Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The juvies

My brother-in-law steered me to this blog post about Heinlein's juveniles, presumably to tempt me into sharing my own thoughts. (He must be bored.) I have thoughts. Here they are:

Gosh. Which Heinlein juvie is my favorite? The blog post mentions several that I've enjoyed mightily through the years: Door Into Summer (though it has one creepy element), Have Space Suit, Will Travel (I still quote Shakespeare I learned first from that book), Farmer In the Sky (my mother, a science teacher and not a Heinlein fan, uses that book in an ecology unit she teaches), The Rolling Stones (first of the Heinlein red-headed twins, and my first introduction to twin-banter - great fun!), and Double Star, which I've never thought of as a juvenile. It left out Space Cadet, which I read over and over and over as I considered my eventually relinquished appointment to the Air Force Academy. And Podkayne of Mars, his earliest novel-length story in a girl's voice. And Tunnel In the Sky, and Between Planets. But which is my favorite?

Hmm. All I can say is, it varies. For fun, The Rolling Stones. For technology and sociology, Tunnel In the Sky. For heroism (which we all know by now is a big touchstone of mine), Between Planets. For foreshadowing of the infamous Three-Stage Heinlein Character, hmm, tie between Between Planets and Podkayne. For politics, Citizen of the Galaxy. For totally unrealized romance, Have Space Suit, Will Travel. For insight into an unfamiliar field (acting), Double Star, if juvie it is.

But if I had to pick a favorite Heinlein opus, it might be "If This Goes On...," a novella from his so-called "Future History" series that appeared in The Past Through Tomorrow. Johnny has it all: he's a first-stage Heinlein character with a second-stage buddy, he's Galahad with Lilith tempting him all the time (to mix my metaphors), he's no-nonsense competent but a complete doofus. He's great. And throw in a Moon Is A Harsh Mistress-style rebellion against a charismatic Stranger In a Strange Land-style pseudo-religious leader, and baby, you've got plot.

But what the non-Heinlein fan out there may be tumbling to is that Heinlein tended to stick to certain themes. Uh-huh. What of it? Joseph Bottum the blogger, referring to the ever-recurring theme of kinky sex (or maybe not kinky exactly, but certainly highly promiscuous) in Heinlein books, says, "As one commentator on Amazon notes: 'Robert Heinlein is a great author. But let’s face it. Sometimes you want to a read a good Heinlein book where characters do *not* spend most of their time having sex with their computers, children, mothers, and female clones of themselves.'" And here I depart from the Amazon commenter.

It's not that I want to read more promiscuous and/or kinky sex scenes, believe me. It's uncomfortable enough that it was my dad who introduced me to Heinlein! No, I disagree with the commenter's contention that Heinlein is a "great author." Heinlein himself, from what I gather (and I've gathered quite a lot about Heinlein over the years; his remarkable wife is the so-far-very-poorly-followed pattern for my life), would have laughed raucously at that statement. He considered himself to be a good storyteller - an artist, yes, because it was his aim and his craft to cause his readers to experience emotions of his choosing ("pity and terror," he said); that was how he defined "artist," scorning abstract forms of art as "pseudo-intellectual masturbation." Not sure I fully agree with him there, having just been pretty ooged-out by an O'Keefe exhibit at the San Francisco MOMA. But he saw himself not as "great," but as working.

If Heinlein has importance in any area other than science fiction, where his contributions are unquestioned, it should be in his values. He was a family man who couldn't have children, so he wrote (laughably ignorantly, but with great commitment and earnestness) about the centrality of the family to human society. He wrote characters who purported to be lazy but were only happy when they were working on something, and his life story indicates that he wrote from experience there; he was, by example if not by statement, a staunch advocate of a strong work ethic and (this by word and example) an unwillingness to accept charity or the dole. He believed - or I infer that he believed, based on his writing about it all the time, and on his very long marriage to his third wife after two brief youthful marriages - in commitment in relationships; even the most promiscuous sex in his books tends to result in marriage - lots of marriage. Marriage to lots of people. Almost nobody in a Heinlein book is fornicating, or not for long at any rate.

And he believed in our future. He talked boldly about humanity as the toughest, meanest, smartest critter in the universe - stated that if we were ever to meet our match, all right, we might die in the encounter, but we wouldn't die with our hands in our pockets. He believed that we should try, try as hard as we could, to spread ourselves around, to make the human race unkillable by undertaking a willing Diaspora that would scatter us too widely to be wiped out by anything. Technologically speaking, this goal is far out of reach. And frankly, I'm married to a man who wouldn't want to be a pioneer, so that even if it were possible today, I'm constrained to stay here on the cool green hills of Earth (that's a Heinleinism, for the unfamiliar). But what a goal: to defy the cold equations (not a Heinleinism but a science fiction staple) of natural law, to outlive our own extinction!

Last, I think Heinlein was an unwilling Deist. I infer the "unwilling" part, certainly. But his writing and his life seem to suggest that he wasn't like Houdini, looking for a "supernatural" survival of the spirit beyond the body; that he wasn't like Sagan, proudly declaring his atheism as he lay dying. Perhaps he was Christian; he did, in any case, appreciate the power of the Christianity story. But I think it's clear that he either did believe or couldn't help but believe that there was a watchmaker. I read my first Heinlein juvie when I was perhaps eleven or twelve, if memory serves; because I was exposed early, frequently, and comprehensively, I sometimes go back to the Watchmaker myself. Does it interfere with my Christianity? It sure does... but at least it means that even in my darkest valleys, while I may not perceive myself to be walking with my Brother Christ, I do perceive that the universe is on some level benign and purposeful. I hope that Heinlein died in at least that confidence.


Michael Daubenmire said...

Oh, come now. Bored! I just wanted to prime the pump. I like listening to you, even if it's in a blog.

Gahrie said...

Big Heinlein fan here, and a deist to boot.

I also recommend Andre Norton and Anne McCaffery to young readers.

Do you read much sci fi Jamie?

I read a lot! I read all of Weber's Honorverse (loosely patterned on Horatio Hornblower); Flint's alternate universe (1632); everything Ringo writes and Stirling's Emberverse avidly.

One of my distinct pleasures is the fact that I can afford to order a hardback book each week to feed my habit.

word verification: tushes (really?)

Jamie said...

Gahrie - I've read everything Heinlein ever wrote, I think, plus certain others: Orson Scott Card, some Andre Norton, never much got into Anne McCaffery, some Asimov, some Niven, quite a lot of Alan Dean Foster, a good bit of Piers Anthony wearing both scifi and fantasy hats, some - oh, whatsisname, the guy who wrote The Postman...

My patience for a lot of scifi these days is low, for some reason. And for ANOTHER some reason, I seem to have even less patience for women scifi writers - go figure! Are they not rigorous enough for me, the reader whose tastes were forged by the Dean and by the "speculative fiction" classics of the Golden Age of Science Fiction? I've always liked Asimov's (I'm pretty sure it was Asimov's) approach of extrapolating from the present by changing ONE major thing, then exploring its ramifications. So many new worlds are just TOO new for me...