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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Heinlein’

Adventures in Bookland: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag by Robert A. Heinlein

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018

I grew up reading Heinlein’s juveniles and I’m grateful for that as both a reader and, now, a writer. As a reader, and a young reader at that, they were fast, convincing and did not condescend at all: I really thought that, under the right circumstances and with enough application and smarts on my part, I too should be able to:

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.

Of course, the problem with that quote, which is the underlying philosophy of all the characters in his juveniles, is that it comes from his book Time Enough For Love, when, frankly, Heinlein had completely fallen off his typewriter and disappeared up his own verbiage as some sort of free-love guru who liked big guns and springy nipples. The later books, when Heinlein’s fame and an overly permissive editor allowed him to write for as long as he wanted, are, quite simply, embarrassingly bad. Imagine the bloat of the later Harry Potter novels but with bad sex and women who only ever say, ‘Yes.’ But then… there are the early novels, the juveniles such as Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Starman Jones and Space Cadet, not to mention The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and I remember just how good he was. If only, if only, if only Stranger in a Strange Land hadn’t been such a success. But with the sex and philosophising pulling in the punters, Heinlein could abandon the discipline of telling a story for a soapbox.

The stories in The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag are certainly not juveniles, but they belong to the most brilliantly productive and imaginative phase of his career, although All You Zombies does foreshadow Heinlein’s later bizarre mother fixation, even if you can argue that he’s here working through the logical possibilities of time travel and, in his marvellous phrase, paradoctoring a paradox. The titular story has remained with me for many many years: the final images of a world apparently real but actually simply fog, and of not knowing whether you are a creature of that fog, lodged themselve so deeply into my teenage brain that, rereading the book now, they still freeze me. Highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: Space Cadet by Robert Heinlein

Thursday, June 11th, 2015
Space Cadet

Space Cadet

So, it’s 1977. We’ve landed on the moon and come home again, twiddled our thumbs, looked around and decided, er, that’s it. I’d watched, in befuddled amazement, as a group of lads not much older than me had appeared on TV with Bill Grundy and swore on live TV (it’s hard to believe, but I’d gone through my entire time at primary school without hearing a single four-letter word, although the first day at my secondary school was sufficient to introduce me to all the common ones). There were only three channels on TV, and most of the day was taken up with the test card:

The test card

The test card

It was a different world. But I was reading about a new world, a world that still seemed brave and new and, through the peculiar and particular genius of Robert Heinlein, quite, quite possible. 1977 seems already a world away, but Heinlein wrote Space Cadet in 1948. In it, the future had arrived, and it had done so so completely that it did not even need to be explained. People had phones that they could carry around and make calls from – anywhere. The Interplanetary Patrol has imposed peace on all the planets of the solar system. And these planets teemed with life; beneath Venus’s clouds were seas and marshes and Venusians; austere Martians co-existed with brash Terran colonists, barely noticing their presence. The future had arrived and it was all a whole lot better than the world of 1977. Although Heinlein was in many things astonishingly prescient, there was one area where he, and all the golden age SF writers, failed utterly. In Space Cadet, Heinlein even dated the first Moon landing to 1975, only six years out. But neither he nor anyone else had anticipated was that, having got to the Moon, we would stop.

My two earliest memories of the wider world outside my family and immediate experience were Neil Armstrong’s, ‘One small step’ and the spreading green ripples through the jungles of Vietnam, as B52s dropped strings of bombs onto the country below. The Interplanetary Patrol, a self-denying, self-sacrificing corps of nuclear-armed police, seemed to my thirteen-year-old self, the perfect solution to the problems of the world: even now I can remember the impact of the hero’s realisation that, yes, the Patrol would drop the bomb on his own home town if required to do so and he would regard them as right in doing so. This is the sort of sacrifice that appeals to a boy struggling towards adulthood, and Heinlein’s juvenile novels are great manuals for a certain sort of boyhood – one that I wished to have. Space Cadet is one of the best, in particular because it is free of one his character tropes, the garrulous father figure. All the characters here are boys, growing into men, and Heinlein does a great job of portraying that within the quasi-naval context of the Patrol.  All in all, Space Cadet contains almost all Heinlein’s virtues as a writer and none of the vices that later infected his work.

Oh, and the price back in 1977? 75p. Here’s the cover of my copy: the paper has yellowed but it’s still in good condition.

1977 NEL edition of Space Cadet

1977 NEL edition of Space Cadet

Book review: Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014
Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein

Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein

I was  a big fan of Heinlein’s juvenile novels when growing up – I’m still a big fan of them now – and I have kept my collection neatly lined up on a shelf over the years, occasionally dipping into favourites. My favourite is probably Have Space Suit, Will Travel, but Starman Jones runs it close.

Anyway, I’d not read Tunnel in the Sky for a long time, so I picked it up for a re-read (my edition dates from 1978 when it cost 60p!). In the end, I found it slightly disappointing. Tunnel in the Sky has all Heinlein’s usual virtues of tight writing and an apparently effortless evocation of a future Earth society, but it also showed some of the vices that were later to dominate his work: notably the tendency to use a novel as a showcase for his political and philosophical ideas. So what is basically a SF Swiss Family Robinson becomes an essay on ideal forms of government, complete with compulsively verbose older authority figure (although, on rereading Swiss Family Robinson, it also featured a compulsively verbose older authority figure, the father, so maybe Heinlein pinched this constant character from a Swiss pastor. Sounds unlikely, but stranger things have happened). Of course, being early Heinlein, it doesn’t lose the story completely, far from it, but if Churchill had, by some chance, reviewed 1950s science fiction he might have decided that it would have benefited from less jaw jaw and more war war.