Archive | April, 2018

Retro Review: Double Star

25 Apr

I have never regretted my lost profession. In a way, I have not lost it; Willem was right. There is other applause besides handclapping and there is always the warm glow of a good performance. I have tried, I suppose, to create the perfect work of art. Perhaps I have not fully succeeded – but I think my father would rate it as a ‘good performance.’

No, I do not regret it, even though I was happier then – at least I slept better. But there is solemn satisfaction in doing the best you can for eight billion people. Perhaps their lives have no cosmic significance, but they have feelings. They can hurt.

Heinlein, like many early science-fiction writers, knew relatively little about the solar system and its (lack of) inhabitants. Indeed, most of his early works included inhabited versions of both Mars and Venus that simply never existed. Mars, in Heinlein’s works, was inhabited by two different races; the super-advanced intelligences of The Rolling Stones and Stranger in a Strange Land and the older, but considerably less advanced Martians of Double Star. It is these Martians who provide the catalyst for a very human crisis that threatens to undo everything mankind had achieved over the last few hundred years.

Double Star is focused on Lawrence Smith (aka ‘The Great Lorenzo), a man who happens to be a brilliant actor and mimic. Unfortunately, Lorenzo is also a self-absorbed racist (in the sense he is prejudiced against aliens, Martians in particular) and, when the story opens, he is very much down on his luck. Desperate for work, he is hired to impersonate one of the most prominent politicians in the solar system, John Bonforte. The real Bonforte has been kidnapped and his political allies are desperate to keep this hidden while they conduct a quiet search for the man. Complicating matters is that Bonforte is going to be adopted into a Martian family – and being late for it will be seen, at best, as immensely insulting.

Lorenzo, somehow, manages to play the role well enough to go through the adoption ceremony, only to discover that Bonforte has been released … with a damaged mind. Worse, the previous government has resigned, forcing Bonforte to take the reins until an election can be held. Lorenzo finds himself playing the role again and again, as each successive crisis pushes him further and further away from his true identity. When Bonforte finally dies, after ‘winning’ an election, Lorenzo reluctantly embraces the role permanently and gives up his old self. Twenty-five years later, as he notes in the postscript, no one outside the original group knows the truth …

… But it doesn’t matter, as Lorenzo has abandoned his old beliefs and grown into the role.

Double Star is a very character-focused story, to the point that – while there are few true surprises in the storyline – it doesn’t matter. The real story is focused on Lorenzo’s slow change from narcissistic racist to a genuine reform politician, from reluctantly accepting the role and planning to give it up as soon as possible to embracing it and putting his past self to rest. (He snidely notes that the ‘Great Lorenzo’ was found dead in a boarding house, after being unable to find any more roles.) At the start, Lorenzo’s only true virtue is his belief that the show must go on; later, he understands the importance of his role in a way I wish more modern politicians grasped. Bonforte is not a wishy-washy man who allows the media to dictate his every move, but someone who works hard to be decisive. In his own words:

“Take sides! Always take sides! You will sometimes be wrong – but the man who refuses to take sides must always be wrong! Heaven save us from poltroons who fear to make a choice. Let us stand up and be counted.”

Heinlein manages to take some pokes at racism along the way. Lorenzo has an almost physical reaction to Martians, a reaction that requires hypnosis to suppress and eventually overcome. It takes time for Lorenzo to come to realise that the Martians may be primitive, but they have a strikingly advanced culture in their own right. Sadly, for better or worse, Heinlein doesn’t dwell on this as much as he could have done. Mars is the backdrop for a political crisis that threatens to start a war, either against the Martians or a human civil war.

We get fewer details on this crisis than we might have wished, although we do get enough for Heinlein to make a number of points. One faction wishes to give Martians equal rights, another – either paternalistic or evil – wishes to provide ‘guidance’ instead. Heinlein spares no punches here, comparing this to the slaveholders of the past … who claimed to love their slaves while punishing them for daring to want to be free. The conflict between those who want to control others – for their own good, of course – and those who just want to be free runs through plenty of Heinlein’s novels, but it is rarely enunciated as clearly as it is here.

Heinlein – through Lorenzo – also makes the point that the public has a limited tolerance for ‘reforms,’ however defined. Each period of reform is followed by instability and reaction, for want of a better term; there are limits to how much change you can demand, in a very short space of time, without alienating vast numbers of people. It is an interesting point, although I know people who will insist that injustice must be rectified immediately. And yet, it is difficult to end one injustice without creating more.

Double Star is less successful with its supporting cast. Some of them are very well drawn indeed, including the Emperor (who is the only person to see through the deception) and some of the staff. Others, however, are weaker; there is only one female character of any note in the book, as far as I can tell, and she is effectively nothing more than a stereotypical 1950s secretary with a crush on her boss. (She eventually ends up marrying Lorenzo, who has settled into his role by then.) A handful of roles continue Heinlein’s tradition of ‘quiet diversity;’ one man, mentioned in passing, is specifically described as coloured. It’s amusing to realise that space travel, and contact with non-human races, might have finally put an end to human-on-human racism.

It does lead to some jarring moments. One of the staffers – a man called Bill – feels constantly slighted by being passed over for important roles. After being rejected one final time, he leaves and tries to betray the secret. It’s an odd point, because Lorenzo – who talked about resentful underlings in the past – should have been able to see it coming and deal with it, not least because there are no apparent reasons to deny the staffer a promotion. That said, it might also have been a reflection of both just how far Lorenzo had come by that point and, perhaps worse, of the complacency that had been affecting the staffers. Bill’s resentment should have been handled before it became dangerous.

Like most of Heinlein’s books, his technological predictions were way off. Interplanetary spaceships coexist with record spools, rather than computers. There’s no suggestion of forging a digital face, rather than hiring a live actor, but a CGI impersonation couldn’t shake hands and kiss babies. But, also like most of Heinlein’s books, it doesn’t matter. There is something timeless about the story, even though – in some ways – it is an adaption of a far older story.

But never mind that. On the whole, and putting aside the problem with technological development, Double Star is one of Heinlein’s best works.

Updates–The Family Shame and More

25 Apr

Hi, everyone

This is, I’m afraid, a very short update. But at least there’s some good news <grin>.

I’ve finished the first draft of The Family Shame, which is technically The Zero Enigma VI. I hope to get it out to the editor in a few days, with a planned publication date of three or so weeks from this date. The paperback will take a little longer, as it will need to be formatted and the audio will take longer still, but it is on the way.

The Family Shame Cover Revised

My current plan is to start writing The Embers of War (Kat Falcone 6) sometime next week.

On other news, I’ve been sketching out ideas for The Pen and the Sword, which is currently pencilled in as The Empire’s Corps 15 and Knife Fights, which is the provisional title for The Empire’s Corps 16. This series will take us back to the Core Worlds, where the empire has vanished and multiple warlords are bidding for power. As before, I’ll move between mainstream books and side-stories, although I’m not sure how well it’s going to work out here. We shall see.

And yes, I’ll be continuing with the Heinlein reviews. I hope you’re enjoying them.


The Trouble With Quotas and Privilege

23 Apr

Fair Warning: Controversy Ahead.

One of the few things I will agree with the privilege-checkers on is this: the person at the top, however defined, often doesn’t realise what it’s like for the people at the bottom. It is easier, from one’s lofty vantage, to divide people into subsets (race, gender, etc) than recognise that each and every person is an individual in his or her own right. However, this also has the massive downside that the people at the top are often unaware of their own ignorance. I once had a person tell me that I was privileged to go to boarding school and my first printable response was to snap that if that was privilege, I’d hate to be underprivileged.

Actually, that was the fifth thing that came to mind. The first response that came to mind was something that basically boiled down to “this idiot is ignorant and stupid and should be ignored.”

The point is that, if you’re on the top, it is easy to do a great deal of damage to the people at the bottom even if you have the best of intentions. If you are well aware of your own ‘white privilege’ – which is actually ‘class privilege’ – and not a particularly deep thinker, you might assume that everyone who happens to share your skin colour also shares your privilege. A moment’s rational thought would be enough to put the lie to this, but such people are rarely deep thinkers. They grow up in an environment that does not encourage it.

I mention all this because I came across an article on Medium today: The Difficulty with Quotas. The author had a moment of insight that surprised me.

I was reading this article about how Lesbians Who Tech (a tech conference aimed at lesbians) put in a quota system for their speakers. 50% had to be women of colour, 20% black and latinx, and 10% non-binary. And I got to this line here: ‘It meant saying no to very successful and established white women.’ And I was all, oh my god, I think I just understood Trump’s America.

“Actually, that wasn’t my first thought. My first thought was, well, I guess I’m never speaking at Lesbians Who Tech.”

She goes on to conclude, quite reasonably, that white people with ‘class privilege’ have basically ensured that they still get their places – she uses high-class colleges and universities as examples – which puts the squeeze on white people who don’t have class privilege,’ as they have to work harder than POC applicants. As she goes on to say:

This creates significant competition for less privileged white people when they are competing in systems with quotas, and this is why they’re getting angry.”

Anger is a poor servant and a worse master. If you feel that you have already worked harder than your POC classmates, you’re not going to be pleased when your classmates have problems. No, you’re going to chalk their failings up to them getting an unfair advantage over you. This is the sort of anger that, as I wrote earlier, tends to curdle. You end up with memes like this:


One commenter had an insightful remark of his own. It’s worth reproducing in full:

“People like to think that Affirmative Action programs work with a handful of people that are all equally qualified and a minority candidate gets 1 point added to the scoring system so they get whatever they are applying for by virtue of a slim margin. But that’s hardly ever the way it works out.

“I had this discussion with a group of people about 20 years ago and as we put the pieces together, it seemed to fit.

“Take, for example, a typical high school kid getting ready to graduate. Let’s call him “Johnny”. Johnny doesn’t come from a “well to do” family. They aren’t poor, just average. Let’s say he goes and takes the ACT test in order to get ready to apply to colleges and he scores a “27”. (For those not familiar with the ACT, the scale is 1–36 and the average score is usually just over a “20”. ) That 27 is a pretty decent score. Not outstanding but if you map the ACT score results on a bell curve, a 27 puts you in the top 25% of the pack.

“Johnny’s family can’t really afford to send Johnny to college so Johnny heads down to the local military recruiting office to find out about getting an ROTC scholarship. So the recruiter starts filling out paperwork and asks for Johnny’s ACT score and Johnny tells him.

“Now, if Johnny fills out the form and checks off that he is “white” and “male”, he needs a minimum score of 28 to be accepted into the program. If he checks of any other choices he only needs a 21 to be accepted. That may not seem like much (It’s only 7 points, right?) but if you line up everyone that is eligible, that 7 points represents 400,000 people that just stepped in line in front of Johnny just based on that one qualifying factor alone. And they ALL happen to not be white males. So Johnny doesn’t get into the ROTC program.

“And then Johnny starts applying to schools on his own hoping for scholarships. The same thing with watching thousands of people that aren’t white males step into the line ahead of him happens with both the acceptance and the scholarship programs.

“But Johnny finally ends up at a tier 3 school that he can afford to attend and graduates 4 years later with a 3.7 GPA. He moves back to his hometown, writes up his resume and starts submitting to job postings. He goes to interviews and every time he’s put in a room with other candidates to await their turn.

