1964–Fifty Years of Reading Robert A. Heinlein

While everyone is remembering it was fifty years ago that America discovered The Beatles, I’m remembering it was fifty years ago that I discovered Robert A. Heinlein – a discovery that had far more importance to me.  1964 was the year after Project Mercury, and the year before Project Gemini.  Back then each space mission got uninterrupted coverage on CBS, NBC and ABC, and I always got to stay home from school and watch.  1964 was also the year a very futuristic World’s Fair in NYC and everyone seemed to be thinking about the decades to come. 

1964 was the year I turned 13 and I started thinking about my future. 

Now it’s 2014 and I’ll turn 63 later is year, and I think about my past.

As much as I love The Beatles and remembering 1964, 2014 is my 50th anniversary of reading Robert A. Heinlein.  I thought it might be interesting to analyze why reading the twelve Heinlein juveniles I first discovered in 1964 was so much more important than “Twist and Shout.”  Wouldn’t it be fun to read a series of blogs by baby boomers remembering all the artists that meant more to them from 1964 than The Beatles?

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I read science fiction before 1964, but it wasn’t until I discovered Heinlein that I became a hardcore science fiction fan.  I turned 13 on November 25, 1964.  For some reason I started puberty by rejecting religion and God, becoming an atheist, and embracing science fiction.  I’ve always joked that science fiction was my religion, which made Heinlein my messiah.

I have my 8th grade English teacher to thank for introducing me to Heinlein, although I’m pretty sure I would have discovered him one way or another.  I wished I remembered this lady’s name, and had a photograph of her.  She had a remarkable teaching method.  For each six weeks grading period she required the class to read and report on three books.  However, if you read five, she would raise your grade one letter.  That allowed me to be a B student that year – at least for my English class.  My teacher provided us with a list of approved authors and Robert A. Heinlein was one.  In the 1940s and 1950s Heinlein had published twelve young adult novels with Charles Scribner’s Sons that had gotten a lot of recognition with librarians and teachers.

The first of the twelve juveniles I discovered was Red Planet, after that I quickly consumed the other eleven, and then went on to read the Heinlein adult novels.  Sadly I don’t remember the order in which I read them.  I do remember the night I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel, my favorite Heinlein book, and my all-time favorite science fiction novel.

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I was babysitting for an airman my dad knew from work at Homestead Air Force Base.  I was dropped off at their house around eight, after the kids were already put to bed, and the couple didn’t return home until after three.  So I was paid fifty cents an hour to read Have Space Suit-Will Travel.  I was blown away.  When the couple came home the young dad offered to drive me home, I told him I’d walk.  It was 3:30am, and I wasn’t even sure where I was.  I had a vague idea my house was north of their house, so I started walking.  It was eerie out – completely dead, with a bit of a mist from the dew. 

I wasn’t afraid, but the long walk was surreal.  All I could think about was Kip’s adventures, going from Earth, to the Moon, to Pluto, to a planet orbiting Vega, to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud.  My brain speeded on thinking about the future and I felt very alive.

A sliver of the Moon glowed in the sky that dark night fifty years ago, and the stars looked down on me, and I up at them.  I was living the mundane life of an 8th grader, the 1960s was heating up, and all I could think about was living in the 21st century.  Now, it’s 2014, and my future is almost over, and more and more, I think about the past.

The promise and potential of space travel was why I loved Heinlein.  Elementary school had been about Project Mercury, Project Gemini was going to be my junior high years, and Project Apollo my high school years.  I started the 1st grade a couple months before Sputnik went into orbit, and graduated high school a couple months before Neal Armstrong walked on the Moon.  That, reading science fiction, and being a baby boomer growing up with the rock music revolution of the 1960s, did a number on me. 

So did the drugs.  Strangely, by 1968, science fiction had taken me far further than the chemical trips I had started taking.  Reading Stranger in a Stranger Land in 1965, I’m sure I saw it way different than Heinlein intended.

I read everything I could about NASA.  In 1964 all I could think about was the rock music on the radio, the science fiction I read, and the future of manned space flight.  I was positive I’d grow up and in my lifetime we’d build a colony on the Moon and Mars, and just maybe, I might get to go. 

Boy, was I wrong.

Heinlein made it all sound so simple, so obvious, so right.  Humans were meant to go to the stars.  His twelve young adult novels were a roadmap for all my tomorrows.

1947 Rocket Ship Galileo Moon
1948 Space Cadet Asteroids, Venus
1949 Red Planet Mars
1950 Farmer in the Sky Ganymede
1951 Between Planets Venus
1952 The Rolling Stones Moon, Mars, Asteroids
1953 Starman Jones interstellar
1954 The Star Beast Earth with interstellar visitors
1955 Tunnel in the Sky interstellar
1956 Time for the Stars interstellar
1957 Citizen of the Galaxy interstellar
1958 Have Space Suit—Will Travel Moon, Pluto, Vega 5, Lesser Magellanic Cloud

Ross, Morrie and Art, three teens in Heinlein’s first juvenile only go as far as the Moon, but in the last book, Kip and Peewee leave the galaxy.  The first half-dozen are about interplanetary travel, the second half-dozen have youngsters like me going to the stars.  These books made me a true believer in space travel in the same way Christians believe in heaven.

I’m now an atheist to my own religion, and Heinlein and his books are in my past.  They are just fun stories now, myths I lived by growing up a half-century ago.  The future was everything I never expected.  As I spend my retirement years trying to write science fiction, I imagine a much different future than I did at age thirteen.  What will the next 50 years be like? Can I conceive of a more realistic future, one that might happen, or will I only invented imaginary futures that will become fantasies like the Heinlein stories?  Do I stir up the passion of kids to believe in scientific fairy tales, or do I try to give them hope about real scientific possibilities?

Like the 1964 me, I still contemplate the future.  I have no space suit, I will not travel to the stars, but the future still holds exciting possibilities.  If I’m alive in 2051, what will I write about looking back on the next fifty years?

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JWH – 2/3/14

The Fall of Robert A. Heinlein and the Fading Final Frontier

There are two concepts I want to express but I don’t know the words for them, if there are any, and I’m not creative enough to make up new words.  If these two concepts do have definitions please let me know.

The first concept deals with being so close to a belief that you can’t tell how widespread it is in the population at large.  The best I can come up with is the phrase “belief perspective.”  For example, back in the 1960s, kids who got high thought the whole world was joining their stoned revolution.

The second concept is about experiences that belong to a particular generation that are ineffable to earlier or later generations, and as people age, that particular quality of a generation fades away as their population die off.  The 1960s counter culture is a good example.  Kids growing up in the last two generations have no concept of what the sixties was like, in the same way my generation, the baby boomers, have no idea what WWII and the Great Depression was like.  I call this “fading generational identity.”

But these concepts don’t just apply to big beliefs or mass experiences.  For example, to young people of a certain age there is a huge identification with Star Wars movies that I just don’t get.  To this generation, Star Wars is huge in their belief perspective and it’s a touchstone to their language.  It’s  like Star Wars has infected their psyche.  

