difference between this old school and the new guard: The old school sees “the country moving to the left” as a sorrowful conclusion, whereas the new guard will perceive older men like Heinlein being naturally left behind.
As far as I’m concerned, I expected this second volume of Heinlein’s life to mark a capstone of sorts to my own dealing with Heinlein. While I found him tremendously influential as a teen and young adult (I’ve been reading his novels since I was nine), I have recently, through various experiences and life changes, come to accept his dwindling relevance to today’s readers: While I still hold tremendous affection for his work, I accept that he will, from now on, be read mostly as a historical writer: even in the SF field, where his influence is unparalleled, I see younger viewers rejecting his novels and claiming other (often newer) writers as relevant. And that’s fine: the genre is not stuck in amber, and we need to move forward. Isn’t it enough to realize that his place in history is assured?
But something happened in reading The Man Who Learned Better: I felt some jitterbug energy coming back, compelling me to go and re-read some of his fiction. So it is that I’m embarking (even with my limited time) on a modest re-reading project: Heinlein’s four Hugo Award-winning novels, from Double Star to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, stopping by Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land for completeness. We’ll see if they’re dated, if they can’t stand contemporary social standards, and if they are as I remembered them. I haven’t read them in twenty years; now is the time to revisit them.
Tor, 2010, 622 pages, C$35.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1960-9
You don’t have to be a Science Fiction historian to understand the massive influence that Robert A. Heinlein had over the genre. His writing techniques set an example for all writers to emulate (or repudiate), his personality challenged readers to become better human beings and so it’s no exaggeration to state that entire generations of SF enthusiasts have been led by Heinlein’s example. As a writer, a personality, and a towering figure in the SF community even more than two decades after his death, he is one of the few SF writers of the twentieth century to deserve a massive two-book biography.
What we get with William H. Patterson Jr.’s Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1, 1907-1948: Learning Curve (count those colons!) is… something impressive, even as the first half of a bigger project. Alas, it’s not the single best possible account of Heinlein’s life. Like most authorized biographies, it benefits from generous access to primary sources, but suffers from a lack of critical perspective. The author has accomplished a herculean task of bringing together a mass of information about Heinlein, but he hasn’t always been able to condense this data into a readable or insightful portrait of the man.
It may be that the SF community has been spoiled by Julie Phillips’ extraordinary biography of Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr., a fusion of fact and interpretation that remains the gold standard for SF writer biographies. (Outside the genre, there’s also William McKeen’s biography of Hunter S. Thompson, Outlaw Journalist, to consider.) Compared to Phillips’ work, this first volume feels flat and bloated, afraid to take a dispassionate stand about its own subject while having a hard time distinguishing between trivia and detail. Why else spend a page detailing speeches at an Army-Navy game in which Heinlein was only peripherally involved? [P.81]
We shouldn’t be ungrateful for the sheer amount of detail: This is a “Life and Times of” kind of biography, and if nothing else, readers will come away from the book with a meticulous understanding of 1920s Annapolis, 1930s California Progressive politics and 1940s stateside war efforts. But if you’re getting the sense that you have to be enthralled by Heinlein before reading the book (rather than let the biography do the convincing), then you’re right.
Readers without a deep-set case of Heinlein worship are advised to grit their teeth, skip the rah-rah-RAH introduction (in which the death of Heinlein is compared to the assassination of JFK, the Challenger explosion and 9/11) and start reading on Chapter One, which sets the tone for a book that is a great deal more factual that its hagiographical opening would suggest. Not that the fawning tone entirely disappears later on: Patterson has a tendency to exculpate Heinlein from various errors and lapses of judgement, blaming his wife for a bad signature, not questioning official medical records and generally presuming that Heinlein knew best. I’m also troubled at how much of the sourcing goes straight back to recollections by Heinlein’s third wife –that is, unchallenged hearsay by a highly biased source.
This occasional fusion of overwhelming minutia and unquestioning Heinlein fanboyism makes the book feel considerably less accomplished than it actually is. From various reports on and off-line, I understand that the editing process for the book wasn’t simple (nor, apparently, friendly) and that the result is considerably shorter than the manuscript initially submitted for publication. The result remains a bit frustrating… about as much so as trying to make sense of the hugely complicated man that was Heinlein.
Still, having vented my frustrations about the book, here’s why it deserves to be read widely, discussed passionately and nominated for next year’s Hugo Awards: It’s a significant piece of work, it presents new information about Heinlein and it manages to describe the broad strokes of Heinlein’s life during a very badly documented period.
Even confirmed Heinlein fans will learn quite a few things out of this biography: Heinlein’s first-of-three marriages; the particular nature of his second one; the way he got to Annapolis; his fascination with the occult; the episode in which he nearly became a Rhodes scholar; his unpleasant first Guest of Honour experience at the 1941 Worldcon; the details of his unsuccessful electoral bid; and so many others. Even dirty gossip gets a bit of space, as we learn of a possible affair between L. Ron Hubbard and Heinlein’s second wife. (Read the endnotes!) There is a lot of information here that, to my knowledge, has never received wide publication. The magnitude of Patterson’s achievement in chronicling the first forty years of Heinlein’s life is magnified by the difficulty of getting this information, by dint of historical distance or by deliberate erasure. (Heinlein burnt much of his own personal papers in 1947.) To find so much information unearthed (even via unreliable sources) is a minor miracle and for that reason alone, this biography is a major piece of work that will become a significant starting point to any further Heinlein assessment.
There’s also quite a bit of merit in how Patterson is able to trace Heinlein’s formative influences, from the rigour of his naval background to his liberal politics within Upton Sinclair’s faction of the California Democratic Party to his post-war reassessment of his political affiliation given the threat of nuclear warfare. Heinlein’s fiction can argue opposite sides of issues in successive novels, and this biography does a fine job at showing how widely Heinlein’s experience differed from the American norm of the time. For SF fans, I suspect that the last section of the book, after Heinlein starts selling fiction professionally, is a fascinating look at the development of the SF field at a crucial period. There are familiar names (Campbell! Pohl! Hubbard! Asimov!) and a strong sense of what the community must have been at the time.
I also suspect that quite a few early Heinlein devotees will be astounded to read about the genesis of some stories. One of my first significant SF reads was Heinlein’s Space Cadet, for instance, and I was stunned to learn of the circumstances in which the novel was written –Heinlein practically living as a nomad, in-between marriages, fighting rumours spread by his second wife and desperately trying to make ends meet in difficult circumstances. Who knew?
One thing is for sure: This book has created a lot of brisk discussion within the SF field, and will continue to do so for a while. As with all things Heinlein, the biography is attracting passionate commenters from all persuasions, and some of the best results of the online fur-ball are a good erratum for the biography, and an informed reassessment of Heinlein’s stature within the field. It’s a significant reminder of Heinlein’s influence still.
The end result is a complex, meaty, substantive biography that has a number of weaknesses, but still represents the best and most complete look at Heinlein’s early life than we’ve been able to read so far. It’s not the best Heinlein biography imaginable (I challenge anyone to do better), but it’s assured of a spot on next year’s Hugo Awards short-list, and a long half-life as an significant work of SF scholarship. Better yet; it prefigures a second volume that will really dig into Heinlein’s fully-matured period. That one will be a heck of a read, even –especially- if it’s as frustrating as this first volume.
Pocket, 2004, 329 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-9154-8
Wonders are all around us if we know where to look, and so that’s how the wonderful capitalistic system conspired to allow me to buy, in very late 2004, a paperback copy of a brand-new Heinlein novel at the local grocery store. Imagine that.
I may never fully understand what possessed me to got check out the paltry selection of books at the neighbourhood Loblaws during an uncharacteristic salad-dressing-and-soy-sauce buying expedition, but there it was, in a smart hip cover: For us, the Living, by Robert A. Heinlein, “the author of Starship Troopers”. Imagine my thrill at dropping the novel onto the conveyor belt at the checkout. “Found everything you were looking for?” asked the clerk as per store guidelines. Yeah, I was tempted to answer, I’m buying a brand-new Heinlein paperback and it tickles me.
It’s not as if I hadn’t heard about For us, the Living previously. The unexpected discovery of a copy of the original 1939 manuscript, shortly before the 2003 Worldcon, was widely discussed in the SF&F field. Reviews seemed unanimous in saying that it wasn’t a very good novel, but it was a mesmerizing piece of work for all Heinlein fans.
I quickly found out what they meant by that. Yes, For us, the Living is a shoddy novel. A study of a 1939 man somehow thrown in a weird and wonderful new future, it’s not dissimilar to the utopian musings of H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Structurally, it’s what I’d call a walkthrough novel, designed to show the audience the achievements of a new age: the plot is loosely arranged to allow the hero to explore facet after facet of Heinlein’s imagined 2086, a world where everything seems to be working remarkably well.
