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Heinlein’s Novels, cont’d

by Don Webb

This essay continues the discussion with:
Clyde Andrews, in issue 204
Tala Bar, in issue 205
euhal allen, in this issue

Thank you for the reading list, euhal ! Perhaps newcomers to science fiction — or oldcomers who haven’t yet read all of Heinlein — will look for the books you recommend and enjoy them as much as you do.

You know a saying has been around a while when it’s in Latin: De gustibus et coloribus non disputandum, ‘There’s no point in arguing about tastes and colors’. But there is a point in discussing them: they may tell us something about ourselves.

I might add to the list Space Cadet and Rocket Ship Galileo, stories for pre-teens or young adults that draw as much as any on Heinlein’s training at the Naval Academy. They’re out of date now, but I thought they were fresh and inspiring when I read them in grade school. I recall them fondly for a reason you mention: they depict young men — boys, really — learning from new circumstances in a hierarchical but basically supportive environment. Call them Tom Brown’s School Days for the space age.

Times and outlooks change. In recent years, Orson Scott Card drew on Space Cadet in Ender’s Game, a novel I think will inspire less confidence than fear in young adults. It has a theme of pathological irrationality that can be found elsewhere in Card’s works but rarely in Heinlein’s. That’s a matter of taste: others may like that sort of thing for the same reasons I don’t.

Likewise, others may approve of its parodying Joe Haldeman’s classic Forever War — which in its turn borrowed from Eric Maria Remarque’s immortal All Quiet on the Western Front. No, I won’t argue tastes, but I do say that those who prefer Ender’s Game to Heinlein, Haldeman and Remarque have a lot of explaining to do.

I remember looking forward to the next installments when Double Star first began appearing in Astounding Science Fiction. And even then I knew why: first, the characters are people anyone would like to meet, and they form friendships in a common mission; second, it’s part of American mythology: ability triumphs over social convention and reality over appearance.

Would I read Double Star again? I wouldn’t seek it out. Even an updated version such as the film Dave glosses over a little too easily the difficulties of learning to play the role of a prominent public figure. Rather, I would go back to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Twain’s classic has a true double story: the pauper is elevated by chance to play the role of a prince while the prince finds himself in the pauper’s shoes. Mark Twain’s story has equality in its concept beyond that of the single-plot stories.

Finally, I remember being excited when Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy began to appear, also in Astounding Science Fiction. What a disappointment. I didn’t like Thorby and thought he was a bore. I kept waiting for him to do something... anything! He’s a pinball in a game of fate, and his travelogue seems pointless. Thorby never seems to graduate from “space school,” and I had the feeling the lessons are learned for him, as though they had been fished out of Heinlein’s grab bag of unwritten stories. I consider passive heroes a contradiction in terms; they’re almost always walking couch potatoes, who view a panorama without really entering into it and affecting it.

But... “almost always” means there’s a big exception. The paragon of the passive hero has to be Hodgins Backmaker in Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee. He’s constantly called upon to do something and yet seems emotionally paralyzed; he’s the image of a society blighted by losing the “War of Southron Independence.” And yet one has to like him: he’s ineffectual but not pathetic, and his intentions are good. In the end he learns that his willful inaction has always been action, and he stands the “great man” theory of history on its head — something that can give hope to us all.

What do I think is “fun” and “entertaining”? A style I can learn from and characters I can understand and even sympathize with even though they may be “the bad guys.” How are the style and characterization accomplished? That’s something well worth talking about; we can learn a lot from it.

And I prefer stories that tell me something useful. What might that be? I’ll sum up what I’ve been saying: by a long process of education a pauper learns how to become a prince and, by his action, establishes justice where there was none. That’ll do for one example; a lot of changes can be rung on that theme alone, and there are a lot of other stories out there, besides.

Everyone has and acts on a philosophy. It may take a lifetime of soul-searching to define it in words, and even then can we be sure it’s true? Stories help us see it, at least in part. That’s why I may say I think a story is fun, but I won’t leave you holding an empty bag. Stories are too important for that; they’re the way we think and all we have.


Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb

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