Kids today might love The Beatles  but they will never understand the impact of Beatles mania had on the music of 1964 and 1965, like I will never truly understand the success of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller on their generation even though I love their music.  Or look at the Beat Generation, what a tiny subculture, but their population is dying off, and the only way they will be remembered is a few books.  But no matter how many times I read On the Road I can never know how Jack Kerouac felt inside his subculture.

I grew up during the counter culture sixties but I also identified with a very small group of science fiction readers of the times.  In my belief perspective I thought Robert A. Heinlein was the Buddha, Gandhi, Einstein of a particular belief system dealing with space exploration.  Robert Heinlein defined my 1960s like Timothy Leary defined that era for acid heads.  From my perspective Heinlein was a major thinker, but my belief perspective totally distorted my worldview, because obviously he wasn’t.

Now on the Internet I’m finding other people like me, people in their fifties and sixties who have a generational identity with the same 1950s and 1960s science fiction that I have.  What we’re realizing is the beliefs we embraced weren’t widely embraced by the population at large and as new generations grow up, with their own beliefs, our ideas are fading.  The phrase “science fiction” means something totally different to the current generation than it did to mine.

It is sad, sometimes in a depressive way, and sometimes in a wistful accepting way, to see the ideas of your generational subculture belief system pass away.  You realize they really weren’t that big, or widespread, or even significant or meaningful, they were just beliefs you had, and they made life important to you in your time and place.

I grew up believing in the final frontier as proposed by 1950s and 1960s science fiction.  Like Christians or Muslims who thoroughly believe Jesus and Mohammed define their reality, not seeing that their beliefs are just ideas to believe in and not reality itself.  Colonizing the Moon and Mars was our Heaven to believe in, and Heinlein was our prophet.

I’m discovering two things now that I wish I could put into perspective.  I wish I knew how many people were like me that made Heinlein spiritually important to our final frontier beliefs.  Second I’d like to know how many people on Earth actually dream about colonizing space.  Space enthusiasts are actually separate from Heinlein, but I always tie the two together.

I have this hypothesis I’d like to test, but I don’t know how.  I think a small portion of the population believe in space as a kind of Manifest Destiny, but I don’t know how big that group is, and I’m also thinking it peaked in the 1960s because of the space race and because of 1950s science fiction.  I worry that in a hundred years that belief-perspective will be considered a minor 20th century fad.  Except for a handful of people I meet on the net I know very few people who share my religion.

We like to think the wonderful aspects of our generation are timeless, but they aren’t. They just fade when we age. Not only is my body wearing out and getting old, but so are all the ideas I loved.  That’s just another thing about getting old that we have to deal with.  And I’m not sure young people see this coming.  I certainly didn’t.

With the publication of the new authorized biography of Heinlein I’m afraid I’m discovering that his ideas and influence are already on the wane.  But I only have a few clues to go on.

Robert A. Heinlein is the Science Fiction Writers of America first Grand Master, selected for this honor in 1975.  It’s very hard to gauge the impact of Heinlein on science fiction fans of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, but if you search the web you can find hundreds of testimonials about how Heinlein imprinted on these writers.

With the publication of the biography I thought there would be an outpouring of reviews that would evaluate and elevate Heinlein’s literary status, but there have been damn few reviews, and most of them have been about Heinlein nostalgia.  Typical is the Washington Post review, which is the only national publication I found, all the rest were essentially blog reviews, like mine.

On the net I can rustle up plenty of folks to wax nostalgic about discovering Heinlein as kids, but among my normal friends, most haven’t read the man, and nearly all of them show a vacant expression when I mention his name.

To his fans from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Heinlein sold us on the future of colonizing the Moon and Mars and humanity heading out to the stars.  To the children of Heinlein, we all assumed everyone thought space was mankind’s final frontier, but in the forty years since, that hasn’t turned out to be true.  Most people never think about space exploration.

I’m reading Packing for Mars right now, by Mary Roach, and it’s about preparing astronauts for space flight.  If I had read Packing for Mars right after I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel in 1965 I probably wouldn’t have embraced the final frontier dream.  People really aren’t designed for traveling in space, and you have to be immensely driven and a bit of a masochist to try.

I started really worrying about Heinlein’s popularity in the last few days when I did Google searches on the new biography.  I typed “robert a. heinlein in dialogue with his century” on Google and found damn few major reviews.  I noticed my blog review was second in the Google listing behind the publisher.  Now that’s a bad sign.  I mean, I like my blog, but if some tenth rate blogger gets the second slot on Google what does that say?  Furthermore, I’m averaging 2 hits a day on my review, from both the great Google placement and from the link I put on Classics of Science Fiction, which usually brings me a steady stream of 40-80 hits a day to various blog essays and reviews of science fiction topics.

This leads me to believe my childhood hero Heinlein is far less popular than I ever imagined.  For years now when I visit bookstores I’ve noticed that the number of Heinlein books in the SF section is shrinking.  And it’s extremely rare to meet a young person that reads Heinlein.

Now I can accept that Heinlein’s fan base is shrinking, but I dread the thought that the true belief in the Manifest Destiny of Space is fading.  But it might be.  It’s terrible to have to become an atheist to your own belief system.  And for me, I think 1950s science fiction was my religious substitute growing up in the 1960s.

So, what is the word for when you discover your belief system turns out to be minor and insignificant and is fading away as its older believers die off?  Whatever that condition is called, I’ve got it.  I’m not depressed.  I’m just wistfully philosophical.

I used to think I’d die knowing how the future would unfold from reading science fiction, but now I realize I won’t pass away believing in those visions.  But then I’ve known since I was a teen that the future is everything I never imagined it to be.  I wanted to believe different but the Zen of reality taught me it didn’t give a shit about what we believe.

JWH – 9/9/10

Robert A. Heinlein – In Dialogue with His Century – 1907-1948

If there was ever a big fish in a little pond, it is Robert A. Heinlein.  Science fiction is a very small pond, and despite all its success at the movies and television, written science fiction remains a tiny ghetto in the world of fiction.  Robert A. Heinlein is a towering figure in the tempest-in-a-teapot world of fandom, but outside that small subculture Heinlein is little known.

William H. Patterson, Jr. has written the first half of a massive authorized biography of Heinlein called Robert A. Heinlein – In Dialogue with His Century – Volume 1 – Learning Curve – 1907-1948. The biographical narrative goes through page 473, while appendices and notes continue through page 594, and the index ends on page 622.  This is a well researched biography, and as I read it, I felt I learned as much about American life from 1907-1948 as I did about Heinlein.  Patterson studied the politics and social norms of the time to put Heinlein in context, and that greatly enriches the story.

Now here’s the problem.  Patterson wants to make Heinlein more influential than I think he was, not an uncommon trait of biographers.  However, Heinlein had some very devoted fans, who after his death have become even more fanatical about the importance of Heinlein’s work.  This reminds me of Jesus and his followers after his death.  Most of what is attributed to the historical Jesus was actually invented by his followers.  This kind of remaking the real man into a miracle worker may be happening to Heinlein.

I’ve been following Patterson’s work on Heinlein for over a decade, first on alt.fan.heinlein newsgroup and then with his Heinlein Journal.  Virginia Heinlein selected Patterson and gave him access to Heinlein’s papers.  Robert and Ginny Heinlein had burned a lot of his papers after he left his second wife, but evidently there were plenty left, because this is a very detailed biography on Heinlein’s early life.  I can’t wait for the second volume.

