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Bewildering Stories

Charles Sheffield & Jerry Pournelle,
Higher Education

reviewed by Don Webb

Higher Education
Authors: Charles Sheffield,
    Jerry Pournelle
Publisher: Tor 1996
Hardcover: $21.95 U.S.
Length: 286 pp
ISBN: 0-312-86174-5
The cover image is aligned
as received.

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:

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:

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

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