The Man in the High Castle: Thoughts on the Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1963   Leave a comment

It’s been at least 30 years since I first read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. The only detail I could recall, when I picked it up to read for this series of reviews, was that someone got his throat cut. Strange, the things that stay with you from a book.

Stranger still, now that I’ve reread The Man in the High Castle. It has a solid, well-developed plot and the story moves right along, as all good stories do. The characters are well-developed, with motives readers can relate to, even if the alternate history setting might seem hard to grasp more than sixty years after the Second World War. Even so, the only moment of familiarity offered during the rereading was that incident involving a single-edged razor blade.

The first thing that needs to be kept in mind, when reading this novel, is that WWII was still all too fresh in the minds of many people in the early 1960s. As always, when reading an older novel, a modern reader needs to keep in mind the context provided by the times in which it was written. Dick’s presentation of Japanese characters, in particular, might strike today’s readers as somewhat racist, but the way he handles those characters, and the culture they represent, doesn’t really support a racist interpretation.

In this alternate reality, the war ended with the United States of America and its allies defeated. Japan has control of the west coast, while Germany occupies most of the eastern third of the nation. In the middle is a shadow nation that is to various degrees under the influence of the war’s victorious Axis powers. The world as a whole seems divided between the sophisticated influences of Japan, and barbarism of Nazi Germany. In this setting, a tale of cultural conflict and survival unfolds in parallel with political intrigue that threatens to set off a holocaust, while people ponder a popular novel that seems to reflect our own reality, the one in which Germany and Japan were defeated. It’s a post-war slice-of-life alternate history, with elements of what might these days be called magical realism. The book easily held my attention to the very last page, and then left me wondering just what the hell happened.

This is a strange book, a story that at first left me with the feeling that my copy was missing chapters at the end. It took me a while to understand that the book actually ends as it begins. It fades in, and then fades out, without a sharp hook at the beginning, and no dramatic stroke of the pen to underscore The End. I find myself thinking of the story between the covers as comprised of a single object, instead of a flow of ideas. Or a flow of words and ideas that became, when I was done, a single thing in my mind. It’s as if this story were a small wood carving or a bit of jewelry you could hold in the palm of your hand and appreciate with one long look. This concept comes to mind because of a plot element in the book itself. A purveyor of historic Americana (the Japanese in the story are crazy about the stuff) tries to interest a Japanese client in something different, jewelry made by local American craftsmen who create designs like nothing seen before. The Japanese client (and later another of the main Japanese characters) is at first inclined to dismiss the item, but finds himself unable to do so. There’s a quality or property possessed by the thing that simply cannot be ignored. The Japanese client declares that the object contains “wu,” a concept from Chinese philosophy that seems open to a certain degree of interpretation. As the character in the book expresses it, an object that has wu is complete in itself, balanced in a way that cancels dualities. It isn’t one thing or another, it doesn’t begin or end; it just is. (It can also apparently mean that a thing is lacking in distinguishing characteristics, not necessarily something an author would want associated with his work.) A quick bit of research in Daoist philosophy more or less supports this, though – not surprisingly – it would seem there’s a bit more to the concept than what is employed in the novel. But if I stick with the explanation given by the character Paul to Mr. Childan, I seem to have a concept that fits the underlying oddness of The Man in the High Castle.

Like the bauble that mystifies the Japanese client, and later entrances – literally – one of the primary characters, The Man in the High Castle would seem to be a book possessed of wu, that certain something that makes it work as a whole, even though the components seem to be a little hard to distinguish. Since the author was obviously familiar with the concept, it’s natural to wonder whether the novel itself was an attempt to imbue a work of literature with wu, or if that knowledge informed the writing process as the story unfolded, and wu was the result.

Or the concept of wu merely caught my fancy, and became a straw to grasp while trying to comprehend this strangely compelling, well-written tale. Or both. I can’t really say. In any case, a rereading of this winner of the Hugo Award has given me something more subtle than a single-edged razor blade to carry away in the end.

The Process, Part One: The Stuff of Which Daydreams Are Made   Leave a comment

I once heard an author declare that the most bothersome question you could ask a writer of fiction was “Where do you get your ideas?” This happened at a science fiction convention sometime in the middle 1980s, during a panel discussion. The other authors present wore knowing smiles as they nodded in agreement. A long conversation followed, and an interesting one, that provided the audience with plenty to think about, but no real answers. In the time since I’ve resumed writing fiction, I think I finally understand why they failed to provide a definitive answer.