“And he looks around that room and sees his former classmates that happen to be minority candidates that got that ROTC scholarship, got accepted at a tier 1 school and graduated with a lower GPA than he did and now he’s competing against them through another Affirmative Action program to get the one open position.

“And when Johnny doesn’t get the job and gets frustrated and complains about it he’s told that he shouldn’t be bitter because he has all the advantages and privileges of being a white male. So here he is at age 22 or 23 wondering exactly which advantages he’s had all along here because for every major event he’s had in the last 5 years, he’s been shot down because of his race and/or sex.

“If he’d been passed over at one stage by 1 point, people like Johnny would probably shrug it off. But after a while when you see people stepping in line ahead of you at every line you go to, at some point Johnny has to start wondering when he gets to compete on even terms. But the answer to that from affirmative action advocates is “never”.

“You saw it happen once and you kind of shrugged it off which, I think is pretty normal. Would you have the same response be if that was the 30th time you’d seen it? And what would be your response if each time you saw it happen was a building block towards another future event? Isn’t that what we refer to as “systemic”?”

There are people who will say that the above quote is nonsense, that it isn’t true. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that people believe it.

If you were born in some really high-class area and you happen to be white, there’s a good chance that you have a lot of privilege. This cartoon sums it up fairly well. But if you happen to be born white in Hillbilly Elegy country, you might reasonably ask why you don’t have white privilege? And then you might ask why people who have never worked a day in their lives insist that you do have white privilege? And then you start thinking that these people are, at best, as ignorant and stupid as the person I mentioned above … and, at worst, that they are racist class warriors out to destroy you.

Is it any surprise that people like that voted for Donald Trump?

The point most privilege-checkers forget, I think, is that most people are self-interested. They may not be selfish, not in the sense they will gleefully steal candy from children, but they will put their self-interests first. Why would anyone vote for policies that will make their lives harder? It’s not easy to get a job at the best of times. Why would anyone want to make it harder?

But it gets worse. The curse of identity politics is that it encourages people to think in terms of their identity – and ‘white male’ is an identity. Instead of coming together as a united human race, we are being divided into tribes and judged by our tribes. What may seem, to the people at the top, a scheme to redress historical disadvantages scans very differently to the people at the bottom. They see it as nothing more than racism. Not reverse racism, racism.

If you stack the deck against one group, for whatever reason, you are engaged in racism. Whatever excuses you use, whatever historical justifications you invent, you are engaged in racism. Instead of dampening racial tensions, you are inflaming them. You are harming the people least able to cope with it, pillorying them when they dare to protest … and then acting all surprised when they vote against you. Drowning men will clutch at any straws!

Look, I am a student of history. I know that injustices have been perpetrated throughout history. I know that people have often gotten the short end of the stick because of things – skin colour, gender – beyond their control. But one does not redress such injustices by perpetrating them on someone else. That merely makes them worse.

As a writer, I am not scared of even competition. If a writer outsells me … well, good for him. But if that writer has an unfair advantage that isn’t connected to writing – being black or female or whatever – it bothers me, because I can’t compete.

I’ve been told that, throughout history, writers were largely WASPs. That might be true. But it isn’t my fault, nor is it the fault of everyone else like me, and there is no reason that we should be made to pay a price for someone else’s misdeeds. And, for that matter, it is not fair on non-WASP writers to have to face the suspicion that the only reason they were published was to fill a quota. Why should they have to pay a price because someone with more power than sense thinks that quotas are a good way to rectify historical injustice?

As a historian, I am well aware that women generally got the short end of the stick throughout history. But, as the father of two boys, I don’t want programs that profess to rectify this injustice by piling injustice on my sons. Why on Earth would I want them to be at a disadvantage? And, if I have a daughter at some later date, I don’t want her to suffer a disadvantage either. And everything I know about history – and human nature – tells me that she will.

Coming to think of it, my kids are mixed-race. Do I want them to go through their lives unsure where they really belong? Or if they don’t have a tribe of their own? Or to have to waste their time calculating precisely where they stand on the indemnity politics roster?

A few years ago, I saw a marriage come to an end. And the reason it came to an end, from what I saw, was that both the husband and wife were fond of dragging up the past, from minor to major offences, and neither one could move past it and travel into the future. All relationships go through bumpy patches, but it is immensely frustrating to have the past dragged up and thrown in your face time and time again. At some point, people just stop caring. They get sick of being told that they cannot put it behind them and move on. And so they get bitter and they end up curdled.

And they start saying “why should I care about the injustice done to them when no one cares about the injustice done to me?”

We need to put quotas – and suchlike – behind us, once and for all. The past must remain in the past. We need to ensure a level playing field, with everyone having an equal shot at everything from education to jobs; we need to ensure that the laws apply to everyone; we need to prove, as best as we can, that the best person for the job got the job. I don’t say it will be easy, because it won’t be easy. But it has to be done.

I’ll let Dale have the last word:

“If you look around the world you’ll notice something. The real dead-end basket case countries and regions are usually the ones where old injustices or perceived injustices are most remembered and most important to people. [SNIP] None of this is to say that ignoring history is good, or even that ignoring old injustices is good. The reality though is that both the villains and the victims of history are for the most part dead, or have one foot on the banana peel … [SNIP] … The other reality is that dwelling on those old injustices tends to lead to situations where the guys who would normally be holding up convenience stores end up running around with AK-47s and RPGs in the service of one side or the other in the dispute.

“When that starts happening on a major scale, anyone with brains and/or money heads for the nearest exit. You end up with a downward spiral as jobs evaporate and people fight ever more bitterly over the remaining scraps of value. And of course a whole new generation of injustices are created, which will undoubtedly be used to justify the next round of victimizations. ‘Get over it’ isn’t the perfect answer. It does have some downsides, but it does work.”

Retro Review: Glory Road

22 Apr

ARE YOU A COWARD? This is not for you. We badly need a brave man. He must be 23 to 25 years old, in perfect health, at least six feet tall, weigh about 190 pounds, fluent English with some French, proficient with all weapons, some knowledge of engineering and mathematics essential, willing to travel, no family or emotional ties, indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger.”

I cannot decide, after finishing Glory Road for the first (and probably the last) time, if the book is a poor fantasy novel or a brilliant deconstruction of the genre. On one hand, I disliked large swathes of it intensely; on the other, I noted a number of interesting points where Heinlein invites us to see just how absurd the characters are. Glory Road is not completely unreadable – and, like most of Heinlein’s works, it had its good points, but it has simply not aged very well. There were times when I cringed while reading and that is not a good thing.

Glory Road’s ‘hero’ is a man of many names (I’ll stick with Oscar) who spends the first section of the book bumming around Europe after being discharged from the US Army, hoping to find meaning in his life. After a brief moment of feeling rich when he lands a jackpot lottery ticket, and trying to come to terms with the problems such wealth would cause him, Oscar sees a girl who catches his eye immediately. But he doesn’t catch her name.

Shortly afterwards, he answers a classified ad for a ‘hero’ and finds himself roped into a quest for the Egg of the Phoenix by the girl, whose name is Star. Accompanied by Rufo – a squire and jack of all trades who seems to like dirty fighting – Oscar is dragged from crisis to crisis on his trip down the Glory Road, eventually convincing Star to marry him shortly before he proves his hero credentials by successfully recovering the Egg. At this point, Star reveals that she is actually the Empress of the Twenty Universes, Rufo is her grandson and Oscar is now her consort. The Egg is really a collection of memories belonging to the last rulers of the universe.

Oscar is welcome in her home, apparently, but he really doesn’t fit in, eventually coming to the conclusion that he isn’t any better than a gigolo. (An irony, given that Star originally condemned Earth’s habit of prostitution in all its forms.) The life of a retired hero is not all it’s cracked up to be. He goes back to Earth and discovers that he really doesn’t fit in there either. Having got into the habit of having adventures, and resolving not to die in his bed, Oscar sets out along the Glory Road again …

The problem with Glory Road is that the relatively strong first and third sections are badly let down by the middle. I came very close to simply deciding it wasn’t worth continuing, for reasons I will detail before; in hindsight, there was a logic behind the aspects I found objectionable, but I thought twice about reading far enough to learn what it was.

Oscar starts the book alienated from his society, wandering the world in desperate search of something meaningful to do with his life. He comes across as both sympathetic and unsympathetic, his wry observations on society contrasting oddly with a cold-blooded attempt to dodge military service (presumably in Vietnam) and a complete lack of loyalty to anyone other than himself. It’s easy to feel sorry for him. And yet … he also acts like an entitled brat on the Glory Road, bickering with Star (who, to be fair, acts childish herself during that section). He marries Star and seems to think he has a right to dominate her, yet he doesn’t ask the right questions when it seems as though Star is willing to do anything for him. This actually weakens the book in more ways than one. Quite apart from the misogyny, we are simply not told why the Egg is important until after the quest is over.

The deconstruction commences at the same time. What does the hero do after the quest is over? Oscar, it seems, never thought about it. He finds the sudden role reversal between Star and himself to be more than a little disconcerting; he is bound by customs and social mores that simply do not apply to Star and her people. Oscar is now the child and Star, over two hundred years old, is now the adult. He wears it poorly. In many ways, Oscar reminds me of the jock who won a football game in high school … and is still talking about his amazing victory decades later, after everyone else has moved on. On one hand, it’s easy to feel sorry for him – and to understand his annoyance at pettifogging regulations when he’s back on Earth – but, on the other, it’s hard not to see him as an ungrateful brat. He reminds me of some of the Culture’s citizens, whining about the lack of meaning in their lives. There are lots of people here who would happily trade places.

Star is, at first, almost a parody of the standard woman in fantasy tropes. She is alternatively encouraging and bratty, both helping Oscar to overcome his nerves and berating him for mistakes he didn’t know not to make. When Oscar mans up, she shifts into submissiveness … something that nearly made me throw the book aside … until the end of the second section, where she resumes her role as empress. It rapidly becomes clear that she was having a holiday romance with Oscar – she had the chance to let her hair down and pretend to be someone else for a while – and that things will not be the same. It’s difficult to tell if she actually loves Oscar or not, but I think she doesn’t. She certainly treats him very unfairly – he married her without knowing what he was really getting into.

As always with Heinlein, Glory Road includes a great deal of social commentary. Oscar points out that, if you spend years beating the patriotism out of children, you can hardly complain when the grown-up children refuse to fight for their country. This is noted in ways both overt and covert, from the lack of support for war veterans (at least until the GI Bill is expanded again) to Uncle Sam’s money-grabbing habits. Oscar concludes that the taxman will take two-thirds of his lottery winnings and, while its hard to feel sorry for that attitude, it must be noted that a person who genuinely earns the money will see it vanishing and grow to resent paying the government, particularly when the government doesn’t seem to offer anything in return. He also notes that customs in one part of the globe are not the same as customs in another, something that gets him into trouble on the Glory Road. But really, who would have expected an innkeeper to be offended when the hero refuses to sleep with his wife and daughters?

The politics in the book are also particularly odd. Star’s system of government – all-powerful empress who keeps her hands off as much as possible – is held up as superior to democracy, but that assumes that the emperors and empresses will always be good people. Even Star cannot grasp everything, which means her decisions – handed down from a distance – will always be flawed. Democracy is not a perfect system either, but it does provide a way to remove unsuitable leaders.

