Charles Sheffield & Jerry Pournelle,
reviewed by Don Webb
Higher EducationAuthors: Charles Sheffield,
Publisher: Tor 1996
Hardcover: $21.95 U.S.
Length: 286 pp
The cover image is aligned
Do you want to read this book? if you’re a fan of Robert A. Heinlein, Charles Sheffield, and Jerry Pournelle, probably so.
Will you like this book? If you’re a fan of Jerry Pournelle, I expect you will. If you’re a fan of Charles Sheffield, there are a number of science tidbits in it for you to enjoy. If you’re a fan of Heinlein, you may have mixed feelings.
Higher Education resembles Heinlein’s Space Cadet by its setting and target audience. A boy of high-school age earns his helmet through hard work in a space school that is competitive, somewhat militaristic, but ultimately benevolent. And that’s where the similarity ends.
Heinlein’s Space Cadet is obviously shaped by the author’s military experience and the U.S. Naval Academy in particular. It reflects the almost chivalric military ethos that prevailed in the U.S. between the Civil War and World War II. As in most of his other works, Heinlein depicts a well-functioning society that has shared goals and only external enemies. In contrast, Higher Education is shaped by the grimmer vision of the post-Vietnam era, much like Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.
The setting of Higher Education is only quasi-military: the story’s “universe” is a near-future Solar System where rival corporate empires engage in cutthroat competition for resources in the Asteroid Belt. The corporations recruit smart young people not from the upper classes but from the dregs of society. These unlikely prospective astronauts are put through rigorous training programs — a combination of boot camp, community college and technical school.
The schools are emblematic of the society that created them, and Sheffield & Pournelle’s space school and earthly society are quite unlike Heinlein’s. If Sheffield & Pournelle’s space school functions well, it’s not that its citizens, the students, are exemplary but that its authorities, the teachers, are and that they have the power to dismiss students, thus depriving them of their one big chance in life. Enemies may be rival corporations, but they mostly lurk in the background. Otherwise, the drama consists of social relationships and squabbles familiar to high-schoolers.
The hero of the story is Rick, whose mother is a druggie and a drunk and whose stepfather is the same but utterly selfish, to boot. Rick whiles away his time in a public school where the equipment — such as reading machines — often doesn’t work, the teachers are oppressed, and the students are surly and rebellious. And why not: Rick and his classmates see no point in public education; it’s intended primarily to keep young people out of the labor market. They have little or no future and attend school only because they’re paid to. Only the good but highly competitive “company schools” offer upward social mobility.
Rick’s big chance comes when he gets himself expelled. On a dare, he booby-traps a classroom door with a water balloon. The banal practical joke backfires when its target, a new teacher, ushers a visiting congresswoman into the room ahead of him. Rick’s stunt is a clever bit of characterization: we see that he’s smart and has a sense of initiative. He’s caught only by evidence from the high school’s ubiquitous surveillance cameras. After school, Rick, despondent, is met by a teacher who is also a recruiting agent for Vanguard Mining.
At this point, Bill Bowler’s essay “Science Fictional Politics, II” which appears in this issue, comes in handy; the teacher recruits Rick with a spiel that is mostly politics. And the spiel is awful. My guess is that we’re supposed to see the teacher as wise and well-educated. Sorry, but he’s a pompous windbag: he uses stilted language filled with high-falutin’ nouns that we hardly expect Rick to understand. But Rick’s primary character trait is that he’s easily led; otherwise he’d never tolerate the teacher’s condescension, well-intended though it is.
The reader might simply pass over the teacher’s philosophy-dump with a snort, but it outlines the whole premise of the novel. Alas, it contains a large dollop of balderdash. For example:
The teacher’s diatribe does reflect the reality of backward school systems and a student proletariat that doesn’t cotton to readin’ and writin’ and all that jazz. But any teacher ought to be ashamed to use a word like “capability.” Anyway, he tells Rick what’s what: “You have a reasonable speaking vocabulary [...] but you are unable to read more than half of the words that you know.” Translated into plain English: Rick knows a lot of words, but he can read only half of them.
Now wait a minute: Rick is smart, and he can read a little. Does he simply lack practice in reading? That handicap can be easily remedied. The authors might make it a valid political point; small and insignificant, but valid. But no, the authors hammer so consistently on Rick’s reading difficulties that I became convinced he’s dyslexic. If that’s the case, what are the authors talking about? What’s the point? Nothing is made of it except that he hasn’t read what they think he should.
Rick’s family is paid a decent amount of money as an “education incentive.” Is it a kind of voucher? No, it’s a grotesque parody of one: Rick is simply being paid to go to school; his parents squander the money on drugs and drink. The authors’ concept of an “education incentive” is obviously a political statement, but what is it? What’s the target?
The teacher says, “It pains me that I have lived to see the transformation of the United States from a republic to a feudal aristocracy.” Even the authors admit that the long-suffering Rick has to throw up his hands at that one; he hasn’t a clue what the teacher is talking about. And the authors have a great start to making an important political point. But we never find out what it is.
Going outside the novel, I suppose one might say that the “transformation” is already taking place and that the teacher’s assertion, like the teacher himself, is becoming an anachronism. But it’s anybody’s guess. The authors waste a golden opportunity to sketch the outlines of the big picture; what society is or is becoming. Sadly, we get only caricatures of political slogans.
The teacher explains his gnomic utterance with a complete contradiction: “You ask who gets the jobs. The answer is, people with knowledge and drive. There are jobs for them.” No, that depicts a bourgeois, mercantile society. A feudal society allows no social mobility: you do the work you’re born to. At most, one might say that Rick and the other young men and women who go through the corporate school with him form a kind of futuristic knighthood as hired workers and hired guns in corporate kingdoms.
What is the moral of the story? Apparently, if you’re given rigorous, highly competitive training and stick it out, you may get a cool job out in space, melting asteroids for their metals and combating saboteurs from rival companies. But you’re going to get that education in the “company schools” of the future, not in the U.S. public schools of the present.
Let’s see... The U.S. has a plethora of corporate kingdoms, while France has a rigorous school system and more good students than they know what to do with. I’m sure an arrangement could be worked out to everyone’s mutual satisfaction...
Well, perhaps not to everyone’s satisfaction. The vast majority of the population in Higher Education performs menial work or is unemployed, and the school system merely keeps the young off the streets. How did society come to such a dismal pass? What’s the remedy? That’s the big picture. Too bad Sheffield & Pournelle show us only thumbnail sketches.
To be fair, Heinlein himself concentrated on individual initiative exercised within social structures usually akin to those of his own time. The setting of Space Cadet is analogous to a midshipman’s experience at the Naval Academy and aboard ship. Card’s Ender’s Game does something similar but emphasizes personal rivalries while trivializing warfare as a video game. Sheffield & Pournelle combine a little of Heinlein and a little of Card in a setting that doesn’t make whole lot of sense.
In the end, everything we do is done for a purpose:
The purpose may not be obvious. People who like to read or write are looking for something but may have a very hard time saying what it is. Geologists and archeologists are always one shovelful away from an interesting life form or artifact — or the find of the century. Readers and writers are always one page away from the same thing.
The purpose of education may be obvious but external. The teacher could have simply asked Rick: “Do you want a better future than you have now?” “Of course.” “Okay, here’s your ticket to it. Whether or not it’s really ‘hard work’ is up to you.”
In any event, I did not find much of interest in Sheffield & Pournelle’s Higher Education. If you’d like plausible future societies based on a critique of the late 20th century, start with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and The Coming. Those are models of science fiction with a big picture.
Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb