Wednesday, June 8, 2011

1962: Stranger in a Strange Land

I do not grok Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in A Strange Land.  “To grok” in Martian means to understand completely and fully.

I wished I did though because two of my friends who read it thought it was great. One told me that her friends wanted to use it as a model for their lives. The other told me that it changed the way she saw the world. I didn’t see anything like that. Instead of life changing work, I found Stranger in a Strange Land plotting, boring, and loaded with half-baked ideas. 

Stranger in a Strange Land is composed of two very different but interconnected parts. The first is about how the Man from Mars, Valentine Michael Smith, (since he is usually called Mike that’s what I will call him), is brought back from Mars after having been raised by the Martians. Martian society is completely different then human society so he is kept in isolation until he can adapt, both physically and mentally. Also, by some strange laws he legally owns Mars and a major Lunar company, but we will get back to that. An early plot point is that he is not allowed to see women because Martians don’t really have males and females in the same way humans do. As a science fiction fan I like to see truly different aliens (wholly alien biology and culture) but why Mike can’t see women is not well explained. His doctors seem to think that this will have a negative reaction on him but when he first meets a woman he can’t tell that there is anything really different about them. And then it’s dropped. This actually is a major problem for the novel. Every times something interesting comes up it doesn’t last long before it is forgotten.

Anyhow, as I mentioned before, Mike owns Mars and is fabulously wealthy so the world government is trying to take advantage of him and get the rights themselves. No one seems to think much that Mars is already inhabited by a very ancient and powerful race but whatever. A muck-raking reporter named Ben Caxton tries to break Mike out but is captured and imprisoned so his girlfriend (this is a guess because their relationship is hard to understand), Jill, breaks Mike out and takes him to Jubal Harshaw, a reclusive lawyer/doctor/writer/libertarian who lives in the Poconos with his three live-in secretaries.

Let’s take a moment for Jubal. First of all, Jubal is not sleeping with his secretaries. I feel I have to say this because it really seems like he is. Otherwise it seems rather odd that he would have live-in secretaries that expected to appear before him whenever he says, “Front!”. This isn’t my biggest gripe with Jubal though. Even in the books I like by Heinlein, he often makes his characters too great. More often than not they have multiple very difficult skills. Jubal seems to know everything and be great at everything and therefore, he is not very interesting.  Another problem is that Jubal is clearly Heinlein’s mouthpiece. This book is primarily dialogue and primarily coming from Jubal as he explains mankind’s foibles to Mike and to anyone else that he is talking to. That said, Heinlein does a good job of making this seems like real conversation, not like the leaden dialogue in They’d Rather be Right.

Back to the story. The government comes after Mike and he uses his godlike powers to stop them. Apparently, Mike can sense the “wrongness” of things and just make them disappear. Jubal works out a deal with the government to leave Mike alone and set up Mars for human colonization (the Martians actually don’t mind). Mike is now free to learn about the world and humanity. That’s the end of the first part.
I thought the first half of the book was decent and fairly interesting but it did not prepare me for the second half.  In the second part, Mike starts to learn about humanity and further develops his godlike powers. Not only that, he creates a new religion that preaches that everyone is God (they greet each other with "Thou art God”) and by learning the Martian language and Martian thinking the people who join the religion also become godlike. Oh and tons of nakedness and free love.

This to me is where the book fell apart. Mike and his followers’ powers started to strain my suspension of disbelief. Now I am a science fiction and fantasy fan so I have no issues with super powered individuals. Magic, super technology, whatever, it’s fine. What’s so annoying about Stranger in a Strange Land is that Mike and his followers are good at everything. Mike can make anything disappear. He goes to casinos and the stock market and makes a killing. In a year, he goes from not being able to speak English to a charismatic leader. He can read 10 books a day. The list goes on and on. He makes him and his followers boring. They do everything perfectly and the last hundred pages or so of the book are taking up by characters saying how awesome Mike’s system is. All this power comes from learning how to speak Martian and Martian discipline. I just couldn’t buy it.