As fiction, thus, For us, the Living isn’t a marvel of plotting, or even of characterization: Our protagonist is designed to be a bland stand-in for the readers. The heroine is saddled with -believe it or not- a three-page footnote explaining her life history. (Yikes!) Dialogue is often of the “As You Know, Bob” variety. (Or, more accurately, “Bob, you ignorant twentieth-century dweeb, this is what you should know.”)
This being said, the fiction may not be gripping, but there’s no mistaking Heinlein’s gift for compelling prose. Even at its most didactic (and believe me, few things are more didactic than a chess game being used to demonstrate the fundamentals of Social Credit), For us, the Living retains an essential interest: It’s just plain fun to read. And some predictions ended up hitting surprisingly close to the mark. Take a look at this quote, for instance: “…if those bankers who were killed in the raid on Manhattan had expected to be bombed and gassed, there wouldn’t have been any war, But they didn’t. They thought the war would be fought far away by the professionals.” [P.88] Hmm!
For Heinlein fans (and I classify myself as only a mild one), For us, the Living is a virtual treasure chest of early discoveries. Pay attention, and you’ll find the early outline of Heinlein’s “Future History”. Nehemiah Scudder is mentioned by name, as is Coventry. Rolling roads are introduced. Open marriages caps off the novel’s last chapter. If none of these things mean anything to you, well, you’re not the target audience for the book.
No, the target audience for the book is composed of SF fans who just want a look at Heinlein’s first finished manuscript, and who will nod in agreement when Spider Robinson, in his introduction, refers to the novel as Heinlein’s “literary DNA.” The kind of SF fans who, upon reading the last line of Robert James’ excellent afterword, “A clean sweep at last.”, will know exactly which of Heinlein’s law of writing is being invoked, and what it ultimately means. The kind of SF fans who, in considering the meaning of “a clean sweep at last”, will feel a rush of blood to their heads and maybe even a dab of salty water in their eyes. A clean sweep at last.
Oh yes, marvels all around us.
Del Rey, 1984, 376 pages, C$23.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-31649-5
It’s generally acknowledged amongst Robert A. Heinlein fans and scholars that the science-fiction author started writing in 1939 with “Life-Line”, stopped in 1987 with Beyond the Sunset but “lost it” as a compelling novelist in 1973 upon publication of I Will Fear No Evil, a long and rambling message novel that left many unsatisfied. Certainly, Heinlein’s near-fatal health problems in early 1973 had something with the lack of editorial discretion exhibited in the final version, but the problem seemed to run deeper: While Heinlein remained a deft storyteller, it seemed as if he had no more stories to tell.
Most of his subsequent novels seemed more preoccupied with tying up together all the diverse universes of his fiction in a single incoherent metaverse where it seemed as if everyone was surprisingly related to everyone else. The stories… well, the stories never got any better. Material for a short story suddenly found itself blown over four hundred pages and scenes that should have been over in an instant suddenly took whole chapters.
But somehow, it all remained interesting. Heinlein’s writing style redefined “limpid” for generations of readers, always clearing the way for the story while polishing it up for memorable epigrams. It’s no accident if most of Heinlein’s work is narrated in the first person; it’s a natural device for allowing the storyteller full access to his repertoire of tricks, devices and character insights. (It also allowed every protagonist to sound exactly the same, but let’s not go there.)
In this context, Job stands as perhaps Heinlein’s second-best post-1973 book. (I still think that Friday isn’t all that bad despite a considerable mid-book lull and some rather strange psychodynamics.)
The plot is self-explanatory from the title (with an SF twist). Our protagonist, a church man from a radically fundamentalist culture, is arbitrarily yanked through alternate universes, reduced to abject poverty, forced to menial work and constant vigilance by the whims of two supreme entities on a bet. As I said; good material for a short story smeared over far too many pages. But at least it all builds up to something grand, which is considerably more than one can say about, oh, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.
Fortunately, one thing that has only improved with age is the way Heinlein told his story. It’s a testament to his verve and overall skill that even at his worst, Heinlein remained a compulsively readable author, someone whose books could be loads of fun without necessarily leading somewhere. Even in Job‘s dullest moments -the first half of the book is a succession of adventures that might or might not have any meaning- there’s always a comforting, witty narration to help us through.
