Archive | May, 2018

Review The Green Hills of Earth/The Menace from Earth

30 May

Robert Heinlein’s short stories have always been something of a hit-or-miss affair. Some of his shorts have been very good, either exciting or thought-provoking, but others have been quite weak. The short story is an art that few writers can master – I’m honestly not very good at writing shorts – as one must either write within a developed universe (which Heinlein did, to some extent) or get across a great deal of information in a very small amount of words.

Heinlein’s shorts were originally written for magazine publication – it was the glory days of the old science-fiction magazines – and were later compiled into books. This set of short stories were placed in two collections – The Green Hills of Earth and The Menace from Earth – which were later republished, by Baen Books, as a single volume. The majority of them fit into Heinlein’s Future History – which will be discussed later – but there are aspects of the stories that probably required editing to make them wholly part of the shared universe. There is also a considerable amount of values dissonance.

I do not intent to look at each of the stories in great detail – only a handful demand that sort of attention – but it’s interesting to note the common themes. Most of them revolve around the sort of men (and women) who become pioneers, the people who put their lives on the line, time and time again, to explore new territories, boldly go where no man has gone before, and cope with disasters. Space Jockey, Gentlemen Be Seated, The Black Pits of Luna, It’s Great to Be Back, Ordeal in Space, The Green Hills of Earth, Sky Lift and Water is for Washing are all focused on such heroes, many of whom are seemingly normal people until they find themselves being tested by circumstance. It’s Great to Be Back, for example, features a couple who spent years on the moon and hated every moment of it, only to discover – when they returned to Earth – that they no longer liked it. They promptly returned to the moon, where they were happy. In a similar vein, The Black Pits of Luna features a teenage boy who goes on a lunar walk with his little brother, who gets lost. After finding him, the boy determines to return to the moon as soon as possible. The story works very well, at least in part, because Heinlein captures the teenage male voice so well. Anyone who’s ever been on a family trip as the elder son will sympathise.

I was desperate. “Look, Dad,” I said, keeping my voice low, “if I go back to Earth without once having put on a spacesuit and set foot on the surface, you’ll just have to find another school to send me to. I won’t go back to Lawrenceville; I’d be the joke of the whole place.”

The Long Watch, by contrast, is a prequel of sorts to Space Cadet, the story of a young officer who sacrifices his life to avert a military coup. It’s a strong tale of heroism, which Heinlein milks for all the sentimentality he can. Arguably, he overdoes it.

Several of the other stories represent attempts to peer into other genres. We Also Walk Dogs features a concierge service that can be hired to do almost anything (as long as its legal) trying to put the pieces together to accomplish a near-impossible task. The Year of the Jackpot focuses on statistical odds, with the characters calculating that bouts of periodic insanity are all too common. It has an uncomfortable resonance today. By His Bootstraps is a neat time-travelling story, quite like The Door into Summer, where a man gets press-ganged by a dictator and, eventually, becomes the dictator (and has to press-gang his former self). The time loop is neat, even though the future is quite depressing. Project Nightmare features military telepaths struggling to avert a Russian nuclear attack; Goldfish Bowl has a team of researchers stumbling across far more advanced (unseen and incomprehensible) aliens, who see humans as pets. It does not, I should note, have a proper ending. It is a creepy little story that seems out of place.

Columbus Was a Dope is a good example of how a short story can make its point. Two men debate the value of Christopher Columbus’s voyage across the ocean, concluding, in the end, that it was sheer foolishness. But they’re having the argument on the moon. Heinlein neatly shows us, as the men depart, that they’re actually wrong. Where would they be without men like Columbus and Armstrong?

Logic of Empire is longer, but it makes the same general point. Two men make a bet that conditions on Venus (still presented as a habitable world) are not akin to slavery. Unwisely, they take ship to Venus to find out … and get enslaved. The POV character rapidly comes to realise that the vast majority of men on Venus are enslaved and, when he gets home, he discovers to his horror that people on Earth don’t want to know. One can argue that the distance between Earth and Venus makes it impossible to care, but there is a more salient point. Slavery is, and always has been, part of the human condition.

It’s not a point that is discussed often these days. It’s easy to forget that blacks weren’t the only slaves in America, although the other slaves were not always called slaves. Nor is it easy to realise, as Heinlein points out, that slavery sprang from conditions that made it economic. The idea that black slaves were inferior was invented as a later justification for keeping them enslaved. It wasn’t the reason for enslaving them. As one of Heinlein’s characters points out:

You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity. Colonial slavery is nothing new; it is the inevitable result of imperial expansion, the automatic result of an antiquated financial structure.” [SNIP] “You think bankers are scoundrels. They are not. Nor are company officials, nor patrons, nor the governing classes back on earth. Men are constrained by necessity and build up rationalizations to account for their acts. It is not even cupidity. Slavery is economically unsound, non-productive, but men drift into it whenever the circumstances compel it.”

The last two stories appear very different, at least on the surface. And yet, in many ways, they share similar themes.

Delilah and the Space-Rigger may be the first science-fiction story featuring a woman trying to break into a male-only field. Tiny, the Chief Construction Engineer of Space Station One, is shocked to discover that his latest communications officer is a woman. His first response is absolute horror, a belief that her presence will distract the men … and a number of attempts to get rid of her. (Interestingly, Heinlein makes it clear that Tiny wasn’t entirely wrong.) Gloria – on the other hand – is equally determined to stay. A battle of wits and stubbornness ensures, which ends with Tiny reluctantly conceding that Gloria has won her place.

It reads oddly today, in many ways. Gloria is competent at her job, a point that is made subtly clear when Tiny tells her that one of the techs is a good man … and she agrees, noting that she trained him. But, at the same time, she is neither a kick-ass heroine nor a bitch who will not accept even an unconditional surrender. Gloria is smart enough to make it clear that she wants to be one of the boys and that she will act like one of the boys (she went by ‘G’ on her paperwork to hide her all-too-revealing first name) … and she will seek no special privileges for herself. She earns respect, rather than demanding it; indeed, perhaps more importantly, she is smart enough to allow Tiny room to retreat. It’s better to allow someone to come to the right conclusion than force it down their throats, even if (particularly if) the conclusion is right. People resent such treatment and, if you have to have a working relationship with them, it can come back to bite you.