There really isn’t one.

Imagination is a thing poorly understood by science. The same is true of creativity in general. All human beings are capable of dreaming, and by that I don’t mean visions in your sleep, but dreams in the waking world, in which we ponder how things might be different, perhaps better, in our lives. Such dreams lead people to set goals and test limits, to see whether or not, or to what degree, their dreams can be made real. They have practical dreams, firmly set within a real-world frame of reference that entices them with the possibility of something potentially attainable. It seems doable, and so they get to work.

Artists, musicians, and writers go further. Their daydreams may have, upon realization within their respective media, practical consequences. After all, I’ve always dreamed of being a successful author. I still do. But that isn’t really the motivation. Rendering imagination, the daydream itself if you will, into a tangible form, drives the process. If you are of that inclination, you can’t avoid pursuing the vision, whatever it is. As a good friend was fond of saying about writing, some years ago, you can’t not do it. I learned the truth of this the hard way. I stopped writing fiction. I told the daydreams to leave me the hell alone. They refused to comply. It was an awkward and deeply unsettling episode in my life. Artists, musicians, and writers take it further, because the real ones have no choice.

So here I am, a writer with a head full of ideas and no clear way to tell you how they come into being. I daydream, and the daydreams become stories. Sounds pretty simple, but how does it work? And why? Why do I dream the dreams I do, about civilizations in the future, ships and swordsmen, hostile aliens, and worlds like our own – only different? Why does my imagination generate such things and not, for example, innovative business plans or experimental protocols? For that matter, why words and not music, or pictures? Why do I even have such a fertile imagination in the first place?

I can provide no solid answers to any of these questions, only the sort of speculation that comes from looking back across the years. I’ve always been this way. For the record, it really is a blessing, not a burden – which is not to say it’s always easy. As a youngster, before the idea of writing fiction ever occurred to me, I had a penchant for spinning yarns and windy stories. I’ve always related to the kid in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip because I lived in a similar imaginary world, and all too often the line between reality and imagination faded away. The consequences of that fade were sometimes awkward. It might be honest and accurate to say I was born with that style of imagination, that the root of it all is in some quirk of gene expression, but by itself that doesn’t explain the way the phenomenon manifests itself. The way my imagination works may be a consequence of the times in which I spent my childhood, the Sixties and early Seventies, when the race to the Moon was on and Cold War nuclear paranoia was palpable – even if you were too young to really understand the rhetoric. “What if,” was the big question on those days. The “what if” scenarios were not always pleasant.

I was also a skinny kid, and not terribly sociable. Being a bit of a misfit, the urge to escape was natural, and having a lurid imagination being fed by equally lurid speculations regarding space travel and nuclear war, you can easily guess the direction in which I escaped. I read mostly science fiction, adding fantasy somewhere in high school when I discovered Tolkien. The addiction to print was an early development, and the inclination to write in a similar vein just seemed to co-evolve. And maybe that really does explain it all.

Or not. As explanations go, it still feels incomplete. And even if it’s adequate for those reading these words, it says nothing about the creativity and imagination of others. It’s all surely variations on a theme, but others are writing those themes. This is just me.

These musings merely touch at the roots of a process that becomes, for me, a novel or a short story. Roots grow into places dark and fertile and strange. Maybe this is as deep as I should dig, for now.

Stranger from a Strange Time: Reflections on “The Most Famous Science Fiction Novel Ever Written”   3 comments

After my recent experience rereading Robert Heinlein’s Hugo Award winning novel Starship Troopers, I approached his third Hugo winner, Stranger in a Strange Land* with a certain amount of trepidation. As was the case with the former, the latter was one of those novels that made a profound impression on me as a young reader of science fiction. I was disappointed by Starship Troopers as an older and more experienced reader. The contrast between my impressions of the book, then and now, was stark. I was in my late teens – a little older and a bit more experienced, though not perhaps as much as I believed at the time – when a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land fell into my hands. I remember being strongly affected by the book back then. With this rereading of another old favorite, was I about to be disillusioned yet again?