Heinlein always seemed such a secretive person that I was expecting little about his actual life and more about his fiction.  Instead, Patterson’s biography is mostly about Heinlein, and surprising little about his writing.  Patterson talks about Heinlein struggling to write, but mainly in relation to Heinlein needing a paycheck.  The book ends just as Heinlein is starting to become more financially secure, so his story is almost one of struggling for over forty years to become a overnight success.  Heinlein overcame economic hardship and a lifetime of poor health to succeed and fail at many ventures before becoming a science fiction superstar.

Any Heinlein fan should love this book.  However, I think Patterson wants Heinlein to be far more important than he is.  If you look closely to Patterson’s sentences, especially in his introduction, but throughout the book, he adds a strong Heinlein bias.  Patterson obviously feels Heinlein is significant outside of science fiction and I have to question that.  Patterson says on page 15 of his Introduction,

And even among this select group of writers-cum-culture-figures, Heinlein is unique.  He galvanized not one, but four social movements of his century:  science fiction, and its stepchild, the policy think tank, the counterculture, the libertarian movement, and the commercial space movement.

I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy this.  When you read books about the 20th century you just don’t see Heinlein mentioned, mainly because they seldom mention science fiction.  And the parenthetical statement crediting think tanks to science fiction, is bizarre itself.  And frankly, Heinlein’s impact on the counter culture, libertarian and commercial space movement has got to be extremely minimal.  The logic is almost equal to: powerful leaders drink whiskey, thus the twentieth century was galvanized by whiskey.

Heinlein was a substitute father figure to me growing up.  I love many of his books, enough to read and reread them.  I’ve read most of what he wrote at least twice.  Yet, I give him very little credit as to influencing me.  Heinlein was a major influence on science fiction, and strangely enough Patterson’s doesn’t show that in his biography.

Now I assume Patterson did this on purpose, knowing that so many other books have already been written about the history of science fiction, and no book has been written on the history of Heinlein the man.  Heinlein, and his hardcore fans always wanted to separate his fiction from the man, claiming readers shouldn’t extrapolate ideas about Heinlein from his stories.  I think this new biography will be the Rosetta Stone for decoding Heinlein inside his fiction.

Alexei Panshin’s legacy appears to be totally despised by the Heinlein fanatics because he offended the master with the first book on Heinlein, Heinlein in Dimension, back in 1968.  I think its still the best quick overview of Heinlein’s fiction from 1939-1966, but that Panshin book continues to enrage the Heinlein disciples.  They see it as trashing Heinlein, even though I thought it was a young man’s love letter to his hero.    Panshin’s later book, The World Beyond the Hill, does explain Heinlein’s influence during the golden age of science fiction, covering the same period of Patterson’s biography.  Both of these books won Hugos, although Panshin got a Hugo for fan writing while he serialized Heinlein in Dimension in fanzines.

Like I said, if you want to know Heinlein the man, read Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, but if you want to know about Heinlein’s influence on SF, read Heinlein in Dimension and The World Beyond the Hill.  Now I expect this will change.  Because the authorized biography has finally come out, and especially after the second volume appears, I expect a new writer to put all the sources together and write a new story by story survey of Heinlein’s fiction.  And if that writer is well read in science fiction, I think he or she will be the one to explain Heinlein’s influence on the genre.  Oddly enough, I wonder if that could be Alexei Panshin?  Boy, wouldn’t that piss off the hardcore Heinlein followers.

After you finish reading the Patterson biography, go over to The Critics Lounge and read some of Panshin’s later essays, especially “When the Quest Ended.”  Which biographer do you prefer, Patterson, the authorized explorer of Heinlein, or Panshin, the shunned fan? 

Heinlein’s real legacy is his impact on the little world of written science fiction.  When I was growing up in the 1960s most science fiction fans considered Heinlein the top dog of the field, but today you can ask young people reading science fiction what writers they love and often Heinlein doesn’t even get listed.  But that’s deceptive, because those young people often pick writers that were influenced by Heinlein.  Those writers are the true disciples and children of Heinlein.

As much as Patterson would like to think that Heinlein greatly influenced the counter culture, libertarianism and commercial space companies, I just don’t think he did.  Those are separate worlds and some of their members might have read and loved Heinlein’s books, but they had their own shapers and makers.

William Patterson’s biography of Robert A. Heinlein is a must read for anyone who loves Heinlein’s fiction.  We finally get to know the Wizard behind the Oz Heinlein created.  After finishing the biography I wanted to start with Heinlein’s first story and read them all again, till his last, and examine his writing in light of the new biography.

JWH – 9/6/10

Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

Orphans of the Sky is one of Robert Heinlein lesser known novels, even though it’s one of his best.  It’s hard to talk about the novel without giving away its big idea, but it’s not likely I’ll convince you to read it without telling.  This short novel is made up from two novelettes first published in 1941 in Astounding Science Fiction, and it might be the first fictional account of a generation ship, that is a starship that travels so slowly, that it takes generations to reach its destination. 

In Orphans of the Sky, the characters do not know they are in a starship, but think of the ship as all of reality.  They can’t see outside.  They have forgotten most of what civilization gave them, so they are primitive, superstitious people.  Heinlein uses this as a beautiful setup to attack our own superstitions.  I don’t want to spoil the joys of the story by giving away the plot, but if you need to know more, read the first link to Wikipedia above.  The important thing to know is Orphans of the Sky makes major contributions to the genre science fiction.  It’s central speculation, made in 1941, is probably the most creative since H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, 1895.

Stories about interstellar travel in science fiction have mostly taken the fantasy route of faster-than-light (FTL) travel.  Whereas, Orphans of the Sky dwells well within humanity’s technical ability to get people to the stars.  It will still be an amazing engineering challenge to build a starship miles long, that rotates to create artificial gravity, and is design to function for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  A trip might have to last as long as from now back to Shakespeare, or Christ, or Aristotle.  If worldly societies can change so much in those time periods, imagine what life in a starship might be like and how it could change.  This is a brilliant idea, and Heinlein imagines his characters in a post-apocalyptical world inside the ship.   It’s strange that Orphans of the Sky wasn’t printed in book form until 1964 since it is so innovative in a genre that loves far out ideas.

Although, the novel is only about 150 pages, Heinlein does an amazing amount of speculation.  Besides the big new science fictional ideas, Heinlein imagines how society would change if it evolved backwards, for example he has women treated like they were in the Old Testament.  There are scientists but no science.  One of the most enchanting aspects of the story is how concepts we take for grant in our world are turned into strange superstitions in the world of Heinlein’s forgotten starship crew.  Heinlein knew how thin the veneer of civilization is that covers our nations.  He also plays with what we know now could be completely wrong.

Orphans of the Sky is not a literary masterpiece, but heavy duty pulp fiction from the golden age of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction.  It’s all action, with little characterization, but what characterization there is is very vivid and sharp, especially the mutants.  For my third reading of this story I listened to the Audible Frontiers audiobook edition that is beautifully read by Eric Michael Summerer.  Audible Frontiers goal is to put great SF and fantasy into audiobook editions.  If you love classic science fiction and hanker to experience it again through a dramatic reading, it’s worth joining Audible to get these audiobooks.  They are also available through iTunes.

