Tag Archives: robert heinlein

[October 9, 1962] Middlin’ middle sibling (November 1962 IF Science Fiction)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

Another month, another load of science fiction digests delivered to my door.  Normally, they arrive staggered over several weeks (the various publishers know not to step on each other’s toes – the field is now pretty uncrowded, so there’s room for everyone to play), but since I was traveling the last week, I’d already accumulated a small pile upon my return.

Top of the month has been devoted to the magazines edited by famous author/agent Fred Pohl, e.g. Galaxy and IF — and starting next year, Worlds of Tomorrow!  The first two alternate every month, and odd months are IF‘s turn.  Thus, enjoy this review of the November 1962 IF Science Fiction, which was a bit of a slog leavened with bright spots:

Podkayne of Mars (Part 1 of 3), by Robert A. Heinlein

A few years ago, Robert Heinlein wrote A Menace from Earth.  Unlike virtually every other story to date, it starred (in 1st Person, no less) a precocious teen girl, and it was perhaps the first blend of science fiction and romance.  My 11 year-old (the Young Traveler) adored it and asked me if there was any more like it.  Sadly, there wasn’t. 

Until this month. 

Heinlein’s new novel, Podkayne of Mars, is another 1st Person piece from the viewpoint of a brilliant young woman.  Young Podkayne (Poddy) Fries dreams of becoming a spaceship captain, maybe the first to lead an expedition to the stars.  But to realize her dream, she has to get off of the Red Planet, a sort of futuristic Australia colonized by the best and worst of Terra’s children. 

I tore into Podkayne with a gusto that slowly but inevitably waned.  Have you ever engaged in conversation with a promising raconteur only to find, after a few minutes, that her/his increasingly meandering tale doesn’t and won’t have a point?  And now you’re stuck for the long haul.  That’s Podkayne.  Heinlein simply can’t divorce his rambly, screedy persona from his work.  The result is disturbing, as if there is a creepy old man lurking behind Podkayne’s bright young blue eyes. 

The story is interesting enough to keep me reading, and I appreciate the somewhat progressive treatment of women, but this is a tale that would be served best if written by someone else.  Zenna Henderson might make it too moody; I suspect Rosel George Brown would render it perfectly.  Two stars for this installment, with some improvement at the end.

The Real Thing, by Albert Teichner

Value is determined by scarcity.  When the authentic article is easy to be had, and it is the counterfeit that is rare, we can expect the latter to climb in value.  Someday, we may find plastic to be more desirable than the material it emulates; or we may deem robots to be more human than people.  Teichner’s story explores the latter idea as fully as a few pages will allow, and he pulls it off.  Three stars.

The Reluctant Immortals, by David R. Bunch

Bunch, on the other hand, writing of an overcrowded Earth that has become a driver’s nightmare, does a less convincing job.  There’s good artsy weird, and then there’s tedious artsy weird.  Guess which one this is?  Two stars.

The Desert and the Stars, by Keith Laumer

IF has published a tale of Retief, that interstellar ambassador/superagent, every two months for the last year.  I’m glad Laumer will soon take a break from the character.  I won’t say that this particular piece, in which Retief diplomatically foils an attempt by the Aga Kaga to poach the new farming colony of Flamme, is a story too far – but I think we’re getting there.  Retief’s exploits are getting a little too easy, almost self-parodying.  On the other hand, there are some genuinely funny moments in Desert, and the bit where the diplomat communicates solely in proverbs for several pages is a hoot.  Three stars.

The Man Who Flew, by Charles D. Cunningham, Jr.

A murder mystery in which a telepathic detective puzzles out the how and the who of the untimely demise of his client’s wife; an event with which the detective seems to be uncannily familiar.  This is Cunningham’s first work, and it shows.  It tries too hard at too worn a theme.  Two stars, but let’s see how his next one goes.

Too Many Eggs, by Kris Neville

If the fridge you buy is sold at an unexplained deep discount, you may be getting more than you bargained for – especially if the thing dispenses free food!  I don’t know why I liked this piece so much; it’s just well done and unforced.  Four stars.