At the same time, the book also includes a great deal of pointless tilititation. I can’t decide if Heinlein was genuinely trying to write sexual material or not, or if he was still writing under restrictions from the gatekeepers, but it comes across very poorly. Writing erotica was not one of Heinlein’s talents and, again, it shows. One may regard Star’s society as ideal, in some ways – there is no prostitution because there are no controls on women – but one may also view it as a poorly-drawn ideal society. That said, Heinlein does manage to poke fun at a few sacred cows; what’s the difference, Star asks, between paying a woman for sex and taking her out to dinner first? There is a bluntness around their society which is oddly refreshing.

Panshin called Heinlein’s third period (1959-1967, which includes Glory Road) the Period of Alienation. And, while I disagree with Panshin on many issues, I think he might have had a point. Heinlein, I suspect, was coming to realise that many of the wonders he’d written about were not going to materialise as quickly as he’d hoped. Flying cars, lunar bases, starships and even immortality .. they were trapped in the future, while Heinlein himself saw the world getting smaller and society threatening to collapse. Indeed, there is a profound sense of alienation (a word I have used many times) running through Glory Road, to the point where it is hard to tell if Heinlein was blind to Oscar’s failings or expected us to see them for ourselves. (He did the same thing later, in Farnham’s Freehold, but there the subtext is clear that we are not supposed to sympathise with Farnham.) Heinlein was aware that society was moving and changing and, like all people raised in traditionalistic societies, he found the process uncomfortable. All the old certainties could no longer be counted upon, for better or worse. The urge to go back to a simpler time, warts and all, can be overpowering at times.

At base, Glory Road is about a man searching for meaning in his life. Oscar yeans for adventure, which he puts into words:

“What did I want?

“I wanted a Roc’s egg. I wanted a harem loaded with lovely odalisques less than the dust beneath my chariot wheels, the rust that never stained my sword. I wanted raw red gold in nuggets the size of your fist and feed that lousy claim jumper to the huskies! I wanted to get up feeling brisk and go out and break some lances, then pick a likely wench for my droit du seigneur—I wanted to stand up to the Baron and dare him to touch my wench! I wanted to hear the purple water chuckling against the skin of the Nancy Lee in the cool of the morning watch and not another sound, nor any movement save the slow tilting of the wings of the albatross that had been pacing us the last thousand miles.

“I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin.

“I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what they had promised me it was going to be—instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is.”

Say what you like about Glory Road, that is a pretty evocative passage.

In some ways, Glory Road speaks to me because I wanted adventure too, when I was a kid. There is a part of me that would be tempted, if the call to adventure came now. But there’s also a bit of me that knows that adventure means being in deep shit, far away; adventurers, whatever the cause, leave dead bodies, broken lives and worse in their wake. The romance of adventure is gone. And, in some ways, this is a bad thing. We, as a society, need a frontier, a place to go and grow. Instead, governments are getting bigger – which means stupider – and intrusion into private lives is growing ever worse. These days, the Fellowship of the Ring would be buried in paperwork before they ever got out of the Shire.

And, of course, there’s a bit of me that cringes at the sexual elements within the book.

My feelings about this book are decidedly mixed, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. It has its moments, but the middle section lets the other two down badly. Most of Heinlein’s books, if I may borrow a line from the Holy Rewatch series, have aged like fine wine. Glory Road has more than a hint of rancid vinegar.

Retro Review The Puppet Masters

17 Apr

Robert A. Heinlein’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The Puppet Masters is unusual, in my lifetime exploration of Heinlein’s works, in being the only adult novel of Heinlein’s that I was able to read as a child. Part of this, I suspect, is because The Puppet Masters is also more pulpy than Starship Troopers or Stranger in a Strange Land; it includes literary aspects, but Heinlein doesn’t allow them to overshadow the plot. There is enough excitement to thrill my young mind and ensure I didn’t get bored when Heinlein started sermonising.

It also scared hell out of me.

Heinlein was not the most emotional of writers – strong emotions were something he tried to avoid, I think (witness how mild Revolt in 2100 is compared to The Handmaid’s Tale) – but The Puppet Masters manages to touch on a very primal human fear, that of losing complete control and, perhaps, even finding happiness in slavery. Where Citizen of the Galaxy presents slavery as brutal, The Puppet Masters suggests it can be seductive. Why not let someone else do your thinking for you? Heinlein had a very clear answer to that question, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The Puppet Masters is centred on an American secret agent – ‘Sam’ – who, working with the enigmatic ‘Old Man’ and ‘Mary,’ is sent to investigate a report of a flying saucer landing in the United States, a landing that was subsequently called a hoax. The Old Man – we later find out that he’s actually Sam’s father – doesn’t believe it. The agent who saw the original craft was no bungler. Poking around, they discover a number of people who are seemingly dead inside – and, when they take one captive, they discover that he is being ‘ridden’ by an alien entity. The flying saucer was no hoax. Earth is being invaded by aliens from Titan and there’s no time to lose.

Unfortunately, the Old Man finds it hard to convince the President – or anyone – that the alien threat is actually real. This nearly leads to disaster when the alien – the Slug – escapes, after managing to hitch a ride on Sam. Sam finds himself in a state of perfect bliss, never once questioning his role as the slave … until he is freed. And then he reacts with utter horror to his experiences.

Eventually, after some antics in Congress, the Slugs are revealed … but it’s too late to keep them from occupying a large chunk of the United States. The best anyone can do is keep a quarantine around the area and force the entire population to walk around naked, or as close to it as possible. (Even that isn’t enough, as the Slugs are apparently capable of riding animals as well as humans.) Sam and Mary get married (the romance is the weakest part of the book, although it is clear that they’re close to equals), only to have their honeymoon interrupted by an alien intruder. It seems that the end is just a matter of time. However, the Old Man has a trick up his sleeve. Mary was the last survivor of a fringe colony on Venus and her repressed memories may reveal a way to beat the Slugs. To Sam’s horror, she volunteers to have the memories recovered.

They discover, perhaps in a deliberate tip of the hat to The War of the Worlds, that a host who becomes ill will kill the Slug. The only solution is to infect everyone in the occupied zone, a desperate gamble that claims the life of the Old Man. And the book ends with the heroes setting off to Titan intent on wrecking revenge.

Like Revolt in 2100, The Puppet Masters is told in first-person. It’s an interesting choice, although it forces Sam to take a break from the action to tell us what happened on a wider scale. It works better than it did in Revolt, at least partly because Heinlein matured as a writer. The characters are more real, the action comfortably both small and large scale; indeed, The Puppet Masters codified a number of alien invasion tropes that are depressingly common today.

Sam is also a better character than Lyle, without quite the naive uncertainty of the older character. He’s brave and resourceful and survives becoming an unwilling host (it’s made clear that others don’t always survive.) He’s also hard-headed, reckless and given to bellowing like a bull when his wife’s safety is involved. Mary doesn’t become that much less interesting after they get married, although she is clearly traumatised by her brief possession during their honeymoon (in a manner akin to Sam); Sam still moves from seeing her as an equal, to some extent, to a subordinate housewife. It isn’t clear what she thinks of this.

The Puppet Masters is also set in a future that never was. Humanity has a space program, there are colonies (and aliens) on Venus and there are flying cars; apparently, there was also a Third World War at some point, which ended inconclusively. That said, it’s easy enough to envisage their USA as ours, perhaps slightly less so. Heinlein got a lot of things right, and they shine through his writing, but he also got a lot of things wrong.

Pulpy or not, The Puppet Masters manages to touch on a number of issues that were of vital importance during Heinlein’s day – and, perhaps, even more important now. One issue concerns control of communications, an odd echo of the present-day issues with the internet and social media. Heinlein didn’t postulate anything more advanced than video phones and televisions, but he demonstrated that whoever controls the media and communications controls the country. The Slugs use it to keep people in the occupied zones unaware of the danger until far too late. In our world, the Left’s takeover of Hollywood and Silicon Valley is not good for democracy even if you’re a leftist yourself.

Linked to this is the fundamental refusal to believe in a threat, one that may seem out of this world, until it is almost too late. Pre-9/11, hijacked airliners used as cruise missiles were the stuff of thrillers; post-9/11, they were very real threats. As Sam notes, the Slugs could have been stopped in their tracks very quickly if immediate measures had been taken. Instead, humanity finds itself pushed to the brink of defeat. The persistent refusal to believe that yes, there are people who want to kill us, who hate us merely for existing, is a greater danger than naked force. Later, when we do grasp it, we run the risk of paranoia and mob rule. Once social trust is lost, either directly or indirectly, our society runs the risk of collapsing into ever-smaller tribes who are constantly warring with each other.

But perhaps most importantly of all is the slavery. Heinlein does not pull any punches when describing the horrors of being turned into a puppet. The Slugs are terrible masters – they don’t even think to make Sam wash while he’s their slave – and resistance is literally unthinkable. There are collaborators, but they’re people the Slugs have ridden and know to be reliable. Indeed, the Slugs – like the USSR’s communists – are nothing more than parasites, literally riding on the back of the working man. (Sam even wonders what difference, if any, the Slugs would make in Russia.) The Slugs offer peace, but it comes at a terrible price. They’re such bad masters that they work their hosts to death and then move on. I don’t know how true it is that Social Justice has ruined Marvel and the NFL, but putting causes ahead of profits is self-defeating in the long run. Putting your life in someone else’s hands is very dangerous, if only because their interests may not align with yours.

The Puppet Masters carries a simple message; free men must be prepared to fight to maintain that freedom, rather than allow themselves to be lulled into slow surrender. The West has made that mistake time and time again, most notably in 1938; freedom is not free and we have forgotten that. We have grown used to the idea of quick and decisive victories, neither of which have ever truly materialised. Don’t rely on the government. Get the facts, think for yourself, then make up your own mind … and get used to the idea that there is no perfect solution. Human history is practically made of problems caused by the solution to the last set of problems.

In many ways, The Puppet Masters reads as an odd cross between James Bond (both as a secret agent and in the father-son relationship between M and Bond) and some of John Wyndham’s books, most notably The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos. It has its flaws – the relationship between Sam and the Old Man reads a little wonky at first, as if Heinlein wasn’t intending to make them actually related at first – but it is still a very strong read.

And, if you happen to like alien invasion stories, you might be surprised by how many of them started here.

Retro Review Citizen of the Galaxy

14 Apr

Long before space travel, when we hadn’t even filled up Terra, there used to be dirtside frontiers. Every time new territory was found, you always got three phenomena: traders ranging out ahead and taking their chances, outlaws preying on the honest men — and a traffic in slaves. It happens the same way today, when we’re pushing through space instead of across oceans and prairies. Frontier traders are adventurers taking great risks for great profits. Outlaws, whether hill bands or sea pirates or the raiders in space, crop up in any area not under police protection. Both are temporary. But slavery is another matter — the most vicious habit humans fall into and the hardest to break. It starts up in every new land and it’s terribly hard to root out. After a culture falls ill of it, it gets rooted in the economic system and laws, in men’s habits and attitudes. You abolish it; you drive it underground — there it lurks, ready to spring up again, in the minds of people who think it is their ‘natural’ right to own other people. You can’t reason with them; you can kill them but you can’t change their minds.

-Citizen of the Galaxy

Robert A. Heinlein hated slavery.