The answer, I’m pleased to report, is no. While I certainly responded to the novel in a very different way after forty years of life experiences, I came away from this reread with a favorable impression. The novel is a strong enough character-driven story that it held my attention to the very end, even though these days I don’t read a novel and take its contents at face value. (That was very true of me in younger days.) To my relief, Heinlein resisted the urge to simply use Stranger in a Strange Land as another glorified soap box for his political views. I was able to read it and be entertained, even though his beliefs and attitudes do come through, at times loud and clear. Some of what comes across strikes me now, as a more mature reader, as an oversimplified take on human nature, but Heinlein’s views on such matters never derailed the storytelling process, as I saw happen in Starship Troopers. They were part of the tapestry he wove into the story, and for the most part the story worked.

Stranger in a Strange Land is the tale of Valentine Michael Smith, a young man raised by a very alien culture on Mars, who is then returned to Earth where everything humans consider normal is completely new to him. He discovers himself as a human being while observing all aspects of the human experience through that thoroughly alien frame of reference – one that, by the way, gives him superhuman abilities. Smith has no reason to simply accept his humanity as a given, or to accept blindly the rationalizations of those around him regarding the human condition. And thereby hangs a tale. Through the experiences of Valentine Michael Smith, and the people who become involved with his life, Heinlein examines who and what we are as human beings. This is a common theme in science fiction, and grows none the worse for the wear through constant reuse. Heinlein puts it to very good use in this book. To my mind, this is one of the best novels Heinlein wrote. Some would go further than that. The cover of the old paperback I read proclaims the book to be “THE MOST FAMOUS SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL EVER WRITTEN.” (And yes, it’s all capitalized on the book cover.) I’m not sure this is literally true, but it surely is one of the most best known novels in the genre, in part because of the way it seemed to anticipate the “counterculture” of the 1960s. Oh, and for its famous prediction of the waterbed. (Can’t leave that out!)

Stranger in a Strange Land is sometimes dismissed by modern-day readers as – among other things – sexist. By today’s standards, the book could indeed be seen that way, though I doubt it would have seemed sexist in quite the same way more than fifty years ago, when it was published. The female characters of this novel certainly are comfortable with their own sexual appetites, and show a level of assertiveness not usually seen as completely acceptable in popular fiction of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. And yet these same characters also seem to carry plenty of 1950s happy homemaker baggage, which really doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) play well these days. To those who read old novels without considering the times in which they were written, this seems a mixed message. When this book was written, however, our society was stepping none too steadily out of one societal norm and into the next. Sometimes, while rereading the book, I got the impression Heinlein was a man standing with one foot in each epoch, not at all sure which way to go.

The strongest complaints regarding sexism seem to center around the character Jubal Harshaw. Jubal’s treatment of and interactions with the women he employs toucha nerve with many modern reviewers. Harshaw’s openly and bluntly sexist behavior toward these women would be cringeworthy in modern society, heard without a proper understanding of the context. But there is a context, and even a casual read of this book should reveal the understanding that exists between Harshaw and these women, and his obvious respect and affection for each of them. This is apparently missed by some modern reviewers, who interpret the material as being a typically sexist portrayal of women as brain-washed objects. (The character Anne, by herself, should dispel such a notion.) That seems too harsh to me, especially after reading Harshaw’s lecture to Ben Caxton regarding the sculptures La Belle Heaulmiere and Caryatid Who Has Fallen Under Her Stone. Not exactly the attitudes of your average insensitive male sexist pig.

For all that I believe some modern readers judge the book too harshly, I can understand, up to a point, why they react as they do. However, as I read the book I didn’t get the feeling that the author intended to belittle or diminish the value of female human beings. Quite the contrary, he seems more inclined to glorify them, although in a somewhat awkward, adolescent way. This explains why I could enjoy the novel, even though I often found myself shaking my head and thinking, “Really?” Heinlein’s portrayal of women obviously remains rooted in a time when some things we now consider sexist were seen as normal and acceptable. We no longer see things that way – well, some of us, anyway – and so whatever he intended is sometimes lost on modern readers. Perhaps because of this, I’ve seen reviews of the book that go much too far in their response to the apparent sexism, suggesting that the book should be shunned or heavily edited, because it does not match modern sensibilities. Such an idea makes me almost as uncomfortable as the degree of gender-based inequality that stubbornly persists in our modern times. The works of the past should not be dismissed, or worse, altered, because they do not reflect the beliefs of the present day. We need these books – and films, and whatever else from the past might draw such a response. We need these things in order to provide a perspective that can help us to judge how far we’ve come, a perspective that provides the only realistic measure of how much further we have yet to go.

