Revised Review: Podkayne Of Mars

5 Jun

Tomorrow’s answer to the anti-missile-missile, Podkayne of Mars. An interplanetary bombshell who rocked the constellations when she invaded the Venus Hilton and attached the mighty mechanical men with a strange, overpowering blast of highly explosive Sex Appeal.

-The Back Cover Blurb for the Ace SF Edition

A person who picked up a book with the above blurb, probably the most misleading blurb in the history of science-fiction, might be forgiven for expecting a softcore porn novel with raunchy doings all over the solar system. I honestly have no idea why Heinlein signed off on this blurb, assuming he was given the chance to object (writers are not always allowed input into everything from cover design to publicity materials; anyone who’s actually read the novel will know that, save for a single chaste kiss, there is nothing particularly sexual in the novel. By today’s standards, Podkayne of Mars is astonishingly clean.

Heinlein himself wasn’t sure if Podkayne of Mars should be classed as a juvenile novel or not. It was written later than most of his juveniles, when Heinlein’s work had started to drift more towards literature and away from pulp; it also, uniquely amongst the juveniles, features a female protagonist. This experiment, if experiment it was, didn’t work out as well as Heinlein might have hoped. Poddy is a very limited character in a number of ways, while her brother Clark is probably the archetypical Jerk Sue. Her age – Poddy is fifteen by Earth years, while Clark is eleven – limits what she can do. But Clark doesn’t like that stand in his way. Worse, thanks to Heinlein’s editors, Podkayne of Mars has two endings. I believe that most readers agree that the original ending is better.

I must have read Podkayne Of Mars when I was a teenager myself, as I have a copy dating back to then in my Baen collection. It didn’t really stick in my mind, for reasons that have also failed to stick in my mind. It wasn’t until I read a harshly negative set of Heinlein reviews that I dug my copy out of storage and read it again. It was, in many ways, an interesting read, even though it has not aged well. Heinlein had far less creative freedom, in many ways, than his modern-day successors. He could not, for example, mention anything to do with ‘female troubles’ in his juveniles.

Podkayne Of Mars is a journal, written in first person by Podkayne – Poddy, for short – a fifteen-year-old girl who was born on Mars. Additional information is provided by her nine-year-old brother Clark, who writes his own commentary between chapters. Whatever else can be said of the book, the journal format works remarkably well. Poddy comes across as a living person, a teenager at the point where one is aware of one’s own potential, but less aware of one’s own limitations. She is also given to being overdramatic, at one point remarking that the Angel of Death brushed Clark with his wings and, at another:

At first I thought that my brother Clark had managed one of his more charlatanous machinations of malevolent legerdemain. But fortunately (the only fortunate thing about the whole miserable mess) I soon perceived that it was impossible for him to be in fact guilty no matter what devious subversions roil his id.”

That said, Poddy can fairly be described as ‘all heart, no head.’ She is depressingly naive in many ways, always willing to see the best in people … something that eventually gets her killed. Clark, by contrast, is practically the exact opposite – a budding sociopath whose first question is pretty much ‘what’s in it for me?’ The Baen cover captures the difference between the two viewpoint characters very well – Poddy is bright and earnest, while Clark looks sinister and evil.

The story starts when a planned family cruise – an interplanetary cruise, naturally – is cancelled by a bureaucratic error which dumps three unplanned babies on the parents without a moment’s notice. Poddy’s Uncle Tom – of whom more below – steps in to arrange for Poddy and Clark to travel with him to Venus, then to Earth. Unknown to Poddy (although perhaps not to Clark) aged Uncle Tom is not doing this out of the goodness of his own heart. He is a diplomat on a secret mission who needs to speak to governments on both Venus and Earth. The children are there to provide him cover.

Two-thirds of the book covers the journey from Mars to Venus. Poddy discovers that sexism and classism still holds sway, even though she has a first-class berth on the ship. She meets a number of people who think that all of Mars’s inhabitants are criminals or worse. She occupies her time trying to coax the crew to tell her more about the ship – she has dreams of becoming the first female spacecraft captain – and trying to supervise her brother.

On Venus, Poddy and Clark are kidnapped by rogue factions who intend to use them to pressure Uncle Tom into changing his vote. Knowing that Tom will not cooperate, the two attempt an escape. Heinlein’s original version ends with Poddy dying in the escape, the impact of her death shocking Clark and changing him for the better. His editors rebelled against the ending and insisted that he save the poor girl. The Baen edition holds both endings and, realistically, I think the first one is better.

It’s easy to see why some readers – looking back from 2017 – don’t think too much of Podkayne Of Mars. Heinlein predicted some things with great accuracy, but other things were flat-out wrong. The idea that women can’t be spacecraft crew – and captains – looks bad to us now. That leaves us seeing Poddy as a strange mixture of innocent and coyly manipulative, using her feminine wiles to get what she wants. If nothing else, this behaviour is not calculated to make anyone actually respect her.

