Archive for the ‘genre’ Tag

The Gods Themselves   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1973

In the early 1970s the range of science fiction available to me increased enormously when I joined the old Science Fiction Book Club. My personal library didn’t exactly explode in size – I was earning just enough money with odd jobs to keep ahead of the membership requirements – but the variety of science fiction I had the chance to read increased significantly. This led to a deeper appreciation for what science fiction could be, building on the eye-opening experience of reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. In fact, reading Dune was part of the motive behind joining the SFBC. I wanted a more durable copy of that book, having read the paperback to death, and although book club editions were hardcovers only by a technicality, it was an acceptable compromise.

The SFBC did more than broaden my reading range. One of my first acquisitions, along with Dune, was the two-in-one volume of Hugo Award winning short fiction edited by Isaac Asimov, one of my favorite authors then and now. The Hugo Winners was a feast of ideas and imagination, and Asimov’s science fiction convention anecdotes left me with a powerful desire to attend such an event, one day. I enjoyed those stories so much that any book offered up by the SFBC that had received the award was immediately ordered. I’d read a few Hugo award-winning novels before, but not until then had there been any context. Knowing what the Hugo Award was, and what it meant to science fiction fandom, made all the difference.

Not that I needed such incentive to pick up Asimov’s The Gods Themselves when it became available. I was quite familiar with the work of Asimov, by then; a big fan of both his fiction and nonfiction. The Early Asimov began my fascination with writing short fiction of my own. I’d read the iconic story “Nightfall,” a number of the robot stories, and all of the Foundation Trilogy before picking up The Gods Themselves. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and so I was pleasantly surprised to find it something of a departure from the work I knew. That impression came back to life when I recently reread the book a short time ago.

There are two points of view used by Asimov in The Gods Themselves, one human and the other that of truly alien beings in a parallel universe. This is by far the most notable departure. With the exception of some of his earliest short stories, I can’t recall anything else by Asimov in which the point of view is shared by a nonhuman being. (Some would argue his robot stories fit this bill, but I disagree. His robots are far too human to be considered alien life forms.) The plot involves predictably short-sighted motives of pride and profit on the human side, and a desperate bid for survival by the parallel universe aliens. The alien biology and the culture that evolved from it are drawn simply, clearly, and plausibly, creating a fascinating contrast to the more familiar human realm. Due to difference in the life spans of the aliens, and a difference in how time works in the parallel universe, there are more human characters to keep track of than alien, but the author handles this aspect easily enough. Overlapping sets of human characters hand off the tale across the years, finally ending that side of the plot on a lunar colony.

The colony Asimov imagines puzzled me. His speculations were always based on the real science of the time, and are generally well thought-out. This lunar colony, as described in the novel, doesn’t exactly inspire the reader to dream of a lunar life. Cramped living conditions, food of limited variety (mostly grown from algae and yeast) and visible dental health problems – seriously, you’re going to plant ten thousand or more human beings on the Moon and forget everything that was known in the ‘70s about hydroponics? And neglect to bring along a dentist or two? The lunar setting ended up, in some ways, feeling less plausible than the biology and sociology of the aliens.

Where this novel works best is the material detailing the parallel universe aliens, and their struggles to survive as their world dies around them. It is one of these beings, a misfit in a highly ordered society, who is the real hero of this story. She is moved to risk everything for the sake of strange beings in a universe parallel to her own, about which her people know almost nothing, and who are endangered by the very struggles of her people to preserve their own species. This basic conflict is the true heart of the tale, and is handled well.

Lunar distractions notwithstanding, I’ve always found The Gods Themselves to be one of Asimov’s best novels. In terms of style it’s a bit of old school sci-fi persisting well into the time of the so-called “New Wave,” and yet held its own in terms of innovation. Well enough, at least, to earn its author the Hugo Award in 1973.

It was several years after reading both the Hugo Winners and The Gods Themselves before I made it to a science fiction convention. It was the 1978 WorldCon, otherwise known as IguanaCon II, held in Phoenix, Arizona. I watched Frederik Pohl received the Hugo Award for his novel Gateway at that convention. I grabbed a copy in the vendor’s hall before the weekend was out and read it before the convention was a week behind me. But I have a few novels between that one and The Gods Themselves yet to reread for this series of essays.