Orphans of the Sky would make a wonderful sense of wonder film, and I’m surprised it’s cinematic potential has been ignored.  Movie producers often strike pay dirt with SF, but they seldom select innovate classics to explore new science fictional themes.  They beat the dead horse of alien invasion over and over again.  There’s so much more to science than strange invaders.

JWH – 12/13/9

Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Red Planet was the first Robert A. Heinlein novel I discovered back in 1964, and with the first reading of that book I turned into a life-long fan of Heinlein’s work.  From 1964 through 1966 I read Heinlein’s backlog of books, some several times, so after a four year dry spell of no new books I was mentally demolished when in 1970 I read I Will Fear No Evil and hated it.  Somehow my literary hero wrote a clinker, at least in my eyes.  After The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Heinlein (1966), Heinlein never wrote another book I liked.

I still love rereading Heinlein, and usually reread a few of his novels every year.  In the last decade I’ve been listening to audio book editions of his books.  Red Planet just came out on unabridged audio from Full Cast Audio, a company that publishes audio books for young people.  Full cast audio means each character gets their own actor performing the lines.  This works extremely well for young adult novels, and Red Planet comes off wonderful in this format, making each character dramatically stand out.  I’m not sure what authors think about this technique, because the actors get to emotively interpret their character.  In this edition I think they all stay well within the cues Heinlein gave his readers.

This edition of Red Planet from Full Cast Audio uses the restored unedited edition from Del Rey published after Heinlein’s death.  For more information on that, read “Red Planet – Blue Pencil.”

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Over the years I’ve struggled with why I don’t like the Heinlein books that came out after 1969.  Why was that such a turning point?  As I got older, I also discovered that his novels after 1959 were different, and they had many elements I didn’t like too.  Before 1969, most of the novels I read were science fiction, but after that my reading tastes broaden.  I was constantly changing from 1969 through 2008, so it’s understandable that my reaction to the books would change too.

Listening to Red Planet gave me an interesting new insight.  Up till now I thought Heinlein became a different person sometime in the 1960s, but in his 1949 story, Red Planet, I found all the elements of later Heinlein hidden away.  The reality is, no matter how much we all feel like we’ve changed and matured, we’re still the same person all our lives.  I’ve long figured that editors influenced what Heinlein wrote, especially before his move to Putnam in 1959 with Starship Troopers.

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There’s a strong dichotomy of opinion about Heinlein.  Most of his fans are extremely loyal, if not rabid. There are many people who try to read Heinlein and can’t stand him.  I’m in this middle zone, both loving his work, and despising it, and it’s a very weird position to hold.  I often piss-off other Heinlein fans when I express my doubts, but I seldom meet people who read, reread and study his work like I do.  If I had the time, I’d love to write an analysis of his writing, which I think might end up being a psychological study of myself.

But back to Red Planet.  I’m quite confident that this time was at least my fourth time through the book, and I was amazed by parts I didn’t remember.  It wasn’t until after I finished the story that I discovered I had listened to the revised edition.  Memory is such a fascinating subject.  At one level, I only remembered the book vaguely.  If I had tried to write down what the book was about before I listened to it, I would have given a skimpy plot outline, and then a general impression of several cherished scenes.  When I started listening to the book much of it came back to me, so I could predict just before it happened what would happen.  I call that movie déjà vu because I often feel that when seeing a movie I had watched decades earlier and forgotten.   It’s the weird feeling of knowing what will happen just before the event unfolds.

The revealing part on listening to Red Planet this time, was all the stuff I had completely forgotten since my last reading in 1989.  You’d think after four reading there would be very little I wouldn’t remember at some level.  That wasn’t true.  What’s even more revealing, and I imagine astute readers of this essay will guess, the unfamiliar parts were more like the Heinlein I disliked.  But I hadn’t forgotten.  I was tricked by the new restored edition.

Heinlein had even written Alice Dalgleish, his 1949 Scribner’s editor, “I have made great effort to remove my viewpoint from the book and to incorporate yours, convincingly – but in so doing I have been writing from reasons of economic necessity something that I do not believe.”  I have long theorized that Heinlein’s personal opinions ruined his later stories, and that the reason why I liked the earlier books better were due to editorial censorship.

Story elements that Heinlein would later fixate on are now here in Red Planet, but in shorter, and still restrained form.  Listening to Red Planet showed me I could probably build a list of Heinlein themes that probably exist to some degree in all of his books, either subtly hidden away by editors, revealed by restored editions, or just blaring in later books.

Heinlein explored a wide range of science fictional frontiers, but in the end he often repeated himself thematically.  There is a quality in art that I call the “Beatles Effect.”  I believe a large part of the Beatles success in the 1960s was due to the Fab Four working hard to make every song different.  Mediocre artists tend to create work that has a sameness to it.  Heinlein’s most distinctive individualistic work was all done before 1969, and in particular, before 1959.  During the 1950s, Robert A. Heinlein was The Beatles of science fiction.  Those books are still in print half a century later.  Red Planet has its 60th anniversary next year.

1949 was the year that Red Planet and “Gulf” came out, two stories that anticipated Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein’s breakout novel from 1961, that first revealed the true Heinlein, even though Putnam forced him to cut out 60,000 words of that novel.   (Those words were later restored in an uncut edition decades later.)  Listening to the uncut version of Red Planet made it very clear that Heinlein hadn’t changed at different points in his career, but merely, more of his personality had been revealed.

There are two Heinlein aspects that we’re dealing with here.  The first, is a fascinating man that was very opinionated.  The second is a story teller.  As a kid, I imprinted on the storytelling aspect.  As an adult I rebelled against the author’s personality poking through the illusion of the storytelling.

Even in the restored edition, Red Planet is a very slight novel.  It’s overwhelming charm is due to the mysterious Martians and Willis, an engaging talking Martian animal.  What captured me as a 12-year-old was the sense of wonder of humans colonizing Mars, something that would fuel my personal fantasies for decades.  I was also charmed and amused by the antics of Willis.  Heinlein’s juvenile novels often had wondrous alien creatures in them.  And the book was fast paced, and full of adventure for boys.

Red Planet is a good book, but it doesn’t compare well with the dazzling creativity of Heinlein’s later juveniles, Have Space Suit-Will Travel and Tunnel in the Sky.  The ancient culture of the Martians, used in both Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land, is an impressive creative achievement on first encounter, but doesn’t hold up to long term scrutiny.  The old Martians are like Australian aborigines.  Their culture is exotic, mysterious and mystic, but after the initial wow, few people would want to follow their lifestyle.   We’re a high-tech species, a species that likes to build and expand.

The super-wise Martians that Heinlein created do not wear clothes or even appear to use tools and they do wonders with thoughts alone.  This appears to conflict with Heinlein’s blaster-toting, rocket-riding humans out to colonize every piece of rock in the universe.  And this is further complicated by Heinlein’s constant promotion of revolution, where bold exploring characters sneer at the corruption of law and order stay-put stick-in-the-mud characters.

