Science fiction is often described as a genre of ideas and informed speculation, anything but the “mindless fluff” the librarian in my home town, for example, believed it to be. The wildest, most outrageous sci-fi tales I’ve read have all been built around an idea. Only those completely unfamiliar with science fiction, judging its books by their often lurid covers, could for a moment believe this genre was dominated by “mindless fluff.” In science fiction, the idea’s the thing.
How that idea is used to tell a story makes all the difference. Handled properly, the idea informs the story and gives it purpose. Handled otherwise, and you end up with a novel such as Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, the sixth novel to be given the Hugo Award, and an otherwise well-executed sci-fi novel that for me has a serious flaw.
Starship Troopers is a coming-of-age story set in a future in which several of the author’s political views have come to be realized, a world in which one Johnny Rico stumbles through his youthful idealism and into a military career. This is a first person narrative, from the point of view of someone who is looking back over his life as he prepares for one more mission in the long war that has come to define him. Rico’s views make perfect sense for a man examining the experiences he’s had, and the trials he has survived. They also make sense in a novel written by someone who undoubtedly knew veterans of the Second World War, which was anything BUT ancient history when Heinlein wrote the book. You can see something in this novel, I believe, of the mindset that allowed a generation to survive the greatest conflagration in human history. The ideas that drive this story are for most part the politics of Heinlein’s time and his recent past, extrapolated – at times somewhat naively – into a none-too-distant future. And as should be the case, this is all intertwined with both a well-developed imaginary culture and an adventure that, together, give the tale a plausible context. As I started rereading the book for the first time in decades, it held up well to my youthful memories of an exciting space opera.
Until Chapter Eight.
When I first read Starship Troopers in my mid teens, the political undercurrent of the book was completely lost on me. (That some people actively disliked the book because they disagreed with the author would never have occurred.) I read the adventure, the coming-of-age tale, my mind’s eye filled with images of soldiers in high-tech powered armor battling alien “bugs.” What, if any, reaction, I had to Chapter Eight back then I can no longer recall. I reacted to it in this reading, however, with a certain amount of annoyance.
In Chapter Eight, which takes place during Rico’s basic training, a fellow recruit gone AWOL has been brought back to the camp to be executed for the crime of murdering a child. At first this event unfolds as another grim learning experience, to be endured because the murderer was “one of them,” and the military service to which Rico and the others belong insists on handling the matter. Left to this, incident would hardly comprise a few paragraphs, not a full chapter, but as Rico watches the execution his mind drifts back to a high school lecture that suddenly seems relevant to him. It’s at this point that the novel hits a speed bump. The story, which is well-paced up to this point, come to a dead halt while the author, through both the imaginary teacher and Rico, pontificates on what Heinlein apparently believes are factors that will lead to the downfall of 20th Century Western Civilization – current events when Heinlein wrote the book. The lecture is, in part, a history lesson, and the history being examined from the perspective of this imagined future is nothing less than our own. The reason for its fall is summed up bluntly and naively as being due to fatal flaws in liberal politics and policy, as if any episode in history could possibly be put neatly into a little box that could be labeled “This Explains Everything.”
I do not agree with what Heinlein is saying; no honest student of history, aware of its complexities, would be comfortable with such a convenient summary, aimed at supporting a single political point of view. But that’s not what made me set the book aside for a day or two. This very same political philosophy is everywhere evident in the novel; so much so that at least one publisher rejected the book as being too controversial. You can’t escape it; what he is saying about duty and responsibility, however one-sided, is impossible to miss. And yet I was still able to enjoy the story as a thought-provoking exploration of those ideas. These being ideas I don’t entirely agree with, it says something about the skill of the author that I kept reading. I reacted with annoyance when I did because Heinlein stopped the story dead in its tracks to deliver a sermon.
It hurts the story, kills its momentum, its pacing, which was very well handled to that point. It took an effort for me to shake off my annoyance and go on reading.
I said before that I mostly disagree with Heinlein’s politics as revealed in Starship Troopers, even though I recognize some elements of truth in his over-simplifications. My objection to the blatant preaching in Chapter Eight is not political as much as the annoyance of a reader and a story-teller to a disservice done a good tale. It was an unnecessary diversion. Heinlein was already presenting the ideas at the core of the novel deftly and clearly as the story flowed along. If you were to read this book while skipping Chapter Eight you would, in my opinion, miss nothing. The message contained within the novel would have remained intact. Only authorial self-indulgence would be lost, and that’s rarely a bad thing.
