Tag Archives: Robert Heinlein

Robinson-Heinlein mix natural in ‘Variable Star’

The idea of one writer picking up the pre-planned novel of an author who has passed doesn’t sit easy with me, and, I would imagine, with most readers. It’s just not going to be the same as it would have been had the original writer run with the concept, and sometimes those gaps or failings are going to be glaring. Plus, it feels disrespectful to the work of the dead artist.

Unless, apparently, you are Spider Robinson taking over a Robert Heinlein project. In which case everything comes up roses.

Heinlein wrote the notes and outline for the book Variable Star in 1955, got distracted by other work and never came back to it. After the death of Heinlein’s wife, the notes were found by Heinlein’s children, Robinson was offered the chance to complete the project, and Variable Star hit bookshelves in 2006.

It’s really a terrific mix of the two authors. Orphaned teen Joel is ready to set out and become a musician, gets his world rocked by his love interest that jump starts a massive identity crisis, and instead jumps on the first spaceship he can find to travel light years away to be a colonist on a previously unsettled planet. If you’ve ever read any Heinlein, you know it isn’t that straightforward. The requisite Heinlein oddities and twists are all there. There were even moments where Robinson truly captured Heinlein’s voice, and those times usually left me laughing.

What’s great about it is that Robinson, while staying very much true to Heinlein’s story and style, is also able to add his own touches that really round out the work. One example that strikes me is when Joel starts to have a mental breakdown and is forced to seek counseling. Heinlein had a more brusque style, I think in part generational and in part the natural outcome of a writer who was trying to crank out product to feed his family. Plus, I think Heinlein tended to get excited about the concept and was less into creating nuanced characters of great depth, because that wasn’t what he was about. Robinson adds a sensitivity that Heinlein probably wouldn’t have, creating sympathy for Joel as he tries to find his way after having his world rocked. In other chapters, where there is less action and more of Joel figuring out who he is and what he is or should be doing, Robinson’s hand is felt similarly, keeping the story interesting as well as letting it move at the leisurely pace someone on a long spacecraft voyage would be operating at.

If you’re a Heinlein fan and you have any doubts, don’t. Yes, it’s not a Heinlein novel in the purest sense. It’s a collaboration, and because of that, it’s a beast all its own. But what a beautiful beast it is.

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‘Old Man’s War’ satisfying science fiction

It’s hard to know where to begin with this look at John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. Do I start by noting that it’s screaming for a big-screen adaptation, this novel with a cinematic feel woven into it’s DNA? Do I talk about all of the other influences that popped into my head, from The Matrix to Halo to Starship Troopers to Gulliver’s Travels? Do I write about the Buddhist feel of it all, ascension to the heavens in the body of a higher being, a chance for re-birth, a clean slate upon which to build a new universe?

I think it’s safe to say I got into Old Man’s War. I felt like it worked on a few levels. Yes, if you want a quick, cinematic read, Old Man’s War can be that book. The scene where our hero, John Perry, launches from a spaceship toward the nearest planet with nothing but his weapon and the high-tech, skin-tight body suit that will protect him as he enters the atmosphere is a heart-pounding sequence. Earlier, the Colonial Defense Force discovers the individual defenses of the Consu will absorb the first shot from the CDF’s MP-35 rifles. As they are about to be overrun by the Consu, Perry realizes the key is firing two shots in succession, one to break the defenses, the second to kill, turning the tide of the battle. It’s a thrill ride and a half.

But what really suckered me in was the consciousness transfer, which enables a 75-year-old retiree who has been Earth-bound for life to evolve into a human hybrid that runs faster, jumps higher, heals quickly and is … green, skipping across the universe to do battle among the stars. A lot goes on with Perry and his pals as they adapt to the changes, and there’s this undercurrent of, “What does this mean to our humanity?” Yes, these people who were traipsing slowly to the grave now feel wonderful, are full of energy and are capable of doing things even their younger selves were never able to accomplish. But all of this new power is focused into turning them into efficient, cold-hearted killing machines that will travel the universe to eradicate any non-human life occupying the space the CDF wants to colonize. It’s a perverse trade-off: Be young again, and use that youth to exterminate the other, the new, the unknown.

The final part of the deal is that, after the 2-year mandatory commitment, up to 10 years if the CDF requires it (which they always do, if you’re lucky enough to live that long), you are returned to a new copy of your human body and allowed to become one of the pioneers you have spent your military career defending. This is where the Buddhist idea of karma comes in. After living 75 good years on Earth, you ascend – literally – to a new plane as a super being. Then you spend 10 years as a super being doing your worst to the rest of the universe. After those 10 years, you are returned to your previous human life, forced to live it all over again, but knowing this time, this is it, no more.

There’s a lot more of this identity confusion in the novel, but it’s not something that overwhelms the action. A good comparison is Starship Troopers, not that they cover the same ground, but that the novel is greater than just its alien-killing plot. But I think Scalzi’s touch is more deft than Robert Heinlein’s, much to the benefit of Old Man’s War, as well as Scalzi’s readers.

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Can’t get much ‘Stranger’ than Heinlein

“He’s ignorant to six decimal places.” – Jubal Harshaw

“Faith! What a dirty Anglo-Saxon monosyllable – Jill, how does it happen that you didn’t mention that one when you were teaching me the words not to use in polite company?” – Michael Valentine Smith

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange land was billed, on the cover of the 25th anniversary complete edition I borrowed at the library, as a classic of the Free Love era. It’s easy to see why.

The tale is an examination of the life of Michael Valentine Smith. Smith was the child conceived and born on the first space flight from Earth to Mars. Only this known to no one until, more than two decades later, Earth sends a second spacecraft to the red planet. There, the pilgrims find Michael, the only survivor of the first voyage, a human raised as a Martian with no Terran influences. The Martians send Michael back with part of the Earth crew, to see his “home planet.”

Michael goes from an Earthling who doesn’t understand bathtubs and has never seen a female to the leader of a powerful, controversial cult. His powers allow him to make matter – such as guns and the humans holding them – disappear. He can move items – briefly working as a carnival magician – and can speak telepathically with others. He uses these gifts to teach other humans how to attain them under the guise of a neo-religion, taking only the most advanced and open to the top of the “church’s” nine levels. It is a matter of both knowledge and being connected to the universe that will allow humans to manipulate the world as Michael does.

Plus, free love. Lots of it. Anywhere, anytime. To the discomfort of several characters, at least initially. And the key to enlightenment is openness at all levels, whether it is in the pursuit of expanding your intellect or your sex life is irrelevant.

Grok it? Stranger in a Strange Land is much broader, has greater depth than I’m making it sound like, but you can see the hippie overtones. Heinlein makes a compelling case for how Michael chooses to live his life, and how he spreads his gifts to others. He also takes square aim at government corruption, predicts the ridiculousness of cable news decades before its existence, mocks the frailty of religion while simultaneously admiring it, even taken a few shots at his own craft.

The only downside is it does get a bit talky, with a number of characters giving monologues, particularly Michael and his human mentor, doctor-novelist-lawyer-rebel Jubal Harshaw. Stranger in a Strange Land reminds me a lot of Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction in that regard. If you’re a fan and you’re into it, like I was in both cases, you gobble it down. But if you’re not a big reader or really into, I could see how that verbosity might drag the story down.

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