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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.


3 Apr

This is the first draft of the introduction to the Heinlein Project.  Comments and suggestions would be welcomed.


What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbours think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!


This book has rather an unusual genesis.

In 2017, or thereabouts, I read a review of Podkayne of Mars that was, I felt, something of a hack job. I’d read the book myself – I’d gone on a Heinlein kick a decade ago and read everything of his I hadn’t already read – and I hadn’t thought it was that bad. So I re-read Podkayne of Mars, decided that the reviewer was either wrong or simply interrogating the text from the wrong perspective and wrote a review myself.

The matter might have rested there if, a few months later, I hadn’t noted Amazing Stories publishing a handful of retro reviews. Reviewing books is something I enjoy, if there is meat within the text, and so I volunteered to write a review of Starship Troopers. Steve Davidson, who currently runs Amazing Stories, asked me to consider writing reviews of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land. I did … and, as I had the bug by then, I determined that my next review would be Farnham’s Freehold.

My memories of the book were … less than positive. It wasn’t exciting enough to grab me as a young reader (I had the same problem with Starship Troopers) and I’d heard a number of canards about racism aimed at the book. Bracing myself, I reread … and my eyes were opened. Farnham’s Freehold includes racist characters, in the same sense that Huckleberry Finn includes racist characters, but it is not a racist book. Indeed, unlike more modern authors, Heinlein actually convinced me to take (some) microaggressions seriously. And yet, Heinlein is called a racist?

Part of the problem, of course, is that society has moved on. What was daring and original in Heinlein’s early years – and what could be got through the gatekeepers – reads as bland and boring to us now. There is nothing special, these days, in basing a book or a TV show on a character who isn’t a straight white male. Heinlein was ahead of the times and then behind the times, without ever having a time when his views – as presented to us – meshed comfortably with the real world. His juveniles – which we would probably consider YA these days – are really quite astonishingly clean. Sex is barely even mentioned. Even in his later years, when he wrote to shock as well as to make people think, there is little revolutionary – to us – about his ideas.

It is difficult to place matters in context when one is unfamiliar with the past. Heinlein, in his early years, worked under a series of restrictions that would shock us today. He had no internet, no email … he was dependent, in many ways, on people who weren’t particularly invested in his success. Heinlein’s words must not only be comprehended, they must be placed in context. He was a product of his time and, while by their standards he was staggeringly progressive, by ours he comes across as a little old-fashioned.

But the other part of the problem is that Heinlein, being seen (and rightly so) as one of the founders of modern-day science-fiction, has been attacked for not being perfect. This is part of a broader trend, where historical figures (almost all white men) are charged with not being modern figures who should hew to modern morality. George Washington, for example, owned slaves (a point Heinlein himself mentioned in The Rolling Stones); Winston Churchill was a firm believer in the value of British imperialism, to the point where he was strikingly reluctant to give India any form of self-government, let alone independence. And yet, these great men did great deeds. Heinlein, for all his contributions to science-fiction, has faced similar attacks. And most of those attacks are unfounded.

I returned to my rereading, reading and reviewing my way through a number of Heinlein’s more significant works. As I did so, I came to realise that most of the charges levelled against Heinlein were not only unfounded, they were flatly contradicted by the words in the text. That alone was annoying, but what was perhaps of more significance was a growing understanding of precisely why Heinlein became – and remains – popular. Heinlein wrote about characters who were, in many ways, living breathing humans. His heroes faced dilemmas that still resonate today. The guild system of Starman Jones might, in a modern-day book, be replaced by an evil Human Resources department more interested in setting up racial quotas than hiring and promoting by merit, but the basic principle remains the same. A talented youngster, unfairly excluded, must decide if he should prove himself … or cheat the system.