I’m smart enough not unnecessarily to show that I am smart; I’ve got a long upper lip and a short nose, and when I wrinkle my nose and look baffled, a man is usually only too glad to help me, especially if he is about twice my age.”

Poddy is both charming – she writes in a florid teenage manner – and stupid. She has ambitions, but she never bothers to do what it takes to achieve them. Indeed, she isn’t sure what her ambitions are. This is not, of course, uncommon amongst teenagers, male and female alike, but at her age it’s an odd weakness. Poddy veers from wanting to be a spaceship captain to considering motherhood, then going back again. It would be interesting to see her grow up and realise her dreams, but – at the same time – Poddy is not presented to us as a person who can achieve her dreams.

And Clark is largely an irredeemable figure. He may, in some ways, be the archetypical Jerk Sue. He is a genius, with a long list of genuinely remarkable achievements. Heinlein may have gone too far in making him heady, as it can be argued he’s too clever. On the other hand, it’s also possible to argue that Clark is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is – beating the gambling system might have been the result of a system, or sheer luck, or a deliberate decision by the house to let him win. Heinlein doesn’t tell us for sure.

On second reading, Uncle Tom – too – comes across as a darker figure. Some reviewers have claimed to spot an incestuous subtext in the book. I don’t see it. Instead, I see a wily old manipulator hiding behind a facade. It isn’t a coincidence, I think, that our true introduction to Tom comes when he applies a merciless dose of blackmail to get what he wants, then uses a naked threat to cover it. His apparent willingness to call out someone for accusing him of blackmail – as in challenging them to a duel – hides quite neatly the simple fact that he is a blackmailer. Throughout the voyage, he uses the children as meat-shields … and, when the chips are down, appears to be willing to sacrifice them to uphold his principles. From a cold point of view, this may be valid; from an emotional point of view, this is monstrous.

Indeed, in many ways, Uncle Tom reminds me of Albus Dumbledore. A decent old man-facade hiding a willingness to do whatever it takes (including sacrificing his own life) to win the war. Uncle Tom’s lecture to Poddy and Clark’s parents comes across about as well as Dumbledore’s little speech at the end of Order of the Phoenix­ – an attempt to escape blame for something that is, to a very great extent, his fault. (He blames the whole disaster on bad parenting, but that was not the main cause.)

That said, Heinlein was very brave for his time. Poddy is a mixed-race child and her parents are considered prime breeding stock, not a very popular attitude. It’s easy for me to portray a mixed-race starship captain or a black girl attending a magic school, but Heinlein didn’t have so much freedom. And – unlike in The Rolling Stones – it’s clear that the mother has a successful career of her own. Poddy’s failure to actually master the tools she needs to get ahead, therefore, looks more like a personal failing than anything inherent to her society.

Podkayne Of Mars is, in short, an extended character study of two very different children and their manipulative uncle, rather than a straight story. The story is about how they cope with moving from one society to two very different societies and, in the end, how their personal failings lead to disaster.

It is not as entertaining as some of Heinlein’s other works. But it does make you think.

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Review: The Star Beast

5 Jun

So be yourself, Knothead, and have the courage to make your own mess of your life. Don’t imitate somebody else’s mess.

-The Star Beast

I was actually reluctant to pick up The Star Beast again for the reread, although my memory of the book from when I first read it was nowhere near good enough to write a review. The Star Beast was my favourite Heinlein, back when I was a kid, and I didn’t want to have those pleasant memories tainted by a reread that would reveal issues I missed when I was younger and less cynical. Thankfully, The Star Beast is Heinlein at the top of his game, a story that is alternatively humorous and deadly serious; a story that, in so many ways, pleases both adults and children alike. If you never read any other books by Heinlein, read The Star Beast.

In what appears, at first, to be present-day America, a young boy – John Thomas – lives with his widowed mother and Lummox, an alien pet of unknown origins. (Apparently, Lummox was smuggled onto Earth by John’s grandfather, a deep-space explorer who later vanished somewhere in the interstellar gulf.) Unfortunately, Lummox eats practically anything, ranging from a pet dog and prize roses to iron, steel and a car. To add insult to injury, ‘he’ is effectively indestructible. After Lummox’s latest hungry rampage, the townspeople want the beast destroyed before it can do more damage. John finds himself doing battle in court, aided by his girlfriend Betty, knowing that he might have to sell Lummox to the zoo before the beast can be killed.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a harassed UN bureaucrat – Mr. Kiku – finds himself confronted with a demand from a powerful alien race, passed through an alien interpreter-intermediary. The aliens believe that Earth is harbouring a missing princess from their world and they want her back, or else. They threaten to destroy the planet if the princess is not found and, as far as anyone can tell, they are perfectly capable of backing up that threat. Every alien race seems to be scared of them.