 

*I read the “uncut” edition of the novel, released in 1991, but realized afterward that I really should read the one people actually voted on thirty years before. The original is the book discussed here. I didn’t see that the uncut edition added anything of substance to the story.

 

And Now A Word From Our Sponsor   Leave a comment

I rarely use this weblog directly for book promotion, since there’s a whole page here listing currently available books and sources. I’ve always assumed that if readers were curious, they’d click the tab and have a look. Now and then I announce a convention appearance, or a signing, but in general I like to keep the blog for other matters, and it would seem from comments I’ve received that this is a good choice.  For this entry, however, I must beg your indulgence and resort to a bit of advertising. No tool I currently have at my disposal will reach so many of you, so quickly, and at a price I can afford. (Okay, so, it doesn’t cost me anything but a little time to do it this way.) And I need that extra reach right now to make a particular promotional activity work.

For the next week (Mar. 2 through Mar. 8) Smashwords is running its “Read an Ebook Week” site-wide promotion. I’ve decided to participate this year by offering what I’ve published at substantially reduced prices. Just copy and paste the “coupon code” for a title when prompted to do so during the checkout process to receive the discount. This sale on Smashwords is a huge affair, with many discounted and free books available for readers of every age and interest. The hope is, of course, that you will be tempted to take a chance on work you might otherwise have been hesitant to purchase. Trying a new author does involve risking an investment of time and money, after all. So here’s a chance to reduce the monetary cost, at least. (Since the current crop of eReaders lack the ability to read the books for you, there’s nothing for it. You’ll have to spend the time.)

Below I’ve listed, for your convenience, the direct links to my books on Smashwords, along with the coupon codes you will need. (These codes are also shown on the Smashwords page for each title.) If you decide to jump in and give me a try this way, thanks! And feel free to tell me (and everyone else who wanders Under Desert Stars) what you thought of the book or books you try. Just post a comment to this entry.

Checkout Codes and Links:

Mr. Olcott’s Skies  Just 99¢ with code REW50  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/149528

Second Chance (short story) FREE with code RW100  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/294718

The three currently available volumes in The War of the Second Iteration series are each $1.00 when you use code REW75. (Books Four and Five should be available in late 2014 and mid 2015, respectively.)

The Luck of Han’anga (War of the Second Iteration, Book One)  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/181261

Founders’ Effect  (War of the Second Iteration, Book Two) https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/285857

The Plight of the Eli’ahtna  (War of the Second Iteration, Book Three) https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/382041

And, of course, there’s Long Time Passing, always free for all eReaders!

Here’s hoping this provides people with an incentive to give these books a try! One way or the other, thanks for your patience and your time. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog browsing.

Apocalypse Then   1 comment

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

The idea of the post-apocalyptic tale is all the rage these days, a recurring theme in books, stories, and motion pictures. From weird, literally earth-rending Mayan prophecies to legions of the walking dead, the end of the world as we know it appears to be endlessly entertaining. A common theme in these disturbing visions of the near future is that we have no one to blame but ourselves for whatever catastrophe brings civilization down. If we’d been less selfish and more far-sighted, if only we’d refrained from tinkering with the “natural order of things” – usually in the name of greed – we could have avoided these grim fates. We never seem to learn from our mistakes, and so each technological leap makes the next repetition of foolish human behavior more deadly than the last, until in the end – it ends.

Those currently exploiting this interest in violent ends for civilization sometimes seem to think this is all a new way of writing fiction, but of course this fascination with the end of the world is anything but new. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War remember such visions all too vividly, and as all-too-believable realities. By its sheer destructive power, the “bomb,” in the hands of leaders cursed with blind stupidity, seemed destined to bring everything to an end. It was a fearful time to grow up, and frightening fiction was written, and filmed, to point out the dangers we faced. For a long time it seemed no one was listening, but I suppose that when you use giant ants and fleshy-headed mutant humans for cautionary tales, nuclear war becomes a little harder to take seriously. In time the danger was taken seriously and the threat of a nuclear apocalypse now – while still all too real – seems a bit less likely. This was not the case in the ’50s and ‘60s, when I was a child. It felt imminent, and no few of us expected to die very young.