I did go on, however, and cringed a bit as a small amount of similar lecturing occurred later in the book, while Rico is in officer training. To be honest, that material might not have bothered me much at all, because what Rico learns then is a part of the flow of the story. He is, after all, being challenged by teachers who are trying to determine whether or not he has what it takes to lead mean in combat. I was sensitized to these otherwise minor diversions by the speed bump I’d hit earlier. By rubbing my nose in the ideas central to the book, Heinlein made it impossible for me to simply let the story do its job. I was still shaking my head when I finished and set it aside.
Time and experience change the way you interpret the world around you. When I was fifteen years old and atrociously naïve myself, the ideas at the heart of Starship Troopers were largely lost on me. I knew Heinlein back then from works such as Red Planet and Between Planets, and with such stories in mind, I read Starship Troopers. I took in the futuristic adventure and nothing more, and so remembered the book fondly. As an adult, and having some understanding of politics, (enough to detest it on general principle, even as I recognize its necessity), I couldn’t let it go as a simple escapist adventure. Heinlein clearly didn’t intend the book to fill such a purpose. I can politely agree to disagree with people on political issues if they offer the same level of respect, but self-righteous pontification puts me right off. Unfortunately, Heinlein indulged in such in this story, interrupting a good tale in the process, and lost me.
This book won the Hugo Award in 1960. Apparently more people than not either enjoyed the story in spite of the politics, or agreed and enjoyed seeing their ideals cast in a tale told by one of the masters of the craft. Had the vote been taken in 1971, when I was 15 years old, I’m willing to bet I’d have voted for Starship Troopers. In 2013, at the age of 57, most likely not.
Believe it or not, a year has passed since the last time I attended a science fiction convention. I’m about to amend that by attending TusCon again this year.
I will be attending TusCon 40, this coming weekend, November 8, 9, and 10. My novels The Luck of Han’anga and Founders’ Effect will be available for sale at the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore table in the dealer’s room.
Check here for the current program: http://tusconscificon.com/
I’m currently scheduled to participate in the following:
Has Future Shock Turned Into Future Fatigue? Sat.9am Ballroom
Mass Autograph Session Sat. 4pm Ballroom
Good Twists and Bad Twists: What are the keys to making plot twists unpredictable but still believable? 10pm Panel Room 1
How to Rewrite Right Sun. Noon. Ballroom
If you’re in town, check it out!
On the 27th of August, 2003, Mars and our Earth passed as close to each other as they’ve been in recorded history. No one alive will see such a thing again. This was all treated as headline news, at the time, and spawned one of the most persistent internet hoaxes I know of, that being the claim that any given August Mars will appear as large as the Full Moon in the night sky. The event also marked a turning point in my life, since it changed astronomy from a fondly remembered teenage obsession to a present day pursuit of wonders in the night sky.
I was employed by a lab on the U of A campus that summer and saw an article in the campus newspaper about the close approach. There was an announcement of a related public event in that article, viewings of Mars from the campus mall on the weekend before and the weekend after opposition, hosted by the Flandrau Science Center and the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association. Mars that close, viewed through a telescope? For free? No matter how low a level my astronomy interest had reached, it was too attractive a notion to pass up, so my wife and I attended the first viewing. The desert monsoon was in progress, and the clouds left behind by afternoon thunderstorms left us with mere glimpses of Mars, though I did wander the field examining telescopes and speaking with their enthusiastic users. It made me nostalgic for times past, to say the least. It was also a strange and wonderful feeling to actually look through telescopes of sizes and powers I could only dream of owning as a teenager.
The following weekend, just a day or two after the actual opposition, the weather was clear. We decided to give it another try, and were well rewarded for our effort. There were more telescopes on the mall, and more people had come out to have a look. It was a noisy event, punctuated by excited shouts as folk unfamiliar with telescopes had their first looks at Mars or some other celestial sight. I saw Mars as I’d never seen it before, and will never see it again. By the time we were home I’d decided on two things: the Old Scope was coming out of the box, and ownership of a newer, larger instrument was in my immediate future.
If you’ve read my short amateur astronomy memoir, Mr. Olcott’s Skies, you already know that this is exactly how it unfolded. Now I find myself sitting here, ten years after that event, contemplating the changes that have come since then.
For a time, amateur astronomy was everything. I bought gear, I bought books, and I joined the local club. I immersed myself in the hobby, attending star parties and outreach events, writing reviews and observing essays for the Cloudy Nights forum, on which I also served as a moderator and then an administrator. I wrote instructional material for the local club and helped run their beginners’ program for a time. Amateur astronomy became the major focus of my free time. This was possible because I’d given up writing.
I’ve mentioned that sad decision in this blog in the past, so suffice to say that after nearly two decades of selling ever fewer magazine articles, and not a word of fiction, I quit. There was no way I could continue to justify the attempt, especially knowing as I did that it was getting harder all the while for new authors to break in. I quit, but the creative energy was still there, scratching and clawing at me from the inside, seeking a way out. Astronomy provided that outlet. The planning and study required for observing, the interactions online, the reviews and observing reports, all these aspects and more soaked up that energy and then some. Because of this, some of the most creative times in my life involved no writing at all, or writing as incidental to astronomy, a tool to communicate and share my love of starlight and moonlight with others.
Along came the Kindle, and then Nook and Kobo. The digital revolution had finally caught up with publishing; it did so all of a sudden and in a big way. As a writer, I found myself with options that hadn’t (and couldn’t have) existed when I stopped trying to sell my words. When I realized there was a new reason to hope, a reason to write in earnest, writing experienced the same sort of revival that astronomy did in August 2003. Regrettably, this has happened at the expense of star gazing.
An unforeseen and unfortunate consequence of the writing revival has been a reduction in the amount of time spent at the eyepiece. For the last couple of years I’ve put all my spare time and energy into books and stories, and felt very good about doing so. As a priority, it’s a no-brainer. To have any chance of success I need to produce material for publication, balancing speed of output with quality. But here, a few days after the 10th anniversary of my return to my youthful obsession with star gazing, I find myself seeking a balance of another sort. I must write, for this is the very definition of my being. But I must find the time to go out and point lens and mirrors at the sky, to gather and focus ancient light on my eyes and imagination. The spirit in me craves both. The challenge before me is to placate the muse, and somehow manage to keep looking up.
When I was a boy and first encountered Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes, a passage in the first of them, in which the reader is introduced to Holmes, startled me. He tells Watson (who shared my surname as well as my puzzlement) that he considered his mind a storehouse in which only things relevant to his work would be kept. This was all to explain to Watson why Holmes was entirely ignorant of matters to do with then-current theories regarding the solar system. The concept of only learning “relevant” things seemed very strange to me. It ran counter to my upbringing, raised as I was by curious folk who delighted in pointing out and naming birds and trees, and who encouraged me to read on the widest possible range of subjects. Why anyone would remain willfully ignorant of the solar system, just because it wasn’t relevant to his day’s, work left me baffled. I found many aspects of the Holmes character fascinating, even admirable, but Sherlock Holmes was never a role I wanted to inhabit for myself. I was too curious about – well, everything!
Well, almost everything. So-called physical education left me cold, but that might have been different if the “coaches” I encountered hadn’t all been so keen on whipping us into sufficient shape to march off and die in World War Three. I remember very clearly one of them explaining that the endless calisthenics were necessary if we were to be prepared for the “next war.” This was shortly before the end of the Vietnam War, and given the cultural climate of those days, it wasn’t a sentiment likely to inspire the young. It surely did not instill a love of push-ups in this one, that’s for sure!
But as for everything else, I was wide open. Even math fascinated me, though it also frustrated me terribly. (I eventually got over that, and though algebra has never become intuitive, I survived quadratic equations and such, and did so with respectable grades when I finally completed my degree, years later.) I was always most receptive to science and history, but all sorts of things in school caught my fancy, and I enjoyed school to a degree that caused me some sadly predictable social problems. I grew up in a time when being a nerd or a geek was anything but fashionable. It was not always the best of times, and there are no “glory days” memories of high school for me, but I don’t regret the mental habits that developed in my youth.
And habits they were, habits that stuck. I left school, but didn’t let mundane life stop the learning process. The curiosity never died. I can’t explain how it worked out that way. This wasn’t a deliberate effort on my part; it was just the way my brain was wired. I simply couldn’t help it. So I charged on into adult life, trying to find my path and make a living, all the while reading and making inquiries and steadily filling that mental storehouse in a way that would likely have caused Sherlock Holmes to shake his head in disgust. That’s fine, the judgment of imaginary beings having so little weight. I’ve found this life of learning liberating, and enormously entertaining. Those things alone would have kept me motivated, but it turns out now there’s something more. Because of these old but lively habits, I can write.