Eventually, the two plotlines converge. Lummox is revealed to be the alien princess, just in time to keep her from being killed by angry locals. The UN is ready to return her to her people, but there’s a hitch. Lummox has been enjoying raising human children and wants her latest pets, John and Betty – referred to rather explicitly as a breeding pair – to accompany her. And so, once diplomatic relations are established and there is a hasty marriage, John and Betty find themselves on their way to the alien homeworld. It is, for all four of the main characters, a happy ending.

It really is astonishing to see just how much Heinlein crammed into a relatively short book, almost all of it focused around growing up and accepting responsibility. John Thomas accepts responsibility for Lummox and steps out of his mother’s shade, Betty accepts responsibility for John and Lummox accepts her responsibility to her people (although both Betty and Lummox scheme to get what they want out of the deal.) Even Mr. Kiku, who is an adult when the story opens, has his moments, successfully overcoming his horror of an alien ambassador’s snake-like form.

Indeed, the story shows all of humanity growing up. Humanity is a young race, despite it’s apparent importance in the local sector (shades of Babylon 5) and it still has problems with racism and xenophobia, although human-on-human racism appears to have been left in the past with the discovery of actual aliens. The KKK has been replaced with the Keep Earth Human League, which is one of the groups demanding that Lummox be destroyed. Heinlein neatly undermines racist agreements by allowing them to be made (rather than silenced) then pointing out the problems:

““Order, please,” Greenberg said mildly. “We have here another petition [for Lummox’s destruction], but for different reasons.” He held up the one submitted by the Keep Earth Human League. “This court finds itself unable to follow the alleged reasoning. Petition denied.””

The core of the story rests on the three human characters: John, Betty and Mr. Kiku. John is a solid, steadfast boy, the idealised American teenage boy. He isn’t the brightest bulb in the box, but he has a hard core of honour and true devotion to his friends. It is his misfortune that he spent most of his life without a father figure, leading to endless conflicts with his mother and the development of a mild form of misogyny. (This is far from uncommon: men who have to deal with an overbearing female figure, in their youth, often develop misogynist traits that can be quite hard to overcome.) He likes Betty, but he is unwilling to allow her to lead him by the nose too far. And he isn’t actually wrong in his arguments. He knows what he wants – which isn’t what his mother wants for him – and he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to get it. This stubbornness sometimes gets him in trouble:

He had pointed out that he could not get the courses he wanted at State U. Betty had insisted that he could and had looked up references to prove her point. He had rebutted by saying that it was not the name of a course that mattered, but who taught it. The discussion had fallen to pieces when she had refused to concede that he was an authority.”

Betty, by contrast, is a great deal smarter than John. She’s certainly a great deal more imaginative. She cheerfully sets herself up as Lummox and John’s defender when they are forced to go to court and comes very close to winning the case, until her case is (accidentally) spoilt by Lummox himself. (Ironically, as one of the adults notes, it might have been better for all concerned if Betty had lost, as there were already plans to take Lummox to safety.) But then, Betty has no reason to trust adults. She divorced her parents – we aren’t told why, but John found the reasoning convincing – and fights like a tiger for her cause. In many ways, she is the most competent female character in Heinlein’s juveniles. Where John is straightforward, Betty is cunning and perfectly capable of working her way around a problem until she finds a way to overcome it. She also has a talent for cutting to the heart of the matter that most teenagers lack, as well as an eye for a good man. It’s clear she’s interested in John – and they marry at the end of the book – well before John himself realises this.

Mr. Kiku is older and wiser than the two teenagers, although he is a bureaucrat (a rare positive presentation of bureaucrats by an author who tended to regard them as pointless parasites). He is from Kenya and, while his race is never clearly stated, it’s clear from text evidence that he’s black. At one point, he mulls that he no longer has to worry about racism because the racists now have aliens to hate; at another, he tells the story of how his distant ancestors thought they could destroy the invaders, until they ran up against an ‘outside context problem’ in the form of machine guns. Mr. Kiku spends most of his time trying to keep his superiors happy while smoothing out interstellar diplomatic problems and looking for a successor. He is the first person to wonder if there is a connection between Lummox and the missing princess, although – for what seem like valid reasons – it looks unlikely at the start.

Indeed, Mr. Kiku may be the smartest person in the book. At one point, he offers good advice to John, Betty and John’s mother, ranging from dryly advising them never to take anything written in a newspaper at face value to telling John’s mother that her son is already rebelling against her and, the more she tries to mould him, the more he will resist. At another, he resists the suggestion that the government should pay attention to a proto-SJW mob, pointing out that giving in to the mob and paying Danegeld means that they will never get rid of them:

Any organization calling itself “The Friends of This or That” always consisted of someone with an axe to grind, plus the usual assortment of prominent custard heads and professional stuffed shirts. But such groups could be a nuisance . . . therefore never grant them the Danegeld they demanded.”