A Deeper Appreciation   Leave a comment

Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1970

Science fiction has always been a genre that embodies change. A genre built on the question “What if?” could hardly be expected to remain static, after all. By the time I was a teenager something called The New Wave had already swept over and through the sci-fi landscape, altering it forever. I’d already traveled through some of that altered landscape, having read Frank Herbert’s Dune, among other books. If I noticed that the genre was changing, however, I have no recollection of it. Frankly, my adolescent frame of reference didn’t give me the perspective I would have needed to notice the transition. My reading was too random – old works and books more recently published all jumbled together. I just knew that the more sci-fi I read, the better I liked it – somewhat to the distress of my parents and my home town librarian. Looking back and considering the times during which I grew up, I can understand that discomfort to a certain degree. Some of the fiction I devoured back then, especially by the New Wave authors, asked “What if?” questions that most of the people around me would rather not see asked, much less answered. Questions regarding human sexuality provide an example that looms large in my memory (I was a teenager, after all), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness serves as a case in point.

I was coming up on being finished with high school, and looking forward to having it a thing of the past, when I first read anything at all by Ursula K. LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness was my introduction to her work, and it was one of those instances in which one book made me a fan of the author while altering my impression of what science fiction was – or could be – all at the same time. It was an experience much like my first reading of Dune. This book was different. It made a very deep impression on me at the ripe old age of 18 years, and I was just old enough to appreciate some of the things the author was saying. It felt that way at the time, at least. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness at the somewhat riper old age of 60, I have to admit that more went past me, back then, than into me.

This isn’t an indictment, of course. After all, I had the frame of reference of an 18-year-old from a small Illinois town. I was also something of a loner and misfit, into the bargain. Having made very few (mutual) emotional attachments outside my own family, the very human interactions of the characters that populate The Left Hand of Darkness involved levels of relationship that were pretty much outside my experience. For instance, it did not register on me until this rereading that the relationship between Estraven and the Ekumen envoy Genli Ai could be considered a love story. Not a conventional romance, but the story of a deep, complicated, confusing, and powerful bond; a love that grows between two intelligent people who never quite seem to recognize how they feel. And yet, they somehow come to accept each other’s humanity, in the face of their profound physical and cultural differences.

In a nutshell, The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of a man sent to be an ambassador of sorts from a starfaring civilization to a planet just emerging from its rendition of the Industrial Revolution. All human worlds are the result of colonization by an earlier, lost civilization, and the envoy of the story is part of the slow process of bringing all these worlds back into contact with each other. The world called Gethen (a.k.a. Winter – so named for its Ice Age conditions) is populated by a race of humans who are a form of hermaphrodite. Gethens are, most of the time, androgynous. Once a month they become either male or female. Which gender develops is influenced by situations and relationships, but no one Gethen tends to become either male or female with any consistency. This civilization is divided into a pair of competing nations, one a sort of constitutional monarchy, the other bearing a strong resemblance to the collective society the old Soviet Union thought it was. (The people in the story don’t get it right either.) How the envoy navigates through the cultures that have evolved under the influence of the planet’s conditions and the reproductive biology of the natives makes up the plot. Along the way, the story examines the very nature of gender perception and relationships between genders in a way that is remarkably timely, considering what we see in the headlines these days.

There’s a depth and meaning to this story that I simply could not have understood when I read the book in 1974. (And I can’t hope to do it justice in one essay. That such a slim volume could have such depth is a tribute to its author.) The memories I could call up from that earlier reading centered on the adventure of Estraven and Genly Ai crossing the great glacier that dominates the landscape. What the book said about how we see gender in other human beings, and how that perception shapes us as individuals and members of a culture, went right past me. This time around my understanding of, and appreciation for, what the author had to say was very different. I think that this time, I get it. But maybe I’ll have to read it again after another twenty or thirty years of experience, just to be sure.


Book Five and the End of the Beginning – Part Two   1 comment

It’s been my goal, from the beginning, to keep these pieces on the short side, to make them quick and easy reads. This entry refused to cooperate, so it’s being posted in two parts.