Now that the revised version of Red Planet is fresh in my mind, I can easily see how its author will come to write Stranger in a Strange Land in the following decade, and eventually evolve into the man who writes The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.  The disturbing thing is to contemplate which themes will come to dominate.  From 1949 to 1985 Heinlein seems mostly concerned with who deserves to die, and nudity.  This is grossly unfair to the stories, but I think it’s true.

In the restored edition of Red Planet, 1949 Heinlein portrays his colonists of Mars as wearing little clothes when not needing their pressure suits for outside excursions.  In 1961, one focus of Stranger in Strange Land is shedding of clothes.  And in 1985, Heinlein has all his former favorite characters getting naked together.

Even more disturbing is the theme of who deserves to die.  Heinlein’s characters are often preoccupied with who to kill.  Sometimes, it’s individuals, sometimes it’s groups of people, and sometimes it’s whole planets.  As a kid, this motive for story action was no different from the westerns I loved to watch on TV, but now as a person in late middle age, I find very disturbing.

The hated headmaster Howe is “disappeared” by the Martians, but his only real offense was being a strict school administrator and taking a strange pet away from a student.  Heinlein revered his time at the Navy academy, an institution known for strict rules and administrators, so why make such a straw man of boy’s school principal?  Beecher, a colonial administrator is also a man executed by the Martians whose crime was trying to force the colonists to winter in a harsh climate to save the company money.  Not exactly a capital crime in our capitalistic society.  For being known as a conservative, Heinlein seems to love mob rule when it appears to be revolutionary and led by a pseudo-Patrick Henry.  But not every rebellious horde of unhappy armed men equal the American revolution.

The restored political parts of Red Planet make the story more offensive to me, at least as an adult.  As a kid, I would have just skimmed over the boring bits, and all the exotic Mars life and adventure of skating down Martian canals would made me forget them.  So which is the better edition?  I think Heinlein’s original unedited story is better because of the way he handles what happens to Willis.  Ditto for Podkayne of Mars.  Heinlein’s harsher more realistic endings are better, even for kids.  And I have to accept Heinlein as a whole person, even though I don’t like parts of that whole.

It would be interesting if I could read Red Planet at 56 and not be influenced by over forty years of nostalgia.  If I could, I would savage it.  And not just because we know there’s no life on Mars now, but because so much of the story isn’t logical at all.  Jim and Frank wear plastic pressure suits with only jockey shorts underneath and then skate all day on the canals.  Logic tells me the legs of their suits would have pooled up with sweat, and their skin would have been rubbed raw.  And there was no mention of oxygen bottles, or any kind of consumables to power their suits.

Furthermore, there is no, and I mean none, discussion of adapting to living on Mars.  It’s really like living on Earth, but with less oxygen and air pressure.  They have to kill the Mars equivalent of rattle snakes with blasters instead of six-guns.   The boys attend a boarding school, and the only difference is they wear minimal clothes while inside the pressurized areas.  That isn’t about Mars so much as it’s about Heinlein picturing a future where people don’t wear clothes.

What we need is a boys book as exciting as Heinlein’s juvenile novels about what realistic life would be like for future colonists on Mars.  Heinlein was enchanted with the concept but didn’t want to explore the details.  I can’t blame him for wanting to create exotic intelligent life on Mars back in 1949.  That’s what I admired when I first read the story just about the time the first Mariner space missions flew past Mars and showed that Mars was a dead world like the Moon.  Red Planet remains a simple story about a boy and his pet Martian, and it is charming and entertaining.  Time has hurt the speculation, but not the story.

I tend to think twelve year-olds today discovering this story might still be well entertained, but I hope they would be savvy enough about our knowledge of Mars to know that it’s all a fantasy.  I’d bet that they would ignore the silly trumped-up revolutionary politics, and not even think about whether the rest of the story is realistic.  Only the kids who love to read about real space exploration would have an inkling about how complex a pressure suit would have to be, and silly it would be to live on cold Mars and only wear shorts while inside.  Or how silly it would be to have a revolution with Earth that supplies and pays for all the necessities of life.

Like I said, reading Heinlein for me, is more about studying myself.  As a kid I wanted to run away and live on Mars.  It was my Never-Never Land.  What us fans of classic science fiction must ask ourselves is:  Was science fiction just the fairy tales for 20th century children, or was science fiction meant to be more than that?  Heinlein always said he wrote to pay the mortgage.  Were his Scribner’s books just entertaining stories for mid-century boys that helped him pay his liquor bill?

I took his stories as inspiration about exploring space.  So did a lot of other people.  The red planet is still up there, waiting for us.  There are ancient alien life forms waiting for us to discover them.  To me, the real critical question is:  Will humans ever live on Mars.  Heinlein returned to Mars in story after story.  I study what NASA finds with its robots on Mars, but I keep rereading Heinlein.  Why?

JWH – 11/1/8

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

Reviewing books is a touchy subject.  On one side of the coin, publicly calling someone’s creative baby ugly is just a mean thing to do.  Flipping the coin over reveals the whole needy world of authors begging for any kind of press they can get.  I’ve always dreamed of writing a book and getting published – what joy that would bring.  But I can also imagine the soul wrenching torture of waiting for reviewers and readers that never come.  Anyone who takes the time to review books is a generous human being, at least in the eyes of new writers.  Most magazines and newspapers have cut way back on their space devoted to book reviews, and I think bloggers have come to the rescue.

I wish had the time and talent to review books.  Those reviewers who can read a new novel and write a review that promotes the book without giving anything away, that sets the context in relation to other books of similar style and stories, who gives just the right snippets to hook potential readers and provides a bit of background about the writer, are people with a very special knack.  Really good reviews of this sort will not only introduce you to a new book but will teach you something about literature in general.

I don’t have that knack, so I don’t try to review books.  However I love books and I love talking about them and I love exploring where books take me on intellectual safaris.  I like to think of myself as an explorer of reality, but I’m not a pioneering explorer.  I follow in the footsteps of others where they leave notes along their path – those clues are called books.  I don’t read to be entertained, although I do love entertaining reading.  I think of books as very complicated messages – not messages with meaning, but messages with information about exploring reality.

Most people get bored if their friends spend more than a minute talking to them in a stretch.  Few people have the patience for lectures.  Well, a book, either fiction or nonfiction, is a very long speech from another person, sometimes ten or twenty hours, and even forty or fifty hours in some special cases.  No one will be patient enough to let a friend drone on and on like that.  Thus writing, either essay or fiction, is the art of capturing attention.

This long winded intro, which I hope hasn’t tried your patience, is leading up to something.  I’m trying to do two things here.  One, get clear in my mind what I’m doing when I talk about books, and two clarify or justify statements I have made in the past that have caused problems.  I’m hoping the next time you say, “I hated that book” you will have a new context to express yourself, because this essay will be about calling people’s intellectual babies ugly.  The public often hates critics because they come off as superior, and it is true, some critics are downright snooty, gleefully firing down their cannonball sarcasms from a superior vantage point.