Much of the book’s humour rests in the courtroom antics, as various ‘concerned personages’ push for Lummox’s destruction. The use of a lie detector reveals that one old biddy – a Mrs Grundy-type – provided exaggerated and dramatised testimony, allowing Betty to make a case that many of the petitioners are motivated by spite. (Heinlein was all too aware of the flaws of small-town America, even though he also idealised it.) And yet, other petitioners raise a serious point: if Lummox is not responsible for his actions, if John Thomas is not responsible, if no one is responsible … then who pays? Who compensates the people who have suffered real and serious losses because of Lummox? And can you reasonably blame them for wanting Lummox gone if his mere presence is a liability?

Heinlein was careful to ensure that no one, with the possible exception of the spiteful Mrs. Donahue, is presented as acting from malice. Being unaware of certain pieces of data, data they have no reason to possess, they draw the wrong conclusions. Their narratives are flawed, but not – based on what they knew at the time – wrong. The people who want Lummox gone have good reasons, even the KEHL. And John’s mother, presented as an overbearing harpy, only wants what is best for her son. She goes about it very poorly, in a manner that will either drive John away or crush him, but she isn’t motivated by malice.

That said, the book also presents a contrast between childish and adult views of the world. John sees the issue in simple terms, issues of right and wrong; John’s mother – and most of the other adults – see things as being more complex (like the issue of who pays for the damages, mentioned above.) Mr. Kiku does his level best to keep his superiors from becoming too involved in diplomatic matters, fearing that they will be influenced by emotions (and others who are emotional) and thus make resolving diplomatic issues impossible. This has an uneasy resonance in our world, where people demand quick solutions and refuse to accept that some matters are more complicated than they appear and, therefore, don’t have simple answers.

It’s interesting to see how Heinlein blurred our world, one that would be recognisable to a teenager from his era, with a futuristic universe. It isn’t quite as oddly alien as the universe of Have Space Suit, Will Travel or flat-out futuristic as Citizen of the Galaxy: indeed, in many ways, The Star Beast escapes most values dissonance. The small-town America blends well with the interstellar travel and the existence of aliens. The world of The Star Beast is familiar enough to be comforting, even with fifty years of hindsight, and different enough to be fantastic. Heinlein also got quite a few things right about the future, including celebrity politicians and spokespeople and mass campaigns that predated Cecil the Lion by decades.

Yet, at the same time, it has some odd moments. When Betty suggests that she and John (and Lummox) go camping together:

John Thomas looked at her reprovingly. “And get me talked about all over town? No, thanks.”

“Don’t be prissy. We’re here now, aren’t we?”

“This is an emergency.”

“You and your nice-nice reputation!”

“Well, somebody ought to watch such things. Mum says that boys had to start worrying when girls quit. She says things used to be different.”

Heinlein was well aware, of course, that girls had to watch their reputations. A girl of his era who got pregnant out of wedlock would be in deep trouble, something he would explore in most of his later books. It’s an interesting switch here, one that – again – has an uneasy echo in our society. Mike Pence was roundly mocked for the ‘Pence Rule’ – never be alone with a woman who isn’t your wife – and he was accused of making life harder for professional women, but in the wake of #METOO it’s clear Pence will have the last laugh.

The Star Beast also touches, briefly, upon cultural differences, both human and alien. It is hard to get a picture of Lummox from her race, because they don’t have photographs (which is unfortunate, as the near-destruction of Earth could have been averted if someone had a photograph to work from.) Her race, indeed, has a massive superiority complex and an isolationist streak, one that may be about to end. Meanwhile, on Earth, Betty responds to Mr. Kiku’s arranged marriage with horror. Slavery, she calls it. (And her reaction makes you wonder precisely what her parents did to force her to divorce them.)

In many ways, I would recommend The Star Beast to anyone worried about toxic masculinity, as Heinlein captured the male mindset – particularly in its teenage form – very well. John reacts badly to people pushing him to do things, from his mother to the police chief to a zookeeper who wants to buy Lummox. They might have right on their side, but it weighs poorly against emotion. Loyalty to friends is a strongly male virtue, one that is highly prized; John could not sell Lummox, or let him be destroyed, without feeling as if he’d done something terribly wrong. The absence of a father figure in his life doesn’t really help, although John doesn’t go really off the rails. And yet, he feels pushed into a final desperate bid to save his friend even though cold logic should tell him it’s useless. John is a hero because he keeps trying. He never gives up.

There are many lessons in The Star Beast, from the importance of standing up for one’s friends (John, Betty and Lummox all stand up for each other) to the importance of standing your ground diplomatically and the need to be aware of cultural issues that may lead to outright war. And as these issues are timeless, the book is timeless too. It is a fun read that will leave you with much to ponder, as well as being clean.

