Posted on | September 19, 2013 | 24 Comments
As a lead-in to our main topic this week, I want to give a brief mention to a couple of things I read this week that are (at the very least) decent brain candy and might be worth your time. First, Marko Kloos’ Terms of Enlistment which right now is only available on the Kindle, but it looks like there’ll be a dead-tree edition come January. This book is awfully reminiscent of Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium stories; Andrew Grayson joins the Commonwealth armed forces to get out of what amounts to a Welfare Island, and spends the first half of the book training for his eventual deployment to a Territorial Army unit (=Garrison Marines), one of whose duties is riot suppression in the huge poverty-stricken urban areas around the major cities. Our hero winds up being dropped into Detroit on a riot suppression mission that goes very bad and lands him in the hospital – and under investigation for excessive use of force. Fortunately, Grayson has a clout, and she bails him out by arranging for him to transfer to the Navy. The good news for him is that he’s reunited with his girlfriend from Basic; the bad news is that when they arrive at the first planet on their patrol route, something is waiting for them. A lot of reviewers complained about the shift, but I thought the story as a whole was okay – not great, but not a waste of three bucks, either. The other book you might want to take a look at is The Goliath Stone, by Larry Niven and Matthew Harrington, the latter of whom may be familiar to readers of the Man-Kzin Wars anthologies. The Goliath Stone is okay brain candy, and while it deals extensively with nanotechnology avoids the depressing “anything can happen” mood of Charles Stross’ Glasshouse. In fact, The Goliath Stone has a cheerful, almost bouncy feel to it, somewhat reminiscent of Niven’s Protector(in the happier parts of that) although a lot of the issues of free will vs. behavior modification through nanotechnology get handwaved away. There are some amusing subplots having to do with – among other things- a re-emergent (and VERY powerful) alliance of Indian tribes. Is it a really serious SF adventure involving nanotechnology, or a parody of shoddily-written disaster novels? Maybe both. Tasty brain candy, either way.
Also worth mentioning are the plethora of megapacks available for the Kindle, which collect works by Andre Norton, Ray Cummings , Reginald Bretnor , Mack Reynolds, and Robert Sheckley, to name but a few of the mid-list SF writers who may not have won any awards, but certainly spun their share of entertaining tales. Hard to beat the price, too.
The problem with chopping SF (and its authors) up into decade-long chunks is that it really doesn’t divide that neatly, as we saw last week with Poul Anderson -and, for that matter, with Isaac Asimov- but most particularly in the case of the author who has arguably had more influence on the genre than anyone since John W. Campbell dominated the field in the 1940s. He has had a plethora of critics, none remotely near his stature, and is the subject of an excruciatingly detailed biography.* I am speaking, of course, of Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is best known for his Future History stories (which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago), his juvenile novels (Have Space Suit – Will Travel, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Red Planet being the most notable), his controversial novels of the early 1960s which included Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land , and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Everything after that, with the exception of Time Enough for Love (the capstone to the Future History series) and possibly Glory Road are occasionally considered his “seniles” as the solipsism (magical realism?) of the World As Myth gets completely out of hand in the last two novels and The Number of the Beast.
While Heinlein was cranking out a juvenile novel every Christmas for Scribners, though, he was writing SF for the grown-ups as well, and some of them were outstanding. Double Star tells the tale of a down-and-out actor hired to impersonate a famous politician at a critical point in human history, and tells it well enough to have been voted the Hugo for Best Novel in 1956. The Door into Summer may not have won any awards, but its tale of an engineer shanghaied into the future by his faithless fiance using cryogenics, and his eventual revenge, will keep you glued to the page. I’d be remiss if I forgot to mention the nightmarish The Puppet Masters and the equally disturbing Farnham’s Freehold. Don’t have time for a novel? Try some of his short fiction, collected in Assignment in Eternity and The Menace From Earth.
Heinlein also wrote a fair amount of nonfiction, much of which is collected in Expanded Universe, and a guide to building a political machine (Take Back Your Government), which allowing for technological changes, is still as relevant as it was when Heinlein (then a Democrat) wrote it in 1946.
Perhaps not as prolific as Asimov, Heinlein nonetheless arguably had a wider influence on not only SF but American society at large. He’s inspired legions of imitators (and the occasional parody) and driven socialists and Communists to apoplexy while providing entertainment and inspiration to conservatives, libertarians and neo-pagans. If you haven’t read anything by him, you’re missing some quality entertainment and food for thought besides; if you have, hopefully I’ve pointed you to a few things you haven’t seen before.
*Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century is very, very detailed and thoroughly footnoted; the second volume is due out next June.