It is odd, given just how many times he was lambasted on charges of racism, to realise just how deeply this shines through his work. The Puppet Masters, Logic of Empire, Farnham’s Freehold, Time Enough for Love … Heinlein changed his mind many times on many issues, but never on this. Slavery was, as he saw it, a great evil and he spared no words in railing against it, detailing in great detail the horrors inflicted on both the slaves and their masters. I suspect this earned him very few friends in Dixie. Slavery was long gone by the time Heinlein was born, but the myth of the Lost Cause – and happiness in slavery – was still going strong.

And, in Citizen of the Galaxy, Heinlein puts forward his strongest argument against slavery and the slave trade.

Citizen of the Galaxy is probably best divided into four sections. In the first, a young boy – Thorby – is purchased as a slave by Baslim the Cripple, a beggar on a vaguely Islamic world and taught the trade of begging for food and money. As he grows older, he slowly comes to realise that there is more to Baslim than appears, a realisation that comes just before his ‘father’ is arrested by the secret police and brutally hanged. Fortunately, Baslim is owed a great debt by the Free Traders – a society of interstellar merchants – and Thorby is taken onboard one of their ships before he can be hanged too.

This kicks off the second part of the story, as Thorby – aided by an interstellar anthropologist – is adopted into the Free Traders and starts carving out a place amongst them. It’s a difficult task, made harder by the fact their society is both highly restrictive and extremely secretive about what the rules actually are. Thorby starts to fit in, only to discover that the Traders – and his second adopted father – intend to pass him on to his next place as soon as possible. And so … Thorby joins the Terran Hegemony Guard as an enlisted spacer. This eventually leads to Thorby’s true identity being revealed.

Thorby, it seems, is none other than the long-lost heir to one of the largest interstellar shipping corporations in space. This would seem like good news, except Thorby finds himself grappling with his uncle for control – he may own the company, but his uncle controls it – and has to mount what is, in effect, a legal insurrection to get what is his by birthright. With the help of Leda, a distant cousin, he ends the book in control of the company, slowly trying to clean the slavers out of the business … and ruefully aware that, in some ways, he’s just as much a slave to the company as he was to his first owners. But at least he can do something that might, eventually, put matters to rights.

Although Citizen of the Galaxy is generally regarded as one of Heinlein’s juvenile books, it is very different from the others. It is, at base, the story of a young man who moves from society to society, barely having a chance to learn the ropes before he is forcibly moved to the next. (Thorby apparently has very little agency in his life, a piece of fridge brilliance I missed on the first read-through.) Beneath it, it is also the story of four very different societies; the slave culture of the Nine Worlds, the Free Traders, the Guards and the Corporation. As Thorby grows older, he becomes more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of all four – and, in their own way, how they both empower and restrict their people.

This includes a certain mixture of both open and covert slavery. The Nine Worlds is as open and honest about its true nature as the slaveowners of Dixie; slaves are traded openly, regularly abused and have no right of appeal. An escaped slave will be tracked down and mutilated, if caught. The Free Traders, by contrast, are both the freest society in space and the least free. Their freedom in space is bought by a regimented social system that trades women from ship to ship and cares little for individual freedom. Heinlein paints a curious picture of a society that is both led by women – I think it’s the only example of a matriarchy in Heinlein’s works – and terrifyingly oppressive to women. And men don’t have it much better. The Guard is a standard military organisation, with the great redeeming point that every man is a volunteer; the Corporation (and the world of the mega-rich on Earth) is both immensely luxurious and just as trapped by social norms as the Nine Worlds.

Indeed, the further Thorby travels from the Nine Worlds, the harder it is to convince people that he was once a slave. A crewman on his ship is the first to question him, openly challenging his story, but he is far from the worst. People on Earth simply don’t believe the stories about slavery and, when his grandparents realise what he was doing to survive, they are inclined to see him as letting the side down … rather than accepting that Thorby was lucky not to have to do something much worse to survive. Part of the reason that such horrors endure is that people simply don’t believe they exist. It is a problem that has an uneasy resonance in our society.

Thorby himself is an odd duck. He is clever, but in some ways he is more of an idiot savant than a genuinely brilliant person. (That said, he has moments of remarkable insight into some characters, most notably his uncle.) Like most of the other Heinlein heroes of the juvenile books, he knows nothing about sex (possibly because his mentor steered him away from emotional entanglements) and doesn’t understand the girls making passes at him or why his body is responding to them; unlike the others, he is at least allowed to feel attraction to the girls. He sometimes needs to have things explained to him that should be immediately obvious. I’m tempted to declare that he’s autistic.

The other characters are a curious mix of stock and strikingly unusual. Baslim seems nothing more than a beggar at first, with his true nature as an interstellar spy only revealed in hindsight. The Free Traders and the Guard are, in many ways, stock characters, although – as always when Heinlein uses stock characters – they are drawn from life. And Thorby’s Uncle is, in many ways, both; he’s a ruthless businessman, but he isn’t actually evil. (I was expecting him to be the evil mastermind; apparently not.) Even Thorby concedes that his uncle has a point – it isn’t remotely fair that his uncle should have worked hard for power and position, only to have everything thrown into doubt and eventually lost by sheer random chance. Why should he want to surrender control to Thorby?

As always, the book has drawn accusations of sexism. That is a difficult charge to sustain, although there may be some meat to it. The Nine Worlds puts women in one box, the Free Traders puts them in a slightly better box, the Guard appears to be male-only (to the point where Thorby wryly notes that the corps missed an excellent recruit in Leda) and Earth may put women in a box. Leda’s uncle is quite dismissive of her, not entirely without reason; it is not to Thorby’s credit that he echoes this attitude at the end of the book. If you like Thorby, and Heinlein goes out of his way to make Thorby likable, Leda is a heroine; if you’re not so impressed with Thorby, you might wonder if Leda really did the right thing. Arguably, she didn’t.

The book, like Starman Jones, features women trying to hide their intellect from men. (For once, the main character notices this even if he doesn’t understand why.) It’s an odd point and, justifiably, has drawn fire from critics. That said, there is a logic to it – as I will discuss later – that Heinlein probably couldn’t bring out in the pages of a juvenile. An intelligent women isn’t a bad thing, as far as most men are concerned, but a woman – or anyone, really – who lords it over a man is. Men want to be comfortable with their wives, not feeling constantly challenged or put down. The instinctive male response to a challenge is to see a threat, not a potential partner. This isn’t a point many people want to hear – and it is often deliberately misinterpreted – but it is often true.

Citizen of the Galaxy is more honest about sex and attraction than any of the other juveniles, as I have mentioned above, although it is still remarkably clean. Thorby’s sheer lack of sexual knowledge strikes me as a little unrealistic, for someone who was brought up in a slave society. But then, as someone who knew that people could be bought and sold, he might be leery of allowing himself to develop too many attachments.

Overall, Citizen of the Galaxy is certainly the most unusual of Heinlein’s juvenile books and, like most of them, it has aged fairly well. It presents the horrors of slavery in a manner youngsters can understand, without details that might turn off their parents; it shows how different societies can have different ideas of right and wrong (and how one society can seem natural and right to insiders while also horrific and evil to outsiders); it shows how people who are insulated from horror can pretend it doesn’t exist and, perhaps most importantly of all in an era of instant gratification, that not everything can be solved instantly. Ignore the poor science, please: Citizen of the Galaxy is a book worth reading.

Snippet – The Family Shame (The Zero Enigma 4 (Stand-Alone))

8 Apr

Family Shame Cover FOR WEB

Dear Reader

This story may require some explanation.

I was midway through writing The Zero Curse when it crossed my mind that I could write a handful of stand-alone stories set in the Zero universe. A number of ideas occurred to me, some of which I plotted out at once, but I had to put them aside while I finished the first trilogy. I was, in fact, writing The Zero Equation when it occurred to me that I could hang an entire story on Isabella Rubén, allowing me to show that she was a more complex character than she might have appeared and, perhaps more importantly, allowing me to explore different aspects of the universe. The story in front of you is the result.

If this is your first foray into the Zero universe, all you need to know is that twelve-year-old Isabella Rubén – manipulated by Stregheria Aguirre – betrayed her family to outside forces and, after the crisis was concluded, was summarily sentenced to exile. The story opens with her in a carriage, driving away from the only home she’s known …

… And making her way into an uncertain future.

(Check out the cover here –

As always, comments, spelling corrections, etc are warmly welcomed.

As this is primarily meant for younger readers, please could you also keep an eye out for things that might not be appropriate for them.

Now read on …

Thank you


PS – a couple of people were asking how to follow me. Just watch my blog <grin>.


It was a truth often acknowledged, Lord Carioca Rubén thought grimly, that House Rubén was the oldest Great House in Shallot. House Rubén could trace its linage all the way back to the Senatorial Families of the Golden City, a claim that none of the other Great Houses could make. Indeed, House Rubén was also the only Great House to cling to the customs and traditions of a long-vanished world that had, as far as the rest of the city was concerned, outlived their usefulness long ago. He’d seen it, once, as proof that they were different, as proof that they were born to eventually take supreme power.

Now, the traditions were a noose around his neck.

He stood in the centre of the Chamber of Judgement, his hands clasped behind his back as the arbiters took their places. Their faces were concealed behind black cloaks and powerful wards, their identities hidden even from the Patriarch himself. They would be men, of course, but beyond that …? Carioca understood the logic behind the tradition – he would have tried to bribe or threaten the arbiters, if he knew who they were – and at one point he would have supported it. Now … he would gladly throw tradition out of the window, if it would save his daughter’s life. He’d been very lucky that Isabella simply hadn’t been executed on the spot.

“We have discussed the matter of Isabella Rubén at great length,” the lead arbiter said. His voice was muffled by the wards. No one, not even the other arbiters, would know who he was. A friend, an enemy … or merely someone who’d lost confidence in Carioca’s leadership? “It is beyond doubt that she committed treason, against both the family and the kingdom itself. And that she acted without direction from a senior member of our family.”

Carioca felt his heart clench. Isabella wouldn’t have been expected to defy a senior member of the family, if he’d ordered her to follow his instructions. She was twelve. She wasn’t expected to make decisions for herself. If she had even a flimsy excuse to blame her actions on someone older, wiser and more powerful than herself …

“Worse, she chose to ally herself with Stregheria Aguirre,” the arbiter continued. “It is impossible to believe that she thought she was acting in the best interests of the family, or even that she was trying to secure the family’s future in the event of Crown Prince Henry’s coup suceeding. Isabella would have claimed power over the remainder of the Great Houses, assuming Stregheria Aguirre actually honoured her side of the agreement, but there would be little left to rule. House Rubén would be left broken in the wake of the coup.”

And the House War, Carioca thought. Stregheria Aguirre had laid her plans well. She’d played Isabella like a puppet. And, because she was an Aguirre, there was no way Isabella could be forgiven for allying with her. House Aguirre was the enemy. She thought she had no choice.

He winced, inwardly. Any father whose child turned against the family was a failure as a parent. That much was undeniable. How much of what had happened was his fault? Perhaps, if he’d been a stricter or a more attentive parent, Isabella would never have looked elsewhere for validation. Perhaps, if he’d fought for her right to succeed him as Patriarch, she wouldn’t have felt she needed to step outside the family line for power. Isabella was his daughter. How could she not be ambitious? But even he could not overturn centuries of tradition. He hadn’t even realised he needed to try until it was too late.