Indeed, Heinlein neatly illustrates the problem with ‘lean in’ advice. The good side is that it ensures that the women gets noticed, which makes it harder for her to be exploited; the bad side is that it’s hard to tell, particularly if you haven’t practiced, where to stop. The blunt truth is that men do not instinctively understand women and vice versa. Most men know, at a subconscious level, techniques for minimising the apparent threats they pose to other men; they understand, all too well, that most men who think they are being challenged will react badly. A demand for something – anything – will generate pushback, where a more reasonable request may not. It is impossible to learn such skills from books – you have to practice – and it is very easy to mess up. Girls who were tomboys as kids tend to get much further in male-dominated spheres.

Heinlein also demonstrates the problem with the modern-day demand that men call out other men for bad (read sexist) behaviour. A secure man, like the narrator of the story, can point out when someone is being an asshole, but an insecure man – a teenager, for example – cannot without risking serious consequences.

She does her work okay. You give her orders you wouldn’t give to one of the men—and that a man wouldn’t take.”

As oddly as it reads in places, Delilah and the Space-Rigger is far better at getting the idea across than more modern works. And, to Heinlein’s readers, it would have been revolutionary.

In some ways, The Menace from Earth is very different from Delilah and the Space-Rigger; in others, it has quite a bit in common. Holly Jones may actually be Heinlein’s most successful attempt at portraying a teenage girl; indeed, she is superior to Poddy of Podkayne of Mars, who came later. Holly is both a very typical girl and one with great – and plausible – dreams of becoming a spaceship designer. Living on the moon, Holly works as a guide when she’s not in school … a good life, until trouble intrudes in the form of an actress from Earth who captivates Holly’s boyfriend. Holly is non-too-pleased about this until she is forced to risk her life to save the actress from her own stupidity, an act that reveals that her boyfriend genuinely loves her.

It’s perhaps the strongest story in the book, both in background and foreground. Luna City is astonishingly detailed for such a short story, with both familiar and alien elements. And Holly herself is a living breathing person. The actress, on her way back to Earth (like some of the other people in the story collection), takes the time to reassure Holly that her boyfriend loves her … and remind her not to rub salt in the wounds of his mistakes. Like the previous story, giving someone room to retreat is a very good idea. Just because someone made an ass of himself is no excuse for making matters worse.

Overall, most of the stories in this collection showcase precisely why Heinlein became popular in the first place. The combination of sweeping visions of the future with real-life people, true to his era, works in a way many other stories do not. Indeed, the people are the core of the stories, something which is true of most of Heinlein’s works. As Delilah and the Space-Rigger put it:

Sure, we had trouble building Space Station One—but the trouble was people.”

Review Job: A Comedy of Justice

24 May

I would not want to be a saint in Heaven if Margrethe was not with me; I wouldn’t fear going to Hell if she was there – not that I believe in Hell or ever stood a chance of being a saint in Heaven. Samuel Clemens put it: ‘Where she was, there was Eden. ‘Omar phrased it: ‘- thou beside me in the wilderness, ah wilderness were paradise enow.’ Browning termed it: ‘Summum Bonum’. All were asserting the same great truth, which is for me: Heaven is where Margrethe is.”


It is a point of record that Heinlein suffered a major series of health problems dating from the 1970s, which adversely affected his writing. Many of his later works, particularly I Will Fear No Evil (which I found unreadable), tended to show signs of a mind in steady decline. The tightly-plotted works of Heinlein’s period of success gave way to meandering pieces of literature that were both oddly readable and yet, in many ways, failed works. Job (1984) manages to have elements of Heinlein’s cleverness, and a curious inversion of his normal trick of getting his readers to like a character before he reveals some salient fact about them, but it also wanders all over the place. And, after the reread, I am left with some curiously mixed feelings.

Job opens with Alex, a Christian preacher who has gone on a luxury cruise with the intention of getting away from his wife. When the ship makes a layover on a pacific island, Alex is manipulated into walking across burning coals … and, when he recovers, he finds himself in another world, replacing another version of himself. This Alex is more of a common criminal than a preacher, one who formed a relationship with a hostess called Margrethe. Alex picks up where his counterpart left off, falling deeply in love with Margrethe. But, when he tries to convince her of his story, they find themselves shifted into another world. Here, no one has heard of them at all.

They keep trying to make their way back to Alex’s home, even as they keep shifting from world to world. (A deeply frustrating process, as every time they earn money they find themselves in a world where their hard-earned cash is useless.) Alex, eventually, comes to identify himself with the Biblical Job and frets, endlessly, over what will happen to his lover when the Rapture comes. Eventually, it does come and Alex finds himself in Heaven … only to discover that Margrethe is not there. As a pagan, she’s gone to Valhalla.

Desperately, he sets out to find her. Passing through hell, where Satan offers him a Job, he finally discovers that his life has become a cosmic plaything between God (here a subordinate of a far greater entity) and Loki. He appeals to this entity, claiming that any place without his lover can never be good for him, and they are both returned to Earth, where they live happily ever after.

It’s interesting to realise just how many alternate history tropes may have started with Job. The fond belief that alternate worlds will have airships, instead of jumbo jets, is reflected right from the start (although SM Stirling is commonly credited with starting it in 1988), along with the difficulties in adapting to worlds that don’t appear that different to ours. Alex and his wife have immense difficulty with currency, alternatively discovering that they underestimate or overestimate the value of money or simply discovering that money from one world is no good in another. The culture shock too is quite immense, as they have to learn a new set of rules with each shift. At one point, Alex finds himself shocked by public nudity; at another, he is stunned by suggestions of socially-condoned incest. Heinlein may well have had a greater influence on the alternate history community than anyone realises.

There are also moments of humour that made me smile. Alex silently tags his fellow travellers on the cruise ship with pet names – the Professional Bore, the Authority, the Sceptic, the Well-Travelled Man – that makes it easy to follow them even as Alex meets their counterparts after the first dimensional shift.

The book’s real problem, however, lies in Alex himself. And I think, to some extent, that Heinlein did it deliberately.

Heinlein had a habit, as I noted above, of convincing us to like someone before telling us a pertinent detail about him. Here, we are convinced to like Alex – he’s warm and chatty and quite likable – before we realised that the pre-shift Alex was an utter bastard. On one hand, he sees his role in the church as organiser rather than preacher; he runs his church like a business, to the point where it’s clear he has few morals and fewer scruples. And, on the other, he is very much a religious fascist. Not content with his own domain, he is actively trying to expand religion into politics, plotting to stab his fellow travellers in the back and wondering if one should seek a ‘final solution’ to the Jewish Problem. I can’t help wondering if this is as close as Heinlein ever got to detailing the origins of the religious theocracy of Revolt in 2100. A man with powerful ambitions, combined with naked hypocrisy, could go a long way if he found the right sort of backing.

He is also the very worst kind of unfaithful husband. His wife is not a nice woman – that much is clear – but that doesn’t excuse Alex treating her with a peculiarly nasty form of passive-aggressive crap. As he puts it:

On her birthday after we had been married a year I gave Abigail a fancy edition of The Taming of the Shrew. She never suspected that I had been making a statement; her conviction of her own righteousness did not embrace the possibility that in my heart I equated her with Kate.”

To some extent, Alex’s problems are not wholly his fault. He grew up in an alternate world where the authorities were already cracking down on free speech and discussion. (Alex recounts how science-fiction was banned for children, among other horrors.) But it’s hard to look at his casual, off-the-cuff remarks about his ‘successes’ and not realise that Alex is a horror. Heinlein, who distrusted organised religion, was trying to make a point. The likable man you know might easily be a fascist in disguise. It’s easy to point and laugh at Left Behind’s jerk sues – Buck Williams and Rayford Steele – but they are so thoroughly unpleasant that it is hard to take them seriously. Someone a little nicer might be far more dangerous in the long run.

That said, Alex does have his good points. He’s a hard worker, even when it comes to washing dishes. He is quick to realise that, when they become refugees, that they have to work to live, rather than depend on handouts. (Heinlein also shows how easy it is for refugees to be exploited.) His work ethnic isn’t bad, which makes his religious activities all the more horrifying. He doesn’t show any signs of anger at working under a black boss. And, as the story develops, he does become a better person. Not everyone will agree, I suspect, that he really could improve. (God thinks so, but God in this story is a petulant jerk (something else that might have crept into Left Behind.)) His devotion to Margrethe is genuinely touching. But it’s also an illustration of why religious communities tend to frown on people who marry outside the faith. Alex also offers some good advice on everything from reading contracts carefully and studying tax law to the importance of witnesses:

No, I did not know that he was crooked. But I had learned long ago, in dealing with legislators, that anyone who tries to keep you from having a witness is bad news.”

Heinlein stated, back in Revolt in 2100’s afterword, that every religion will eventually start legislating its creed into law. Here, he shows what it looks like from Alex’s point of view: attacks on abortion, gambling, tobacco, non-faith private schools … all with the eventual end goal of securing ultimate power. If Alex wasn’t a Stalin, it is fairly certain that he would be replaced in short order by someone who was. The dangers of giving an inch to people like that is that they will eventually take a mile. And by then it is too late:

As Brother Draper pointed out, there are enough exciting and adventurous stories in the Good Book to satisfy the needs of every boy and girl in the world; there was simply no need for profane literature. He was not urging censorship of books for adults, just for the impressionable young. If persons of mature years wanted to read such fantastic trash, suffer them to do so – although he, for one, could not see why any grown man would want to.”

In some ways, Heinlein predicted the steady decline and fall of American universities; his only mistake was in assuming the bad guys would be religious fanatics (although SJWs have more than whiff of religious fanatic about them). There are odd echoes of his predictions in events on campuses today:

One of my English professors who was bluntly opposed to censorship once said that Mr Wells had invented every one of the basic fantastic themes, and he cited this story as the origin of the multiple-universes concept. I was intending to ask this [professor] if he knew where I could find a copy, but I put it off to the end of the term when I would be legally ‘of mature years’ – and waited too long; the academic senate committee on faith and morals voted against tenure for that professor, and he left abruptly without finishing the term.”

In his later years, Heinlein liked poking fun at our assumptions and forcing us to question our beliefs. Here, he showcases the hypocrisy of religion and, perhaps, some of the nastier implications of religious belief. Heaven, as Alex discovers, is a hugely-stratified society; the faithful believed in a hierarchy, so that was what they got. Others, such as the pagans, found themselves in more likable worlds. It’s interesting to think that here was where books like The Sandman or Lucifer got their start, although I could be wrong.

Job is not Heinlein’s best works, even of his later period. It has its flaws and weaknesses, moments where it is clear that Heinlein was losing his touch, but … it also has much to respect and admire. And, if nothing else, there are some useful lessons that one should learn.

Updates …

21 May

Hi, everyone

As I may have mentioned a few times, I have plans for three more stand-alone books set in The Zero Enigma universe: the alchemist’s apprentice, the sailor’s story, the soldier’s story (and perhaps a fourth story, focused on the Kingsmen; they do more than just arrive too late to save the day <grin>). Depending on how well The Family Shame does, and it is doing ok so far, I’m planning to write them over the next few months. If I do, can I then have a big crisis-crossover … or should I simply stick to Cat for the next big trilogy?

Thoughts are, of course, welcome.

