The Star Beast by Robert A Heinlein – A Science Fiction Book Review

When I got a Newfoundland dog many years ago there was never any doubt that his name would be Lummox.  Because that is the name that Heinlein gave to his star beast.  When we meet Lummox, he’s living in the backyard of John Thomas Stuart XI.  He’s lived there for over a century under the present owner’s father, grandfather and great grandfather.  Over the course of his tenure he’s grown from about the size of a chihuahua to something larger than an elephant.  He’s equipped with eight legs and an appetite for a menu that ranges from rude neighborhood dogs to a Buick automobile.  His personality is friendly, enthusiastic and energetic but his discipline and attention to his master’s orders are decidedly inconsistent.  And for a creature with such an imposing size he has the voice of a baby girl.

Johnnie and Lummox are best friends, almost brothers, and even though his mother doesn’t share his feelings for the beast his girlfriend Betty is on their side.  So, when Lummox gets into trouble for going off reservation and busting up a lot of stuff, Johnnie and Betty do everything in their power to save Lummie from the clutches of the unsympathetic local sheriff who wants to have Lummox terminated as a public menace.

Heinlein weaves together the two threads of Lummox’s past and present to provide a future that wouldn’t have been guessed at the start of the story.  Mixed in with this is the story of Mr. Kiku, the Under Secretary of the Department of Spatial Affairs and his fear of snakes.  Heinlein builds up the little constellation of characters in the Department very nicely and gives us his ideas about how the permanent career bureaucrats in a government department interact with the political appointee that supposedly manages them.

And this is a typical Heinlein trait.  He likes to build up little self-consistent “worlds,” like Westville, the small town where Lummox lives or the Department of Spatial Affairs.  In another book you’ll find that the small-town people act and talk a lot like the people in Westville in this story.  I’m guessing that these small towns were like the small towns in Missouri that Heinlein remembers from his childhood.  And his descriptions of life on a space ship in several of his books comes from his own experience of shipboard life in the U. S. Navy.  Likewise, his ideas of government bureaucracy came from his experience as a government employee.

And throughout we get to know Johnnie and learn about his struggle to weigh loyalty to his friend against fighting insurmountable odds. He is the Heinlein young man character who has been raised to respect authority, is socially conventional, polite and honest.  But he runs smack dab into the injustice of the bureaucratic machine.  In the ensuing turmoil he discovers that a man sometimes has to break the rules to do what’s morally right and protect his own.  And mixed in with this is his relationship with his overprotective and domineering mother and his hyperactive and ambitious girlfriend.  This is another part of his growth as he finally asserts himself against these women jockeying for control of his life.

In this book Heinlein creates a few extraterrestrials types.  And he provides both sympathetic species and other less friendly from a human perspective.  And this lack of empathy allows for a plot device that has since been “borrowed” by the makers of the movie “Men in Black.”  See if you notice it when you read the book.  But the most interesting extraterrestrial is Lummox and Heinlein’s description of Lummox’s internal point of view is highly entertaining.  From my experience as the owner of a Newfoundland I found the beast’s motivations for some of his mistakes extremely familiar and plausible.

I won’t ruin the story by giving away any surprises.  They’re too good.  I would call this one of Heinlein’s most original novels and definitely highly successful as entertainment.  Once again, highly recommended for young and old.

The Rolling Stones by Robert A Heinlein – A Science Fiction Book Review

After rereading Starman Jones and writing a review it occurred to me that the Heinlein juveniles are better than ninety percent of all the Young Adult (YA) science fiction that’s come out since.  So my idea is not to just look at plot but really give a thorough analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of these classic stories.  Let’s look at “The Rolling Stones.”

The Stones are a family of “Loonies.”  That’s what the human inhabitants of Earth’s Moon call themselves.  In his Future History Heinlein has decided that the Moon is officially named Luna.  Roger and Edith are the parents of Meade, Castor, Pollux and Lowell (or as he’s nicknamed Buster).  And Hazel Meade is Roger’s mother.