“If Isabella was a grown woman, she would have been executed by now,” the arbiter stated, flatly. “Treason is a serious offense. The king has already executed a number of Crown Prince Henry’s supporters, even members of the highest nobility. As it is, considering her age, we have decided to be merciful.”

Carioca wasn’t relieved. Mercy was a word with many meanings. Isabella was too young to be executed, perhaps, but there was no way she could be saved from punishment. He’d been lucky to escape being summarily stripped of his title himself. If he hadn’t been a war hero, if Caitlyn Aguirre hadn’t made her proposal to end the House War – and the endless feud – he might have lost everything. As it was, there was no guarantee that his son would be able to succeed him. The family council might choose to elect someone else in his place.

And the king will be demanding some punishment, he thought, grimly. Too many noblemen – and army officers – had backed Crown Prince Henry’s bid for the throne. It had been sheer luck that the original plan had had to be replaced at short notice. He cannot let a known traitor get away with it.

“Isabella will be sent into exile,” the arbiter informed him. “We have decided that Kirkhaven Hall will make a suitable home for her until we see fit to recall her from exile.”

“I protest,” Carioca said, immediately. “Kirkhaven Hall is no place for a young girl.”

“She will not be alone,” the arbiter said.

“But there will be no one of her age there,” Carioca said. He was all too aware that he was coming close to pleading. “She will …”

“She is being punished,” the arbiter said. “A few years in exile will teach her a lesson and satisfy the king. Should she comport herself in a manner that suggests she has learnt something from the experience, she will eventually be allowed to return to the city.”

But what she did will never be forgotten, Carioca thought, glumly. Too many people knew the truth for it to be forgotten, even if he bribed or threatened people into silence. House Rubén had enemies. They’d drag the matter up every time they needed to weaken the family’s reputation still further. Isabella will never live it down.

He stared into the arbiter’s hooded face and knew there was no point in arguing. The family demanded its pound of flesh. Isabella had betrayed them, a crime that could never be forgiven. Scheming to become Patriarch was one thing, but actually planning to ruin the entire family was quite another. There were few worse crimes. Carioca’s enemies might take pleasure in putting a knife in his back, while he was weak, but even his allies would agree that Isabella needed to be punished. Sending her into exile, cutting her off from the friends and family she’d need to make a name for herself, was harsh. Her future prospects would be utterly ruined.

As if they weren’t anyway, Carioca thought. Who would want her to marry into their family now?

“Isabella will leave tomorrow morning,” the arbiter said, firmly. “You will not be permitted to talk to her before her departure, nor will you write to her without the family council’s approval. Should you attempt to contact her secretly, her exile may be extended and your own position will be subject to examination.”

Carioca gritted his teeth, wondering – again – who was under the hood. One of his enemies, definitely. The list was a depressingly long one. He’d stood on too many toes during his rise to power. And now he was weak, someone had decided to have a go at him. If he didn’t try to contact Isabella, his fitness as a father – and Patriarch – would be called into question. But if he did try to contact his daughter, his enemies would have all the excuse they needed to strip him of his position. He could not win.

“I understand,” he said.

Isabella would not have an easy time of it. Kirkhaven Hall was in the highlands, right on the border with Galashiels. There were only a couple of people living there, both of whom had been sent into exile themselves long ago. Isabella would have books, of course, and plenty of room to practice her magic, but her education would suffer. And she would be unable to build the circle of patronage that any young person needed to make something of themselves in adult life. She would be alone, in a very real sense, for the rest of her life.

But at least she will be alive, he told himself. And, one day, she will return to us.

But he knew that day would be a very long time in coming.

Chapter One

It was cold, bitterly cold.

I muttered a heating incantation under my breath, although I knew it was useless. The bracelet the armsman had given me, before we left the hall five days ago, stopped me from performing even the simplest of spells. I could no more warm myself than I could look out of the shuttered windows, let alone cast a spell that might get me out of the carriage. The clothes I wore were too thin, the charms woven into the fabric nowhere near powerful enough to turn back the cold. I was going to freeze.

The carriage rattled, reminding me that we were a long way from the King’s Roads – and Shallot. I hadn’t seen much of the countryside – the armsman had kept the shutters down for most of the trip – but it was clear that we were travelling well into the hinterlands. The family estate, a mere fifty miles from Shallot, could be reached in a day on horseback, if one was prepared to ride hard. I didn’t think the carriage could move as fast as a horse, but still … we’d been travelling for a very long time.

I looked down at the cuff, feeling a bitter surge of helplessness. My life was over. My life was over and it was never going to end. The Arbiters had made it clear that I was going into exile, that I would not be allowed to return to Shallot for years, if at all. I was an exile, at twelve years old, and it was all my own stupid fault. There was no one else to blame for my fall from grace.

I should never have listened to that witch, I thought. I’d been told, more than once, that I should inform my father if an adult from a rival Great House tried to make contact with me. I hadn’t listened. I’d been hurting and depressed and Stregheria Aguirre had told me what I wanted to hear. If I hadn’t listened to her …

But I had listened to her, I had allowed her to talk me into treason against my family – against the entire city – and I was lucky to be alive. The Arbiters had told me that, too. If I’d been an adult, I would have been beheaded. But I couldn’t help thinking, as I stared at the carriage’s wooden walls – it was little more than a box on wheels – that I hadn’t really been lucky at all. I would have died quickly, then it would have been over. Now, my life would be turned into an object lesson for young children, a grim reminder of what not to do. I’d laughed at some of the stories of older family who’d transgressed and faced punishment. It wasn’t so funny now the boot was on the other foot.

I leaned back against the wooden wall and closed my eyes, trying to sleep. There was little else to do. The Arbiters had let me pack a few books – and a handful of possessions – but the armsman had put my trunks under the carriage, rather than letting me have anything in the passenger compartment itself. He wanted to make me miserable, I thought. Two weeks ago, I’d been one of the highest-ranking children in the family. Servants had jumped to my commands. Now, I was just an exile. My name had probably been struck from the family rolls. Mother was probably going around telling everyone that she had only ever had one child.

Not that anyone will believe her, I thought. And no one will ever let Mother and Father forget what I did either.

I scowled at the thought as I tried to concentrate on a meditation routine. People had been sent into exile before, but none of them – as far as I knew – had betrayed the family quite as spectacularly as I. The young men and women who had committed some indiscretion that was only spoken about in whispers would be welcomed back, after a decent interval. They might never regain their former prominence, but at least they would be part of the family again. I, on the other hand …

They’ll never forget what you did, a little voice whispered at the back of my mind. And they’ll never let you go home.

A surge of anger ran through me. My magic shuddered to life, pressing against the bracelet … then faded back into nothingness. I slumped, cursing the bracelet and its designer in words I’d never dared used in front of my parents. My magic was useless as long as I wore the wretched cuff. Had Caitlyn designed it? Or Akin? My brother had been quick to side with the Aguirre spawn, even though she was powerless. He’d liked her, I thought, long before her true nature became clear. He certainly hadn’t spoken out for me at the hearing. He’d been too busy with something else.

And now his sister is powerless, I thought, numbly. I might have been young, but I’d had power. I could walk the streets in perfect safety, trusting in my magic to protect me. But now I was defenceless, as helpless as a newborn babe. Is this how Cat feels all the time?

I must have fallen asleep, or slipped into a meditative trance, because I thought I saw and heard people surrounding me. Cat, speaking to me as though I was a friend; Akin, his face pinched and wan; a young boy with chocolate skin smiling at me … and a Hangchowese girl with almond eyes and enchanting smile. I had to be dreaming, I thought. My family didn’t know any Hangchowese girls, not socially. House Griffin was the only family with any Hangchowese blood and they were a minor house, barely able to pay their debts. People had been predicting their demise for years.

The girl was saying something to me. I turned my head, trying to hear, but her words just slipped away. They were words of wisdom, I thought, yet … they existed only at the corner of my mind. Maybe I was just imagining it. I was half-asleep …

A crashing sound echoed through the carriage. I jerked awake, looking from side to side. The shutters had opened, revealing a desolate wasteland. I stood, trying to ignore the increasingly urgent sounds from my stomach, and peered through the window, looking out onto a different world. We appeared to be in a valley, following a river as it poured down from the distant snow-capped mountains. The land appeared to be nothing, but scraggly grass and stones. I could see flecks of white on nearby hills, small copses of trees everywhere … I couldn’t see any sign of human life. The only sign that anyone had ever been in the valley was the road. A handful of birds flew through the air, some of them following us for a few moments before looping away into the sky. I felt a flicker of envy for their freedom. I wanted to fly too.

Cat flew, a treacherous part of my mind whispered. You could have flown too, if you’d befriended her instead.

The carriage shuddered, again. The shutters slammed closed. I sighed and sat back on the bench, closing my eyes. The armsman was tormenting me, I was sure, and I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he’d managed to get under my skin. Maybe I’d been horrid to him, when I’d been a little girl. Or maybe he was just making my new position as the family’s latest exile clear.

I must have fallen asleep, again, for the next thing I knew was the carriage lurching to a halt and someone banging on the door. I jerked upright, hastily pulling my golden blonde hair into a braid. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. Not, I supposed, that it mattered. A girl my age who went outside without braided hair would face the most astringent citizen from the Grande Dames of High Society, but in my case there was so much else to criticize. I smoothed my green dress with my hands, then stood and tapped on the door. It opened a moment later.

The coldness hit me like a physical blow. I’d thought it was cold inside the carriage, but outside … it was practically freezing. Water droplets hung in the air as if they were suspended, splashing against my body as I peered out of the door. Technically, the armsman should have provided steps – or helped me down to the ground – but he made no move to do either. I took a breath and jumped down, landing in a muddy puddle. Cold water started to seep into my boots. I glared at the armsman, daring him to laugh, then looked around. The estate – if indeed we were on an estate – was wreathed in mist. I stared, fascinated. I’d never seen mist – real mist – before. Visibility was down to a handful of metres. I thought I could see trees in the distance, but it was impossible to be sure. The world was silent, as if time itself had stopped. It felt, just for a moment, as though I was still dreaming.

A hand touched my shoulder. I jumped, then remembered the armsman. He motioned for me to walk around the carriage. I sighed, staring at his glamoured face in the hopes he’d think I could see through the spell, then did as I was told. The horses whinnied unhappily as I passed. Horses normally liked me, but I suspected they knew I was in disgrace. Or maybe they were just bonded to the armsman. They could have picked up their master’s feelings about me.

I sucked in my breath as the mansion came into view. It was a boxy stone structure, built to last; the walls were covered with gargoyles and carved with protective runes. There were six floors, I thought, judging by the windows. And yet, there was something shabby about the building. The runes looked faded, the gargoyles looked as though they’d been in the wars and a number of windows had been boarded up. The grassy lawn outside the door, what little I could see in the mist, looked unkempt, the grass fighting for dominance with a handful of wilder strains. Mother would have fired everyone involved with maintaining the lawn, I thought. She had always insisted the Great Houses had to look good, whatever the cost. It didn’t look as if whoever was responsible for the mansion cared one jot about appearance.

“Your new home,” the armsman said.