The Critique of Impure Reason, by Poul Anderson

Few things can ruin a bright mind like the field of modern literature criticism, and when the mind corrupted belongs to a highly advanced robot on whom the future of space exploitation depends, the tragedy is compounded manyfold.  Only the resurrection of a literary genre seemingly impervious to serious analysis is the answer.  Three stars, though the trip down grad school memory lane was a bit painful.

The Dragon-Slayers, by Frank Banta

A tiny, cute vignette of a simple Venusian peasant family with a dragon problem, and the gift from the boss that proves far more valuable than intended.  Three stars.

In all, 2.6 stars.  Once again, IF leaves the impression that it might someday be a great magazine if it ever grows up.  Nevertheless, no issue yet has compelled me to cancel the subscription, and several have made me glad of it.  May Galaxy’s little sister flower into the beauty of the elder and set a good example for the new baby due next January…




[August 23, 1961] Lost in translation (Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land)


by Rosemary Benton

I enjoy my science fiction in the evenings, when I can open the windows and let my tortoise, Mabel, out of her cage to meander around my condominium.  Both of us love these night time relaxations as a way to expunge stress and enjoy new environments.  For me, I get the opportunity to stretch my mind with speculative fiction, while Mabel enjoys the more humble tortoise pleasure of exploring nooks and crannies. 

On one such recent evening I looked at Mabel and felt a coincidental connection between our activities. For whatever reason, she was choosing to repeatedly walk in a wobbly circle from the couch to the table, to the wall, to the bookshelf, and then back to the couch.  This wouldn’t have struck me so powerfully except for the fact that I was reading Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein.  Like Mabel, I was not only willingly subjecting myself to drudgery, but I was engaged in a circular story that felt like it was going nowhere.

The premise of Stranger is interesting enough.  Conceived on Mars and raised by the Old Ones (the elders and collective holders of all Martian knowledge), Valentine Michael “Mike” Smith is the sole survivor of a scientific expedition sent from Earth to study the Red Planet.  Approximately 25 years and one world war later, mankind again makes a trip to Mars where they find Michael alive and well under the care of the Martians.  Mike makes the voyage back to Earth under the strict order of his surrogate parents, whereupon he is first taken to a hospital for observation by a purposefully all male staff. With his legal status up in the air, Smith is stuck between the odd position of being the Sovereign of Mars or a citizen of Earth’s World Federation of Free Nations.  Eventually smuggled out of the hospital, Mike begins his life on Earth under the tutelage of his liberator, his lawyer, and his other “water-brothers”.  Stranger is the story of a man flung into an odd world of concepts, theories and rules, and the journey he takes to “grok” humanity and heal mankind of its self-inflicted wounds.

This is the story of the creation of a culture that is an amalgamation of human nature and Martian ideas.  It makes sense that on an Earth such as Heinlein creates, where religion is a powerful entity politically and socially, the journey of the main character would be one of a religious awakening.  A religious story of a naive boy growing into an enlightened man is virtually a cliche, but in the hands of the right author it can be given fresh life.  Was Heinlein the right author for this? Sort of. 

Despite my initial expectations about a story that promised to be part “coming of age” and part “survival in an alien culture”, Stranger in a Strange Land is a tedious read.  The first 200 pages are an almost moment-by-moment recount of The Man from Mars being brought to Earth, escaping the hospital with the help of a nurse named Gillian “Jill” Boardman, meeting her associate Jubal Harshaw, coming to trust Jubal and having lengthy and repetitive conversations with him as a burgeoning father figure/lawyer/interpreter/guide to human nature.

Often a conversation between characters will read like a transcript of a classrom group discussion set in wherein one person is the primary speaker and the rest of the group contributes small insights or asks for clarification.  Then the whole topic will be reintroduced, but from a different angle. It is immensely dry to read.

Heinlein takes great care to describe Mike’s inner voice and his difficulty “grokking” or grasping human logic and concepts.  Slowly he teases out the special powers of perception and control over physics that Mike learned from the Martians.  At first, sections written from the perspective of Mike’s mind were the most anticipated parts of the novel, but as Mike adapted and became more “human” in his thinking, the intrigue of his mind’s workings likewise faded. 