Like I said, this is the best of Heinlein’s juveniles. Go read it.

The Broken Throne–Snippets

4 Jun

Just had these scenes going through my mind.

Prologue I

The dead stretched as far as the eye could see.

Sir Roger stood at the edge of the field and watched as his men, the victors in the savage engagement, looted the bodies of the dead. Weapons, tunics, money … all belonged to the victors. Here and there, a wounded man was put out of his misery by a quick stroke of a sword or the cut of a knife. The medical tents were overflowing with friendly casualties. No one was going to waste time and resources saving enemy lives. It wasn’t as if common-born prisoners could be ransomed.

He heard a man shout as he held up a dead body wearing silver armour and a purple cloak, both stained with blood. Sir Roger’s eyes narrowed as he recognised the dead body: Lord Redford, a man who’d once been nothing more than a penniless nobleman at King Randor’s court. He’d clutched his title, Sir Roger recalled, and sneered at his inferiors because it was all he really had. There had been lesser-ranked men – and women too – who’d wielded true power. Perhaps that had been why Redford had thrown his lot in with the Noblest. It had been his only hope of regaining wealth and power that had been frittered away long ago.

And he died on the field, Sir Roger thought, as he watched the dead man’s body being stripped bare. He was too brave or stupid to run when we sprang our trap.

He couldn’t find it in him to enjoy his rival’s death, or the humiliation his body had suffered in the aftermath. It lay on the ground now, as naked as the day it was born, while the men who’d found him hurried towards the rear. The armour alone would bring a pretty penny to the men, if they sold it to the merchants who hovered around the army like flies on shit. They probably wouldn’t keep it for themselves. The Sumptuary Laws forbade common soldiers to wear silver armour. Sir Roger had his doubts about the wisdom of that. A skilled archer could put a bolt through a man from right across the battlefield … and silver armour merely told the archer who to target. The conventions of war hinted strongly that aristocrats should be left alone – they could be captured and ransomed – but cold practicalities suggested otherwise. An army might come to pieces if its commander was killed.

It was a sobering thought. He’d walked amongst the dead, after the fighting had ended, in hopes of finding familiar faces. But there had been no sign of any of the senior Noblest, not even Hedrick or Simon Harkness. The former was no surprise – Hedrick Harkness was a coward in a world that frowned on the slightest hint of cowardice – but the latter was odd. Simon Harkness was a man’s man. The thought of him running from the battlefield was … unthinkable, somehow. Sir Roger had met the younger man. Simon had always looked as if he had something to prove. The question marks over his parentage had ensured it.

They probably planned for defeat as well as victory, Sir Roger thought, ruefully. The Noblest had gambled by striking directly at Alexis, but they hadn’t risked everything on one throw of the dice. That had been smart of them, Sir Roger admitted, yet … they might have won if they’d thrown everything they had at him. We came closer to defeat than I want to admit.

He heard trumpets blare and turned, just in time to see a golden horse appear at the edge of the battlefield. Ice ran down his spine as he realised that King Randor himself had come to see the dead … he hastily bushed his armour down, trying to look as presentable as possible as his monarch rode towards him. His personal bodyguard followed, looking more than a little uneasy. Sir Roger didn’t blame them. The enemy army had been shattered and put to slight, and Sir Roger had deployed cavalry to chase down and slaughter the survivors before they could regroup, but a single man with a crossbow could change the situation in an instant if he took a shot at the king. Or one of the newer rifles, if one was to be found. Lady Emily had talked about snipers eventually being able to target a man from miles away.

“Your Majesty,” he said, going down on one knee. “The field is ours.”

“So I see,” the king grunted. He surveyed the battlefield for a long moment, then slowly clambered off his horse. “You may rise.”

Sir Roger did so, careful not to look up too blatantly. The king was the king, even on a battlefield. He had to be shown proper deference at all times. And yet, something was nagging at the back of his head. Something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t an imposter, he thought, but something else. He couldn’t put his finger on it.

“The enemy army has been smashed, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. “We captured forty-seven prisoners.”

The king smiled, cruelly. “Aristocratic prisoners, of course.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. No one bothered to take commoners as prisoners. The mercenaries might switch sides, if given a chance, but half-trained peasants were useless. It was easier to put them to flight, or execute them, than keep them prisoner. “I believe the highest-ranking prisoner is Lord Galashiels. He was taken prisoner by …”

“Execute him,” King Randor ordered.

Sir Roger felt his mouth drop open. “Your Majesty?”

“Execute him,” King Randor repeated, steel in his voice. “Execute them all.”

“Your Majesty …”

“Do I have to repeat myself?” King Randor’s eyes flashed with rage – and, for a moment, something else. But it was gone before Sir Roger could see it clearly. “Execute them!”