Roger is an engineer by profession but lately his job has been writing a television (or whatever they call it) serial called Scourge of the Spaceways.  He despises the vapidity of the show but the hefty paycheck has hooked him.

Edith is a medical doctor and housewife who manages to keep the individualistic personalities of her children from wreaking havoc with her husband’s ideas of domestic sanity.

Meade is the oldest, recently graduated from high school and a social butterfly.  Castor and Pollux are identical twins high school juniors.  They are precocious engineering inventors who have made a good amount of money on an invention and are aching to break out on their own and make their fortune out in the far flung reaches of the solar system.  Buster is a four-year-old who is either a chess prodigy or can read his grandmother’s mind.  Finally, Hazel is one of the original “Founding Fathers” of the Luna Revolution (which Heinlein later back filled in his novel “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”).  She is a senior citizen but because of the preservative effects of living on the low gravity Moon she is quite lively and also extremely outspoken on everything from child-raising to larceny.

Heinlein creates a story about a middle-class family leaving their comfortable but boring environment in order to head out into the frontier of the solar system and experience life as a family and a crew.  Roger and Castor (and later Meade) handle the astrogation.  Hazel and Pollux run the engines.  Edith is the ship’s doctor, cook and also Buster’s mom.  Buster is (as his father notes in the crew list) supercargo.

But really what Heinlein is trying to point out is that the family hasn’t fared well under the modern lifestyle and living life together as a team can allow a father to get to know his children.  And allow them to find out more about their parents than just how much they are willing to spend on useless junk.  All the children benefit from the skills, talents and experiences of their parents and grandmother and the adults are enriched by the challenges of the trip and the chance to influence the choices their children make.

Of course, this is an altogether outlandish odyssey that they are on and apparently bankrolled by the amazingly lucrative writing contract for Scourge of the Spaceways.  Perhaps this is in a way a stand-in for Heinlein’s own lifestyle which was made possible by his well-paying books.  And considering the paucity of other money coming in from the commercial enterprises that the Twins attempt you could be excused for thinking the whole trip was a bust.  But it’s the setup we’re supposed to enjoy.  Seeing the Twins through the eyes of their grandmother as she attempts to extricate them from a legal mess that their ingenuity and inexperience combine to create, we see that this family is resourceful and interesting even when they fail.  These are the story elements that give the book its character.  The action, such as it is, is light and only occasionally rises above familial squabbling.  But Heinlein paints an entertaining picture of his Swiss Family Robinson in space.  Despite the futuristic backdrop and the extraordinary qualities of the individuals, the ethos and character of the family is mid-twentieth century American and it is a charming world that Heinlein has reimagined in the unrealizable future of his era.  The children despite their precocity are decidedly normal and compared to today’s versions, decidedly a breath of fresh air.

And whereas he did manage to tie Hazel somewhat into his other books, I had hoped he would have had a follow-on novel of the brothers in their grown-up stage pursuing fame and fortune while trying to avoid execution.  Some more exciting adventures in this frontier environment wouldn’t wear out the welcome for the Stone family among Heinlein readers.  In fact, one day I might write some of those stories, although if the copyright forbids, I’ll have to alter them to the extent of calling them Castor and Pollux Rock or Boulder or Pebble.  Either way the characters are too good to waste.

A remarkable thing about this book is that it introduced the science fiction creature the flat cat that was stolen by Star Trek and turned into the Tribble.  Of course, Heinlein was gracious enough to permit the theft but it just goes to show you how impoverished Hollywood really is.

The Rolling Stones is different from the other Heinlein juveniles in that the adventure is muted.  But I believe it has its own charm that is completely character driven.  The showcasing of a normal functional family is especially enheartening today when they are almost completely missing in books and films.

Highly recommended for children and adults.

04AUG2019 – OCF Update

Well, the madness continues without abatement.  Two mass shootings in two days.  I have a theory that when the political news is bad for the Left, as it’s been the last few weeks, it triggers the most unstable of the left-wing crazies to mass murder.  Of course it could just as easily be a random maniac but let’s see.  It’s hard to get reliable information on these mass murders but perhaps some unbiased journalist will see it as a worthwhile project.

