28 May 2009

Heinlein

I recently came into a digital collection of many science fiction books, and took the opportunity to brush up on my Heinlein. I had previously read and very much enjoyed Stranger in a Strange Land, his most popular work about a transcendant human being who leads a revolution in thought when he comes to Earth after having been raised by Martians. It was excellent, and fully deserves its reputation. There is good reason why some of the concepts in its pages have been incorporated into the language, although virtually every use of "grok" actually just means that the writer is a pretentious asshole who didn't want to use the more apt word "know."

Since I have been reading a great deal about libertarianism, though, I knew there was other Heinlein that was considered exceptional, and indeed his work The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is considered one of the most "libertarian" books by many proponents. So I decided to read much of his work, most particularly the aforementioned libertarian treatise and his famous Starship Troopers (I liked the movie, but mostly just because I like any movie with tits in it).

So I read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, Glory Road, The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, Job: a Comedy of Justice, Time Enough for Love, and The Number of the Beast over the course of about a month. And let me tell you this: if creating Mary Sues was a crime, Heinlein would be verging on the death penalty for his multiple offenses. In almost everything he writes, there is an older male character with a crusty yet paternal personality, who is clearly Heinlein's ideal self. Invariably, they are pursued by incredibly desirable women. These women are either much younger than him, or else older but with the appearance of being much younger (thanks to future-science). They always see through his gruff mannerisms and laughingly call him an "old fraud" (same words, every time). And he's always libertarian.

To be frank, most of what I read was disappointingly mediocre.

Starship Troopers is almost without a plot; it's simply the story of how one man goes through boot camp and then several battles. There is no suspense, nothing really happens beyond long recountings of how X Device works or how tough is Drill Instructor Y. Heinlein tries to disguise this by shifting the narration around in time, starting in media res and skipping back and forth. But when you get down to it, it's not even a story so much as a technical recounting of a future military.

The Number of the Beast, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Time Enough for Love, and The Cat Who Walked Through Walls were all in the same imaginary universe, and the only one that was decent was Moon. This is probably because it's the first one of these I read, and the social innovations and ideas present in this universe were interesting when first presented. Polygamy, certain libertarian features of his idea of space colonies, superpatriarchism, and so on are all very intriguing, especially in the way Heinlein presents them.
  • Polygamy. There exist various iterations of many-partnered marriages, such as "line marriages," where new husbands and wives enter into the marriage continually over the years. Some of these latter last for hundreds of years and have dozens of spouses. In Heinlein's works, these occur because of the paucity of women in the space colonies.
  • Libertarianism in space. Most prominently lauded and featured in Moon, but alluded to and assumed within all of these works, is the idea that in an environment lacking anything that might be called "free," since even air and water must all be paid for, and distanced from the long-existing power structures on Earth, libertarianism naturally would evolve from this mindset. Summed up in the motto of "TANSTAFL" (There's Ain't No Such Thing As a Free Lunch), Heinlein seems to think that when everything must be bought, then people would naturally begin to think in terms that anything could be bought. This commercial freedom and inability to depend on anything beyond oneself would lead to a demand for total freedom in society as well, presumably. It's an interesting notion.
  • Superpatriarchism. The worlds and societies in these books are all run by men with frank acknowledgement of that fact, while simultaneously putting women on an incredibly high pedestal that exceeds even Victorian estimates and giving them enormous freedom. They're Daddy Societies: the women don't get to be in charge, but they get to do whatever they want and are savagely guarded.
Ultimately, though, aside from a few other interesting ideas, Heinlein shoots his wad all at once. His main weakness - writing an interesting plot - becomes the glaring flaw in the other books. His plots are okay if condensed to one sentence (space travelers exploring Burroughs' idea of Mars; trying to convince the universe's oldest man to avoid suicide; altering past events to improve the future), but they grow no thicker when expanded to book form. It makes for thin soup, especially without the beef of new fun ideas.

I would strongly recommend The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, and say that you can safely give the rest a pass. If you find you really like his style of writing, then maybe you should snap up a few more, but if you think that the main showpiece are just his interesting ideas about what the future can be - like I do - then there's no need to keep going.

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