For the moment, the planned schedule is this:

June – The Long-Range War (Learning Experience 5)

July – The Broken Throne (SIM 16)

August – Para Bellum (Invincible 2, Ark 13)

Sept – Homeschooled Magic Kids (stand-alone, needs better title (Family Magic?))

Oct – The Alchemist’s Apprentice (Zero Spin-Off 2)

Nov – The Ancient Lie (The Unwritten Words 2)

Dec – The Pen and the Sword (The Empire’s Corps 15)

Obviously, this is not set in stone <grin>



Retro Review: The Door Into Summer

20 May

“Back” is for emergencies; the future is better than the past. Despite the crepehangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better. With hands…with tools…with horse sense and science and engineering.

Most of these long-haired belittlers can’t drive a nail nor use a slide rule. I’d like to invite them into Dr. Twitchell’s cage and ship them back to the twelfth century—then let them enjoy it.

The Door into Summer

The Door Into Summer is one of those books that would be good, although not great, if it wasn’t badly let down by a single plot element. What makes this particularly annoying, at least to me, is that the element in question, which I will discuss below, is completely unnecessary to the plot. Heinlein could have left it out and the plot, insofar as there is a plot, would not have suffered at all.

Daniel Boone Davis is an engineer and inventor who went into business with his partner, Miles Gentry and his fiancée, secretary Belle Darkin, to produce a number of automated devices to assist with housework and a number of other tedious chores. Unluckily for him, Belle is a consummate manipulator and she deceives Dan into surrendering enough of his stock to give her and Miles a chance to take control of the company. Shocked and dismayed, Dan (and Pete, his tomcat) goes on a drinking binge and, midway through a drunken night, decides to go into suspended animation – cold sleep – so he can wake up in a better time. He thinks he’s all set once arrangements have been made to take Pete with him.

Once he sobers up, however, Dan tries to fight back, starting by giving his stock to Ricky, Miles’s stepdaughter (who has had a precocious crush on Dan for years) and then going to confront Miles and Belle. Unfortunately for Dan, Belle gets the drop on him and he finds himself committed to cold sleep anyway. The next thing he knows, it’s the year 2000 and everything is different. Dan, a skilled engineer and genius in his time, is barely even qualified to run a garbage disposal system. He eventually discovers, in a desperate bid to trace Miles, Belle and Ricky, that Miles is long-dead (probably killed by Belle), that Ricky has vanished and that Belle has become a washed-up hag. The scheme to make money off Dan’s invention failed, as the prototype went missing the same night Dan was committed to cold sleep. But Dan sees signs of its existence everywhere.

Eventually, he discovers – to his bemusement – that the person who developed the prototype was called ‘DB Davis.’ Him, in other words. A friend of Dan’s points him towards a time travel machine, developed by a lone unsung genius. The inventor cannot promise if Dan will go forwards or backwards, but Dan puts the pieces together and reasons that he will go back … because he’s already gone back. He goes back in time to 1970, patents his machine (ahead of his past self) and steals the original prototype once his past self has been taken off to cold sleep. He then meets Ricky, gives her his stock and suggests she goes into cold sleep herself once she’s twenty, allowing them to meet as adults. Ricky asks if he will marry her if she does and Dan says yes.

He goes back into cold sleep (again) and greets Ricky when she emerges from cold sleep, marries her … and they live happily ever after, using technology to improve the human condition.

I found this book a little boring when I read it as a child, at least partly because it wasn’t the ‘person goes back in time to meddle’ plotline. I preferred books like The Guns of the South or Axis of Time to The Door into Summer or Lest Darkness Fall, I preferred books that featured a certain degree of action and adventure. It was never on my reread list. As an adult, I can both appreciate the cleverness of the time loop – and what Heinlein got right and wrong about the future – and cringe at the inappropriateness, if not creepiness, of the romance.

Dan himself is very much the idealised engineer, produced years before Dilbert. He’s a very straightforward man, searching constantly for engineering solutions to problems; he’s a firm believer, like Heinlein himself, in better living through technology. He has a somewhat stereotypical view of women’s work – which wouldn’t have been uncommon in Heinlein’s era – but he redeems himself through an awareness that housekeeping is real work. Indeed, his dream is to free women from a lifetime of repetitive drudgery. He calls it – and not without reason – the Second Emancipation Proclamation. One may regard this as mildly sexist, but it was revolutionary for its time.

But Dan is also unwary, in the sense he assumes that everyone is a decent person. He doesn’t realise that Miles is dissatisfied, nor that Belle isn’t what she seems; he acknowledges, ruefully, that they should have asked a few more questions when someone with her apparent qualifications came to work for their small company. He also ignores quite a few signs that married life is not going to be comfortable, starting with both Pete and Ricky showing complete apathy to Belle. I can’t help wondering if Heinlein got conned at some point and he turned it into a story.

There’s less that can be said about the other characters. Miles, like Dan, allows himself to be seduced and manipulated by Belle. He’s a weak man and a poor stepfather. (I wonder if Heinlein had a bad experience with stepparents too, as Starman Jones and To Sail Beyond the Sunset also include poor stepparents, while both The Door into Summer and Citizen of the Galaxy feature stepdaughters turning on their stepfathers.) We really don’t see enough of Ricky to get a real sense of her as a person, which weakens the character quite badly. And Pete is a cat. Heinlein’s love for cats is on full display within this tome.

Heinlein’s presentation of future technology is both interesting and completely wrong. He did not, for example, predict either the computer or the microcircuit. His version of 2000, therefore, is very much the past’s tomorrow, the story of a world where you can navigate a spaceship by slide rule and fix a balky space drive with a wrench. It follows a linear progression from Heinlein’s era, but takes no account of game-changing technologies that were in their infancy when Heinlein put pen to paper. And yet, in some ways, the advanced technologies of the alternate future have had less effect on society than ours. Dan openly admits that there is a long way to go.

But this is all part and parcel of the better living through technology attitude. Dan is openly scornful of those who try to retard technological development – see the quote above – and he’s right. Technology has made life better for millions of people. Heinlein may have got a lot of details wrong, but he was right about that. Our problems can be solved by technology – and the problems created by the technology can be solved by more technology. The future is bright and full of promise.

I’m actually reminded of the time when Emma Watson, who was being interviewed about her role in the remake of Beauty and the Beast, asked what Belle did all day. And the answer would be cooking, cleaning, sewing and all the other tasks that women had to do in the days before dishwashers, microwaves, vacuum cleaners and mass-produced clothing. Belle would have been expected to keep house for her widowed father, not dance and sing around the village every day. Her world is one so alien to ours that we don’t comprehend just how much work she would have had to do every day. Technology liberates!

That said, there is an aspect to the plot that cannot be overlooked. And it is one that is not easy to discuss.

It isn’t uncommon for a growing child, of either gender, to have a precocious crush on someone older. Dan does not do anything to encourage Ricky’s crush on him before he takes the cold sleep; he assumes, perhaps correctly, that Ricky will grow out of it well before she reaches adulthood. However, after taking the cold sleep, Dan develops a certain degree of obsession with Ricky which comes across as more than a little creepy. On one hand, Ricky may be the only person from his past still alive (or at least the only one he has any interest in seeing again); on the other, the Ricky in his mind is still a child. He did not, at that point, meet the adult Ricky. And then, when he goes back in time, he makes arrangements for the grown-up Ricky to follow him into the future, where they can get married. But she is the one to ask him to marry her.

There’s nothing illegal here, as far as I can tell. They’re both adults when they get married; it struck me, the second time I read the book, that there is nothing keeping Ricky from thinking better of the arrangement as she grows older and eventually backing out altogether. It isn’t as if she doesn’t have plenty of time for second thoughts. And yet, I find it creepy. It lets the book down, to the point where I find myself thinking less of Dan. And Heinlein, because there is no need for the subplot. It might have worked better, perhaps, if they’d met again in the future without prearranging everything.

But apart from that, The Door into Summer is a remarkably ingenious book. The time travel aspect, and how it leads to a stable time loop, works very well. Dan may come across as slightly condescending – sexist, by our standards – but he genuinely realises that women have a hard time of it and wants to help them. (Personally, I’d like one of his machines. It would be better than a vacuum cleaner.) And yet, it has not aged well. The technological development is poor, by our standards, and then there is the creepy romance.

There are times when it is easy to forget that Heinlein came from a very different age, with different standards. He wrote books that were, by the standards of his time, fantastically progressive and liberal. But The Door into Summer is one of the books that makes it impossible to forget.

On Conventions

20 May

Ok, true story.

Shortly after my son was born, I attended EASTERCON in 2015. And, as they were looking for authors to fill out a signing table, they invited me to take one of the seats. I agreed.

Two of the four authors were strangers to me, and I have forgotten their names (sorry, guys), but the third was Mira Grant. I’ve read a couple of her books and I liked them. She deserves every piece of fame and recognition she has.

So … what happened?

Mira Grant had a long line of people waiting for her to sign their books, while I and the other authors were sitting there feeling alternatively embarrassed, ashamed and humiliated. No one came up to us to ask for a signing and … well, we felt like this guy here.


The point here is that it was Mira Grant, not the three of us, who was the big draw. Time and time again, her fans told her that they’d come specifically to see her. They purchased copies of her books from the vendors, just so she could sign them for them. I don’t know for sure, but I’d estimate that at least forty people came up to her. And they said they came to see her and her alone. Everything else was gravy.

Now, looking back at my records, I was charged £70 for a three-day convention. I’m not sure if there was a smaller charge for each individual day or if everyone was charged that. If we assume, for example, that the cost for a one-day ticket was £30, then EASTERCON earned £1200 from Mira Grant. Given that most conventions work on a shoestring, this is not a small amount of money. And that doesn’t include how many vendors earned from selling to the visitors she’d attracted. In short, Mira Grant earned money for the convention. And this was a UK convention. American conventions are generally bigger.

Ok, you ask. So what?

In the last month, we’ve seen conventions disinviting two writers who are, individually, both considerably bigger names than Mira Grant. John Ringo and Larry Correia were both big draws to the conventions that invited them, the sort of writers who would attract people to a convention even if they weren’t interested in anything else. I would have signed up to go if I lived in the US. And then they were both disinvited on what can best be described as spurious grounds. Someone protested and the conventions caved – they surrendered, in short, to bullying. And the principle rule about bullies is that if you surrender to them, you will be bullied again and again and again.

But there is a more practical point here. The people who protested Larry and John being invited were probably not, I suspect, the kind of people who’d buy tickets and attend conventions. Combined with the number of people who would demand refunds – because the only reason they wanted to attend was to meet those authors – I think it’s fairly certain that those two conventions took a major financial hit. I would demand a refund myself if the convention pulled a bait-and-switch. It may even be financial fraud, as the tickets would have been sold under false pretences.

And, as Asimov put it, the immediate results will not be the only results. How many vendors will not return, next year, after the convention ensured that fewer people would walk past their tables? How many prospective guests of honour will look at the fracas and decline invitations? Why would anyone attend a convention when there’s clear proof that the convention committee will fold faster than Superman on laundry day, if someone protests your attendance? How many members of the reading public will simply give up on a convention that is more about appeasing the unappeasable than having fun.

The conventions decided to slap the people who love books and war games in favour of people who do not.

Now, I have never met either John or Larry. But John did me a vast favour once and I’ve enjoyed reading Larry’s writings. It would take a lot to make me think less of them, particularly as I am all too aware how quickly something can be warped out of all recognition and then presented as absolute truth. But it wouldn’t matter, to me, if the person being disinvited was someone I didn’t like, either as a writer or on a personal level. Disinviting someone, without even giving them a chance to defend themselves, is not just a slap in the face. It’s a sign that you can be bullied into submission.

And geeks – like me – hate bullies. Most of us were marginalised at school. Why should we attend conventions where we are marginalised too?

