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Aug212009

« In Which I Have Been Reading A Lot of Science Fiction Lately »

  The Extreme SF of Robert Heinlein

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Let me tell you of all the worlds I've left behind. — John Scalzi

My therapist Todd says I tend to focus on the unlikely future because I can't face my real future. I wish I actually had a therapist named Todd, it's not easy to look that up in a phone book. You just go to an office, hoping that some sweet secretary will utter the golden word, "Todd."

I will read anything with a tit in it, by and large. Sometimes I will read things and stop reading, quite often in fact. But usually I know within the first couple of pages whether or not I'm going to read the entire thing to find out what happens.

Once I was at a David Mamet lecture and he asked someone to roleplay with him. He said, "I'm making a movie," and the guy said, "What's it about?" The point illustrated is the only important things are what it's about and what happens, those are the only elements of anything that sustain us.

I was reading a particularly bad Robert Heinlein fantasy novel (there wasn't a lot of good fantasy to model yourself on back then) and I had to know the one secret one character had, so I just skipped to the end and read that part. If I had a therapist, he would instruct me not to do that.

That book is Glory Road, and since I recently read all of Heinlein on a whim, you won't have to make some of the mistakes I made. It's a horrible fantasy, one of Heinlein's worst projects. It's so dated first of all, and so implausible as to not be enjoyable. There is one good scene with aliens, and I'll show you it if you ask me.

Heinlein doesn't have many misses, so let's start with his most widely-read masterpiece, Stranger in a Strange Land. The perfect alien meets Earth tale, it is almost all dialogue as such it flies on by. Heinlein's only problem is that he intermittedly falls in love with the sound of his own voice, and the later chapters, once they start travelling the country and some such aren't as entertaining. But the rest of it is so perfect you can read until you're bored and feel satisfied, plump, like a snozzberry.

Heinlein wrote all these novels called juveniles, but they were the opposite of juveniles. They were some of the best short science fiction the genre would ever offer. This one is about Bill and his Dad, who set out to colonize Jupiter's moon Ganymede. It's an incredible, touching story about love and exploration in a harsh environment, and if it were released today, it might win the Hugo.

Heinlein's most overarching series was his Future History, which featured him as the long-lived Lazarus Long, who went around saving the world from various crises real and imagined. It was the first serious take on immortality and it ranges incredibly in quality, and is at times a breathtaking vision and at other times an incestuous hodgepodge of his idea of utopia. Methusaleh's Children is one of the good ones, an amazing tale of what would happen if a sect of humans were forced from Earth and had to repopulate elsewhere. It's a magical journey with a very appropriate ending.

Time Enough for Love was written in the middle of the 1970s, and it's quite close to a magnum opus. There are parts of it which are quite recognizably the best science fiction ever written; other parts pale in comparison. Heinlein was obsessed with women, their marvelous shape and texture. He falls in love with his female characters, usually to the detriment of the narrative at hand. Love needs to be edited so badly it's not funny, Greg Bear called it his least favorite Heinlein. It's more entertaining read as a fantasy.

Heinlein tackles the conventional science fiction premise of the generational starship more subtly than you might expect him to. This starship is the whorl itself, and to navigate it elsewhere will entail much sacrifice and death. Heinlein was great at finding the right ending as a general rule, and this story's is both sad and beautiful.

Citizen of the Galaxy is the kind of improvised brilliance you can barely believe as you're reading it. The author just nails everything: the setting, the characters, the plot, and the drama flows effortlessly. Sometimes Bob was at his best when he was doing the all male thing, although some female characters play an intriguing role. But really this is all about being a man and what Bob thought it was all about. Like in most of such stories, the boy joins the military and it goes from there. One of the most magical novels of the 20th century, a mysterious classic

The best book about the Moon ever written, the best book about the virtues of libertarianism, the tightest story he ever wrote. It's not crazy to put Harsh Mistress on the list of the best books ever, because he practically rewrites English into a dialect and creates something so remarkably realistic it boggles the mind. Opening the pages plunges one into a dream world that is more real than any world they've known. Heinlein identified for all time in this novel what we are up against.

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is two books. The first 250 pages are an adventure on par with Heinlein's best. The rest of it is pretty terrible, connecting the spare plot with Heinlein's larger Future History. Our hero, Richard, is compelling in that first part, and he's a writer so god knows it's easy to identify with him. This is basically Heinlein describing himself a crippled veteran interstellar hero, and that at least is the purest fun.

Heinlein probably thought (correctly) he couldn't write women very well, but he wrote a great one in Podkayne Mars, showing how know-how and industriousness — and faith in yourself is every bit as meaningful as technical knowledge. The title character is Pod, a dainty tween who holds off on sex and says yes to the perils of interstellar travel. She journeys away from Mars to other planets in her universe where humans maintain societies that alarm her with how familiar they are.

The first American journey to the moon that mattered was Rocketship Galileo which enchanted a generation of those who loved space flight every bit as much as The Right Stuff would decades later. It's the essential story of how a childlike obsession with rockets was all it really took to make dreams a reality.

Heinlein's best pure comedy, Double Star takes an inspired premise and makes the details perfect. Our man's an actor, so there's not much at stake, but by then there is plenty. Showing how small things add up to tragedy while not seeming sad in the details. A relentlessly smart effort.

A broad commentary on Christianity,  Heinlein proves to know it better than Christians themselves. I grant you that I'm amazed that is true, but since I myself don't have much interest in the subject, J.O.B.'s funny and strange adventures don't add up to much. It does have —  for Heinlein — a lot of good jokes.

Heinlein's Future History was great because it was quite probable, turning Venus and Mars into savage libertarian paradises, and setting up Earth as a big patsy, colonizing the land beyond. Heinlein's point about the future largely revolved around the fact that it was necessary, and that it could be what we made of it, and that eternal life isn't all bad.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls right here.

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    NFL is definitely a single of the most significant sports in America. It has a main following.

Reader Comments (3)

Awesome. Heinlein is the business.

August 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarco Sparks

You seem to have forgotten "Farnham's Freehold." That or you decided you just couldn't face it and needed a restorative break. Anyway, Freehold is excellent in that it amplifies all of the flaws in Heinlein's writing to such a degree that they shock you in their magnitude and failure. Also, where are "Red Planet" and

August 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJules

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Robert A. Heinlein

October 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHugh

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