Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
When I was in high school you couldn’t get past the nerd clubhouse front door unless you were familiar with Robert A. Heinlein. You didn’t necessarily had to have read his books, but you needed to be familiar with the guy. About a month ago at work some guys were discussing the various merits and demerits of the Paul Verhoeven movie version of Starship Troopers, and I added my two cents that no matter what you felt about the movie that the book was great. One of the guys seated there, who was a pretty big sci-fi fan, replied that he didn’t even know it was a book.
So how did one of the most thought provoking controversial and exciting books in the science fiction universe get downgraded to a shower scene? Well let’s start with the man himself Robert A. Heinlein.
Heinlein’s early life could be summed up in one word: Failure. An Annapolis grad he was forced out of the military on a medical discharge. His home was deeply mortgaged to support a failed political career and by 1948, he had been twice divorced. That year he saw an ad for an amateur to send in a short story to a pulp magazine, the top prize was fifty dollars. Finally Bob had found what he was good at.
Heinlein was a libertarian back when the word meant as Asimov described him “A flaming liberal.” But as a man who relished his days of military service and saw the military as potential positive force in society. Also like many post WWII Americans he felt that the Soviet Union as a real threat to the American way of life. These ideas may seem contradictions to us now, but we as we will see Heinlein’s life was full of contradictions.
In the 1980’s Heinlein would be one of the science fiction writers that would endorse Regan’s SDI, or Star Wars program. The plan was to surround the United States with satellites that would shot down any Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles attacking us. Honestly at the time the technology was unfeasible and the US spent a lot of money on it which did contribute to the deficit. But the intuitive appealed to both Bob’s fear of communism and sense of self-reliance.
So let’s go on to some of his books.
Starship Troopers: When you strip away the powered armor, future world governments, and space bugs, you basically get a story about how a boy grew up to become a man during a war. It has been argued by some critics that, this is not a story. I hardily disagree, I think the tale of someone going from a youthful civilian to a warrior is a classic story line. Be it Platoon’s Chris Taylor, to Achilles to Luke Skywalker. Others complain it is tom much based on Heinlein and his politics, Well Duh. You write about what you know.
Heinlein’s original publisher wouldn’t touch the novel because it felt it had a fascist point of view. This has been debated around card tables for five decades. Some people saying that it is at least quasi-fascist and others saying the idea that a person who has earned his citizenship has a more vested into the success of his society, is breath taking progressive. It has also been argued that the story is racist, with its humans versus bugs POV. Personally. I disagree with this take since yes the aliens are by their very nature non-human monsters, but fact is that they don’t represent any one particular human race. And in the book even ex-enemies like Japan and cold war bogie men like the Russians come together with the rest of the world and form a new combined federation.
OK, so we can’t talk about SST without mentioning the Verhoeven movie. If the book is a rollicking adventure and a thought provoking thesis on the military and personal reasonability. The movie is best described as Psychic Nazi Dougie Hauser joins up with teen models and fights space bugs. Honestly the only way to get the movie is to see it as it was meant to be political satire. It is also fair to say that most people remember the movie because of amazing redheaded female si-fi chachters actress Dina Myer’s shower scene.
Stranger in a Strange Land: It is hard not to appreciate how influential this book is. In 2012 the US Library of Congress named it one of eighty-eight “Books that Shaped America.” It is basically an attack on monogamy and monotheism. The story revolves around Michael Valentine-Smith a human child raised by Martians who returns to the Earth. Once her he becomes a bit of celebrity and challenges the human’s traditions. Eventually he begins his own church and a competing religion starts an urban war against his faith.
SiaSL along with Tolkien’s novels and On the Road, became holy script to the hippies. A group of people who Heinlein could not understand and whose strange devotion to him seemed to bother the writter. In fact the only person who like hippies less that Heinlein would be Eric Cartman, and according to Harlan Ellison Bob claimed to have built a twelve foot high electric fence to keep them out.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: Set in 2075 and 2076 this story is about a lunar colony made of prisoners who are forced to grow crops for an overly populated planet earth. This is one of the first appearances of using an asteroid as a weapon, dropping it on a city to demolish it. It is also the organ of the saying TINSTAFL. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
The fact that the book’s turning point is set on July 4th 2076, is no coincidence. This is basically the American Revolution in space. It is about whether or not people should be able to determine their own destinies. The Loonies as lunar colonist are called are stand-ins for American founding fathers. We see here where Heinlein’s own form of patriotism kicks in. Even though the colony is breaking away from Earth and in a way the US.
Friday: I use to defend Friday as not being an overly sexed book. OK let’s get this out right now, I was wrong basically it is the Fifty Shades of Grey of the sci-fi set. Just look at the cover where we have Friday with her new wave haircut and partially unzipped jumpsuit and how she is making all kinds of promises with her eyes. But I don’t have a problem with sex in a book as long as it develops characters or moves the plot along. And like all of Heinlein’s novels Friday has story and tons of back story, on how the world became so messed up. When you read his adult titles it is hard to remember that Heinlein started out as a writer of juvenile stories.
Friday is a female covert-op/courier clone living in a dystopic future. Published in 1982, before the cyberpunk tsunami, it really does capture the ethos of cyberpunk. Though Friday’s modifications are biological as opposed to mechanical she stands tall with her CP sisters Molly from Nueromancer and Sarah from Hardwired. Where in Star Ship Troopers the Earth has combined to form a new federation of countries under one banner, in Friday like many other cyperpunk stories, not only the earth but the US has been Balkanized splitting into a series of smaller countries.
So why is Heinlein not better known by the new generation of geeks? Part is because the new nerds are from a much more video based generation. If you went to high school in the 80’s or earlier then in most cases you think of classic science fiction as books. More so you associate it with authors such as Heinlein, Clark, Bradbury, and Asimov. If you went to high school in the nineteen ninety or later then you think of the classics as something in the video medium, such as Star Trek and Star wars. Now this may be true with all forms of fiction.
Since William Gibson there hasn’t been a break out sci-fi writer. My grandmother may not have read science fiction but she couldn’t help but know who Asimov, Bradbury and Heinlein were, they were main stream celebrities even if you didn’t read their books you knew who they were. The closest thing we have now a days is George RR Martin, who is more known for his fantasy than his sci-fi, and who had been turning out stories for three decades before he hit t mega-big with Games of Thrones. Very few of my younger geek friends have read Asimov’s Foundation series, but its influence on the empire of Star Wars is well documented.
Only two of Heinlein’s book have been made into movies, Starship Troopers and The Puppet Masters. And as have stated several geeks I have meet are shocked that Troopers was originally a book.. Now this may change with talk of a new Troopers movie that is meant to be more authentic to the book. This might bring a resurgence of the sci-fi print classics. I hope so because there’s a world of great reads out there waiting to be rediscovered.