He snapped his fingers, casting a spell with casual ease. I looked away, not wanting to watch as the trunks were levitated out of the carriage and floated up towards the door. The Arbiters hadn’t said when the cuff would be removed, if indeed it would be removed at all. I shuddered at the thought of being powerless for the rest of my life, unless I managed to think of a way to remove the cuff for myself. It would probably be locked by magic, I guessed; anyone could unlock it, as long as they could use magic. I felt an uneasy moment of sympathy for Caitlyn, despite everything she’d done for me. She must have spent most of her life feeling as helpless as me.

“Stay here,” the armsman ordered.

He strode off, the trunks following him like obedient puppies. I stared after him for a long moment, then wrapped my arms around my chest. My dress was the height of fashion, but it was growing damper and colder by the second. I was uneasily aware of water pooling in my socks, no matter how much I squelched about. The ground was soft enough that the carriage seemed to be sinking into the mud. I wondered, nastily, if the armsman would be able to get it and the horses out when the time came for him to lead.

A gust of wind blew though the mist, bringing the promise of snow. I squeezed myself tighter, feeling water running down my back. Two weeks ago, I had been a little princess; my skin fair and unblemished, my dresses miniature versions of adult clothes, my hair perfectly coiffed by a small army of maids. Everyone had said I was a pretty girl, that I would grow up to be as stunning as my mother. Now, I was a straggly mess. My hair was threatening to come undone as it grew damp, but I was too cold to hold it in place. I wished, how I wished, that I’d thought to bring a coat! Even one of Great Aunt Gladys’s handmade jumpers would have been preferable. Ugly and lumpy they might have been, but at least they were warm.

The armsman returned, his boots squelching through the mud. “Come.”

I followed him, wondering just what was on the far side of the heavy wooden door. I’d been told I was going to a family estate, but which one? I hadn’t been told anything about it, save for the simple fact that it was a long way from Shallot. I’d researched a number of the family’s properties, back when I’d still had hopes of becoming the Heir Primus, but I didn’t recall any of them looking like this. I was mildly surprised the building hadn’t been sold off long ago. We have a reputation for keeping what is ours, but still … this mansion looked worthless.

The wards brushed over me as I stepped through the door and into a dark lobby. A flight of stairs led upwards, into the darkness; two wooden doors led further into the building. The only light came from a single crystal, hanging down from the ceiling. Whoever was in charge of maintaining it clearly hadn’t bothered to renew the spells. It should have been bright, but instead it cast a dim and flickering light over the lobby. A pair of hunting trophies had been mounted on the walls; a dragon and a basilisk. I was relieved to note that the taxidermist had had the sense to remove the basilisk’s eyes. My trunks had been placed beside the stairs.

“Lady Isabella Rubén,” the armsman said, as if I was being announced at a ball. I don’t think I ever hated anyone so much as I hated him at that moment. “Disgraced.”

“Indeed,” a voice said.

Two people were standing by the stairs, watching me. I cringed inwardly, suddenly aware of just how terrible I looked. My clothes damp, my hair a mess … I felt my braid slowly start to come undone under their stares. I somehow managed to drop a curtsy, despite my wet dress, then put up my hands to fix the braid. I’d probably made a bad impression already.

I forced myself to make a show of lowering my eyes, while keeping an eye on them. One, an older man, looked frankly disinterested; the other, a woman who looked around ten to fifteen years older than me, looked as if she’d smelt something disgusting. She was tall and blonde, her hair bound up in a style that suggested she was married; she wore a brown dress that looked as though it was handmade. She would have been pretty, I thought, if she’d worn something more suitable and, perhaps, put a nicer expression on her lips. There was something oddly familiar about her patrician face, something that nagged at my mind until I placed it. She looked a lot like me.

She’s family, I thought. Almost everyone in my family has the same blonde hair. And she might be quite closely related to me.

“Ira Rubén and Morag Rubén,” the armsman said. He was enjoying himself a bit too much, I thought. “Please meet your new companion.”

Ira leaned forward. He was taller than I’d thought – there was something about him that made him look short – and he was old. His movements were slow and deliberate, his blond hair slowly turning grey … I’d automatically assumed that he and Morag were married, but it was starting to look as though there was a large age gap between them. The suit he wore was years out of date. And yet, his eyes were sharp, if disinterested. His face was dignified, with a neat little goatee; his hands were scarred, suggesting a series of accidents in a potions lab or a forge. He held a letter in one hand. I guessed it was the official orders from Shallot.

“Thank you,” Ira said. He took the wad of papers the armsman offered him without comment. “You may go now.”

The armsman blinked. “Senior, I …”

“You are not welcome here,” Ira told him, shortly. “Drive down to the town. They’ll have a place for you in the inn.”

I felt a flicker of amusement at the armsman’s agitation. No doubt he’d expected to be put up for the night. But Ira was chasing him out. It was a breach of etiquette, but not one the armsman could openly protest. I wondered if the townspeople really would have a place for him or if he’d have to sleep in the carriage. It was what he’d made me do. The bench had been bad enough for sitting, but worse for sleeping. I suspected I had bruises all over my body.

“Morag, take Isabella’s trunks to … I think the Blue Room,” Ira ordered, once the armsman had departed. “Put them in there, then come back to my office.”

“Yes, Senior,” Morag said. Her voice was hard, tinged with an accent I didn’t quite recognise. I didn’t think she was pleased to see me. “I’ll make the bed up for her too.”

Ira nodded, then looked at me. “Welcome to Kirkhaven Hall,” he said. He turned away, heading to the nearest door. “Come with me.”

“Yes, Senior,” I said.

Heinlein and Science-Fiction

7 Apr

Oviously, this is the first draft.  Comments welcome.

Chapter One: Heinlein and Science-Fiction


If there is any one man who deserves to be called the grandfather of science-fiction, it is Robert Anson Heinlein.

His importance to the field simply cannot be underestimated. Heinlein was the first writer to come up with a number of ideas – and tropes – that are so common today that we cannot understand how revolutionary they were at the time. Heinlein dreamed of a future that was both fantastic and within our grasp, Heinlein asked questions that needed to be asked, Heinlein – above all – made his characters truly human. He was the first science-fiction writer to mix the pulp genre with genuine literature, giving his works a staying power that many other writers of his time lacked. Heinlein’s works may seem dated now – Heinlein got as much wrong as he got right – but Heinlein touched upon timeless truths that continue to resonate to this day.

Compared to Edward (EE ‘Doc’) Smith or Isaac Asimov, it is clear that Heinlein was the superior writer. Doc Smith wrote stories of heroes who were effectively superhuman, stories that were dominated by super-technology; Asimov wrote stories that often relied on clever resolutions and smart thinking (or sometimes doing nothing), while putting the human race in the care of a guardian race of psychic robots. One may argue, for example, that the central question of the Foundation and later Robot books is how mankind should be governed; Heinlein, by contrast, insists that man should govern himself.

Heinlein: A (Very) Brief Bio

Robert Anson Heinlein was born in Missouri, 1907. Growing up in Kansas City, Heinlein went to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis and graduated in 1929, moving swiftly to take up a post on the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (where he would serve under the later Admiral Ernest King) and see the changes wrought on warfare by modern technology. He then served on the USS Roper, a destroyer. Unfortunately for Heinlein, his naval career came to an end in 1934, when he was discharged from the Navy because of pulmonary tuberculosis.

After a brief and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to enter business and politics, Heinlein turned to writing and produced his first published story (Life-Line, printed in Astounding Science Fiction) in 1939. Others followed, including a rewrite of a story first written by John Campbell (Sixth Column), before the Second World War intervened. Heinlein was unable to return to active service, something that plagued him in later years, but he was able to secure a job doing aeronautical engineering for the Navy at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in Pennsylvania. In hindsight, it is clear that Heinlein’s post-naval career provided fodder for many stories, even if Heinlein himself found the period more than a little frustrating.

The end of the war brought a number of changes to Heinlein’s career. He wrote a number of short stories that helped science-fiction become a genre in its own right, as well as starting a series of juvenile novels for Charles Scribner (1947 to 1959) and a movie script entitled Destination Moon. (It won an award for special effects). However, he was also growing increasingly aware of the danger posed by the Soviet Union and the need to maintain a strong defence. His response to a suggestion that President Eisenhower should unilaterally stop nuclear tests was to urge the President to keep going, as well as standing up to the Communists in all fields. Starship Troopers was written to make it clear, I believe, that freedom is not (and never was) free. Scribner refused to publish it, ending their relationship with Heinlein.

It may have been a blessing in disguise. Heinlein had long chafed under editorial requirements and he welcomed the chance to strike out on his own. Once he had found a new publisher, he started work on books that pushed the limits as far as they would go; Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Time Enough for Love. Despite failing health, Heinlein would be involved in matters such as blood donations and Star Wars – the missile defence plan, not the movies – until his death in 1988.

Heinlein was married three times in his life. The first marriage, to Elinor Curry in 1929, lasted about a year and ended in divorce. His second marriage, to Leslyn MacDonald, lasted for fifteen years before Leslyn fell into alcoholism and the couple filed for divorce. His third wife, Virginia Heinlein (one of the first female engineers in America), outlived him.

It is difficult to exaggerate how much change Heinlein saw in his life. The world of his childhood, one he would later evoke in Time Enough for Love and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, was a world of horse-drawn carriages, primitive medicine, poor communications, institutionalised racism and sexism; he saw both world wars and the Great Depression, the collapse of the European Empires, the aggression of the Soviet Union (which invaded Poland in 1921 and Finland in 1939), the Civil Rights Era and so much more. He learned the importance of keeping one’s powder dry from a very early age, as well as the value of civilisation … a civilisation he saw as being under threat. And, to a very large extent, he was right. His experiences – and those of his country and world – shaped his development, as surely as my experiences shaped mine. Heinlein grew up in a profoundly unsafe world, where – eventually – the threat of nuclear annihilation arose to promise the destruction of everything he held dear; his critics grew to adulthood as the world stabilised – for a while – and the prospect of imminent death and destruction faded into the background. Heinlein never knew the safety (and immense comforts) we used to take for granted – and, in many ways, his harsh view of the universe was more practical than anything put forward today.

It was Heinlein’s great blessing, I think, that he could and did look ahead of the world of his birth. And it is his great curse that his critics are often unable to understand the world that surrounded him when he wrote. Many of Heinlein’s modern-day critics are far younger: Nora Jemisin, who insisted that Heinlein was a racist, was born in 1972 and would have been sixteen when Heinlein died.

In his early years, for example, Heinlein had less creative freedom than one might expect. He was often forced to argue with his editors, who insisted on changes that ranged from the sensible – in line with the issues of the day – to the thoroughly absurd. It was a great deal harder for him to get concepts past such eagle eyes; the stranded characters of Tunnel in the Sky, pairing up as they come to realise they may never be rescued, make a big song and dance about getting married. Later, as he became a name, Heinlein enjoyed more creative freedom, openly including sex, characters of colour and even homosexuality. Even so, by modern standards, Heinlein’s more adult books – To Sail Beyond the Sunset, in particular – are ridiculously clean. Sex is rarely, if ever, acknowledged in any of his juvenile books. Babies appear to come from nowhere.

Heinlein, going by some accounts, was far from perfect. He was grumpy and opinionated at times and often, depending on which account you believe, enjoyed making people pay for his favours. He liked his privacy, as Alexi Panshin discovered; I suspect he was grimly aware of the difference between his world, as he presented it, and his real life. And yet, like just about every great man in history, Heinlein is not brought down by his flaws. Instead, he rises above them.