The blunt truth is that a convention – or anything – that lashes out at its customer base is doomed. People go to SF/FAN conventions to have fun, to meet their favourite authors and actors and chat about their work. And the people who aren’t geeks, by and large, don’t go to SF/FAN conventions. There is no point in trying to please people who won’t give you any money if it comes at the cost of alienating the people upon whom your business depends. It’s commercial suicide.

This is not going to end well for anyone.

Personally, I am not going to attend any convention that has a history of disinviting guests on spurious grounds. And that means that the convention (and attending vendors) will not get my money. And that, multiplied by dozens and even hundreds, means that those conventions will take a huge financial hit. Get woke, as the saying goes; go broke.

Or stand up to the bullies before it’s too late.

Quick Updates and Thoughts

16 May

Hi, everyone

Good news first – The Family Shame was published yesterday, so if you’re interested in a whole new aspect of the Zero Enigma please check out the blog post. Comments and reviews are always welcome.

The Family Shame Cover Revised

I’m currently roughly halfway through The Embers of War (yes, I know; provisional title), although a combination of ill health, family commitments and an upcoming convention have slowed me down a little. However, after that …

… Well, I’m torn.

Part of me wants to do The Long-Range War, which is Book V of A Learning Experience, but the other part of me wants to do the homeschooled magic kids idea. Basically, the kids would discover they have magic, that their father’s a magician … and that what they don’t know about their family might well get them killed.

Which one would you like to see?


Out Now–The Family Shame (The Zero Enigma VI)

15 May

A stand-alone set in The Zero Enigma universe …

The Family Shame Cover Revised

Isabella Rubén is a traitor – at twelve years old.

Disgraced, abandoned by her friends and shunned by her family, Isabella is sent into exile with scant hope of returning to her former home. Her destination, Kirkhaven Hall; a stone mansion miles from civilisation, inhabited only by a pair of older exiles. Existence as she knew it is over.

But as she tries to settle into Kirkhaven Hall, and a life far from the one she enjoyed before her fall from grace, she discovers that the hall has secrets. Intruders on the grounds, ghostly shadows moving at night …

… and a plot that may destroy everything she once held dear.

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Review: Grant – Ron Chernow

15 May


-Ron Chernow

Ulysses S. Grant had the misfortune of having his legacy and reputation dictated, to a very large extent, by his enemies. Unlike Robert E. Lee, a known traitor (on the grounds he happened to be on the side that lost), Grant’s life has been warped out of all recognition by people with personal and/or political axes to grind. Indeed, the fact most people remember about Grant is the drinking, not the Civil War victory or the Presidency. Ron Chernow, who has written well-received biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, has attempted to retrifiy that injustice. One may question just how far he has succeeded.


Grant’s strengths, Chernow insists, were also his weaknesses. His first inclination was to go on the attack, to find a way to take the war to the enemy; this had the downside, in many ways, of allowing the enemy to surprise him because he didn’t take the time to consider what, if anything, the enemy might try to do to his forces. This cost him – badly – during the war; in politics, it manifested as a peculiar naivety. Grant had no inclination to play the political game, trading patronage and suchlike for influence and support. Some of his cabinet selections were good choices; others were either disqualified (something that a very basic check would surely have revealed) or dangerously corrupt. Grant’s inclination to fight to the finish, whatever the cause, left him wasting political capital when a more nuanced approach might have been more effective.

Indeed, Grant was rarely willing to believe the worst of people, particularly those who had wormed their way into his trust, until it was too late. His administration, particularly in its second term, endured wave after wave of scandals that, while they never touched Grant himself (although they often left him with egg on his face), forced him to waste time and effort dealing with them.

Yet, Grant was also a grimly resolute man and a firm believer in civil rights. It was Grant who did everything in his power to fight the KKK and the rise of Jim Crow; it was Grant who believed, firmly, that the South should be held accountable for its crimes. Grant’s campaign against the KKK holds many lessons for those of us who need to deal with terrorism today. He was at his best when dealing with an enemy he could plainly see, which might well account for his success as a general. The cutthroat world of Washington politics was not his chosen battlefield.

But perhaps he could not be faulted for this. Grant’s role as military commander, under Lincoln, was relatively simple. He had Lincoln’s unstinting support and repaid it with victory. Under Johnston, however, Grant found himself caught in a whirlwind of political intrigue as Johnston battled with Congress over his policies towards the defeated South. He could not please both of them and it is a testament to Grant’s skill, and gritty determination, that he was not destroyed by the maelstrom. And yet, the forces that put him in the White House were also the forces he needed to confront if he was to put the country on an even footing. Very few presidents, with the possible exception of Obama, have ever been in such a precarious position.

Grant was not, Chernow notes, lucky with his family or comrades. His father was a ruthless self-promoter, who often tried to use his son’s position to enrich the family; his birth family feuded with his in-laws. Grant also endured political attacks from political generals, who viewed him as a threat to their positions. This, Chernow states, is probably where the story about Grant’s drinking began. It was a common slur against Grant when he was one of the few Union generals to rack up victories in the expanding civil war.

He was luckier with his staff, who generally rallied around him. (Sadly, the most capable of them died shortly into Grant’s Presidency. History might have been different if he’d lived to serve Grant throughout his years in office, as he had a cool-headed awareness of politics and people his boss lacked.)

Chernow agrees that Grant did have a problem with drinking, although he insists – as did many of Grant’s supporters – that it was firmly under control. Grant was clearly tempted by alcohol for his entire life, but it was never as bad as his enemies suggested. Cigars, on the other hand, may well have shortened Grant’s life. It is a sad irony that Julia would praise tobacco when it was steadily killing her husband.