When I pulled The Way of Leyra’an from the file, my intention was to go through it to check for typos and such, and clean it up for self-publication as soon as possible. While doing so, I continued my investigation of the so-called “indie” author movement. What I learned convinced me that simply cleaning the manuscript up and turning it loose probably wouldn’t do. I needed outside input on the story, its qualities and shortcomings. Professional editors had been impressed by the book, but that wasn’t exactly a critique. Hiring an editor was not an option. My employment situation had become precarious and I had good reason to believe I would soon be unemployed. (I was, unfortunately, proven correct in this.) I needed to set money aside, not spend it. I latched onto the concept of beta readers, and pondered how to make use of it. All the while, I read through The Way of Leyra’an, correcting errors and making notes as ideas came to mind.

At the same time, I pulled together some amateur astronomy material I’d written for, but never posted to, my favorite astronomy forum. With some work I was able to blend it all together into a short memoir of my experiences as a star gazer in my teens, and how I came to pick up the pastime again as an adult. The idea had occurred to use this small book to test the waters of self-publishing. It became Mr. Olcott’s Skies – An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession. While I revisited the novel and began to first revise and then completely rewrite it, I used the memoir to learn what I needed to know in order to actually make a book. You know, those little things like fonts and formatting, cover art and design, product descriptions and tables of contents. (Actually, this part was a journey unto itself, and I found myself exploring things that I’d never considered would be part of the publishingg experience. That’s worth an essay to itself, someday.) The experience proved valuable down the road.

Meanwhile, The Way of Leyra’an became another book altogether. Rereading and reworking it, I discovered a different, and longer, story in the material. Cleaning up or even just expanding the book wouldn’t do. This was a trilogy, no doubt about it. On the day that this thought occurred – I’d been working with the original manuscript for more than a month – I decided to take the original idea and just start over. The Way of Leyra’an had served its purpose, and it was time to write The Luck of Han’anga. As I gained momentum and a story began to evolve, I remembered how deeply I’ve always enjoyed the process of making words do what I needed them to do. I remembered how good it felt to write. Life seemed less bleak and purposeless.

One day, while working on this new novel and enjoying that feeling of having gotten a scene just right, there occurred one of those moments of absolute clarity that we all experience a few times in our lives. I understood something and knew this thing absolutely. The gloom of the previous years was well and thoroughly banished, the lack of purpose completely expunged because I was writing again, and doing so not only with the intention of publishing but in full knowledge that it would be published. In that moment of clarity I understood the nightmares and the black moods. When something defines you, when that something exists as the very core of your being, as writing has always done for me, it’s more than merely disappointing to leave it aside and walk away. It is, for some of us at least, impossible to do so without harm. The moods and bad dreams were a manifestation of the mental and emotional damage being done by my attempt to walk away from writing. The new world of self-publishing came along just in time, and I’m pleased to say no permanent damage was done.

These feelings of relief, of finally being back on the right track, were heightened with the publication of my very first book. Mr. Olcott’s Skies was released in March of 2012 and was well-received. By then I’d completed a draft of The Luck of Han’anga and found some beta readers, all of them people I knew well enough to expect they would provide honest criticism. They did; some of it made me cringe a bit, but when I read what they said and re-examined the book, I couldn’t argue the points. So I made revisions and tried to learn from it all, with my eyes already on the next book. My wife went though the final manuscript and checked it for errors, resulting in a very clean copy and a much stronger ending for Book One. I applied the knowledge I’d gained publishing the memoir and hit the publish button, and the first book of the War of the Second Iteration series went live on June 7, 2012.

By then I was well into the first draft of Book Two, and was having trouble figuring out how to end it in a way that would allow the next book to wrap up the trilogy. I actually sat down at one point and sketched out a sort of timeline to illustrate roughly the sequence of events I needed in order to reach the final scene, which was already fixed in my mind. To my surprise the overall story arc fell into not three but five sub-arcs. This was more than I’d bargained for, but I accepted what the story was telling me and forged ahead. I couldn’t help myself. There was no angst or hand-wringing involved; I was having too much fun.

And so it went, through books Two, Three, and Four. The story evolved as I wrote it, and each book built on those that came before. I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of the details and maintain continuity. By Book Four I was rereading material in the previous volumes, in self-defense. I’d had no idea what I was getting into and the climb, while manageable, was pretty steep. Then it came time to write Book Five, and it was like heading straight for a wall.