Sir Roger braced himself, wondering if the next words he said would be the ones that got him sent to the block. The king was clearly in a vile mood. Whatever had happened in Alexis – and Sir Roger had only heard whispered rumours – had been indisputably bad. Lady Emily had been meant to face the headsman for the first and last time … had she escaped? Or had something else happened? He didn’t dare ask.

But he had to argue for his men. “Your Majesty, the prisoners were captured by my subordinates,” he said. It would be more accurate to say that the prisoners were largely captured by common soldiers, who’d then been forced to surrender them to higher-ranking officers, but the king wouldn’t concern himself with such trivia. “They have a right to claim the ransom.”

“The prisoners will have nothing to pay the ransom with,” King Randor growled. His fists clenched. “Their families will be wiped from the rolls.”

Sir Roger paled. “Yes, Your Majesty. But …”

The king snorted. “Inform the captors that they will be paid a reasonable amount for their captives,” he ordered. “But execute them all, at once. Their heads are to be prominently displayed on Traitor’s Gate.”

“It will be done, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. He summoned a messenger with a nod. “If that is your command, it will be done.”

He swallowed, hard, as he turned away to issue the orders. Aristocrats might die on the battlefield, but to execute them after they’d been captured for ransom … it wasn’t done! Who knew what would happen if a loyalist fell into enemy hands? Sir Roger shivered at the thought, knowing that the Noblest would certainly retaliate in kind. Any loyalist who was captured would be lucky if he was only beheaded on the spot. It wouldn’t be long before both sides were locked in a competition of horror that ran all the way down to the bottom.

And how many loyalists will remain loyal, he asked himself, when the king puts us all in danger?

“A good start,” the king said, once the orders were issued. He was surveying the battlefield, pausing here and there to exchange brief words with his men. Sir Roger could see, at times, the fighting prince the king had once been behind his permanent scowl. “How badly did we hurt them?”

“We broke their advance force, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said, after a moment. He knew better than to depend upon estimates. One scout had reported an enemy army of over a million men and promptly been scourged for exaggeration. “Between here and the other two battlefields, I believe we killed around five thousand men. It is hard to be sure.”

“But we broke them,” King Randor said.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger assured him. “Their army showed us their backsides and ran. I already have horsemen hunting them down.”

“And it will take them a long time to regroup, particularly if they have no contingency plans for defeat,” King Randor mused. “Very well. I want you to deploy half your cavalry to secure the roads into the Harkness Lands. We’ll relieve Castle Blackstone, then move against Harkness itself. We will not give them any time to regroup.”

“As you command, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. “But cavalry alone will not be …”

“Your musketmen and cannoneers will follow, once the bridges are secure,” King Randor added. “We will not give them time to regroup and obtain more weapons. I want Baroness Harkness crushed before my treacherous daughter has a chance to rally her own forces.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. Behind him, he heard a shout of protest. “It will take her some time to muster the strength to challenge you …”

“But the Noblest” – the king spat – “and I will weaken each other, if our fight goes on for too long. She will have the time she needs, unless we end it now. Pass the word, Sir Roger; this is total war. Those who do not submit themselves will be destroyed.”

He turned, remounted his horse and cantered away, his bodyguards following him. Sir Roger stared after his king for a long moment, then turned … just in time to see the last prisoner be beheaded. Sir Roger had seen death before – he’d seen men die jousting as well as on the battlefield – but the sight still chilled him. It represented a new kind of warfare, a warfare that was – in its own way – as merciless as the muskets and cannons Lady Emily had introduced to the battlefield. This was no mere skirmish, no test of strength between the king and his barons; this was total war. Randor would be the undisputed master of his kingdom or nothing.

Sir Roger shivered as the bodies were left to rot on the muddy ground. He couldn’t help thinking that it boded ill for the future.

And when this is done, he asked himself, will any of us have a future?

Prologue II

It wasn’t her throne room.

Alassa sat on the chair, which she resolutely refused to call a throne, and studied the map without really seeing it. It wasn’t her chair either. It had belonged to either Lord Hans or Lady Regina of Swanhaven and Jade, when he’d been appointed Baron Swanhaven, had never bothered to replace it. Alassa was tempted to wonder if it had belonged to one of the earlier barons – it was uncomfortably hard, particularly for a pregnant woman – but she didn’t care enough to ask. The staff were skittish around her. Jade hadn’t made enough of an impression to banish memories of Lord Hans and Lady Regina. Merely asking might cause a panic.

She stroked her growing abdomen, wondering when she’d feel the baby kick. The healers had assured her that it was a normal pregnancy, so far, but Alassa wouldn’t feel truly secure until the baby was pushed into the world. Male or female, it would be proof that she was fertile, that she could carry on the dynasty. It was odd to realise that one of the few things she had in common with her father, the few things she’d actually acknowledge, included a determination to have a heir, but it was easier for him. Her father had had hundreds of mistresses, desperately hoping that one of them would bear him a son. Alassa needed to bear a son of her body. It didn’t seem fair, somehow.