Heinlein’s Books

The vast majority of Heinlein’s works can be comfortably divided into juvenile (we would probably call them Young Adult today) and adult books. The former were written specifically for teenagers (mainly teenage boys, although by the time The Rolling Stones was written it was clear that a number of teenage girls were reading them too) while the latter were more literarily in scope, asking questions about the rights and duties to one’s country (Starship Troopers), making observations about the impact of religion on society (Stranger in a Strange Land) and challenging the comfortable beliefs of his readers (Farnham’s Freehold.)

Indeed, the majority of Heinlein’s books straddled the line between pulp (adventure) fiction and literary fiction (big ideas). Where John Ringo’s A Hymn Before Battle confidently fits into the pulp category, and Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama fits neatly into the literary category, many of Heinlein’s works – particularly his juvenile books – comfortably fit into both. Thus Starman Jones is a tale of a young man who goes to space (pulp), but also an observation on both the dangers of locking talented youngsters out of a guild and the difficulties in making the super-privileged realise just how privileged they actually are.

Heinlein’s genus lay in making the two categories work together. Rendezvous with Rama is not a character-based story, not in any real sense. The true star of the book is the mysterious alien ship. Naomi Alderman’s The Power is focused on a world-changing event, not a handful of characters. Both books would not be that different if the characters were different; indeed, the events of the book overwhelm the characters. Most pulp books, certainly the ones written in Heinlein’s era, rarely asked any genuinely big questions. Doc Smith’s adventure novels were exciting, with a giant arms race that ended with entire planets being thrown around like rocks, but they never asked us to reflect on human nature. Heinlein, on the other hand, rarely lost sight of his characters. Sixth Column is SF pulp in the truest sense of the word – super-technology used to defeat a vastly more numerous enemy force – but it is driven by its characters, not by its world.

It is this, I think, that accounts for Heinlein’s continued popularity amongst SF readers. He serves as an excellent entry into the genre, even if his juvenile books seem very dated today; young readers can read them without an adult’s sceptical eye. Older readers can admire the amount of thought that goes into his juvenile works, the moral lessons he tries to impart and, perhaps, the limitations that made it harder for him to say what needed to be said. (He had trouble with his editors when he wanted to include characters who were not straight white males, to the point where he was compelled to only hint at Rod Walker’s skin colour (black) in Tunnel in the Sky.)

His adult books were more literary than pulp, to the point that my twelve-year-old self discarded Starship Troopers fairly quickly after discovering it was not particularly exciting compared to some of his older novels. Heinlein would raise big ideas – he was perhaps the first serious author to write about a gender-swapping character – and invite us to challenge our perceptions. He would discuss, often at length, how the world worked (or at least how he saw the world working.) And he was clever enough at getting his ideas across that he opened a number of minds. I can honestly say that it was Heinlein, not anyone more modern, who convinced me to take microaggressions seriously.

Part of this, I think, was that Heinlein was careful to make us like his characters before showing us the roadblocks in their path. Rico of Starship Troopers, for example, is given a chance to grow on us before Heinlein casually reveals that he’s Filipino. Tunnel in the Sky has Rod Walker, but it also has Jackie … whom Rod assumes to be male until she proves her competence (bonus points for Rod repeating what, to a teenage boy, would have seemed the height of wisdom about girls … and putting his foot firmly in his mouth.) The Rolling Stones has Hazel Stone, who faced discrimination from male engineers; Farnham’s Freehold has Joe, who is perhaps the most likable character in the book. He gets a chance to give a breaking speech to Hugh Farnham, who thoroughly deserves it.

It’s sad, but true that we empathise more with likable people than people we consider unlikable. A character who happens to be stridently tilting at windmills – Lisa Simpson or Hermione Granger, for example – is more likely to become the butt of various jokes than hailed as a hero. Whining and moaning is not seen as heroic; professional victims, however defined, are rarely liked, no matter how much lip service is paid to their words. The man who overcomes his weaknesses and strides triumphantly into the future is seen as more heroic than the man who lets bitterness overcome him. Heinlein understood that, I think. His characters had weaknesses and flaws, very human weaknesses and flaws. Not all of his successors have the same understanding.

Heinlein in the Modern World

Heinlein is not (and never was) above criticism. His works have drawn a great deal of fire over the years, most notably Starship Troopers (which had to endure the indignity of a truly terrible movie named after it.) Yet, in recent years, Heinlein’s legacy has come under attack from SF readers and writers who really should know better.

Part of this, I suspect, is because Heinlein was (and is) such a towering and polarising figure in the field. A person who tries to attack or defend Heinlein will take fire from people who want to defend or attack Heinlein. He is such an important personage that many authors, myself included, have drawn inspiration from Heinlein’s work and, in many ways, consider him something of a father-figure. An attack on Heinlein is an attack on the foundations of our house and should not – must not – be tolerated. But this makes it difficult for people to assess Heinlein in the context of his times and, worse, gives ammunition to those who want to tear Heinlein down. It is easy to shout ‘racist’ or ‘fascist’ at a Heinlein supporter, which does absolutely nothing for the tone of the debate. Heinlein was neither, as I will demonstrate, and his supporters aren’t either.

Indeed, like it or not, we have reached a point where we must hail someone as an unquestionable hero who must not be criticised (Nelson Mandela, for example) or insist that one flaw in their otherwise saintly appearance demands that we declare them to be completely beyond the pale. The question of precisely what we do with the works of great creators who have sinned has become more pressing in recent years, with the revelations about Jimmy Savile, Harvey Weinstein and, in the science-fiction and fantasy field, Marion Zimmer Bradley. Heinlein was nothing like these abusers, but – as a man of his times – he sometimes wrote things that would be considered problematic today. But is this enough to condemn him?

I say no, for both logical and emotional reasons. Heinlein cannot be fairly judged by the standards of our time; he must be judged by the standards of his time. It is neither fair nor logical to hold him to account by standards that simply didn’t exist in his world. But emotionally, Heinlein is very much the grandfather of science-fiction. I can recognise his flaws, and I will be discussing them later in the book, but I can no more reject him than I can reject my biological father. Nor does the fact that Heinlein said or did something automatically invalidate it.

But the other part of the problem is that Heinlein did not have the advantage of drawing on the works of countless older authors. He was breaking new ground; sometimes taking old tropes and transferring them to outer space, sometimes making his ideas up out of whole cloth. To newer readers, Heinlein sometimes reads as a horrendously outdated writer from the stone age, as one commenter put it. His works are sometimes strikingly idealistic, as if they and their writer came from a more trusting age. Heinlein’s works evolved as Heinlein himself evolved. The simple truths of his early writings gave way to admitting the complexity of the world around him.

It is often suggested, most notably by John Wright, that Heinlein could not win a Hugo Award today. There may be some truth in this. On one hand, science-fiction has evolved and fandom has expanded in many different directions. (More people bought a copy of my latest book than voted in the 2017 Hugo Awards.) And, on the other hand, conventions and fan associations have developed a terrible habit of excluding people for having the wrong political beliefs (i.e. conservative) or saying the wrong things or generally refusing to toe the party line. Heinlein, in his later life, saw no reason to kowtow to ideologues and, I suspect, would probably have been ejected from numerous conventions.

But success is not measured in awards, but books sold. And, by that standard, Heinlein’s legacy is alive and well. Why might this be so?

There is a section in Marvel Comics Civil War: Front Line where Sally Floyd chews Captain America out for not keeping up with modern life and uses this as an argument to prove that Cap is out of touch. Cap is shamed into silenced (or too stunned at her stupidity to tell her she’s being stupid) and Sally thinks she’s won the debate. But consider this:

A teenage boy and a teenage girl live in adjoining houses. The boy wants to spy on the girl as she undresses every night. In 1900, he drills a hole through the wall and peeps through; in 2000 he hacks her webcam and watches through it; in 2100 he uses a microscopic nanocam; in 2200 he uses a zero-width wormhole. But in all four time zones, the boy is a pervert spying on the girl without her knowledge or consent. There is a timeless principle that one does not play the voyeur. And most of Heinlein’s works hum with timeless principles.

And that, I think, is why Heinlein is still popular today.

Retro Review: Farmer in the Sky

5 Apr

“As Hank put it, there was one good thing about colonial life – it sorted out the men from the boys.”

-Farmer in the Sky

Farmer in the Sky has the odd distinction of being the only one of Heinlein’s juveniles that didn’t really appeal to me when I was a preteen. I’m not sure why that was the case. It wasn’t very exciting, by the standards of some of the other books I was reading at the time, but The Rolling Stones wasn’t that exciting either and I loved it. Perhaps it was the simple fact that I didn’t like the main character very much. There is something about William (Bill) Lermer and his widower father, George, that irritated me. Or perhaps it was the fact that I didn’t like my experiences in the Boy Scouts – I didn’t stay for very long – and Bill’s obsession with scouting in all its forms is a reminder that misfits like me don’t fit in very well with such groups. It was – and still is – harder for me to empathise with Bill than Max Jones or Rod Walker.

The basic plot is quite simple. On a crowded future Earth, where food is carefully rationed, teenager Bill is surprised to discover that his father is planning to emigrate to Ganymede, the largest and most inhabitable of Jupiter’s moons. Convincing his father to allow him to emigrate too – and discovering, to his horror, that his widower father is marrying again – Bill prepares for the trip, then sets foot on the interstellar colony ship Mayflower for the voyage to Ganymede. It takes him some time to get used to Molly, his stepmother, and Peggy, his stepsister.

Arriving at Ganymede – after a brief adventure during which Bill saves the ship from an impact with a tiny piece of space debris – the colonists discover that the farms they were promised simply don’t exist. (The authorities on Earth basically dumped four times as many colonists on Ganymede as the colony was expecting). Bill’s father goes to work for the colony administration – he is apparently a pretty fair engineer – while Bill goes out to set up the farm. Unfortunately, Peggy takes ill very quickly on Ganymede. She just isn’t suited to life on the rough world.

The family struggles on, even after a disastrous quake nearly wrecks the colony (and kills Peggy, one of the few truly emotional parts in the book.) Offered a chance to go back to Earth, Bill decides to stay and, after repairing the farm, joins an exploration mission where he discovers evidence of a former civilisation. The story ends with a reflection of the prospect of war on overpopulated Earth … and the observation that Ganymede and the other colonies will survive.

Like most of Heinlein’s juveniles, the core of Farmer in the Sky is about a young man growing to adulthood. Bill’s scouting gives him a chance to learn to lead and then lead himself, although he doesn’t have the patience – yet – to be a proper leader. He goes through the worst part of adolescence while moving to a new environment, which is – in many ways – the making of him. The self-righteous prat we meet in the early pages – there is something of a Teacher’s Pet about Bill, although he’d deny it – gives way to a rugged adult. Bill – like some of Heinlein’s other characters – has a habit of making credible mistakes, some more irritating than others. He’s also oddly unaware of girls and women, to the point that he blithely dismisses Gretchen’s irritation when Bill puts his foot in his mouth. One reviewer has even suggested that Bill is a racist. There may be some truth in it.