I sometimes annoy people with sweeping statements I make about books.  For example, I frequently say I find books written by Robert A. Heinlein after The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress are painfully unreadable.  Now I know there are many Heinlein fans that love these later books even more than his earlier classics that I cherish, and I think its these people I annoy the most.  I don’t mean to offend or be inflammatory.  At one level when I say I find a book painfully unreadable all I mean is I personally experienced those books as painfully unreadable.  The real question here, for scientific purposes we might say, is whether or not books have absolute qualities that can be judged and compared.

I don’t like reviewing books in the sense that I’m going to say yea or nay as to whether someone should buy and read the book.  I love reading good book reviews, and I consider quality reviews a real art form.  I’ll mention again, I can’t carry that tune.  What I do like writing about is my impression of books, and how they affected my life.  Hey, it’s all about me, isn’t it?  That’s a joke, and not my vanity slipping, but it’s also a truism.  Blogging is news at a personal level.  Blogging is memoirs in bite-size chunks.  I’m can’t write scholarly reviews like I read in The New York Review of Books.  I would love to be that well educated so I could put each book I read into a larger context and relate it to its peers.

When I write about a book I want to relate how it fits into my life.  When I criticize Heinlein’s later books people need to know I how much I admired Heinlein’s earlier books.  The first paycheck I ever earned when I turned 16 was spent on ordering all twelve of the Charles Scribner’s Sons books by Heinlein in hardback direct from the publisher.  I once wrote an essay for Lan’s Lantern, an old fanzine from the 1980s, about how Heinlein was my father figure growing up.  I remember waiting for each new Heinlein book after The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, expecting so much and always be so disappointed.

There are many factors to explore here.  Did I change by growing up?  Did Heinlein change as a writer?  Or if I had read the later books at age 13 when I discovered and read all my favorite Heinlein books would my opinions be different about them?  Have I gotten older enough, and well read enough, to look at all of Heinlein’s books and judge them with a mature perspective?

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I just finished listening to The Cat Who Walked Through Walls which many Heinlein fans love because this story includes so many characters from Heinlein’s earlier much loved books.  Now I’ve read this book once and listened to it once, and it is probably the least offensive of all the later Heinlein books to me, but my personal opinion is the book is still mediocre Heinlein.  Oh, it’s more readable to me than The Number of the Beast or Friday, and its amusing to see what he does with the characters I loved from his older classic stories, and I do get a kick out of the meta-fiction, but ultimately I have to come down hard on this story.

Now if you love The Cat Who Walks Through Walls I’m not here to convince you that you are wrong.  I think the reasons why we bond with books are emotional and out of the range of analysis.  However, I do believe books have qualities that can be discussed and compared and maybe even judged.  The qualities are not as precise as the elements of physics and chemistry, but they are concepts we can get behind and even point to and say they exist.  Some of these qualities are characterization, plot, narrative, point-of-view, the accumulation of significant details, drama, and emotional conflicts.

If you enjoy reading The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and don’t want to be an English professor, critic, writer or literary scholar than these points won’t matter to you.  You buy the book, get your kicks and go on to your next read.  No big deal.  Maybe books do not have qualities that can be absolutely measured with scientific instruments, but those qualities can be discussed and judged.  The quality of any ruling is related to the quality of the judge and jury.  The judgement of giving The Cat Who Walks Through Walls to the MFA professors at the Iowa University writer’s program or Harold Bloom will be different from a group of fans at the hotel bar of a science fiction convention or panel discussion.

It is my thesis that The Cat Who Walks Through Walls could have been an outstandingly great novel but instead is a huge belly-flop.  Getting back to that explorer metaphor, let me say that Heinlein was aiming at a very ambitious idea, exploring new fictional territory with his World as Myth theory.  I don’t know if he was old and losing his writing abilities, lazy, or just corrupt by the power of writing, but The Cat Who Walks Through Walls fails miserably as a work of art.  I’m sure there are hordes of Heinlein fans who reread this book every year and find it delightful, but I’m not one.  Heinlein let me down big time.

Now here’s where my slip starts showing.  As an amateur explorer of the realms of fiction can I leave the notes that scientifically explain where I’ve been?  A good novel is built from many kinds of building blocks, and a great novel reflects the craftsmanship of each.  When I was a kid I liked to take mechanical alarm clocks apart to stare at the fascinating maze of mechanisms.  Exploring the world of fiction means learning how stories tick.

I know Heinlein intimately knew story engineering because he wrote so many masterpieces.  How can I judge him?  I’ve read a lot of great novels, and I’m slowly developing the sense for what makes them great.  I’m still in high school though.  How do I know that the later Heinlein books don’t involve master skills that I haven’t even come to recognize?  That’s a good question.  Like I said, I’m an explorer that follows in the footsteps of others.  I only have a vague sense of where the event horizon of the unknown lies.

I think quite a lot can be said about how The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is put together.  First off its a book that depends on older novels for characterization.  If you haven’t read The Rolling Stones, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Number of the Beast and other stories, you’re shortchanged when you read The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. And even if you are very familiar with these stories, there is still trouble.  Hazel Stone is not the same character in The Rolling Stones and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

I know I’m about to make one of my statements that offends people, but here goes anyway.  The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is fan fiction, but of instead of being written by fans of Heinlein, Heinlein is writing the book for his fans.  However, the quality of the story telling is more like fan fiction in general, a poor parody of the original.  I know this was probably an emotional book for Heinlein to write, and I know his fans have a great emotional attachment for his characters, but is it only me that feels this books does a great disservice to the fictional people living in the original stories?

I’m not a reader who like sequels or long story series.  I often find a great novel is best left to stand alone, and writers shouldn’t cash in on earlier successes.  As far out as the concept World as Myth is, I can’t help think such stories are not much better than daydreaming about your favorite books and characters and making up your own fantasies.  I consider Heinlein a master storyteller – and I think it would have been far better for his career to have kept inventing new stories, characters and plots instead of recycling old ones.

However, if The Cat Who Walks Through Walls had at its foundation a novel as good as Have Space Suit-Will Travel, Tunnel in the Sky, Starman Jones and The Rolling Stones, and the World as Myth unfolded naturally as part of the storytelling this would have been a brilliant work of fiction.  Instead it’s a long meandering novel about crappy topics Heinlein was obsessed with and then near the end he throws in some World as Myth ideas and wraps things up quickly.  He should have stopped the book when he got these ideas, thrown out what he had, and then worked out a real plot to fit the idea.

To make this book a masterpiece requires letting the reader in on the gimmick as soon as possible, like the Jasper Fforde novels.  Second, and this is absolutely vital, is he needs to make his classic characters act and sound just like they did from the original novels.  Third, an again this is vitally important, he needs to make the mysterious enemies vivid and realistic.  To build proper tension and page turning power readers need to know what’s at risk as soon as possible.  A last minute explanation of the bad guys told and not shown at the end of the book is just pathetic writing.

I’m not a prude, but my most vicious attack on this novel will make me sound like one.  Having all of his “good” guys sound like a convention of smarmy talking wife-swappers is just gross.  I hate to sound like a teenage girl, but damn, Heinlein’s kissy-kissy talk and innuendo just made me want to puke.  And making his classic characters act out in this limp-dick porn flick is just tragic.  Having them go on and on about how they were going to kill people for bad manners is just a little psycho to me.  Evidently a lot of people and situations annoyed the hell out of Heinlein and he used this book to vent.  Some people want to call this satire but I think that’s whitewash.