Stranger contains a sizable cast of side characters including, but not limited to, the founder of the highly influential Church of the New Revelation (Fosterite), the Muslim semanticist Dr. “Stinky” Mahmoud, and Jubal Harshaw’s three secretaries, Anne, Dorcas, and Miriam.  Numerous, yes, but not well-developed.  Very little is given as to the pasts of these or any of Heinlein’s characters.

Indeed, aside from the snake handler and tattoo aficionado Patricia “Patty” Paiwonski, they are all shadows compared to the protagonist: Mike is the most rounded character given the necessity of explaining portions of his Martian upbringing.  Everyone else begins their arcs in the immediate present, and continues on from there.  I found this to be the most frustrating part of Stranger in a Strange Land (aside from the circular nature of many of the characters’ interactions) for the simple fact that it doesn’t give you much to grasp.  If the concept of a science fiction Mowgli-turned-philosopher type main character isn’t enough to hold your interest for over 400 pages, you are somewhat out of luck, I’m afraid.

That being said, Stranger in a Strange Land‘s readability does significantly improve in the second half of the book.  As I mentioned earlier, Patty Paiwonski is introduced during the journeying stage of Mike’s self-realization.  Not only does she grow to become an important member of Mike’s Church of All Worlds but she is nearly 50 years old, covered in religious tattoos and artwork from the neck down, and described as, “associat[ing] with grifters and sinners unharmed” (271).

It is also at this point that the book really begins to dig into the complexities and issues of church-founding, culture versus religion, and the practice of Mike’s teachings. Sex, God, the differences between men and women, all of this and more is played out in a far more digestible pace than in the early half of the book.

Jill Boardman’s character really comes into her own as she finds liberation from social constraints with Mike’s help.  Working as a showgirl while Mike is out amongst the population of America, she learns to enjoy her own body, feels the shame of voyeuristic tendencies fall away, and even takes on the role of teacher to Mike.  Through her he groks how to achieve the one thing he hasn’t been able to feel – laughter.  Despite how interesting her transformation is from jealously guarding Mike to happily sharing him, her lessons at times can rub the reader in the wrong way.

For me it was hard to read about Mike’s understanding of homosexuality. “ Mike would grok a “wrongness” in the poor in-betweeners anyhow – they would never be offered water” (303).  The fact that Heinlein acknowledges homosexuality is heartening.  There is very little mainstream fiction that addresses homosexuality with anything other than fear and contempt, but despite offering a kind of understanding and sympathy, it’s piteous and exclusionary. T o never be offered water in the realm of Stranger means to never be offered the closeness and community that leads to ultimate happiness and physical well being.

The role of women in Mike’s grokking of Earth is another point which unfolds in an intriguing but ultimately controversial way.  Jill’s understanding of rape is highly repugnant.  I, for one, do not believe Jill’s explanation that, “Nine times out of 10, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault” (304).

The strengthening of female minds and bodies is likewise seen by the handyman, Sam, as something that will cause problems for society.  “When a female conceives only as an act of volition, when she is immune to disease…and has her orientation so changed that she desires intercourse with a whole-heartedness that Cleopatra never dreamed of – but any male who tried to rape her would die so quickly, if she so grokked, that he wouldn’t know what hit him?  When women are free of guilt and fear – but invulnerable?  Hell, the pharmaceutical industry will be a minor casualty – what other industries, laws, institutions, attitudes, prejudices, and nonsense must give way?” (401).

Jill’s view on rape is never tested in a real case.  The societal outcome of women heartening their minds and bodies is not explored on a large scale.  In fact, precious little is.  While Stranger proposes a (somewhat) better society, it doesn’t explore what such a society would look like in action outside of a small commune.

This is not to say that Stranger in a Strange Land isn’t worth a read.  Though painful, dense and not altogether enjoyable, Stranger does have is noteworthy points.  The eroticism and communal living present titillating ideas.  Nevertheless, it feels claustrophobic with Heinlein’s view of a conflict-less world.  In this is Heinlein’s ultimate failing – there is just too little conflict in Stranger.  Society just effortlessly adapts and molds itself to Mike’s teachings which, at the end of the day, all come from the philosophies of wealthy and well off people. 