Science fiction writers of the time were in some measures as guilty as Hollywood in exploiting the fear of things nuclear, rather than driving home the idea that this was not only a serious and dangerous business, but an avoidable fate. Published science fiction from that time included many tales of a world in ruins, in which determined men and women struggled to preserve civilization while fending off the mutant progeny of nuclear war. That there might be NO survivors in the end, mutant or otherwise, was a long time entering the popular imagination – Nevil Shute’s grim novel On the Beach being an outstanding exception to the rule at that time. Another author who stands out from the crowd in this regard is Walter M. Miller, Jr., whose post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz stood far enough apart from the rest to be recognized for the exception it was, and to be awarded the 7th Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1961.

A Canticle for Leibowitz opens centuries after the Flame Deluge consumed the world, destroying civilization and taking the human race to the brink of extinction. Something like a civilization has risen from the cold ashes of that terrible event. Curiously enough, the Roman Catholic Church has somehow survived and kept its history and traditions alive – more than its own, actually. A new monastic order exists, named for Leibowitz, a long-dead engineer, who was martyred trying to preserve the knowledge that made civilization possible, when most other survivors sought to erase the past in a misguided effort to avoid repetition of history through cultural amnesia. The mobs attempted to eradicate science and literature, blaming these for creating the technology that incinerated millions, and left millions more to die less merciful deaths. Leibowitz led a small band of folk who hid books from the mobs, and memorized others, something like the book people of Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. The new monastic order grew from these heroic and often deadly efforts to save books, repeating the Church’s earlier medieval roll as a repository of knowledge in a dark age. The story begins with the tale of one Brother Francis, who discovers a cache of pre-deluge material that quite likely is connected to the not yet canonized Leibowitz himself. His grim life and its times set the stage for the next phase in the restoration of civilization, a civilization that evolves pretty much along the path of its predecessor, with the same old greed and lust for power. In the end, over millennia, humanity not only restores what was lost in the nuclear fires of the Flame Deluge, it reaches further, sending human colonies out to the stars. But it would seem that even in a star-faring age, when people still give birth to monstrous reminders of a horrible past, certain lessons remain unlearned.

This is not a “fun” book to read, and it’s quite clear that it was never meant to merely entertain. The B-movie two-headed mutants sprinkled through the narrative illustrate the cost of ignorance, but never really challenge the rebuilding of civilization. They are a burden to it, instead; a reminder of a past that can be willfully ignored, but not truly forgotten, or left behind. It’s a grim and regrettably believable tale, especially for anyone who has made even a modest study of human history. This book asks uncomfortable questions of a sort that have no tidy answers. The writing is some of the best you will find in the genre, with characters as believable as they are at once flawed and determined. No, not the escapism so many assume all sci-fi to be. It is instead a compelling work of literature, and one you will either appreciate for its quality and its message, or hate for its grim reminder that those who refuse to learn history may very well be consumed by it. For while history can be deliberately rewritten, or willfully ignored, its consequences are inescapable. This, in the end, is what I believe Miller is trying to say, a message that remains for the most part ignored, even though the continued popularity of apocalyptic fiction reveals that we are not entirely unaware of our danger.

 

Musings   6 comments

MUSINGS…

Perhaps it has to do with their alleged mythic origins. All through the ages, the Muses have been described as elusive beings, evocative of grace and inspiration, who must be coddled and protected, even nurtured. The fear of abandonment by one of these ephemeral creatures is often expressed by poets, artists, composers, and others suffering from related disorders. Even writers, the most afflicted of creative personalities (in my humble opinion) tend more often than not to speak of a Muse in hushed tones, as if concerned she might be frightened off by a careless word or a typographical error. I find all these fears – for all that they have ancient roots in the depths of myth and legend – quite baffling. My experience with a Muse has been – otherwise.