The book stands on shaky theological ground. Mike claims what he is preaching is not a new religion and is not meant to supplant other beliefs but there is no way around it. “Thou art God” is heretical under most religions. Not only did that but Heinlein not seem to do his research before writing this book. Take the character Dr. Mahmoud, the linguist on the ship that picked up Mike and supposedly a devout Muslim. Yet later in the book, he explains to Jubal that there is no contradiction between being a follower of Mike and being a Muslim because Islam never says there won’t be other prophets. Any devout Muslim would know that Mohammed was God’s last prophet and that there will be no more after him. At all. This is a pretty important and fundamental Islamic belief. It would be like a devout Christian not knowing that Jesus is the son of God. Also, Jubal nicknames Mahmoud “Stinky” early in book and everyone calls him that afterwards. I’m not sure why but I found that very irritating and offensive. I don’t want to be harsh on Heinlein though because he was very progressive on racial issues. More than any early science fiction author, he worked in non-white characters. You were more likely to find green men then black men in early science fiction.

Heinlein’s views on women are hard to puzzle out. On the one hand, most of them are intelligent self-confident professional women. Take Jill in Strange in A Strange Land. She is a head nurse and breaks Mike out of the government hospital by herself. She is not a damsel in the distress. On the other hand though, Heinlein’s female characters hold sexist views and their number one concern is men. Again take Jill. As soon as she gets Mike to Jubal’s, she becomes one of his secretaries and obediently does whatever he tells her. Later she is Mike’s high priestess and serves as a sex object. Jill comes to the conclusion that she likes be ogled by strange men while working as a dancer in Vegas. It was kind of strange and creepy. Heinlein’s female characters are all portrayed in a very sexual way. It is hard to put my finger on exactly how this is but the feeling never left me. Also, many of Heinlein’s free lovin’ characters express some old fashion views such as when Jill tells Mike that when a woman is raped, nine times out of ten she is partially responsible. Reading that line made me cringe. Also all the free love is only ok if it is heterosexual.

Despite all the criticism I have piled on Strange in a Strange Land there are parts I liked. As usual, Heinlein’s writing is good and his characters are (somewhat) believable. Though a little too godlike I was impressed with how different this book’s Martians were, even from Martians in other Heinlein books. I also I really like the work “grok”. I’ve started to use it myself every now and then.

Obviously Stranger in a Strange Land wasn’t one of my favorite Hugo winners. It disappointed me all the more because I like the previous Robert Heinlein books and, this being his most famous work, I had high expectations. You win some and you lose some. I’m very excited about the next book: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

1961: A Canticle for Leibowitz

Now this is more like it. The 1961 Hugo Winner, Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, is an interesting, well-written, and thought provoking book, which is more than I can say for some of the previous books I have read. Hopefully future award winners will be as good as this.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is divided into three novellas, each related to one another but separated by large gaps in time and containing none of the same characters (there is one character but he is far too enigmatic to be counted). What the novellas do share is their location: the Abbey of Saint Leibowitz situated somewhere in the American Southwest, most likely southern Utah or northern New Mexico. The purpose of the abbey is to preserve as much past knowledge as possible.  Another similarity between each part nearly every character is a Catholic monk. I have noticed that the last two Hugo winners barely have any female characters. Leibowitz, in fact, doesn’t have a single woman until the final of the three novellas. This is not a strike against it because I would rather have no female characters than poorly written ones. I’m looking at you Ernest Hemingway, especially Catherine Berkley in A Farwell to Arms.

The first novella is Fiat Homo (Let there be Man). Set in the 26th century and a full 600 years after a nuclear holocaust, this story concerns a young novice named Francis, who while on his vigil in the desert, discovers a fallout shelter and a blue print that may have been written by his order’s founder Beau Isaac Leibowitz (he is a Beau because at this point he has not been canonized by New Rome). Francis eventually becomes a monk and works to transcribe documents from the past into new books. He also recreates Leibowitz’s blue print and takes a trip to New Rome for the canonization. This may sound a tad dull and uneventful but there are a number of interesting characters and Miller skillfully uses this time to create his post-apocalyptical world.