To bring everything back to my earlier question of whether Heinlein was the right author to breathe new life into the story of religious awakening – Stranger in a Strange Land had the ideas, but is too verbose and simple.  Frankly, I’ll stick with Heinlein for his Starship Troopers material.  He does far better when he allows himself to couch his moralizing in action adventure than when he presents unadorned explorations into the origins of cultural identity or the dissection of human nature.

Two and a half stars.  Five for originality.  One for execution.

[Dec. 22. 1959] Put a finer point on it (Starship Troopers)

It is common practice for serials published in science fiction digests to get turned into stand-alone novels. Not only does this constitute a nice double-dip for publishers and authors, but it offers the writer a chance to polish her/his work further.  Sometimes, the resulting product ends up something of a bloated mess.  In the case of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, the novelization of Starship Soldier (which appeared in F&SF a couple of months ago), the opposite is the case.  Heinlein’s expanded story has turned a flawed gem into a masterpiece.

Left virtually intact are the first two acts as presented in F&SF.  Johnny Rico is a bright but rather callow youth who joins the “Mobile Infantry” without much forethought.  After an intense and vividly portrayed Basic Training, Rico becomes versed in the art of combat from within a suit of powered armor with enough power to destroy a 20th Century tank company.  He then goes off to fight an interstellar war against the “Bugs,” a hive-mind race of Arachnoids, and their co-belligerents, the humanoid “Skinnies.”  There is precious little depiction of combat, however, with the exception of a well-executed first chapter (Basic Training is described in flashback).

It was all well done, but the serial just sort of ends without much resolution or pay-off.  The novel includes a full third act wherein Rico is involved in a mission to capture one of the Bug “brains” for interrogation/experimentation purposes.  This is what the novel needed, and I have to wonder if Heinlein intended it to be there all the time, but was limited by space constraints.  It makes the book a must-have, and it is possibly the best thing Heinlein has written to date.

Of course, there is a bit more of the jingoistic, even Fascist pro-militarism speeches issuing from the mouths of various officers and professors.  I imagine a number of impressionable young folk will be motivated to enlist after reading the book.  I can only hope that we don’t fight any major wars over the next decade or two, though so long as the minute hand on the F.A.S. Doomsday Clock remains at two minutes to Midnight, that seems wishful thinking.

Then again, so long as there are just 120 seconds to Armageddon, the next major war is likely to be very short.

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P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!



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[Dec. 02, 1959] The Menace from Earth!

With only four science fiction digests coming out per month (really three if you count Galaxy and IF as one monthly magazine instead of two bi-monthlies), I often fill my reading time with anthologies and novels.  Robert Heinlein has a new anthology of his works out, The Menace from Earth, which largely features stories I hadn’t previously read.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

Year of the Jackpot came out in Galaxy nearly eight years ago!  It was rightly anthologized in the 1952 Galaxy Reader as the lead story.  Statistician Potiphar Breen plots a trend to the increased silliness in the world and concludes that the Apocalypse is nigh.  Along with Meade Barstow, whom Potiphar meets while she is stripping bare at a bus stop (one datum of silliness), the unlikely hero manages to escape catastrophe when nuclear war breaks out.  But out of the frying pan…

I found By his Bootstraps, detailing the adventures of a time-looping fellow who crosses his own path several times, to be rather tedious.  There is an art to telling such stories so that one does not repeat the same scene over and over, just from different viewpoints.  This story was written before Mr. Heinlein developed that art. 

I’m sure I’ve read Sky Lift before, I think in Imagination.  A hotshot pilot is tasked with bringing fresh blood to a plague-ridden Pluto base.  He only has about a week, which means he’ll have to pull nearly four gees of acceleration the entire way.  Will he make it?

Goldfish Bowl is a sad tale in which giant pillars of unknown origin appear in the Pacific Ocean, their tops lost in the stratosphere.  Two men explore the pillars only to be abducted and placed in the extraterrestrial (or perhaps hyperterrestrial) equivalent of a fishbowl—with only one way out.  Who are these aliens?  What do they want with us?  And can humanity be warned if and when the prisoners answer these questions?

