Tag Archives: Robert Zubrin

Benedict Arnold: A Drama of the American Revolution in Five Acts, Robert Zubrin

Polaris Books, 2005, 103 pages, US$9.95 tpb, ISBN 0-9741443-1-2

I’m sure that regular readers of these reviews are perplexed: What am I doing, reviewing a historical play about the American Revolution? A good question, almost as good as “What is a space scientist and science-fiction writer like Robert Zubrin writing a play about the American Revolution?” I suspect that the answer is be the same in both case: Because it’s interesting. Why not?

It also helped that this slim volume showed up in my mailbox, unannounced, even as I was wondering how I’d make my review quota this month after spending two weeks not-reading and two more week not-reading-much. Zubrin has been on my shortlist of interesting authors since his SF novel First Landing, and I guess I’ve ended up on his shortlist of interesting reviewers. It’s a fair thing to say that I’ll read anything bearing his name, and when he makes it so convenient to do so… (Sadly, christian-sauve.com has recently announced a “no-review-copies” policy, so this -falling under a twisted grandfather clause- may be the last such author-solicited review you’ll see here.)

You won’t be surprised to learn that, being French-Canadian, my knowledge of the American Revolution mostly comes from Hollywood movies. Still, even one country and hundreds of years away, the name “Benedict Arnold” is familiar, if only as a synonym for “traitor”. (It helps that the American political class, with its tradition of reasoned discourse, has lately taken the habit of using the name to describe anyone they don’t agree with.)

To its credit, the book is exactly what it title claims: a play, in five acts, describing the infamous actions of Benedict Arnold as he betrayed the nascent American republic to the British. There’s romance, there’s plotting, there’s cloak-and-dagger intrigue and there’s even selfless bravery coming from unlikely heroes. Whew!

But reading a play is, at best, only a partial experience: Until some enterprising troupe decides to select Benedict Arnold as its next project, one can only comment on the text. The full impact of the piece depends on its performance by real live actors. The inclusion of songs in the play can be interesting in a final production, I suppose, but their effect on readers will be limited. (It doesn’t help that the play begins by a lengthy monologue that could be set to music, leading one to the awful impression that it’s going to be “Benedict Arnold: The Musical!”)

The back cover boasts that the play is “historically accurate”, and one is led to give it the benefit of the doubt given the lack of exploding chariots. Aside from some creative license in crafting scene construction and dialogue, supplemental reading indicates no major inconsistencies between Zubrin’s take on Arnold and other version of the stories. (This being said, non-American sources tend to be a lot more lenient toward Arnold’s actions, pointing out that there wasn’t yet an America to betray at that time, and that Arnold was only one of many to choose England over the revolutionaries. Most of the others weren’t celebrated soldiers, though.)

On the production side, a number of historical illustrations enliven the book. The play is followed by a short but essential essay on Benedict Arnold and his place in American History. It also comments and contextualizes the play; an ideal way to cap off the book.

Clearly, I’m out of my league in reviewing Benedict Arnold: No knowing much about American History or plays, my comments will be of limited usefulness. Still, the book is short, the story is interesting and I can even claim to have learnt a thing or two about Arnold in the process. Heck, there’s even a Canadian connection, Arnold having invaded Canada (unsuccessfully, one relishes to add) two hundred years before I was born.

I believe that there’s a good future for this book in high schools across America, as a relatively painless way to learn about that particular episode of history: A simple group reading could do wonders to enliven a class or two. Other potential audiences include American History buffs and high-school libraries. I’m also oddly pleased to see Zubrin stretch in this unexpected direction as a writer, and wonder what’s next on his schedule.

The Holy Land, Robert Zubrin

Polaris Books, 2003, 298 pages, US$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-9741443-0-4

[Requisite disclaimer: This particular novel was sent to me by the author in November 2003, with the understanding that I would review it shortly afterwards.]

Given the increasing silliness of the last few years in the United States and elsewhere in the world, it’s been dismaying to see Science Fiction avoid the question altogether. Save for a few writers (goodness bless Bruce Sterling and his “In Paradise”), few seems to have the required guts in tackling today’s mounting problems. Where are the Pohls, Kornbluth, Sheckelys when you need them? Today’s stuff seems more interested in catering to the market than changing how people think about the world.