Alas, another trait that became more obvious through Heinlein’s latter year is his delight in didactism. Heinlein was, in many respect, an exceptional man who aimed at becoming even better. This credo of his, when practised properly, gave form to some of the best juvenile fiction out there (Hey, I got in SF solely because of Space Cadet), but at its worst gave rise to message-fiction so thinly disguised it was embarrassing (The Number of the Beast). Job is halfway between the two, poking fun at religion in a significant, yet respectful, fashion. The old man knew what he was doing.
The end result of Job’s travails is not quite as impressive as you might think. Some late-book developments will make you go “huh?” and some promising early leads are never followed, such as the “money case” that gives the impression that Heinlein started writing an action-adventure story, then got a better idea.
But it all leads somewhere somewhat satisfying. An embarrassment of rich epigrams is also available for the retelling. If I pity those who have read Job more than those who haven’t, it’s because they can now look forward to one less Heinlein book. That’s how good he remains, despite everything.
Fawcett, 1980, 511 pages, C$4.75 mmpb, ISBN 0-449-14476-3
Given this new millennium, some particularly silly person will undoubtedly try to poll Science-Fiction fans to try to find out was the foremost SF writer of the twentieth century. I say “silly”, because the contest is over even before it begins; the honour logically goes to Robert A. Heinlein.
Say what you want, gnash your teeth, moan loudly or run away screaming; Robert A. Heinlein is the defining SF writer of the twentieth century. He has shaped the genre to his liking, inspired more writers than anyone else, provoked more arguments and debates than any other and influenced more people than most politicians. He’s not only the author of the hippie manifesto Stranger in a Strange Land, but also the militarist fantasy Starship Troopers and the libertarian classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Notice, however, that these novels were all written in the first two-third of Heinlein’s career. In the seventies, the author was severely affected by poor health and his post-1970 novels were marked by a severe lack of editorial revision, increasing authorial indulgence and a detestable tendency to praise a small group of fictional characters very much like Heinlein at the expense of everything else.
The Number of the Beast is widely known as one of Heinlein’s worst books and an interminable exercise in solipsism. Given that it’s one of the very few Heinlein novels I still hadn’t read, I was curious to see for myself what the fuss was about.
After reading the novel, I’m still unsure whether the book was a satire or not. A straight plot summary of the book will not do: what would any serious SF reader think of “two couples of geniuses are chased by aliens and forced to depart through space and time aboard their specially-modified car”? Right…
It’s apparent from the start that this is a novel that will defy conventional assessment. When hitherto-unknown characters marry in the first thirty pages, when all four protagonists have multiple doctorates and when alternate universes are defined by SF stories, it quickly becomes apparent that anyone applying rational literary standards will quickly regret it.
Which is essentially saying that anyone expecting a conventionally entertaining novel won’t like The Number of the Beast. Critics are right when they say that the four protagonists in The Number of the Beast are all Heinlein in disguise. It’s not enough to be ready to wackiness; it’s almost a prerequisite to be very familiar with all of Heinlein’s corpus up to 1980 to be comfortable with the discussions in this novel.
But is it enjoyable? It depends which part of the novel you read. The opening 150 pages have some plot, and are carried through mainly on Heinlein’s sheer narrative verve and great character introductions. The protagonists are so ridiculously ultra-competent that we’re reading in part to see which one will top the other with some other outrageously exotic skill.
But the 350 remaining pages are, despite the lively prose, often an exercise in tediousness. Interminable, useless technical descriptions are wrapped around some more (not unenjoyable) Heinleinisms. The impression is one of a writer who’s lost his outline. Even the spirited Envoi does nothing to reconcile ourselves with a novel that’s two-third empty.
That’s the conventional way of enjoying The Number of the Beast… but I’m not sure the unconventional way is open to anyone save the late Robert A. Heinlein himself.