The worst of the bunch is unquestionably Project Nightmare, a ridiculous tale in which the Soviets plant several dozen bombs in our biggest cities and hold the country hostage.  Only a team of psychics, working ’round-the-clock can save the day.  And then, just for kicks, blow up the Russkies.  Terrible.

Water is for Washing, about an earthquake causing the Imperial Valley to flood, is near and dear to my heart seeing how I grew up in its setting.  The Valley a miserable, desolate place—120 degrees in the summer and 25 degrees in the winter.  Yet it is an agricultural marvel, and there are good people who reside there.  If you’ve ever read The Winning of Barbara Worth, you’ll get a good sense for what it’s like, and you’ll know why the place at which the protagonist stops for a drink early in the story is called the Barbara Worth Hotel!

I’ve saved the best for last.  The eponymous The Menace from Earth is simply a tour de force.  Told convincingly from the viewpoint of a 15-year old girl living on the moon, it is a story of teen love, angst, jealous, and low-gravity aerodynamics.  I gave the book to my 10-year old daughter so she could read this story, and she “loved it.” She asked if Heinlein wrote more stories like it, to which I had to reply in the negative.

I hate to leave things on a down note, however.  Do you know any stories written in a similar style?  Juveniles from the female point of view?  Please share!

All told, Menace is a book worth getting even though many of the stories have melancholy endings.  If you’re still in the mood for Heinlein after this large portion, you can try picking up the other recently released anthology: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.  But that’s a review for another day…

Note: I love comments (you can do so anonymously), and I always try to reply.

P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!



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[Oct. 8, 1959] Shooting Stars (Heinlein’s Starship Soldier)

Robert Heinlein newest short novel is out, and my feelings toward it are much mixed.

If you have a subscription to The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy (FASF), you’ve no doubt read Heinlein’s Starship Soldier, by turns a coming-of-age story, a depiction of boot camp life, and a clearing house for Heinlein’s unique socio-poltical views.

In brief, it’s the tale of Juan Rico, a young man of Filipino extraction, who enlists in the army on the eve of an interstellar war.  As a member of the Mobile Infantry, he is one of the few elite pilots of a suit of powered armor, which packs enough punch to take out a 20th century tank batallion.  Platoons of be-suited soldiers are ejected from orbital spacecraft, whereupon they parachute to the surface and engage the enemy.  In this book, the enemy is a race of intelligent, hive-minded bugs, whose capacity for perfect coordination gives them the upper hand in the first stage of the war.  While it is suggested that humanity eventually wins the war, it is never explicitly explained how.

Heinlein’s future is unique: after the Disorders wracking all of the world’s governments at the end of the twentieth century, groups of veterans take power throughout the world, eventually combining into a federal government under which only veterans attain citizenship.  The resulting society is depicted as liberal and pleasant.  One of the characters, a teacher of “History and Moral Philosophy” (a required high school course) explains that, as a system, it is no more arbitrary than any other democratic system where the franchise is barred from some on the basis of age, origin, or profession.  The teacher suggests that the system works not because veterans are any better or smarter than civilians, but because they’ve had “skin in the game,” and thus prioritize the welfare of the whole over themselves.

I have trouble buying this: veterans are criminals about as often as anyone else (and the teacher even concedes this in the story), and given that the Roman Empire’s citizenry was largely composed of veterans by the end of its existence, I don’t know that history backs Heinlein’s dream.

Still, there’s no denying that the story is superbly written, and the society Heinlein depicts is interesting.  More importantly, Johnny Rico is a great character (if perhaps not sufficiently differentiated from Heinlein’s other 18-year olds).  The first half of the short novel begins in media res with Rico raiding a world of the Bugs’ co-belligerents, the Skinnies.  The remainder of this installment deals with Rico’s enlistment and training, which is incredibly realistic and engaging.  It ends with Rico as one of the 9% who make it through boot camp to become a space soldier.