And what a world it is. Since this is told from the view of monks 600 years after the fact very little is known or understood about the previous world and how it ended. The nuclear war is referred to as the “Flame Deluge” and nuclear Fallout is thought of as a demon, not a man-made phenomenon. When Francis discovers the fallout shelter he is frighten that it is living quarters for the demon itself and it afraid to let it out again. Miller does an excellent job of describe the world through the eyes of its inhabitants and only showing what they know.

The second novella, Fiat Lux (Let there be Light), takes place 500 years after Fiat Homo and humanity is starting to organize itself again. In this novella, one of the monks builds an electric generator and a visiting scholar from Texarkana, one of the main city-states that have risen over the last 500 years, examines the Abbey’s archives. The dark ages are ending and mankind is moving towards greater civilization and advancement. Fiat Lux is more complex than Fiat Homo and begins to deal with the roles of church and state, secular and religious knowledge and the freedom of information. It would be difficult to explain much more without spoilers but this was my favorite novella of the three.

In the final novella, Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let Thy Will Be Done), mankind has again advanced to the point where it has nuclear weapons and space colonies. After 50 years the cold war between the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition turns hot and the world is again engulfed in nuclear war. New Rome decides to send the Leibowitz archives and a group of monks into space so that knowledge can be preserved.  While this happens the Abbot must deal with nuclear survivors and the government’s attempts to euthanize the hopeless radiation cases.

All and all it is an excellent story. After some of the past winners it was nice to read something with a well-developed plot and characters. Even changes in language are taken into account. Miller never explains more than he needs to and the philosophical debates that crop up every so often feel natural, instead of shoehorned, into the plot. Also the characters feel like people. They are not ideas masquerading as people, which is certainly an improvement of A Case of Conscience and a million times better They’d Rather Be Right. I usually don’t write in hyperbole like that but They’d Rather Be Right was truly awful.

Despite the praise I am heaping on A Canticle for Leibowitz there are a few parts of it that I found did not make much sense. In the future depicted in the book, virtually nothing of the pre-nuclear war world remains. People have become savages and every old belief is forgotten. If that’s the case, how it is that the Catholic Church remains more or less the same as it has for thousands of years? The monks still use Latin, the structure of the Church remains unchanged; even all the rituals were unfazed. How does that work? It would have been interesting to see at least some change. It would have to be major but little differences to show that the Catholic Church was not immune to the changes in the world. On a similar note, what happened to Protestantism? The United States was (and still is) a predominately Protestant country so it seems hard to believe that it could completely fall away while Catholicism remains the same. In Fiat Homo, most of the land is described as pagan outside of the small Catholic enclaves. It’s not a deal breaker these issues annoyed me.

What also annoyed me was the amount of Latin. I understand the characters are monks and monks use Latin (somehow even in the post-apocalyptical future) but it doesn’t make it easy for the reader. The Latin used is rarely translated, leading me to skim certain sections for the next English part. I was able to figure out what the titles of the first two novellas were but had to look up the final one. Again this is a small gripe but worth mentioning.

My final annoyance was the location. Every major civilization mentioned in Fiat Lux is in the mountains or the southwest. What is it about post-apocalyptic fiction that makes it set in the desert? Mad Max, the Fallout video games, and others all seem to take place in the Southwest. If the world ended I would move to greener pastures.

So read A Canticle for Leibowitz. You will be glad you did. I know I was.

My next book is A Stranger in A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. It’s his most famous book. Let’s see if it’s his best.  

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

1960: Starship Troopers

The first thing I want you to do is forget about the Starship Trooper movie. Forget about how the bug aliens were portrayed, forget about the stupid Devo helmets, and forget about that annoying red-headed chick Dizzy Flores (who in the book was a guy and died in the first chapter).

Now that that is out of the way let’s talk about Starship Troopers the novel by Robert Heinlein. This is the first Hugo Award winner I have come to in the course of writing this blog that I have read before. I read it before I went to war myself, which seems oddly fitting. Granted I didn’t have the awesome power armor that the soldiers use in the book or wasn’t fighting alien bugs but more on that later.