(In theaters, November 1997) Very loud, very juvenile and very stupid adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel. It’s supposed to be loads of fun, but it just didn’t work for me. The tone oscillates between inane teenage drama and uber-gory war “comedy”: It’s either “Look at this guy get ripped in half; ain’t it cool?” or “Look at this guy get decapitated; ain’t it funny?” Unimaginably idiotic military tactics and physics make this movie really funny for even slightly knowledgeable people. Stupendous Special Effects can’t rescue a bad script, but might just net an Oscar. Only a few weeks after seeing Starship Troopers, I find my opinion of the movie sinking lower and lower, much like last year’s Independence Day. And after seeing Titanic, even the Special Effects Oscar isn’t so sure…
(Second viewing, On DVD, December 2007) I hadn’t seen this film in ten years, and the decade has been kind to Paul Verhoeven’s glossy space-opera. For one thing, I’ve seen much worse since then. For another, it seems as if the political subtext is a lot more interesting than it was years ago. It helps that this fully-loaded 2002 DVD special edition is so solidly defensive. Both of the audio commentaries, along with the new making-of documentary, are chiefly concerned about the film’s initial critical reaction, and desperately try to point out the real meaning behind the film. (For sheer entertainment value, few DVD audio commentaries in history have surpassed the one in which Paul Verhoeven keeps saying “Fascism Is Not Good”.) Both the commentaries and the documentary reveal a lot about the film and the ways the filmmakers may have screwed it up, though they’re awfully quick to blame the audience when they fail to respond to a film trying to have it both as a dumb blockbuster and a satire of such. Oh, I still don’t think it’s a wonderful film: I’m still disturbed by the gleeful gore and the nonsense science, and even for a satire there are some inner contradictions that weaken the entire atmosphere. But the direction is clean and sharp (especially after nearly a decade of increasing confusion behind the lenses), most special effects are still wonderful (oh, that lunar sequence!) and I have developed a fondness for cleaner-than-clean cinematography even as most movies have gone the other way. Starship Troopers hasn’t aged that badly, and when it has, it’s usually in the trivial details like the CRT monitors and primitive graphics displayed on such. If you think you still hate the film ten years later, do yourself a favour, rent the DVD and listen to the commentaries: I think you will be pleasantly surprised, or at least decently entertained.
Ace/Putnam, 1987, 416 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-399-13267-8
(Or: To sail beyond the boundaries of adequate editing…)
Even in a field as smart as Science-Fiction, Robert A. Heinlein stands tall intellectually. His influence is enormous enough that we should probably dedicate the whole field of SF to him and move on to other matters. He’s the man who wrote Stranger in a Strange Land yet he’s also the man who gave us Starship Troopers. Beyond my personal liking for the man’s work, he has attracted a tremendously fanatical following—even now.
Yet all fans, and most critics, consider that Heinlein’s career suffered immensely during his later years. Following a severe period of bad health in the beginning of the Seventies, Heinlein’s latter novel, they say, are overindulging, under-edited, sex-obsessed and more concerned (in the words of Alexei Panshin) about “opinions as facts”. Heinlein’s opinions.
To Sail Beyond the Sunset was Heinlein’s last published novel before his death in 1987. How does it measure up to his other works?
Not very well. TSBtS is the autobiography of Maureen Johnson, the mother of Heinlein’s favourite literary alter-ego, Lazarus Long. Her history is also the history of Heinlein’s famous “Future History” cycle. This novel chronicles her life, from her birth in 1882 onward.
The first thing one must accept about this book is that it’s all about sex. From Maureen’s Electra complex to her first boyfriend to complex “family” affairs to her rescue of her father (and subsequent elopement, we presume), this is where Heinlein Says to his readers “Listen up; I have a fascination with It and I thing everyone who’s prude is seriously pucked-up.”
Mix in some philosophy on the Downfall of American Society (Such uncultured barbarians we all are nowadays!), Good Wars, Bad Presidents… The only good persons here are Maureen, her father and her son Lazarus Long. Everyone else is an idiot, a puppet or inconsequential. The Encyclopedia of SF‘s is right when is says that “in praising one family over everything else, Heinlein has cheapened everything else.” The final nail in the coffin is that, for a novel that’s entirely cantered around sex, the sex scenes are lousy. Can’t have everything, I guess…
Still, despite these considerable flaws, TSBtS manages to entertain considerably. Always readable, Heinlein’s style is distinctive and pleasant. Never mind that the no-nonsense, street-smart monologue of Maureen could have been generated from the same place that Richard Ames’ narration (In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls) came from…. it’s still loads of fun. Then there’s Maureen/Heinlein’s obsession with cats- (Okay, so I lied: TSBtS isn’t all about sex. There’s a cat in there too. But you get my meaning.)
Yet, the prose may be light, but the meaning is sombre, even bitter. Heinlein is more concerned about preaching than amusement. Maureen makes explicit speeches about such subject as religion, government and other things… which brings us to the touchy subject of editing.
A competent editor could have looped off a good hundred pages. I’m still not sure if this would have been an improvement, or at least not a dramatic improvement like a good editing of I Will Fear No Evil.
Even then, this is Heinlein’s Last Novel. Treasure it, burn it or tolerate it… There will be no more things like this.