Bill’s habit of blithely disregarding everything he doesn’t understand leads to some of the book’s more amusing moments. In the early pages, Bill cooks for his father and himself … and then asks himself why women make such a fuss about cooking. It’s easy! The fact that Bill is doing nothing more complicated than heating precooked food in a proto-microwave seems to have completely slipped past him. Cooking from scratch is a great deal harder, as I can testify. Later on, he assumes that a shuttle captain is pulling his leg about pirates in space – and is aghast to discover that the man was actually telling the truth. Bill also manages to miss his father’s shiftiness when discussing the need for families to emigrate, although he really should have picked up on something.

His relationship with his father is also odd, although it is far healthier than the later relationship between Hugh and Duke Farnham. George is an oddly shifty person when it comes to emotional matters (like a few other engineers I’ve met) and doesn’t tell Bill he’s getting married again until it is almost too late. It is never easy for a young man to step out of his father’s shadow, or for the father to recognise that his son is an adult, but George makes it harder than necessary. A wife and mother might have been able to bridge the gap between them, but Bill’s mother died some years before the story. It’s nice to see Bill grow to accept his new relatives, yet … Heinlein really doesn’t give this the space it needs.

I don’t know how accurate Heinlein’s view of the colonisation of Ganymede actually is, but a fantastic amount of thought and detail was woven into the book. The mechanics of actually getting to Ganymede and turning the world into a habitable place to live are discussed in great detail, perhaps way more than I considered necessary when I was a child. Heinlein tells us about the importance of things like insects and suchlike for turning the ground into soil, as well as the logistical limitations of shipping stuff from Earth. (Bill made me smile when he argues that his accordion should be considered a cultural item, rather than a personal one; it lets him bring the instrument without it cutting into his weight allowance.) Everything from Earth costs a fortune on Ganymede. I’d be surprised if Heinlein didn’t get quite a few things right.

At the same time, the colony also seems to be playing host to a number of people who are very poor colonisers indeed. Peggy gets ill, as I mentioned, but others feel (rightly) that they were swindled when they boarded the Mayflower, only to arrive and discover that the promised land simply doesn’t exist. George tells Bill, when he questions this, that a number of people were probably allowed to pass the test through political connections, rather than actual competence. (Bill’s friend, who changed his mind about going, had a father who couldn’t move his business to Ganymede.) He also states that Ganymede will wipe out the weaker ones, sooner or later, a statement that comes back to bite him when Peggy dies. At least one of these people becomes a lesson in the dangers of allowing bitterness to overcome you.

Bill’s obsession with scouting, as I said, irritated me. But it does lead to some amusing moments. Having set up a ‘Ganymede Scouts’ on the Mayflower – and given a shining demonstration of why I never liked the Scouts, as they exclude someone whose only real crime was being annoying – Bill confidently announces himself as a Ganymede Scout … to a real Ganymede Scout. Needless to say, this does not go down well at all. Bill finds himself in hot water as the original Ganymede Scouts have no intention of allowing the newcomers to simply take over. He does overcome this problem, but only with some help from a friend who realises – probably correctly – that the originals have a lot to teach the newcomers. It’s nice to see Bill get a comeuppance that taught him a useful lesson, without doing permanent harm. I don’t know if he realised it himself, though.

Heinlein’s wider world has its odd moments. It is a world where teenagers have access to flying cars, but also starvation rations. The food rationing system may seem perfectly normal to Bill, but Heinlein’s readers would have understood perfectly why Bill wanted to leave for good. Bill actually complains, at one point, that the Chinese are constantly having more and more babies, leaving less food for everyone else. (This has an ironic echo in people complaining about more and more pettifogging environmental regulations over here, while China is pumping out more pollution without restriction.) Trying to ship even one percent of the population to Ganymede is futile and there’s little point in trying to ship food back. It is later explained that certain people believe that war is inevitable and that they’re trying to save as many humans as possible.

Overall, Farmer in the Sky is an odd book. It has a lot in common with the Little House books (only IN SPACE); it preaches self-reliance and independence, as well as the importance of community and doing what you can with what you are given. And yet, I cannot help thinking that it is one of the weaker of Heinlein’s juveniles. Heinlein did not develop Bill sufficiently, in my view, to make him a decent character. Nor are we invested enough in his stepmother and sister to feel much for them, although Peggy’s death is genuinely emotional.

But, in many ways, it is still a remarkable piece of work. There are moments of genuine humour – including a couple I think sneaked in by accident – and it lacks the bombast of some of Heinlein’s later works. It is a good reminder that space colonisation is dangerous, but worthwhile. It’s well worth a read.

Retro Review Tunnel in the Sky

4 Apr

Watch out for Stobor!

I really – really – hated The Lord of the Flies.

It wasn’t just the storyline that I found depressingly accurate, although I was grimly aware that I had far too much in common with Piggy. It was the moment when the book was being read to us in class and one of the worst bullies in the school snidely pointed out that I’d be the first to die – or be driven away to starve – if we found ourselves trapped on an isolated island. I am a fan of civilisation, despite its flaws, because my life experience has taught me that civilised behaviour is sometimes little more than a thin veneer covering a very dangerous beast indeed. Stripped of civilisation and socialisation, the strong take what they like and the weak suffer what they must. Societies that are not governed by the Rule of Law – or forget that they need to enforce the Rule of Law – are inevitably governed by the Rule of Force.

Heinlein, apparently, hated The Lord of the Flies too. He believed – and I agree with him – that civilisation is one of mankind’s finest achievements, one we will take to the stars. But, at the same time, he cheats to some extent. The characters – I hesitate to call them heroes – of The Lord of the Flies had no idea that they were going to be stranded, while Heinlein’s heroes knew they were going into a dangerous environment (although they didn’t realise that they were going to be trapped for several years). They had the advantage of training and suchlike – and even a certain degree of age – which others lacked.

Tunnel in the Sky is focused around Rod Walker, a teenage boy who intends to leave the overcrowded Earth and become a colonist on a distant world. Unfortunately for him, he has to pass a survivalist test first; he has to step through a wormhole onto a distant world, taking only a handful of supplies with him, and survive there for a week. Rod – and a number of other students from several different institutions – find the environment very challenging … all the more so as it becomes clear, ten days after they arrive, that there will be no immediate pick-up. They may be stuck on their new world for quite some time.

The remainder of the book is focused on their attempt to build a civilisation – or as close to it as they can muster – and somehow overcome the challenges, both internal and external, that their situation throws at them. They grapple with the problems of somehow getting along, and dividing up the work, while trying to figure out how best to survive an increasingly dangerous environment. Somehow, they make it … and, when the wormhole is reopened, they have grown into a small tribe that – to some extent – actually works, although it splinters when they are – at least briefly – cast back into the roles of children. Rod, forever changed by his experiences, heads out again as quickly as possible.

Rod is, very much, the focus of the story. (A single chapter consists of journal entries from Jackie’s point of view.) Rod is very much an unshaped teenage boy, with all the strengths and weaknesses it implies: he rebels against parental authority, yet is unwilling to cut ties completely; he jumps to conclusions time and time again; he is dismissive, to some extent, of women … yet somehow manages to miss that ‘Jack’, his first partner in survival, is actually a girl. Rod serves as leader without quite understanding the basis on which he is leader (thus discovering that his ‘government’ suddenly has a crisis of legitimacy), then finds himself unsure if he should support the first elected leader or setting off with a small group when the leader proves himself better at talking than actually leading. Rod makes many mistakes, but they are all creditable mistakes. Some reviewers have called him ‘dumb,’ yet he’s better at learning from his mistakes than some other people I could mention. He puts away his sexism when he realises that he’s wrong, for example. He’s also reluctantly accepting when he doesn’t get his own way.

And he’s black. Heinlein never says it directly – the gatekeepers would have had fits – but there are hints scattered throughout the text. This may account for his complete lack of genuine interest in girls; the gatekeepers would not, I think, have been happy if they’d twigged to his skin colour and then realised that he was interested in a girl. Indeed, the entire group is strikingly multiracial as well as multi-religious. Once again, Heinlein was well ahead of his time.

The book, like many of Heinlein’s other works, does not attempt to conceal just how difficult survival on an unsettled world would be. The kids – more like teenagers – face all sorts of problems and shortages, much as the later Farnham family would in Farnham’s Freehold. Indeed, the mere absence of paper makes life difficult for them; Heinlein spares no bones about the importance of record-keeping, even in a relatively primitive hunter-gatherer society. They often have to build the tools to build the tools to build something they find themselves desperately needing, when they don’t have time. More seriously, the shortages of medicine ensure that problems that would be minor on Earth are lethal on their new world.

Like The Lord of the Flies, the book also focuses on both group politics and the problems with forming and maintaining what is – in effect – a government. It isn’t easy. Rod’s most dangerous mistake, in my opinion, was taking government and society for granted … and then nearly losing everything when pitched into a struggle for supremacy against someone who was smart (or predatory) enough to realise that the old system is no longer valid because the enforcement mechanisms (the police, for example) are gone. Later, as the group grows bigger, they find themselves wrestling with the franchise and the questions that go with it; what do you do, for example, when a relatively small ruling class is drawn from the same group? Heinlein may have minimised the problem when the group is still small enough to allow for a degree of open air meetings – the scenes read faintly absurd because of it – but they are issues that apply to our society too. It also shows how reluctant democracies are to grapple with a real problem that only a few people can see – too many of the group are nearly killed when their colony suddenly finds itself in a very dangerous place indeed.

The colony also does have one advantage over The Lord of the Flies – it includes both young men and young women. Heinlein nods to the problems this might cause, when the numbers are uneven, although he doesn’t take the colony down the road of men fighting over women (or vice versa). Instead, with roughly equal numbers of males and females, the colonists pair up and start to marry instead. (I imagine the gatekeepers insisted on the couples actually marrying.) The book, like the remainder of Heinlein’s juveniles, is clean – no sex – but it is clear that the couples are actually breeding.

Heinlein is also devious enough to prove that the women deserve respect – from Rod as well as us – before telling us that they’re actually women. Jack/Jackie becomes a likeable and competent character well before we realise she’s female, a cunning way to avoid Rod’s (and the reader’s) prejudices getting in the way. Heinlein was fond of this tactic; it appears several times within his juveniles. Proving that one deserves respect is much more effective, whoever you are, than demanding respect.

Heinlein doesn’t show us much of the wider world, although there are some snippets that hint that it is a more tolerant and accepting place than ours (or his). No one bats an eyelid at what might be an interracial match in the colony, while there are hints that homosexuality is no longer considered taboo. That said, it is also massively overcrowded and America may be locked in a cold war with China, which has apparently occupied Australia and much of the Far East.

Like the rest of Heinlein’s juveniles, Tunnel in the Sky offers quite a few lessons for modern-day readers. First and foremost, the importance of maintaining civilisation and dealing with those who freeload (i.e. people who take and give nothing back) and those who refuse to follow society’s laws. Second, perhaps just as important, the urgent need to strike a balance between holding politicians to account and, at the same time, giving them time to actually get something done. And third, the importance of combining long-term thinking with hard-nosed pragmatism; the former to help us aim for a better world in the future, the latter to keep us alive in the present. And fourth, perhaps, the importance of understanding just how your technology actually works.

Overall, Tunnel in the Sky is a fairly decent read. It is a little choppier than most of Heinlein’s juveniles, with a time-skip in the middle that I found annoying, but the characters are human, the situation is both readable and educational and the hero is a decent boy who grows into a man. And it is also a good example of how to do diversity right.