Or, I should say, write more effectively. All this nonessential information, this useless in day-to-day terms knowledge, “informs” my writing, though not always in obvious ways. I’m rarely conscious of it when it happens, but that lifetime of curiosity pays off when a story takes shape, and I need to give it the texture it needs to come alive. The details of the worlds I imagine, and the memories of starry nights I’ve put in print, all of these are easier to bring to life because of the time spent acquiring knowledge that had no immediate practical value. My muse carries a well-worn set of encyclopedia.
Next time I’m asked to provide an example of an oxymoron, my answer will be, “useless knowledge.”
A Case of Conscience by James Blish
1959 Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel
The early Hugo-winning novels are – with the possible exception of They’d Rather Be Right – widely accepted as classics of the science fiction genre. In most, cases each book challenged readers in new ways, painting with words futures not yet visualized while reframing the basic questions surrounding the human experience. For an excellent example of this phenomenon, it would be hard to top James Blish’s extraordinary tale of the consequences of knowledge uncoupled from wisdom, A Case of Conscience.
Lithia is a world both Earth-like and strange, a near Eden of marshes and rivers inhabited by intelligent and sophisticated reptiles who build their cities out of ceramics, and are entirely lacking in the concepts of good and evil. The concept of sin baffles them. This deeply troubles the mind of one member of the first contact team sent to assess this inhabited world, a Jesuit priest, who upon discovering that the Lithians lack even the concept of original sin, is forced by his personal frame of reference to conclude that Lithia is a trap set by the Devil. The questions raised in his mind, and later expressed by him, have serious consequences for this man of the cloth, as do the questions and conclusions of his colleagues during the expedition. Each man is, like the Jesuit, trapped in a particular – and yet understandable – frame of reference and they draw their conclusions accordingly. All of them have the knowledge they need, but proceed from false assumptions and misunderstand completely what they experience on Lithia, among the peaceful Lithians. One does so to such a degree that he attempts to deceive the others into seeing the Lithians as something they are not, and cannot be, in an attempt to make his decision the one that carries the vote. For they have a momentous decision to make regarding whether or not to open Lithia and its swamp-loving, dinosaur-like inhabitants to the people of Earth. The decision ultimately reached has truly fateful consequences.
Before the investigators depart Lithia, Father Ramon is given as a gift a small porcelain jar that contains a friendly Lithian’s son. Lithians literally experience ontogeny as a recapitulation of phylogeny, and the tadpole-like creature in the jar will pass through all the evolutionary stages of the Lithians before becoming an intelligent dinosaur twice the height of a grown man. The purpose of the gift is to have a Lithian grow up among Humans, understand them, and then come home to share that knowledge. It’s a good idea, but the Lithian father, like his Human friends, is also proceeding from unavoidable false assumptions, the consequences of which are both profound and tragic.
The bulk of the novel – and I use bulk loosely, since this is a slim volume indeed – takes place on a future Earth that is a bizarre if logical extension of the Cold War paranoia just gripping the West as Blish wrote his book. The bulk of humanity lives underground in vast, complicated “shelters,” with the original cities slowly falling into decay. This shelter culture is based on the sound knowledge of the consequences of potential nuclear war. But it was a war that never came, and now Humanity is trapped by the consequences of that knowledge. In this world the young Lithian grows up as a literal stranger in a strange land, surrounded by humans who, though they were born to that world, could really be described in the same way.
This is not a long work, and yet this small book packs a punch that is often entirely lacking in more lengthy epics. (Curiously, all the earliest Hugo winning novels share this trait of being complex stories packed into a relatively small number of pages.) There is nothing about this book that misses the mark. All of the characters are developed quickly and well, the plausibility of the story flows from the world-building, and the questions asked are never so obviously answered that the book develops a “preachy” quality. In a very real sense, the reader is left to decide how the story ends, even though at first glance the ending might seem painfully obvious.
The word “compelling,” used to describe a novel, is about as over-used as “bestseller,” these days, and yet that word truly applies to A Case of Conscience. This is a book I could not easily set aside once I started reading it, an experience that I’ve had with it twice now, without it wearing in the least bit thin. Highly recommended, of course, with this caveat: when you think you know where the story is going, what it’s saying, pause a moment and consider where your own frame of reference might be leading you.
This was actually posted by a fellow blogger K.L. Toth on the first of June, but I’d just put up a Hugo review and wanted to let that post run its course. Waited longer than I intended. Life happens, and when it happens fast enough, one thing crowds out another.
But here it is, at last!
Written in the Stars
I was quite pleased with this!