It’s very difficult to draw comparisons between the Reconstruction Era and modern-day America (and the world), but I couldn’t help noticing some of the ways in which history rhymes. On a smaller scale, Grant was a man with an impeccable moral centre, like George W. Bush, but he made many bad decisions because he trusted the wrong people. Or, a little later on, Grant – like Trump – was attacked so harshly by his political and media enemies that he found it hard to do his job. On a wider scale, the US fought successful wars – the Civil War, the Iraq War – and then threw the victory away, twice. Johnston abandoned the blacks of the American South, allowing radical elements to take control of the region; Obama abandoned Iraq, allowing Islamic State to plant its poisonous seed in a region that had once thought it had a hope of peace. Trump, like Grant, must deal with the failures of a previous administration (Obama must have felt the same way), knowing that it will be hard to convince the locals to trust Americans … or, for that matter, to convince America to continue to support the war. Fundamentally, in both eras, America grew tired of war. It is an understandable feeling, but it resulted in abandoning innocent and helpless victims to evil.

Chernow does a good job of explaining the realities of Civil War and Reconstruction America, doing a reasonable job of placing Grant’s actions in context. He also tries hard to bring out Grant’s fundamental character, a man of determination and grit who rarely put on airs and graces even when he’d earned the right to a little pride. In this, he is contrasted with his wife, who felt socially inferior and saw their time in the White House as vindication. But Grant was also pig-headed and, although far from stupid, rarely tended to realise his own weaknesses. His instincts were good but he was at a disadvantage when dealing with more complex – and deceitful – people. A little more cynicism would probably have made his life easier.

The book’s greatest strength and weakness is its scope. This is no exploration of Grant’s wartime service, or his presidency, but an attempt to weave them – and Grant’s early and later life – into a single volume. It is interesting to read how Grant’s relationships with his subordinates went up and down – Sherman, for example – but it doesn’t go into the sort of detail I might wish. But then, there are plenty of more tightly-focused books on the market.

In conclusion, Grant was an American hero. He won a war that would have sundered the union – it is unlikely that any other general of his age could have won – and he fought the good fight against confederate revanchists and the KKK. There is a good chance that he might have prevented war with Britain. He was personally incorruptible and deeply wedded to his convictions. He was flawed, like every other hero in history, but he rose above his weaknesses. And Chernow does a good job of doing him justice.

We have been told, too often over the last couple of years, that a particular book or TV series is timely. And yet, most times, the claim doesn’t pass the smell test. Grant, on the other hand, is a genuinely timely book. We need to remember that our heroes can be flawed men, that they can have feed of clay … and do good deeds regardless. And that men can make mistakes, often very bad mistakes, without malice. And, perhaps, that savage attacks on a man’s character may have no more substance than a gossamer spider-web. It is easy to carp and criticise from a distance. Actually wielding power – and battling with the political realities – is far from easy.

Grant is a long book, but it is well worth a read.

Retro Review: Have Space Suit Will Travel

13 May

In hindsight, it is clear that I had a far more favourable impression of Have Space Suit, Will Travel when I was a child than after my reread. Have Space Suit is one of the more innovative and wide-ranging of Heinlein’s juveniles, but it has its limits. The child reader may enjoy the story without noticing the unfortunate implications, for better or worse; the adult reader does not have that luxury. Indeed, Have Space Suit is perhaps the single one of Heinlein’s juveniles that has not aged well, at least for me.

Which is a shame, because it is a ripping good yarn.

The plot focuses around all-American teenager Kip Russell, who enters a competition to win a flight to the moon. Kip, having gone to considerable lengths to win his prize, is unamused to discover that he’s been beaten to the punch by someone who had the same idea (for an advertising jingle) first. However, for better or worse, Kip does win the runner-up prize; an old – and genuine – spacesuit. Being a bit of a tinkerer, in a way frankly alien to most children and teenagers these days, Kip promptly starts repairing the suit. A few months later, he is the proud possessor of a working space suit, which he names ‘Oscar.’ This makes him a figure of fun about the town, mainly by the local town bully.

Going out for a walk in his suit, Kip accidentally flags down a flying saucer. The craft in question is being flown by Peewee Reisfeld, an eleven-year-old genius/brat, and the Mother Thing, an alien of uncertain origins. Unfortunately for all three of them, Peewee and the Mother Thing are on the run … and Kip has accidentally given their enemies a chance to catch up with them. Kip gets snatched by the kidnappers, who turn out to be quislings working for a very hostile alien race. Kip promptly dubs them ‘wormfaces.’ The aliens have a base on the moon, which is where they kidnapped Peewee. They apparently want to use her to get to her father, a genius scientist.

Kip would be more thrilled to be on the moon if he wasn’t a prisoner and the three start planning a series of escapes. Each escape nearly works, but inevitably ends up with them in worse trouble (and the quislings turned into alien food) until Kip, though a daring adventure, manages to signal the Mother Thing’s people. The good news is that the Mother Thing’s people have no trouble whatsoever in handling the wormfaces, the bad news is that they want to put humanity on trial for being a grievously savage race … sorry, for being potentially dangerous. Kip and Peewee find themselves having to defend the human race in court, eventually convincing the aliens that humanity is a young race and will grow up in time.

The kids get sent back to Earth where, for once, they manage to convince the grown-ups that they had a real adventure. Kip wins a scholarship to MIT and the promise of further adventures to come … and he also scores one over the town bully.

I cannot help, but wonder if Have Space Suit is Heinlein’s tribute to Doc Smith. The pulpy aspects of the story are played up for all its worth, from a hero who is both extremely competent and oddly unsure of himself to alien super-technology and powerful mentalities as far above us as we are above ants. The solar system may be more modern – there are no intelligent races on Mars or Venus – but otherwise the story is vast, rather than focused. And yet, the story also includes a great deal of engineering detail. Heinlein’s space suit is extremely realistic, as are Kip’s calculations as he tries to work out where he is this time. Indeed, I’d say that Heinlein overdid it.