Maybe Heinlein lost his mojo and these multiverse stories were the best he could do.  Personally, I thought The Rolling Stones was a perfect novel, and bringing back Hazel Stone was a fictionally fuck-up of an idea, ditto for the cast of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Maybe I am a prude because I just don’t want the Hazel Stone, grandmother of Castor and Pollux, joking about being stretched out of shape by giant 25 centimeter cock.

All of Heinlein’s personally favorite characters get put into a fictional juicer and blended into weird rabble of sex obsessed mob that chirp a weird innuendo patter and are almost impossible to tell apart.  When I read these multiverse stories I can’t help but believe that horniness was driving Heinlein crazy.  These later stories are preoccupied with sex, killing people, responding to annoying people, the reliability of witnesses, rude people deserving capital punishment, and so on.  Not only does Heinlein recycle his characters to death, he constantly recycles his pet peeves.

The trouble with writers who keep recycling characters is their lovely fictional children get abused and mangled till they become unrecognizable from the characters of the original classic works.  The books Heinlein wrote in the 1950s contain some of the most inventive science fiction ever written.  He create fantastic science fictional ideas and matched those ideas with believable characters.  At the time he was on the cutting edge of exploring the boundaries of science fiction.

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls like the other multiverse stories, end up being a convention of swingers flirting with each other in endless pages of cutesy sex talk and solipsism arguments.  The lesson here for writers is don’t write in too many characters, and don’t have them all sound alike, and most especially don’t have them all sound like teenage girls trying to write porn.  Two people in a complicated plot that leads to sex is one thing, but stories that end up in orgies of leering conversation is a huge writing mistake.

Another story telling mistake is to give your characters too much power, and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls illustrates this perfectly.  If your heroes can time travel, dimension travel, live forever, then nothing feels real or believable, and no fictional conflict builds tension, and all bad guys feel like straw men put up for target practice.  Characters are built through the limitations they face, not from the magical powers they weld.

I actually believe that The Cat Who Walks Through Walls could have been as great as any of my favorite Heinlein stories.  Heinlein hated editors, but if he had his own Maxwell Perkins it’s no telling how good these later books could have been.

I do think Heinlein was exploring new territory, he just left poor notes.  As Heinlein neared death I think he feared his own end and worried about the mortality of his beloved characters, so these World as Myth stories created a heaven for them and himself to live in.  It’s a fantastic idea, and maybe why so many Heinlein fans love these stories.  It doesn’t mean they are good novels.  What I ask is to imagine if they had been great stories with the same theoretical ideas.  I don’t know why Heinlein became so sex-obsessed in his later years.  Maybe he always had been like that but stern editors censored him.  Or maybe he believed if we were all free from hang-ups and lived in the future we’d be wife-swappers, and all men and women would be horn-dogs.

Right after I finished The Cat Who Walks Through Walls I put on Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton to listen to and instantly heard master story telling.  Ethan Frome was first published by Charles Scribner’s, the publisher of Heinlein’s best books.  If Heinlein could have written The Cat Who Walks Through Walls with Wharton’s skill of narrative and characterization it would have been lighthouse on the shore of a new fictional ocean.  Recycling famous characters and authors into new stories is sailing on a dangerous sea.  Look at what they are doing to Jane Austen and her children.  Theoretically it might become a new art form, but it’s going to be hard to please the lovers of the original classic stories.  Heinlein couldn’t please me and he’s my favorite author.

Finally, I have to wonder if the sexual relationships that Heinlein wrote about is something he really expected for future people.  Today conservative thinking believes that sex should be between couples, and we’re arguing over whether those couples can include same sex partners.  We liberals answer yes.  Heinlein is speculating that in the future we’ll accept group sex marriages and even relationships we consider taboo now, such as incest, which I think is hard to believe even for liberals.  Like I said, I think of these ideas as swinger fantasies.  And we are a lot more liberated about sex than we were before Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land.  Even Ethan Frome is exploring the boundaries of sexual relationships in 1911.  What human behavior will be in the future is solid ground for speculative fiction, so I can’t object to Heinlein trying.

However, even the best of Heinlein’s stories shows a weak knowledge of human behavior.  Heinlein wrote great stories for teenagers, but his adults all seem a bit daffy, mainly because the characters from his adult novels were talky, opinionated and horny to strange degrees.  For all his later stories that speculate about group marriages he never once wrote realistically about people in such a dynamic relationship.

Now this gets me back to novels being complex messages.  The best novels contain treasures of data about how humans and society work.  They contain lots of intimate observations.  Heinlein didn’t write these kinds of stories.  He wrote about fantasy people, like the fantasy people of the Oz books or the Edgar Rice Burroughs books.  Look at how many lives that Tarzan has lived.  I think Heinlein was hoping his characters would have the fictional vitality of of Tarzan, John Carter, Dorothy, Toto, and The Wizard of Oz.

In these times of genre writers stretching out the lifetime of their characters in book after book. like some Days of Our Lives never-ending soap opera, was Heinlein’s ambition all that strange?  Readers love hanging onto favorite characters, but I don’t know if that’s healthy.  If the Heinlein juveniles would have been twelve books about one character it would have meant eleven fictional universes never seeing the light of creation.  Will we ever know if seven Harry Potter books are superior to seven different stories J. K. Rowling could have written?

Again, I think if Heinlein had written The Cat Who Walks Through Walls with original characters about a fictional reality where authors, fans, editors, movie directors and other writers could easily reshape the lives of those characters in fantastic ways he could have created a memorable original novel.  I think he confused the idea by recycling his older characters, because they aren’t his old characters really, nor are they new original characters, that get to be born fresh into a new virginal fictional reality.

Ultimately, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is an excellent lesson for me on how not to write a novel.  Heinlein, indeed was exploring new territory and I have learned from his efforts.  I could write a whole book tearing this story apart line by line but would it really be worth the effort?  I wouldn’t mind seeing other writers try using this idea and inventing a World as Myth with Heinlein and his characters.  Especially if the writer was very astute at analyzing Heinlein psychologically.  And just because I don’t think this is a very successful book it doesn’t mean I don’t think Heinlein fans shouldn’t read it.

Jim

Slower Than Light Imagination

Science fiction has always entertained the idea that travel between the stars would be no more arduous than travel between countries around the world today.  Because science fiction is basically adventure fiction, rocketing between Star A and Star B isn’t very exciting plotwise, so writers long ago imagined theoretical faster-than-light drives.  Anyone who has studied physics knows that these ideas are fantasies, and they contradict the notion that science fiction is based on science.  So as readers, should we accept science fiction as unscientific fun, or should we ask science fiction writers to be more scientific?

If travel between the stars was as slow as it took knowledge to evolve from Aristotle to Einstein would it still make for exciting fiction?  Science fiction has hinted at the immensity of generational ship travel, but it’s hard to write a novel that contains centuries of human activities.  I would think most novels would end up being about just the journey or jump to the destination and be just about the evolved world-building of starting a civilization on a new planet.  Interstellar war wouldn’t make any sense storywise, and neither would commerce between planets within a galactic empire, killing off two main sub-genres of SF.

