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.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

1959: A Case of Conscience

Science fiction and fantasy are littered with great concepts that are poorly executed. James Blish’s A Case of Conscience is one of those. The book starts with a great idea and it moves along nicely for a while and things just fall apart.

A Case of Conscience begins 50 light years from Earth on the planet Lithia. Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez and three other men have been sent to Lithia to decide if Earth should enter into a trade relationship with the local Lithians. This is where the book is at its best. Lithia is a fascinating jungle world populated by the reptilian 12 foot tall aliens, who are unlike aliens from anything else I’ve read or seen. They are technologically advance but in a very different way from humanity; their tech being based on ceramics and wood rather than metal and electricity. Their cities are made of cool ceramic buildings and they use a giant tree to communicate with radio waves. Blish is a skilled world builder and I loved reading about their world. In some ways the Lithians are more advanced than humans and in other less. Yet the strangest things about them is that have, besides ceramics, no art, no music, no war, no crime, no politics; basically no culture.

What concerns Ruiz-Sanchez though, as a Jesuit priest, is that they have no sin and seem to live in perfect Christian harmony. Because of this he believes that they are actually created by the Devil as a means to corrupt and attack humanity but believing this is blasphemous as it assumes that the Devil has the ability to create, something the Catholic Church officially denies. How Ruiz-Sanchez deals with this moral conundrum is the most interesting part of the book. Sadly, Blish becomes sidetracked from that promising beginning and the novel falls apart.

If you remember in my review of The Demolished Man I was worried that the novel would be too Cold War-ish and not have aged well. While I was lucky with that book, I was not so lucky with this one. A Case of Conscience has not one but two Cold War points that really don’t make sense and seriously detract from the book.

The first is John Cleaver, a man who is a part of the same team as Ruiz-Sanchez, a physicist, and a narrow-minded jerk. I won’t mind if he was a jerk if he added anythinginteresting to the story. Instead, he lies and manipulates the other members of the team so he can push forth his idea that Earth should enslave the Lithians and turn their lithium rich planet into a giant factory to make fusion bombs. He says that the bombs are necessary in case humanity runs into a threatening alien race. The odd thing is that humanity hasn’t done so yet. This desire to have a deterrent to a non-existent enemy seems very 1950s. Also, Cleaver does not bother to learn the Lithian language or science and refers to Lithians as “Snakes”. Which makes me wonder: if the UN needs to analyze the nature of Lithia, why would they send this asshole? He comes across as stupid, brutish, and silly. Even the other characters seem to think his idea is stupid.

The second part is even worst. Eventually the story comes back to Earth (its downhill from there) where we find that humans are organized in what’s called the “Shelter Economy”. Apparently at the height of the Cold War, every major nation engaged in an arms race-like massive underground shelter building program and moved a majority of their populations underground. These shelters rendered nuclear weapons useless, effectively ending the Cold War, and paving the way for the UN to become the global government. So far so good. Except that the book says that the Shelter Economy was too expensive to just be abandoned so people are forced to stay underground, where they are miserable and many are going insane.

I get that it is expensive to build but why would people continue to live underground when they no longer need to? It’s just stupid and I don’t buy it. You would think that it would be even more expensive to keep everyone underground rather than just letting them come to surface. The general population’s discontent with Shelter life is a major plot element so this can’t be ignored.

I had high hopes for this book. The premise is good and James Blish is a decent writer. It just doesn’t live up to all it could be. Also at 240 pages it feels rushed. Characters come in and out without the reader being able to get a feel for them. It’s a real shame because there was so much I did like. Lithia was a cool planet and there was a lot of room for interesting interactions between humans and Lithians. Another missed opportunity in science fiction.

One final note. The book, inadvertently I believe, proposes an interesting idea: That without sin there is no culture. As I mentioned above, the Lithians are sinless perfect beings without any form of culture. That are, in fact, very boring creatures. Was Blish saying that the wages of sin are not only death but also culture and civilization? I don’t know but is an interesting idea.