How do you end a story that’s gone on for so long? I’d done so, in a manner of speaking, four times by then. But in each of those cases there was a next book ahead to carry things forward. There was no going forward after this, and I felt oddly constrained as I wrote. (The fact that the year in which I wrote Book Five was a troubled time surely didn’t help.) I needed this to work, to be the grand payoff, and I’d never done anything quite like this before. Previous experience with individual books just didn’t seem to carry any weight. How to stop this train without turning it into a train wreck?

The story itself eventually gave me the answer. As I wrote and figured out more of what the implacable foe was and could do, and led the characters through the discoveries they needed to make within the plot, the end shaped itself. And then it was written, beta read and revised – and the end of the process seemed to come on all of a sudden. I’m satisfied with how it turned out, and rather pleased to have pulled it off. Whether or not I truly succeeded, well, you’ll have to tell me!

When I hit the button and published Setha’im Prosh, it was a strangely anti-climactic experience. Yes, it was enormously gratifying, and yes, I feel a great pride in what I’ve accomplished, but… How is it possible this is really all said and done? This has been the center of things for more than five years. Where are all those characters I’ve come to know so well? It feels strange to walk around and not be wondering what tune Robert MacGregor should play on the bagpipes next, or what new tricks the Faceless have up their sleeves. The impulse to do such things has not abated, but this story is done. Where am I supposed to go from here?

Elsewhere, of course. Into another imaginary universe, of which I have no shortage, believe me. And I already know which one it will be.

One Last Heinlein   Leave a comment

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1967

I have strong memories of books I read in younger days. I was not a particularly sociable youngster, being on the small side and relatively thin-skinned, and often uncomfortable around my rowdier small-town peers. I became something of a loner, which was not encouraged in that place and time, and very quickly came to place a high value on having time to myself. Reading is a natural fit for such a frame of mind. Finding such solitude was remarkably difficult between long days at school and living in a small house with parents and four siblings. There was often only one place to go to get away from everyone and get any peace, especially in winter, when being outside was rarely an option – inside my own head. This may have been what rendered me imaginative. It’s certainly what turned a desire to read into a compulsion.

Fortunately, there were other readers in the family, and seeing in me a kindred spirit, they did what they could to provide me some space (reminding siblings that it was rude to distract someone while they were reading) while keeping me supplied with books. If a birthday or holiday season passed without at least a couple of books being unwrapped, the occasion felt incomplete. This almost never happened. Since one of these relatives, an aunt, was a die-hard science fiction fan, I was introduced to the genre very early, and among the first novels I read were those by Robert A. Heinlein that would these days be considered YA. These books had an enormous impact on how my imagination developed. I practically memorized stories such as Red Planet, Between Planets, and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel ­– the last being my favorite in those days. Since I responded so eagerly to these Heinlein novels, it comes as no surprise that this same aunt, when I was a few years older, produced copies of Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as gifts. Both novels fascinated me, and were read multiple times. One of these books, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, was the last novel by Heinlein to ever win the Hugo Award.

When I read these works by Heinlein as a teenager I was, well, a teenager. Typical of someone that age, my frame of reference wasn’t exactly expansive, so when I read fiction it was in a rather superficial way. This didn’t start to change until I was well into high school and became more aware of (tempted to say sensitive to) subtexts in the fiction I read. This explains the effect Dune and The Fellowship of the Ring had on me, at the time I read them, and timing really is everything. I first read Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress well before reading Dune, and this gradual increase in awareness had barely begun to develop. I enjoyed both, but was mostly blind to anything beyond the central plots. As a result, when re-reading Starship Troopers a couple of years ago, I was rather startled by my reaction to the book. The political subtext was anything but subtle, and the preachy quality was blatant enough that it almost spoiled the book, and cast a shadow on some old memories. So it’s not surprising that I approached The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (and before that, Stranger in a Strange Land) with a bit of wariness.