Has any science fiction writer pictured a future where there are dozens of settled worlds and communication between them take years and decades?  Imagined if we had already colonized six other star systems, how would that feel to us people living on Earth?  Would it really feel any different than watching stories about China in the news?  Or imagine blogging with people from the six colonies – reading a steady stream of daily posts could be exciting – but commenting would be pointless.

There are hundreds of diverse countries around this globe that most people ignore in their daily life.  Sure, future people might watch an occasional documentary set on another world just like we watch a National Geographic show about an exotic Pacific island now.  Slower than light travel and speed of light communication will make an odd expansion of the human sphere of influence.  We could stay constantly in contact with generation ships and influence each other’s language and culture.  Just imagine new songs, television shows, books and movies coming from generation ships and colonies on distant planets.

A cool novel would be following two friends, one on Earth and one on a generation ship, staying in contact by a steady stream of messages where the time lag of replies grows ever longer.  Heinlein hinted as the possibilities of such a story with his novel Time for the Stars, but he cheated and used instantaneous telepathy as a form of communication.

Once I started thinking about STL travel to the stars I realize that science fiction hasn’t even begun to explore the idea.  Science fiction has fixated on space opera, military conflict and galactic civilizations, all from the realm of fantasy to the almost complete exclusion of how things might be.  Why is this?  Obviously, adventure fiction is built on conflict – where fighting nasty aliens is thrilling and the politics of interstellar empires offers far more intrigue.

It also shows a lack of imagination.  Two recent literary novels using fantasy and science fiction techniques, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, absolutely kicked our genre’s ass when it came to plotting outside of the traditional genre box.  Too often science fiction writers find their inspiration from science fiction tradition, like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, a book I had much fun reading and which felt like delicious SF nostalgia rather than Cirque du Soleil storytelling dazzle that I got out of The Life of Pi or The Time Traveler’s Wife

I’m guessing that future SF writers of the talent of Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke won’t use golden age giants for their models, but come out of left field with stories that surprise us.  And one area where I’d love to be surprised is by reading stories that make me think I might be reading real possible futures.  I used to think reading history was a way to know the past, and reading science fiction was a way to imagine possible futures.  I hate the idea of dying and not know the future of mankind, so I always loved science fiction as a way to speculate and sooth my existential sadness about the future, however the older I get the more I’m disappointed with the help I’m getting from science fiction.  Some science fiction stories do admirably work at what I want, but too often science fiction has become recursive, like standing between two mirrors, mesmerizing but limited.

I’m not saying that generation ships are the only way to envision mankind traveling to the stars.  What if travel could be speeded up to a significant fraction of the speed of light?  Then it’s possible to write about people who make the whole trip from one star to the next.  It is physically possible to travel such speeds but it is highly unlikely it will ever be done by humans, but I’m more than willing to explore the possibilities.  I don’t think science fiction has really explored the nature of relativity all that well.  There were some stellar examples like Tau Zero by Poul Anderson and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

One inherent barrier to what I’m talking about is SF novels are from the POV of the characters on the cutting edge of the action.  The reader gets to experience reaching another world but never understands what the rest of humanity feels about such a success for our species. 

Imagine a classroom of students adopting a young astronaut on the first near-light speed trip to another star.  To the astronaut, the trip will be a few years to him, but a lifetime to those kids.  What if Neil Armstrong’s whole trip to the Moon took our entire lifetime, and his story was one we followed avidly our whole life, sharing with friends.  Can you imagine a novel about thirty 13-year-old school kids meeting a 25-year old man before his trip, and then a group of 83-year-old grown-up kids meeting him again when he returned and was only 35? 

Now the kicker, whose story would be more interesting?  The guy who got to go to another star, or the group that got to experience seventy years of life on Earth during a time when mankind was going to the stars?  The genre writer would pick the astronaut, but the literary writer would pick the kids.

Living in space is so much different from the dreams of science fiction.  It has been my theory that science and science fiction diverged back in the 1960s when space travel became a reality.  It is theoretically possible for mankind to live in space despite all the harsh realities of the dangers it poses.  Future space ships that travel between the stars will probably be large asteroids that are flung between the stars, to drift at speeds far below the speed of light.  They would have be self-contained worlds, with energy systems that could function for centuries.  The art of recycling would have to be near perfect.

Such space travel is a far cry from the adventures of Hans Solo and Captains Kirk and Picard.  Do science fiction readers have the patience for such stories?  Robert A. Heinlein imagined the fantastic tale of people forgetting they were the crew on such ship in Orphans of the Sky.   Brian Aldiss wrote a very similar story called Non-Stop/Starship.  In fact, most generation ship stories, including the more modern ones like Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo and The Book of the Long Son by Gene Wolfe can’t get past the idea that the inhabitants of such voyages will forgot their missions.  Wolfe goes go way beyond Heinlein by imagining a vastly complex society that is far more interesting than space travel itself.

Has any science fiction writer imagined such a generation ship society that remembers their purpose and creates a society that reflects what living between the stars would be like with the full knowledge of where they are and why they are there?  Like I said earlier, it’s probably easier to just skip the journey and create a new world for your characters to have their adventures.  But isn’t this just a way to set Lord of the Rings on another planet?

When does science fiction turn into fantasy?  Think about it.  Wherever we go in the universe, humans will all face the same problems.  Air, water, food and shelter.  After that comes community and civilization.  If we don’t forget like those characters in the Heinlein story, we’ll always have an ever-growing body of science and knowledge to work with and use.  In other words, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy.  It will be like on Earth, but somewhere else, but with a vastly different society and culture, but will it be that different?

Science fiction was born during a time when the knowledge about other planets could easily fit into a single volume.  In the 21st Century a SF writer needs to read dozens of books to scratch the surface about what astronomy now knows about outer space.  It seems when NASA probes starting sending back photos SF stopped trying to deal with space reality.  I find it amazing that when NASA started succeeding, Heinlein shifted his focus from outer space science fiction, to the inner space of sexual/social science fiction.  That was a brilliant career move, but unfortunately he stopped being speculative and entered a personal recursive mode, restating the same ideas over and over again in each new book.  If only he had been as inventive as he had been in his 1950s space books.

What if mankind never goes to the stars, or even to Mars?  That’s one area that science fiction has totally failed to explore.  Science fiction has always assumed the final frontier is outer space – what if that’s a bust?  What if our species is trapped on Earth for millions of years, what does that do to us psychologically?  What if robots get to conquer the galaxy but we don’t?

Has science fiction become a steady-state recursive universe because of faster-than-light travel fantasies?  Has science fiction become entrenched in a Ptolemaic world view and desperately in need of a Copernicus?  Has our faith in FTL stories kept us from understanding what modern day Galileos are telling us?

Science fiction will always be exciting to kids because all of its great ideas are still new to them.  However, as readers grow older and have several hundred stories under their belt, science fiction stops being novel.  It gets harder to find truly sense-of-wonder stories.  I’d like to think if science fiction tried to recapture its relationship with science it might find new realms of wonder.

Jim