I also noticed that there were a number of themes running through his works that still spoke to his readers today. Some of those themes were easy to spot, others were subtle; Heinlein often set out to make his readers like a character before using them to illustrate unfair issues that held them back. And, often, Heinlein wasn’t so much preaching to the choir as he was preaching to a particular subset of readers; his juveniles, for example, were often aimed at teenage boys. This sometimes caused them to read oddly – or offensively – to readers who weren’t teenage boys. But to judge the books by the standards of something they’re not – as one might complain that books for toddlers are simplistic – is simply unfair.

I do not pretend that this is a biography of Robert A. Heinlein. I have no special insight into his personal life that hasn’t come from biographies I read myself. My aims in writing this book are threefold:

First, to read and review Heinlein’s most significant works, placing them into context.

Second, to assess the themes running through Heinlein’s works and consider how many of the charges levelled against Heinlein are actually true.

Third, to consider what lessons Heinlein can teach us today, with particular reference to modern-day political and social issues.

Heinlein is accused of being a racist. I cannot speak to his personal views, but I firmly believe – and I will explain why – that his works were not racist. Indeed, they were strikingly progressive for their time. Heinlein is accused of being a sexist. Again, I cannot speak to his personal views, but his worlds were not – generally – sexist. Heinlein was bad at writing women, yet even this observation must be placed in context. Heinlein was …

It is my belief that Heinlein was a dichotomy. Just as Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers represented, for a while, the bibles of both Left and Right, Heinlein himself was a complicated mixture of cold-blooded realist/pragmatist and hot-blooded fantasist. He knew too much about humanity – particularly men – to fully embrace the more rationalist (in the sense that their characters are rational) worldviews of some of his successors, but – at the same time – he wanted people to be better. He was aware – realistically speaking – of how society’s chains held people, particularly women and blacks, in bondage, yet he also preached of worlds where those chains had been left in the past and forgotten. Very few people – and Heinlein knew this – are wholly good or evil. Heinlein was neither a angel nor a devil, but a man.

I think this is both the reason why Heinlein is still admired today and why there are factions in fandom that detest everything about him. Heinlein refused to pretend that the real world didn’t exist, let alone ignore very real problems facing the men and women (white and black) of his era. Heinlein worked hard to make it clear that most of his characters did not have a friendly scriptwriter watching out for them. There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, Heinlein told us. This theme became more pronounced throughout the later years of his writing. In Starship Troopers, Heinlein asks what right mankind has to survive. And he’s right. Why do we have a natural right to anything?

There are people who insist that the destruction of the Native American societies was effectively a horrific genocide. They’re right. It was. But no amount of breast-beating will change the simple fact that it happened, or that human history tells us that the strong will always overpower the weak. (All those jokes about how different history would have been if the natives had an immigration policy have a nasty sting in the tail – immigrants did come to America and displace the natives. Why would anyone want to repeat that experience?) I think that Heinlein understood reality in a way many of his successors simply did not.

In his later years, Heinlein loved to shock. He would push forward controversial ideas – cannibalism, incest, etc – forcing his readers to actually think … and then question the foundations of their society. He asked questions that needed to be asked, although many of his answers were weak; he shocked, but then tried to show the consequences and downsides of breaking society’s rules. In doing so, he laid the foundations for much – much – more.

To some extent, as his career developed, Heinlein slowly shifted from writing adventure stories to writing literature. Many of his early works were thrilling stories for young men – often subjected to the editor’s pen – but his later works were more elaborate pieces of literature, more interested in developing their ideas than telling a story. (One of the reasons I didn’t like Starship Troopers as a young man was because it is a philosophical work, rather than an adventure story.) In some ways, it allowed him to get his ideas across, but – in other ways – it weakened them. He was still more effective, as a writer, when he didn’t hammer his ideas home. He trusted his readers. It is a lesson that many more modern writers could stand to learn.

I’d like to finish by paraphrasing a quote from Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell that, I think, fits Heinlein like a glove.

“It is the contention of modern critics that everything belonging to Robert Anson Heinlein must be shaken out of modern SF/Fantasy, as one would shake moths and dust out of an old coat. What does they imagine they will have left? If you get rid of Heinlein you will be left holding the empty air.”