I could have killed Father, she thought, remembering the moment – three weeks ago – when she’d had her father in her sights. If she’d pulled the trigger, she could have put a bullet right through his head. And who knows what would have happened then?

In truth, she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t pulled the trigger. Her father and her had never been particularly close, even before he’d locked her up in the Tower of Alexis and thrown away the key. She wanted, she needed, to take the throne that had been her birthright from the moment it became clear that her father would not have a legitimate male child. And she knew her father’s reign would be bad for the kingdom. He’d already tried his hardest to execute Alassa’s closest friends.

I was weak, she told herself, although she wasn’t sure if that was actually true. Could a daughter kill her father? Could a daughter take the throne after she killed her father? She’d hardly be the first monarch to inherit after her predecessor died under dubious circumstances that no one dared look at too closely. If I’d killed him …

The thought was like a stab to the gut. She knew, deep inside, that she hadn’t wanted to kill him. A daughter should not kill her father. She’d always assumed that her father would die and she would succeed him, not that she’d kill him. She had spent too much of her life looking for his approval to want to kill him. A dead man couldn’t smile at her when she did something clever and give her his blessing. She’d always envied Imaiqah’s easy relationship with her father, even though that had nearly got Imaiqah killed. King Randor had never had time for his daughter.

She touched her abdomen again, gritting her teeth. There was no choice, not now. She had to kill her father, directly or indirectly, or he’d take her child. Alassa had no doubt, not now, that her father would have had her killed, after the baby was born. Killed … or banished to some desolate castle in the badlands where no one would think to look for her, while he raised her child in his own image. She had to kill her father for the sake of the child. She had no choice …

… But she didn’t like it.

The wards quivered, just slightly, as Jade passed through the outer layers and stepped through the door. Alassa rose, then threw dignity to the winds and ran towards him. Jade was hot and sweaty and smelt of mud, but she didn’t care. She pressed her lips to his and kissed him as hard as she could, enjoying the brief sensation. She’d been lucky in Jade. Other husbands would have tried to take power for themselves. That would not have meant a happy marriage.

“You should be taking more care of yourself,” Jade said, touching her abdomen gently. “Really …”

“I have to be active,” Alassa reminded him. She understood his concern – and she even shared his fears for the baby – but there were other considerations. “The people have to see me on the throne.”

It was an odd thought. Her father had never worried about the good opinions of anyone who didn’t have a title. They were less than nothing to him, unless they did something that merited ennoblement. But Alassa … most of her friends were commoners. Neither Emily nor Imaiqah – nor Jade, for that matter – had been born noble. It was hard to understand, sometimes, why commoners couldn’t do as they were told, but she thought she could use it. She’d just have to remember not to repeat her father’s mistake once she was secure on her throne.

And I have to seek popularity, she thought. What choice do I have?

“I suppose,” Jade said. She knew him well enough to know that it wasn’t the end of the argument, but there were too many listening ears near the throne room. “You’ll be pleased to know that the first regiments are marching out now. If your father does decide on a lightning strike at Swanhaven, we will be ready for him.”

Alassa nodded. She understood little of military strategy – she’d certainly never been allowed to lead troops into combat – but Jade could fill in the gaps. Her father had only a handful of options if he wanted to crush the rebels before it was too late. A direct stab at Swanhaven was perhaps his best bet. He’d be a fool to target Cockatrice before Swanhaven was neutralised.

“And if he doesn’t, we can take the offensive,” she added. “It will take him months to crush the barons.”

“Let us hope so,” Jade said. He wasn’t as confident as herself that the Barons would manage to delay the king for long. The Noblest were a pack of traitors. They’d come apart if the king managed to land a few solid blows. “We probably need to start planning to move against Winter Flower.”

Alassa frowned. A month ago, the thought of ravaging Winter Flower from one end to the other would have been very satisfactory. Alicia, Baroness Winter Flower, had had the nerve to bear King Randor a son. Babe in arms or not, Alexis was a deadly threat to Alassa’s position. But Alicia had risked her life – and worse – to help Jade and his friends spring Alassa from the Tower. Alassa honestly wasn’t sure how she should react to Alicia now. Her emotions were a mess.

“Yeah,” she said. She reached out and held him, tightly. “But we can do that later.”

Jade smiled. “As you command, Your Highness.”

Alassa elbowed him. “We’re alone,” she said. “You don’t have to be formal.”

And she kissed him again.