Stranger in a Strange Land survived the test of time, and so did The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.As was the case with Strange in a Strange Land Heinlein’s personal philosophy and political beliefs inform The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but in this he is really no different from any other author. If it serves the story, it can work for me, even if I don’t entirely agree with that particular philosophy. Of the Heinlein I’ve re-read, only Starship Troopers blatantly subverted the story to drive home a message. In Stranger in a Strange Land the story carried his points without becoming pointed, and so it was with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. This is not to say that I came away from this reading with the same impression I had when I was fifteen years old. The author’s Libertarian-style point of view is easy to see all through the book, but in this case he uses these ideals to build a civilization that, while it exemplifies that school of thought, isn’t a deliberate application of it. Heinlein imagines, in the development of the lunar culture in the book, a society that is essentially libertarian in nature, but not by design. Survival in that deadly lunar environment dictated certain traits and behaviors, and the society depicted in the novel is a consequence of that.

When I read the book early in high school, I was fascinated by the way the lunar revolutionaries orchestrated their complicated conspiracy. Knowing human nature a bit better these days, I find it all a little less plausible, almost naïve in the way it unfolds so well. Never mind deliberate betrayal, inevitable human error and simple bad luck play roles that would more than likely unravel the scheme if it went on too long. I get the feeling Heinlein realized this, because his lunar revolution, when it comes, does erupt abruptly and before the narrator believes they are fully prepared. Less easy to overlook was his characterization of the two sides involved in the conflict, and it’s here that I could see his politics most clearly. The colonists are, for the most part, competent, self-reliant people. Stereotypical rugged individualists, the myth of colonial America set on the Moon. The administrators of the lunar penal colony, along with their handlers on Earth, were equally, if negatively, stereotyped as over-reaching and often inept government bureaucrats, clearly lesser beings, and blind to anything but the need to remain in rigid control of the lunar population. Heinlein manages once again to avoid preaching. Use of first-person narrative helps here, which is ironic since he used the same style of voice in Starship Troopers. But he stopped that story dead in its tracks to deliver a sermon. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it just comes across as the way one Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis happens to perceive the world and the people who share it with him, and the story keeps rolling along.

There was one element that I just couldn’t buy, as an adult reader of fiction. As is so often true with Heinlein, and other authors of that time period, the interactions between males and females sometimes have a juvenile quality to them that, in this more sensitive era, comes across as sexist. I try to make allowances for sensibilities changing over time, when I read older books, but now and then I run into something that leaves me shaking my head. Heinlein attempts to describe how the curious sexual dynamics of the lunar colony developed, and why, and it approaches being plausible. But in the end a minority population of women dressing like it was a day at the beach and encouraging – even expecting – wolf whistling, eye-rolling, and foot stomping recognition of their beauty strained my ability to suspend disbelief.

Even with that wrinkle, though, I managed to enjoy revisiting this old novel. And with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I leave the work of Robert A. Heinlein behind, as far as the Hugo Awards are concerned. Heinlein did very well with the Hugos, winning four and being nominated for ten. He remained popular and productive almost to the end of his days. And yet, at some point in the 1980’s his work began to lose its appeal for me. The last Heinlein novel I read that I truly enjoyed was Time Enough for Love. After that there was something of a sense of having been here before one time too many, and later on, too often a sense that the author was being more than a bit self-indulgent. People would grow excited about a new Heinlein novel, and sometimes passed copies on to me when it was clear I lacked the motivation to buy one for myself. I usually gave those books a try but – and here The Number of the Beast comes to mind – I generally ended up setting them aside unfinished. They didn’t hold my attention. The times changed and I changed with them, altering my tastes in food, in music, and in fiction. Nothing against Heinlein, to be honest. It just sometimes works that way.

By Way Of Comparison   Leave a comment

This Immortal by Roger Zelazny

Thoughts inspired by the co-winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1966

In 1966 voters for the Hugo Award apparently had a terrible time deciding which of two novels should receive top honors. I know nothing of what might have been going on behind the scenes in that year (I was 10 years old and reading Tom Swift Jr. adventures at the time, unaware that there was such a thing as science fiction fandom) and haven’t looked into the history of the vote. I probably won’t, either, since that’s not the point of these essays. What I have done is read both books involved, books that ended up tied for the award that year, and so were awarded it jointly. A comparison of these books is illustrative of how diverse the tastes of the science fiction and fantasy community can be, and of the fact that this is nothing new.