Kip himself is more average – or at least he thinks he is – than the standard hero of Heinlein’s juveniles. He does not have a brilliant mind, an eye for opportunity or a perfect memory. He is all too aware that he isn’t bright enough to go to college, let alone outer space. And yet, he is pretty much the unstoppable man. Kip never gives up, even when faced with alien overlords and super-powerful alien races. Given poor schooling – by this point, Heinlein was thoroughly sick of American schools – Kip learns on his own. His response to a challenge is to try to think of a way to overcome it. Unlike the collaborators, who give up when faced with the wormfaces, Kip keeps trying.

In some ways, Kip is an archetypical teenager from a bygone age. He is a tinkerer, constantly working to repair and improve his spacesuit; neither he nor his family has any real doubts about the wisdom of allowing a teenager to work with some very dangerous compounds, even explosives. In this sad age, it is very difficult to repair a personal computer – although the time of the tinkerer may be coming back – and anyone who experiments with a 1960s chemical set would be at risk of being arrested for domestic terrorism. Have Space Suit is often harder to follow because much of Kip’s life is alien to me. Heinlein would grow better, in the future, at presenting an alien time in a way I could understand.

Kip is contrasted with Ace – a typical small-town jackass/bully, whose role in the story is thankfully limited – and Peewee. The latter may be one of Heinlein’s better female characters, at least partly because she is still a child. And yet, Kip finds her very annoying at first, unsurprisingly. (He notes, fairly early on, that little girls who were geniuses should have the grace not to show it.) Peewee grows on both Kip and the reader as the story progresses, with Kip eventually coming to regard her as a little sister. This would probably not have worked so well if Peewee happened to be older.

Ace does little for the plot, besides providing a reason for Kip to contemplate homicide, but Heinlein does use him to illustrate a point that is often overlooked. After Ace is banned from the drugstore for heckling, Kip protests that Ace is harmless. His boss has other ideas:

“I wonder how harmless such people are? To what extent civilization is retarded by the laughing jackasses, the empty-minded belittlers?”

Heinlein does not draw this point out as much as I might wish, but it is fundamentally true. How many people go through life being harassed for being nerds? Or penalised for daring to try to climb out of the ethnic ghetto? Or simply for not fitting in? How many great minds have been lost to us because their owners simply gave up? Heinlein deserves credit for trying to teach us that lesson, again and again. And yet, we never seem to remember it.

Have Space Suit, like most of the juveniles, manages to sneak a great deal of social commentary into its text. Kip’s father has very clear views on the value of ‘modern’ schooling – valueless. I’d like to say that the assignment that prompts Kip’s father to tell Kip to learn on his own is fictional, but I’ve seen stupider essay questions in more modern schoolrooms. How is a ‘family council’ organised indeed? Kip’s school isn’t as bad as modern schools, or even the schools Heinlein would portray later, but it is a complete failure at its role. Ace proves that as much as Kip himself.

It also has an early round of ‘fake news,’ when Kip is invited to go on television. His answers are cut off and replaced with a set of canned answers, which are promptly mocked by the gullible townspeople … who believe that Kip actually said them. It’s an interesting lesson on just how easy it was, even then, to misrepresent someone … and how hard it can be to recover one’s reputation.

But perhaps the most important lesson is that while might doesn’t make right, it does tend to determine what actually happens. I never liked the Mother-Thing, not least because Peewee sang her praises in a manner that reminded me of the Demon Headmaster, and her people are cold judgemental monsters. (Peewee calls them bullies and she’s right.) They have no moral right to pass judgement on either the wormfaces or humanity, a point the wormfaces themselves make, but the simple fact is that they have the power. Might, as Heinlein would write later, has settled more questions than anything else in recorded history. The idea that white settlers were wrong to push the Native Americans to the brink of genocide is a relatively new one. Indeed, the West is perhaps the only civilisation that questions itself on that score.

And yet, as Kip notes, there are some threats that simply have to be removed:

That was my chance to be noble. We humans were [the wormfaces’] victims; we were in a position to speak up, point out that from their standpoint they hadn’t done anything wrong, and ask mercy-if they would promise to behave in the future. Well, I didn’t. I’ve heard all the usual Sweetness and Light that kids get pushed at them-how they should always forgive, how there’s some good in the worst of us, etc. But when I see a black widow, I step on it; I don’t plead with it to be a good little spider and please stop poisoning people. A black widow spider can’t help it-but that’s the point.”

It’s striking, looking back at the book as an adult, just how much values dissonance there actually is. Kip experimenting with explosives is, in many ways, the least of it; the drugstore owner and doctor who casually hand out pills that wouldn’t be available today (at least not without a prescription) is strikingly out of place. Kip’s father – who seems to have a somewhat variable background – is noted as having been a university professor who married his best student, not something that would go unremarked today. And while Kip’s mother doesn’t appear much in the text, there is no suggestion that she continued her studies after getting married. (A more charitable view of the facts is that they met at university, then married later.) Indeed, Peewee’s father hints that Kip and Peewee will start a relationship when they’re older. It isn’t something I can imagine any decent father doing, although – to be fair – the text does imply that he’s somewhat neglectful. What sort of man sends his daughter to the moon on her own?

And yet, despite those issues, Have Space Suit is still a fun little story, a testament to the depths of Heinlein’s imagination, a glimpse into a vanished world, an ode to the idealised American teenager …

… And a fitting homage to the pulp fiction of Heinlein’s era.

OUT NOW–The Princess In The Tower (Schooled In Magic 15)

5 May


Everyone knows that the Tower of Alexis is impregnable…

…But Emily intends to prove them wrong.

The Kingdom of Zangaria has finally started its descent into civil war. King Randor has declared martial law, imprisoned the pregnant Crown Princess Alassa in the Tower of Alexis and started preparations for a first strike against his enemies. The time has come for everyone to choose a side.

Emily has arrived in Alexis with the intention of freeing Alassa before her father can have her executed. But as Emily and her friends are drawn into a maelstrom of rebellious factions and crown loyalists, of commoners trying to escape the chaos and noblemen trying to make it worse, they find themselves faced with an insolvable problem.

If they manage to liberate Alassa – and put her on the throne – will there be anything left of Zangaria for her to rule?

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