Well, Robert Zubrin makes a valiant attempt at socially-responsible satiric SF with The Holy Land. The result may have a few rough edges, it’s still an audacious novel that deserves a much wider audience than it’s likely to get as a work published outside the mainstream cluster of publishers. The first book of a small publisher named “Polaris Books”, The Holy Land probably won’t make it to your local bookstore.

A quick look at the book’s premise may help explain why bigger publishers may be reluctant to deal with it: One day, the American president awakes to find out that Kennewick, Wasington, has been taken over by aliens. Not just every aliens, mind you, but refugees from a galactic war, coming back to claim their ancestral land. Americans are booted out of there and placed in refugee camps, whether they like it or not. Meanwhile, the American government (a bunch of greedy fundamentalist morons –no relation to reality is implied) encourages kids in the refugee camps to sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks against the alien invaders. (Cry ‘pagan!’ and let slip the weasels of war, or something like that.) And so on. This summary barely scratches the surface of the first two chapters of the novel.

The least we can say is that Zubrin has guts in tackling the Israeli/Palestian conflict in such a madcap fashion. But he’s got a lot more on his mind, as the rest of the novel picks apart the War on Terrorism, American foreign policy, oil capitalism, media demagoguery and the rest of what we’ve come to associate with this brand new century. This is not subtle stuff by any measure, at least initially: The first chapter is a laugh-a-page marvel of breakneck satire, served with more gusto than polish. It works incredibly well at sucking readers into the story.

Such pacing can’t be sustained, of course. After the first twenty pages, The Holy Land loosens its grip on satiric content, allowing the “real” story to come to the surface, the evolving relationship between alien Priestess Aurora and human prisoner of war Andrew Hamilton (US marines). It’s a risky bet; not only does the book sell itself as humor, but such “humans and alien learn to get along” stories have been done before. Repeatedly.

But it works. Against all odds, even as the laughs are replaced by a more restrained approach, The Holy Land becomes something else. Real drama surprisingly starts to emerge from the book, but so smoothly that it’s not immediately obvious that a tone shift has taken place. There are still a few good lines here and there (“an hour after the Weegee assault, over 80 percent of the Peruvian Earthlings are still alive… has the much-vaunted Western Galactic Imperial Navy finally embroiled itself in a hopeless quagmire?” [P.158]), but the book has moved away from staccatos satire to a brand of lighter science-fiction somewhat reminiscent of books like Peter Jurasik & William H. Keith, Jr.’s Diplomatic Act.

Bits and pieces of sharp satire can be found scattered through the novel, mind you. The helicity segments are a not-so-subtle jab at oil-driven foreign policy . There are hysterical digressions on feminism, profiling, “the August 11th tragedies” and a cute little scientific inside joke about the real cause of the galactic Red Shift [P.137]. Droll stuff… and that’s not even going into the material that flew over my head during the first read-through. Some Internet digging on the “Kennewick man” and helicity is enough to make me suspect several such easter eggs buried elsewhere in the novel.

Meanwhile, the real plot-line of the novel evolves into something that is interesting in its own right, and not simply as a support for satiric jabs. Aurora and Hamilton don’t simply act as stand-ins for their respective races, but as good characters in their own rights. They have a nice rapport, even as Zubrin generally avoids most of the maudlin moments you would expect from such stories. Even Aurora’s undercover visit to Earth (which becomes increasingly predictable as the novel’s structure becomes evident) has its unexpected delights.

Being a product of a small publisher, The Holy Land suffers from a few rough spots in term of editorial supervision; while the production qualities of the book are nearly indistinguishable from what we have come to expect from major publishers, there are a number of prose snippets and segments of the plot which could have been improved with some editorial attention. But no big deal, really: Zubrin has good instincts when it comes to plotting and the novel moves at such a pleasant clip that it’s not worth nit-picking on small details.