The Muse who was assigned to me by the Powers That Be is neither graceful nor shy, and is most unlikely to wander off and leave me in a creative muddle for any reason at all. Far from being a gentle, soulful mythic being, the Muse looking over my shoulder (and smirking) as I write these words is… Well, let’s just say she can be a bit insistent. Merely offering inspiration isn’t her favorite technique, although she has proven capable of such subtlety from time to time. This Muse has a work ethic, and she doesn’t take her work lightly. Other writers describe their assigned Muses in terms that make them sound like a cross between a fairy godmother and Tinkerbell.

Mine has more in common with Mae West and Lara Croft.

This Muse is a hard ass, plain and simple, a bundle of attitude that accepts no excuses when I find things to do other that write. She’s aware of all the potential stories and characters rolling around in my head, and of the pressure to escape they exert. As with all writers of fiction, the risk of cranial detonation exists, but this Muse will have none of it. “Not on my watch!” she likes to say. “How could I stand among the other Muses and hold my head up if I allowed yours to explode?” She has a good point, there, so on that level at least we do understand each other.

My Muse is not one of the originals, those nine daughters of Zeus and the unforgettable Mnemosyne. I don’t hold this against her, of course. She is a product of the Expansion Draft held at the dawn of the Renaissance, when the rapid increase in the number of artists and scientists stretched the original nine beyond the limits of even immortal beings. (As an aside, I once pointed out that it was curious that Tolkien also chose the number nine for the enumeration of the evil Nazgul. My Muse threatened to “inspire” me to write erotic sci-fi horror novels involving dinosaurs. I dropped the subject.) That Expansion Draft was designed not only to increase the number of available Muses to accommodate the great awakening of the Human Spirit, but to provide gainful employment for a host of mythic beings who were being forgotten, and therefore disenfranchised, by story tellers. There were many, many positions to be filled and, frankly, the Powers That Be may have been less selective than might otherwise have been the case. (And yes, I’ll pay for that one later.) Hippocampi, Panes, Sirens (for song writers mostly), Harpies, Kobaloi, and Furies (among many others – and yes, it’s possible Edgar Allen Poe’s Muse was, in her youth, a Gorgon) were all invited to try out. Some went in the first round and headed straight to the major leagues, of course. Sirens mostly, which explains many aspects of Renaissance music, come to think of it. Others, among them Furies and Kobaloi, spent some time in the minors, where they encouraged those who refined such inventions as the printing press and the other technological marvels of the age. As a result, they developed a rather different approach to the idea of inspiring the creative impulse, and my Muse apparently was part of this Next Generation wave of Muses that was finally brought up to the major leagues just in time for the First World War. I’m reasonably sure that was a coincidence.

When it became apparent to the Powers That Be that I’d need a Muse (and to be fair, the Powers did their level best to spare me such a fate – but I refused to listen), the first choice was Urania, the Muse of Astronomers. Unfortunately, she was still in therapy at the time. That episode with Percival Lowell and his imaginary canals on Mars apparently took a toll. This Muse who ended up assigned to me may have been a Harpy, once upon a time, but it’s hard to be sure, since among Next Generation Muses there is a strict “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Whatever her origin, she doesn’t so much inspire me to write, as goad me into it. She is relentless. If Muses were allowed to own firearms (they aren’t American citizens, so the 2nd Amendment doesn’t apply), I fear she’d be standing behind me when I’m at the computer, pointing a weapon at the back of my head. “No surfing for you!” All kidding aside, anything I do that doesn’t involve stringing words together into more or less meaningful sentences is bound to arouse her ire, sooner or later. Cooking dinner, for example, is a process that prompts reminders that there are fast food options out there that would get the job done in a fraction of the time. Reading a book when I could be writing a book? For shame! Hobbies? Maybe when I’m rich and famous. Maybe. Fortunately, I often get ideas or resolve plot quandaries while in the shower, so that gets a pass. And the day job? Don’t go there. Please.

You might wonder how it works, having a wife and a Muse in the same residence. My wife and I have never really discussed the matter, but so far I get the impression they basically ignore each other. Or that my wife thinks I’m mad as a hatter. Either way, I have no intention of encouraging any change to the status quo. Just sayin’…

Posted January 18, 2014 by underdesertstars in Books and Writing, Humor

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Not The Book I Remember   9 comments

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, comes 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.

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