Part two is also excellent though somehow more detached.  It is mostly told in recollection, describing the start of the Bug War and Rico’s early involvement.  It segues into present tense with Rico entering Officer Candidate School.  The novel ends with Rico leading his old platoon with his father as platoon sergeant.  Near the end, we get a lot of moralizing from the mouth of one of Rico’s later teachers with some vague anti-Communist screeds and analogies to the recent Korean War.  However, while there is much talk of the value of a military-run society, there is no reference to nudity or cats, so it’s not quite all one might expect of a Heinlein novel.

Heinlein is a veteran, and he went through bootcamp and Navy O.C.S.  He knows whereof he speaks, and it shows.  I’ve no fault with the writing or the story.  My main issue is that the thing feels unfinished.  We have an excellent beginning, with hints of some really excellent depiction of future space combat (much better than as shown in Dickson’s recent Dorsai!), then there is an engaging training montage, some good world set-up… and then it just ends.  It really needs a return to the style of the first half, with perhaps another battle to end the story as it began.

I understand Heinlein is releasing a stand-alone novel later this year.  Since the serial is too short for publication, I’m hoping he’ll develop it further.  He was likely limited by the size of the vehicle (FASF), which was back to its usual 128 pages this month.

I will say this for the book.  Not only is there a nice, poly-ethnic cast, including a non-White protagonist, but women are a key part of the military.  Whereas the Mobile Infantry are generally (wholly?) male, the Navy is primarily female, and women make the best pilots.  In fact, it was Rico’s high school sweetheart who enlisted first, and she distinguishes herself as much as Rico, though she is, sadly, incidental to the story. 

Next time, I’ll discuss the rest of the magazine.  In the mean time, Ad Astra!

P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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Second chances (March 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 3-6-1959)

I promised a book review today, but then I misplaced my book.  Life is like that.  So, for your reading pleasure, I instead offer my meanderings through the March 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction (you know, the one I was supposed to have done last month instead of the prematurely secured April issue).

As with the last (next) ish of F&SF, it starts with a bang.  Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—“ is an unique tale of time travel.  Everyone has heard of the Grandfather’s Paradox, but what if you end up being your own granpaw?  I have to give extra credit to Heinlein for having a transsexual protagonist (i.e. someone who has been both male and female).  I hope I’m using that word correctly–it’s brand new.

I like Asimov’s science article, Nothing, in which he points out that the mass of all the “empty” spaces between the galaxies actually exceeds the mass contained in the galaxies by a significant margin.  I suppose that makes sense, but it is odd to conceptualize.  I guess the Great Watchmaker needs to stir up the universe just a little more to get the lumps out…

Ray Bradbury has a tale involving mermaids in this issue called The Shoreline at Sunset.  Any mermaid story in F&SF naturally invites comparison to Sturgeon’s mermaid story A Touch of Strange (published in the Jan. 1958 issue).  Unfortunately, unlike Sturgeon’s quite brilliant piece, Bradbury’s is well-written but somewhat pointless.  But then, I might say that any time I compare Bradbury to Sturgeon.

Have you been following Zenna Henderson’s stories of “The People”?  Human in form but possessed of tremendous psychic powers, these interstellar refugees have been trapped on Earth in hiding for many years.  They dwell in their sequestered valleys, occasionally venturing forth to rescue isolated members of their kind raised by native Earthers.  Henderson’s stories are always beautiful, often with a touch of sadness.

Well, with Jordan, the castaways finally have the opportunity to be rescued.  More “civilized” members of their race arrive in a spaceship with an invitation to settle on a new planet, one on which they won’t have to hide their powers or use rough technology to do what their powers could do more elegantly.  Yet the exiled People have grown to love the Earth and even the crude methods they’ve had to employ to survive.  Can they leave it all behind? 

According to the editorial blurb preceding the story, it looks like Ms. Henderson finally has enough stories of The People to fill an anthology.  I definitely recommend picking it up when it hits the shelves.

See you on the 8th!



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Beyond this Horizon (11-21-1958)

The traveling circus has moved to Osaka, Japan’s second metropolis.  It’s a grubby, earthy place, with a colorful dialect and brasher manners.  For an American, it’s actually kind of refreshing; the formality is less forced.  Like Tokyo, the city is alive with new construction and industry.  In contrast to cities back home, which have infrastructure dating back to the turn of the century, Japan looks like the future. 