Like the previous Heinlein Hugo winner, Double Star, Starship Troopers is told in the first person. The narrator is Johnny Rico, a kid from an upper crust family in Buenos Aires, who joins the Mobile Infantry so he can become a citizen. In the Terran Federation, people must do a few years of government service before they can become citizens. Non-citizens cannot vote or hold office. That’s interesting is that service does not just have to be the military. Joining and serving in a civilian capacity is equally valid.

While in training, the Bugs (an insect type alien) attack and destroy Buenos Aires. It is never completely clear why this happens. Rico does not seem to think it is that important so it doesn’t come up. After finishing a brutal one year training course, Rico is part of the attack on the Bug home world of Klendathu. The attack is a disaster and the Federation is reduced to making hit and run attacks. I won’t go through the rest of the plot here but I will say that it is a lot more about Rico’s time in the military and becoming an officer then it is about winning the war against the Bugs. There are only a handful of battles in book and they are mostly at the beginning and the end of the novel.

But the battles are action packed and fun to read. One of the things that make them much fun is the equipment the Mobile Infantry use. The infantry use power armor that augments their strength, speed, and allows them to operate in any environment. The armor also has jet packs and advanced communication systems. There are multiple channels and the infantryman (in the novel they were all men but there was never a reference that being male was a requirement) bites down on a different button to switch between them. I thought that was a really cool idea. There are also different types of armor for different jobs such as combat engineer. The Mobile Infantry are usually dropped from space in special capsules to make hit and run attacks. Anyone who has played science fiction games or read newer science fiction has seen these elements but this was new when Heinlein wrote it and it has aged very well.

Even though I enjoyed Starship Troopers for the most part, there are some annoying or ridiculous aspects to it. The most famous grip with it is that the book is a vehicle for Heinlein’s ideas. This is, unfortunately, quite true. Large chunks of the novel are devoted to the morality discussions and an ideal more militarized state. 
The problem is most of this does not come up naturally. A number of characters are more talking heads, spewing Heinlein’s philosophy, than they are people. For only 250 pages, I wanted a bit more action and less talking.  

Another problem is that Johnny Rico isn’t a very interesting character. Once he makes the decision to join the Mobile Infantry he becomes annoyingly gung-ho all the time. I used to be in the Army and have certainly met people like that but it doesn’t make them particularly interesting. His attitude is perfectly (and irritatingly) shown when he and his troops are about to be shot down onto a planet and he requests the capsules all play “For the Everlasting Glory of the Infantry”.  Even writing that made my eyes roll. One observation I did like from Rico was about sleeping. He said that the secret to happiness is adequate sleep. You give a grunt a full eight hours and he is the happiest man alive. How true that is.

In the end, Starship Troopers is a good book and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good sci-fi adventure. Oh and stay away from the movie.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Decade in Review: 1950s

Before I start with the 1960 winner, Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, I thought it would nice to do a quick review of the 1950’s Hugos. I plan to do a decade in review before starting on new decade.

Honestly, I was a bit disappointed with the 50s. Out of the 5 winner, there were only 2 I liked, The Demolished Man and Double Star, while the others ranged from ok to terrible. The 1950s were part of the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” so I was expecting more. Instead A Case of Conscience was ok, The Big Time was well written but nonsensical, and They’d Rather Be Right was just flat out terrible.

What was strange was that the books didn’t really fit with the stereotypes of 1950s sci-fi. Sure there were rockets and men of science but they were hardly as dominate as I expected. Perhaps that vision of science fiction was more closely related to the pulps and comics books then to the more “literary” variety chosen by the Hugo Awards committee. In fact, Double Star may be the pulpiest of the stories I read and it was my second favorite.

Despite my disappointment, there was at least one good thing I stumbled upon here: The Demolished Man. I won’t give a full review here but I was surprised at how interesting a book it was, the depth of the characters, and the quality of the writing. If I hadn’t started on this goal of reading all the Hugos I probably never would have come across that book and that would have been a shame. In fact that might be one of the reasons that the 50s was a letdown: its first book was the best of the decade.

Now that the 50s are over I’m excited for the 60s (I never thought I would say that). The 60s contains 11 books (there was a tie one year) of which I have read two already. It should be a fun decade. Stay tuned for Starship Troopers.