Readability remains high throughout; it’s quite possible to read the book in a single afternoon, pausing for occasional laughter. Only the unsatisfying Joan-of-Arc ending is bothersome, as it seems a little bit too dramatic, a little bit too quickly set up and resolved. On the other hand, the ultimate fate of the American President is a delightful last-minute punchline. The laughs are there right up to the end even though, for a moment, it looked as if Zubrin had started pulling his punches.

All in all, though, The Holy Land is a pretty satisfying book. The satiric intensity of the first chapter (which you can read on-line at the Polaris Book website) isn’t sustained all the way through, but a much harder trick is pulled off in building a fun novel about issues that have been explored before in other stories. Much like in First Landing, Robert Zubrin proves uncommonly adept at making the most of his characters and rescue books from obvious pitfalls. It’s unusual enough to see a hard scientist manage to write a novel in which the characters come to life, it seems almost too good that they’d do so in a novel with satiric intent. Certainly, this is a welcome direction for SF. As today’s world becomes crazier and weirder, it wouldn’t be inappropriate for science fiction to follow suit, and maybe enlighted us in the process.

First Landing, Robert Zubrin

Ace, 2001, 262 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00963-8

There have been, shall we say, quite a number of science-fiction novels about Mars over the past few years. After the grandiose sweep of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, the intricate nuts-and-bolts detail of Stephen Baxter’s Voyage or the adventurous spirit of Geoffrey Landis’ Mars Crossing, can the marketplace sustain yet another Mars novel?

Apparently so. Robert Zubrin’s First Landing slipped in bookstores in paperback format in late 2002, unnoticed by anyone save for the most dedicated hard-SF fans (which is to say, people like me). Though Zubrin is a first-time novelist, he’s a scientist with some serious credentials as a science writer. After all, he’s the author of The Case for Mars, one of the non-fiction books credited for much of the late-nineties resurgence of interest for the colonization of the Red Planet. (It also formed part of the inspiration behind the film MISSION TO MARS, but the least said about that is best, I suppose.)

It’s not a particular surprise if First Landing turns out to be so readable. By sticking to a clear and descriptive prose, Zubrin gives energy to his narrative and propels the plot forward. Here too (as in Geoffrey Landis’ Mars Crossing and Gregory Benford’s The Martian Race, not to mention MISSION TO MARS again or even RED PLANET), a catastrophic mishap strands a team of astronauts on Mars while rescue efforts are hampered by oh-so-evil politicians on Earth.

The usual Hard-SF gallery of freaks and villains is fully present here: Rabid environmentalists, short-sighted politicians, Bible-thumping fundamentalists and trash-science “experts” manipulate popular opinion, sabotage the mission, create strife between crewmembers and generally behave in ways that seem almost too over-the-top for conventional fiction.

But don’t roll your eyes yet: Keep reading. Despite the unsubtle characters, the good-old ecofreak villains and the stock premise, something quite wonderful emerges from First Landing. This novel starts to be fun. Good fun. Compulsively readable fun. “I want to know what happens next” fun.

Over the pages, some of the early excesses of the novel even start to lose their edge. The astronauts (once so mismatched it was a wonder they’d been allowed on the same mission) start to gel and to bond together through strife and miscommunications with planet Earth. Everyone pulls together with an all-American can-do attitude. By the triumphant finale, even the short-sighted politicians finally “get” the message of Martian colonization. Cue the ticker-tape parade. Cheers!

That may sound trite and/or cynical, but it’s exactly what’s needed for First Landing to succeed. It’s that kind of novel. Furthermore, Zubrin avoids many of the flaws that had so dogged Landis and Benford’s efforts. His characters are flawed, sure, but they don’t carry around closets full of pesky secrets like the full cast in Mars Crossing. The novel is short enough that it sticks to the essentials, avoiding the dilution of suspense that ended up harming The Martian Race. All and all, I’d put Zubrin’s book above the last two, if only for sheer efficiency. It’s a lean, mean (but not too mean) hard-SF novel that doesn’t try to be anything else. Even its flaws only reinforce the feeling that this is a real Hard-SF story.

I sure hope Robert Zubrin is hard at work on a second novel; authors that get both the science and the fiction right are rare enough that they all should be encouraged. If he can make even an overused premise like Mars colonization interesting again, who know what else he’ll be able to do next?