It was thus the perfect place to finish Heinlein’s Beyond this Horizon, which was first published under a pseudonym back in 1942 and republished under his own name in 1948.  This was a second-hand copy I’d picked up specifically for this trip. 

Beyond this Horizon is an odd duck of a novel, particularly in comparison to Heinlein’s recent, more conventional works (i.e. The Puppet Masters, The Door into Summer, etc.).  It divides neatly into three parts, and only the middle section has any real plot.  I didn’t read the version originally serialized in Astounding, but I imagine much of the disjointed nature stems from the story having been written for magazine publication.

The book is set in a utopic far future, and it follows the life of Hamilton Felix (the order of names is reversed, Japanese-style, for reasons central to the premise of story).  He is the genetically superior result of a dozen generations of eugenic breeding.  In this regard, he is no different from most of his fellows.  Most everyone on Earth in the story is the result of the weeding out of undesirable traits and the promotion of positive ones.  People are allowed to find their own mates, but the children are artificially assisted to be the best possible offspring.  Only the “control normals” are left unmodified.

Hamilton’s primary involvement in the story is to be resistant to the possibility of having offspring (the first part), to infiltrate and disrupt a revolutionary group bent on deposing the world government and eliminating the control normals (the second part), and to give in to having offspring (the third part).  Hamilton’s children offer glimpses into an understanding of the world beyond the veil of mortality, the philosophical and scientific exploration of which is a recurring theme.

It is difficult to tell with Heinlein when he is portraying the mores and opinions of his characters and when his characters are simply spouting the mores and opinions of Heinlein.  I suspect the latter is more common.  I find this book fascinating as it makes a point of distinguishing between bad eugenics (which led to two devastating wars in Beyond’s timeline) and good eugenics as practiced by the government in the book.  Hamilton is, himself, dubious of the benevolence of the concept as exemplified by his statement in Part 1, “There is something a little terrifying about a man with too long a view.” Given that the world war raging at the time the book was written was in large part motivated by eugenics, the positive portrayal of same is a bit disturbing. 

On the other hand, Heinlein may simply be a seer.  In the book, the field of ultramicroscopy makes genetic mapping possible and turns breeding into a scientific art.  With the recent discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick, we seem right on Heinlein’s predicted schedule.  Who’s to say that we won’t soon find it desirable to edit out the genes that may cause disease and disorder for the good of humanity?

The other concept explored by Heinlein in the book is the idea of universal bearing of arms.  Most of the men pack heat (so long as they are sober), and many women as well.  It is made clear by the wearing of distinctive clothing that one is in an unarmed state, and those wearing the signifying brassards must defer to their armed fellows.

For most of the book, the practice is neither lauded nor condemned.  It simply is.  Near the end, however, one of the main characters praises the practice.  He recites the old maxim, “An armed society is a polite society.” As depicted in Heinlein’s novel, an armed society is an overly peevish one, prone to potentially lethal dueling for the most trifling of insults.  The other justification is that it weeds out the overly combative, a crude element of the eugenics project, essentially.  I suppose this makes sense coming out of the mouth of someone in Beyond’s world.  I hope Bob Heinlein doesn’t agree with him.

There are no female viewpoint characters, but many strong women are featured, and one has a decidedly central role to play in scouting “Beyond this Horizon.” I don’t know if Heinlein was exceptionally progressive (this was 1942!), or if we’ve simply gone backwards since the war.  Perhaps both–Heinlein generally populates his stories with smart, resourceful females, even if they are never quite the star.

Hamilton’s son, the only child character, does not fare so well.  In fact, other than his spotless genetics, I can find nothing at all to endear him to anyone.  I don’t know if Heinlein has kids, but I’d bet that he was not a father back in 1942, otherwise the relationship between dad and boy would have rung more true.  On the other hand, perhaps the lack of connection was meant to be a commentary on the world they inhabited. 

