Dave's Corner of the Universe

Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide

Geek Obscura: Robert A. Heinlein

Bob

 

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.

 

navy

Hienline in his naval blues.

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.

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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.

Dinah

Way better than Denise Richardson.

 

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.

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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.

dirty hippies

Dirty Hippies!

 

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.

Moon

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

TGIF

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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42 comments on “Geek Obscura: Robert A. Heinlein

  1. Darren
    July 30, 2014

    “Job: A Comedy of Justice,” was always a favorite

  2. davekheath
    July 30, 2014

    He had a lot of great ones.

  3. moonminded
    July 31, 2014

    Have only ever read Puppet Masters. At the time I couldn’t get past the stilted female characters as I recall. But the last lines have stuck with me all these years: Death, destruction, the free men are coming to kill you! If I do read more, I will read Friday, because the caption is really funny.

    • davekheath
      July 31, 2014

      I think that Hienline learned to write strong female characters as he grew older.

  4. the muscleheaded blog
    July 31, 2014

    Stranger in a Strange Land was my favorite book in high school. I loved Heinlein’s work.

    • davekheath
      July 31, 2014

      More I read it the more I like it. In ways it captures Heinline’s time but in other ways it s timeless.

      • the muscleheaded blog
        August 1, 2014

        Yes, I think you have the same feel for the work as I did. Cheers! 🙂

  5. Tod
    July 31, 2014

    I read “Have space suit will travel” in high school, was hooked and have read everything from him I could find.

    • davekheath
      July 31, 2014

      That was the first thing I read by him too.

  6. starwarsanon
    July 31, 2014

    Our conference rooms are all named after sci-fi authors and the Board Room is…Heinlein! Loved this, thanks.

  7. aaforringer
    August 1, 2014

    Heinlien describes some space based weapons in his book Space Cadets (the book probably is overlooked now just because of the title). It talks about nukes being in orbit in case anyone starts to get any silly ideas here on Earth about taking out their neighbors.

    • davekheath
      August 1, 2014

      I will have to look that one up. I am not familiar with it, but it would make sense then that he would be picked by Regan to spear head the PR campaign for SDI.

  8. J.Gi Federizo
    August 1, 2014

    I haven’t read any of his works but they sound interesting. I certainly hope STARSHIP TROOPERS is way better than the movie that I really honestly found cheap. There was potential in it but a lot of it seemed trash. If the bugs there are anything like how the author described them in his book, though, I am guess he wasn’t much of an entomologist he he….

    • davekheath
      August 1, 2014

      My understanding is that the bugs from the movie coem from the fact that they were making a different movie called Bug Hunter (Or something like that) and part way through they found out they could get the rights to Starship Troopers and changed the name and re-wrote the script at lest partly.

      As I remember the bugs in the book were kept vague in keeping with a front line soldiers limited knowledge of his enemy.

      • J.Gi Federizo
        August 6, 2014

        Well, that supposedly first movie explains it. One of my fave subjects in college was Entomology so when I saw the movie, I went, “What? Another movie pretending they’ve done their research?” But I guess the fact that they’re supposed to be aliens anyway should explain why some of them looked the way they did.

        Thanks for the info! 🙂

  9. rmcarlysle
    August 2, 2014

    I still am a great Heinlien fan, although I must admit I have not re-read any of his books recently (they are all still on my shelves). ‘Have space suit, will travel’ was one of my earlier favourites, whilst ‘Glory Road’ was one of my later ones.

    • davekheath
      August 3, 2014

      I ma familiar with Glory Road but never read it will need to check it out.

  10. thesciencegeek
    August 7, 2014

    Great post.
    I am a big Sci Fi fan.and I would regards Heinlein along with Isaac Asimov, and the British author Arthur C. Clarke as the best three science fiction authors on the 20-th century

    The Science Geek
    http://thesciencegeek01.wordpress.com/

    • davekheath
      August 7, 2014

      they and Bradbury were pretty much the rock stars of sci-fi’s golden age.

  11. maurnas
    August 11, 2014

    Ray Bradbury’s short stories are some of the greatest sci-fi ever written. But I went through this Heinlein stage in middle school. Stranger in a Strange Land actually freaked me out.