This Immortal was originally serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction under the title “…And Call Me Conrad.” The book version, when it was published, was apparently somewhat different, but I’ve only read the book version, so I can’t comment on the changes that were made. The book I read was short, quirky, and tightly written, a first-person narrative from the point of view of a most unusual character. Conrad Nomikos is the product of the radioactive legacy of Earth’s last war, bearing deformities but possessed of enormous physical strength, and quite possibly immortal. A one-time terrorist in an effort to keep the still-ruined Earth from being owned by a race of beings from the Vega star system, Conrad now heads a bureau with the alleged mission of preserving Earth’s remaining cultural treasures. In that capacity he finds himself forced to play tour guide to a visiting Vegan who is not what he seems. As they tour Earth’s ancient ruins, those predating the nuclear war I mean, Conrad discovers a conspiracy to murder the Vegan, for reasons that are not quite clear. Though he finds this Vegan contemptible, Conrad finds himself thrust into the role of protector. The tale that unfolds is an odd one, a tour of the post-holocaust Mediterranean region populated by ordinary people trying to rebuild a world that now includes dangerous mutants, cannibal tribes, and creatures of myth reborn into the waking world. It’s a surreal, imaginative journey, a quest that seems to have no purpose until the mystery is resolved in the end. The tale is told by a character who shows a curious mix of cynicism and compassion, guided by a moral compass that is his alone.

I’d never read This Immortal until now, though I’m certainly familiar with the work of Roger Zelazny. Much of what I first read of Zelazny came in the form of short fiction (“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” and “This Moment of the Storm” immediately come to mind), and this short novel felt very much like those works. Had I read it early on, it would have made a strong and positive impression, of the sort that had you seeking other works by that author. As it was, his short fiction led me to other novels, and so I picked this one up already a fan of Zelazny’s work.

A tie for best novel in the Hugo awards is very rare. The tie between This Immortal and Dune was the first, and there have been just two since then. In this case, the two novels involved couldn’t be more different. Dune is long, complicated, vividly described, with multiple points of view that combine to tell a tale of intrigue as vast as a galaxy. This Immortal is short, a there- and-back again tale of adventure and mystery in a setting described with just enough detail to move you through the landscape, all of it seen through the eyes of the character telling the tale. Dune explores lofty themes of religion and philosophy, very much a reflection of culture of the 1960s. This Immortal is rooted, as so many novels of science fiction were in that decade, in the nuclear terrors of the Cold War, mixing a post-apocalyptic tale with an alien contact story. The only thing that really ties these books together is genre.

This says something important about the genre we define, at times rather loosely, as science fiction. Science fiction as a form of literature is difficult to define precisely because it is so wide-ranging in its themes and concepts, so open to experimentation and new ideas. No other genre I know of can touch it in terms of sheer diversity, for diversity seems to be its fundamental nature. Someone once told me that science fiction represents a continuum full of blurred boundaries and fuzzy edges, but that characterization has never satisfied me. It’s more like the literary equivalent of the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram used by astronomers to classify the stars in their multitude of forms. Instead of a box for this kind of star, and another for those, all the while wondering which box to use for the big, hot, blue one, astronomy has one “box” that holds all stars, while providing a sense of order for their diversity. I sometimes think of the diversity within science fiction represented in this way. Just as stars, while having common characteristics, are not all one kind of thing, so it is with science fiction: a scatter-shot of diversity that, all the same, can be arranged in a sensible fashion and recognized as related forms. Science fiction, as clearly illustrated by this pairing of Hugo winners, has never been a homogeneous thing, and this diversity has only increased in the decades since This Immortal and Dune fell into their first-place tie.

That increase in diversity has created a comparable diversification in the people who read and write such tales. This makes sense. Science fiction, by exploring possibilities over the years, has naturally attracted people who might not, in a bygone age, have been interested in reading space opera adventures. Buck Rogers isn’t for everyone. A happy consequence of diversification is enrichment, as ideas that might once have been beyond the genre are folded into the mix and become grist for the mill. For a genre of fiction proud of its ideas, this can only be a good thing, since new ideas to explore are what it’s all about. Any attempt to limit the steady evolution of the genre, and the diversification these changes bring, is a fool’s errand, and one doomed to fail.

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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