In summary, Beyond this Horizon is a bit of a meandering, preachy mess.  It is, however, quite readable.  Moreover, like many of Heinlein’s works, it does an excellent job of portraying a future, if not the future.  Heinlein presents the technology and culture with a glib vagueness that will help preserve the novel from becoming dated. 

3 stars out of 5.

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Farmer in the Sky (11-09-1958)

When I started this column, I had not expected this to turn into a travelogue.  Given that I do much of my reading on a plane heading somewhere glamorous and exciting, I suppose it can’t be helped.  I hope you can all bear with me.

Northwest Orient, a Seattle-based airline, has been filling the air waves with advertisements about their shorter route to “The Orient” (i.e. East Asia).  Well, I decided to bite, and this weekend found us on a plane to the Far East.  There is no direct route to Japan, but Northwest has the next best thing: after a hop back to Seattle (how familiar!), there was a short layover in Honolulu.  Less than a day after takeoff from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, we arrived at Tokyo’s modern air hub, Haneda airport.  The DC-7 is not as fast as the 707, but I think I prefer the gentle drone of propellers to the loud roar of jets.  Call me old-fashioned.

When I get used to the time difference (they should come up with a term for that logy feeling you get after long-distance air travel), I’ll tell you all about the wonders of Japan.  Or perhaps not–you come here for the science fiction commentary, don’t you?

With Anderson’s “Bicycle Built for Brew” deterring me from rushing off to finish this month’s Astounding, I decided to catch up on my burgeoning backlog of Heinlein novels.  I liked “Have Spacesuit Will Travel,” recently serialized in F&SF, so I read Farmer in the Sky on the trip.

The book was published eight years ago in 1950, but it feelst up-to-date.  It is the story of an Eagle Scout in his mid teens emigrating out to a newish colony on Ganymede with his family.  Interestingly enough, nearly half of its length is devoted simply to getting there: the application, the preparation, the flight to Ganymede on the Mayflower.  Once there, the tale emulates prior settler stories.  You have the hard times, the loving description of food raised and eaten, the triumphs, and the tragedies.  All throughout, Heinlein does a pretty good job of portraying the physics involved in spaceflight as well as a primer on agronomy on a recently dead world.  The book ends satisfyingly if on a slightly bittersweet note.

A few of interesting points from the book:

Bill, the book’s protagonist, is from San Diego, like me. 

As usual, the author does a good job with technology predictions.  His “quickthaw” and “autoresponder” are plausible and seamlessly executed.  I always find it a little jarring when “slipsticks” (slide-rules) are in copious evidence.  In these days of IBMs and UNIVACS, am I alone in thinking that portable computing machines are the wave of the far future?

California has around 50 million people in the book’s indeterminately dated (but probably the mid-to-late 21 century) future.  This is five times that recorded in the 1950 census.  Extending this to the world population, there must be some 10 billion people on Earth.  I talked about this in an earlier piece; 10 billion sounds like a lot, but not in the doomsday area.  But Heinlein’s future Earth has food rationing, and it is big impetus for leaving the planet. 

I would be okay with this, but Heinlein’s depicted future also has developed complete matter conversion drives and power plants.  Humans have the ability, in the book, to manufacture a breathable atmosphere for Ganymede.  As Bill’s father says early on in the story, “Wherever Man has mass and energy to work with and enough savvy to know how to manipulate them, he can create any environment he needs.” It seems to me that once humanity taps the limitless power afforded by mass conversion, or even thermonuclear fusion, providing food for even 10 billion people should be a trifling concern. 

There is a little bit of gentle misogyny: Bill’s father tells his step-daughter that she’s not allowed on the bridge of the Mayflower because she’s a girl, though this may be meant teasingly.  Bill notes that girls should be kept in a well until they are sixteen, and then a decision made to let them out or leave them there.  Again, I don’t know how out of character this is for a teenaged boy.  On the other hand, there is a skilled female pilot, Hattie.  She’s not the most likable of characters, but she knows her job, and she’s been at it for a long time. 

These are minor quibbles.  The book is good and should fire the imagination of many a young (and old!) reader.  It’s worth it just for the chapters describing the trip to Ganymede.

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