    • davekheath
      August 12, 2014

      I love Bradbury but he is the first to admit that they a fantasy in a science fiction sitting that is why they endure so well know a days.

      And yes stranger is a bit freaky.

  12. cb
    August 12, 2014

    Can I “like” this more than once?

  13. cb
    August 12, 2014

    Reblogged this on Contrafactual and commented:
    Heinlein is one of my favorite Sci-Fi authors.

  14. maggie0019
    August 13, 2014

    “I will Fear No Evil” was a good read as well. Woof!

  15. cb
    August 13, 2014

    I read a lot of Heinlein in High School, late 60s – early 70s, generally stopped read Sci-Fi in college and beyond due to studies, work, wife, kids, life …

    Reread Stranger in a Strange Land, Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Starship Troopers on the last ten years. Still just as good. Puppet Masters was one of the scariest books I had read back in the day. The movie not so much. Starship Troopers the movie was fun and it did share the same name as the book.

    Did not know about Friday. It is now on my to-read list.

  16. cb
    August 13, 2014

    Have you read John Scalzi or Kim Stanley Robinson?

  17. bringthereality
    August 14, 2014

    I rather liked the SST movie. In a way, it was a great satire on the (still-growing) 24-hour news cycle we live with today, complete with the bloviating idiots from both sides.

    I think an interesting comparison could be made to the film and the post-9/11 mainstream media. Almost a blueprint.

    • davekheath
      August 15, 2014

      Oh there were things Verhoven nailed. I liked the news segments just like I loved them in his Robocop.

  18. Tyrannocaster
    August 16, 2014

    I know both the book and the film of SST; I actually prefer the film, although you have to acknowledge that without the book there would be no film, LOL. They are completely different things in different media, and I can understand how fans of the book who see the film don’t like what Verhoeven did; you simply have to let it stand on its own terms as a piece of social satire and on that level I think the film of Starship Troopers is great, right down to the Ken and Barbie casting.

    For me, the real problem with Heinlein’s books is his characters; almost every male in his books is Jubal Harshaw (with the exception of Valentine Michael Smith, of course), and the women are very poorly drawn caricatures – they are so bad I’m embarrassed for Heinlein. BUT – having said that, there are a lot of aspects to his books that are just brilliant. To me, he will always be an incredibly mixed bag, an author that I loved as a teenager but whose faults I see very clearly now while still appreciating aspects of what he did. One book that I like which was not mentioned here is The Door Into Summer.

    • davekheath
      August 17, 2014

      I haven’t read that one going to see if they have it in my local library tomorrow

  19. leggypeggy
    August 17, 2014

    Thanks for so much this post. About two years ago, I passed my tattered collection of his books to a young female geek! Now I might have to borrow them back for a re-read. Thanks also for the follow on my blog.

    • davekheath
      August 17, 2014

      My pleasure. I love used books.

      • leggypeggy
        August 17, 2014

        Me too! I have a house full of them! (Picture me looking sheepish.)

  20. Tony
    August 18, 2014

    You’ve skipped some of my favourite Heinleins, like the superb Citizen of the Galaxy. And (at the risk of looking like a pedant) I believe Heinlein used the phrase TANSTAAFL:

    “‘Gospodin,’ he said presently, ‘you used an odd word earlier – odd to me, I mean.’ … ‘Oh, “tanstaafl.” Means “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” And isn’t,’ I added, pointing to a Free Lunch sign across room, ‘or these drinks would cost half as much.'”

    • davekheath
      August 18, 2014

      I haven’t read Citizen will have to pick it up.

      • Tony
        August 19, 2014

        It’s by far the best of his early “Young Adult” books, in my view. Parts of it are reminiscent of Kipling’s Kim. It opens:

        “‘Lot ninety-seven,’ the auctioneer announced. ‘A boy.’ The boy was dizzy and half sick from the feel of ground underfoot. The slave ship had come more than forty light-years; it carried in its holds the stink of all slave ships, a reek of crowded unwashed bodies, of fear and vomit and ancient grief. …”

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