Review: Rocket Ship Galileo

3 Jun

It is actually quite hard to believe, in some ways, that Heinlein wrote Rocket Ship Galileo as it is quite different, in many ways, from his other juvenile books. It is quite evident, simply from a cursory look, that Heinlein was only just entering the juvenile market and he hadn’t figured out how to make such books actually work. It’s hard to see a logical progression from Rocket Ship Galileo to Space Cadet (his second juvenile) although this was probably not helped by me only reading Rocket Ship Galileo well after I’d read the others.

And yet, if you can suspend your disbelief, Rocket Ship Galileo works better than some of his other juvenile works.

Rocket Ship Galileo is set in the United States, probably somewhere around 1950. (There’s a reference to Roswell in the novel, which dates it after 1947.) Three teenage boys are experimenting with rockets when they are recruited by a scientist – who happens to be one of their uncles – to serve as his crew on an experimental rocket ship. After a brief struggle to convince their parents to allow them to go, they ready the ship for flight and set off to the moon. Their triumph at being the first men on the moon is rapidly spoilt when they discover they’re not the first after all … and their competitors are Nazis.

Nothing loathe, the boys turn the tables on their foes, capture the enemy base (built in the ruins of a long-gone lunar civilisation) and return to Earth, secure in the glory of having defeated a deadly threat and opened the stars to mankind.

Heinlein was not, at this point, the master he would later become. The three boys appear largely identical, save for one who carries a camera everywhere. And yet, they are recognisably teenage boys, from one moaning over how unfair it is that they will be penalised for an accident to another being unhappy that he didn’t get to do pilot training while his friend did. The scientist is a neat presentation of a scientist, although he is both more practical than most (he offers sensible advice to one of the boys) and dangerously irresponsible, in taking them on a lunar trip when they are unprepared for much of what they encounter (although no one would have really expected to run into Nazis.)

Indeed, the book can be dated by its attitude to such details. Written in 1947, between the Fall of Berlin and the moment when the Cold War became inevitable, it has an unusual view of the world, certainly when compared to Heinlein’s later books. In an era where fugitive Nazis were a potential threat – U-977 had sailed to Argentina after the end of the war, where it was speculated that she had landed escaped Nazi leaders before surrendering – Heinlein cannot be blamed for using them as his enemies. He avoids the trap of turning their relatively small lunar base into an immense threat, pointing out that even they have problems resupplying their redoubt. The book also features a UN Police, a relic of a time when even people like Heinlein believed the UN would turn into something worthwhile, and corporations being unwilling to risk investing money in the moon. You’d think they’d make back their investment by tourism alone. The existence of a lunar civilisation, albeit one that was already dead, was not disproved until later.

The plot, though, is more than a little cumbersome. There’s a brief plot involving spies that is dropped halfway through, never to be resurrected. Heinlein glossed over a lot of details that probably should have been mentioned. Building a rocket – and later equipping one – and obtaining atomics is apparently easy. The Nazis move from overwhelming threat to a much smaller threat, although this is lucky for the boys! One may think that this is their perceptions influencing events. The Nazis appeared more dangerous until they came to grips with them.

Heinlein did not win any diversity awards with this book. All four of the main characters and the bad guys are all male. The only woman of any note is one of the mothers, who points out to her husband that sons have to grow up sooner or later … and if they want to risk their lives, they have a right to risk their lives. Nor, for that matter, does Heinlein make any attempt to humanise the Nazis. He presents them as flat one-dimensional villains (including other things, one of the heroes relatives was forced to flee Germany) and rightly so.

It’s also a glimpse into the attitudes of a different time. Atomic power is treated with respect – the boys wear devices to warn them in case of an overdose – but not as a caged demon. The irrational fear of nuclear technology had yet to grip the Western psyche. No one seems concerned about the scientist launching an actual spacecraft, particularly one with an atomic drive. Nor does anyone care about the boys experimenting with rockets – something that would probably be frowned upon today – or even their age when the rocket takes off. The only person who does is a bureaucrat who is swiftly neutralised to keep him from interfering. In some ways, it was a better time … but then, not everyone would have agreed.

Most surprisingly of all, Heinlein praises American public education and schools. This is unique amongst Heinlein’s works, which rapidly grow dismissive of public education and praise characters who learn from their parents or on their own. But then, American – and western – education started a sharp decline shortly afterwards. Heinlein took note.

Oddly, it may well have had a greater influence on the genre than it seems. The ‘Nazis on the Moon’ plot may lead directly to Iron Sky, but I think it stopped along the way at W. A. Harbinson’s Projeckt Saucer books. (A rogue American genius helps the Nazis develop flying saucers, which are eventually based in Antarctica as part of a plot to take over the world.) How many others drew influence from this book?

Rocket Ship Galileo is nowhere near Heinlein’s best work. It has too many flaws, which Heinlein ironed out before he wrote his next juvenile. And yet, if you can suspend your disbelief – and knowledge – long enough to read, I think you’ll enjoy it.

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.”

Job

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>

Thoughts?

Chris