Recently I put out a review of Starman Jones.  Rereading the old Heinlein juveniles is quite enjoyable and I’ve decided to reread and review the rest of them.  They are very well written and where they show their age it actually seems to be to their advantage.  Those were much happier and healthier times than the world we live in today.

 

Destination Moon – An OCF Classic Movie Review

The 1950 motion picture Destination Moon is in several aspects an odd duck.  It was an independent production under George Pal’s control.  He worked with Robert A Heinlein to adapt his novel Rocket Ship Galileo into a screen play.  In point of fact the plot changes involved make the movie and the book completely different stories.  For Pal who would go on to make such sci-fi classics as War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and When Worlds Collide this was a chance to make a realistic space flight movie with Heinlein providing the scientific accuracy.

After a government project to build an advanced rocket motor is sabotaged and abandoned a plan is hatched to overcome the loss of government funding in rocket design by recruiting patriotic business leaders to pool their resources to pay for and build a Moon rocket.  General Thayer and Dr. Charles Cargraves were the moving force behind the earlier government project and Jim Barnes is the principal industrialist who uses his aircraft design facilities to build the atomic powered rocket.  Along with Joe Sweeney who provides radio and communication expertise (along with Brooklyn-accented comic relief) these men will be the crew to travel back and forth to the Moon.

When local bureaucracy threatens to tie up the launch in the courts, the team decides to launch immediately.  Just as the sheriffs are arriving to serve the launch injunction the crew is riding the elevator up to the cockpit.  The ship takes off and the crew gets to experience the pain of eight gee take off acceleration and the nausea associated with zero gravity conditions.  Shortly after taking off they discover the need to do a space walk to repair equipment.  One of the astronauts carelessly allows his magnetic boots to become separated from the ship’s hull while not holding onto his tether and begins floating away from the ship.  One of his mates has to use an oxygen cylinder as a makeshift rocket to rendezvous with the lost man and bring him back.

As the rocket approaches the Moon, errors in the navigation (or should I say astrogation) force the crew to expend to much reaction mass from the rocket to land in their planned destination.  Mission control on Earth begins calculating how much weight must be removed from the ship to balance the reduced capacity of the ship’s fuel load.

Meanwhile the crew investigates the Moon.  The first thing they do is claim the Moon for the United States (for the good of all mankind).  Using a Geiger counter General Thayer discovers large deposits of uranium.  Later on, one of the astronauts takes a picture of Joe Sweeney holding his arm up in such away that it looks like he is holding up Earth in the sky behind him.

The calculations on the fuel are distressing.  The ship has to be lightened by over a ton.  The crew starts removing everything that isn’t required to get the ship back to Earth.  But even after sawing off any metal components of the ship that can be removed, they’re still short by one hundred ten pounds.

Barnes, Cargraves and Thayer realize that someone has to stay behind and each one of them tries to convince the other two that he is the one to stay based on authority, age or responsibility.  Meanwhile Sweeney takes it upon himself to take the last space suit and leave the ship.  He tells them to leave without him.  But Barnes figures out a trick to get them below the weight limit.  With a rat-tailed file Sweeney puts a notch in the outer door frame of the air lock.  A heavy oxygen cylinder is hung outside the ship from a line that runs through the notch in the door.  With the door closed the airlock is pressurized with only a slow leak from the notch.  Then Sweeney ties the space suit to the other end of the line.  Once Sweeney reenters the ship the outer door is opened and the weight of the cylinder drags the space suit out the door.  Then the ship launches back to Earth.

And the movie ends with the words THE END followed by “of the Beginning.”

Destination Moon is a landmark.  It is the first reasonably accurate portrayal of actual space flight.  Coming nineteen years before Apollo 11 it is remarkably realistic.  Now as cinema it definitely isn’t King Lear or even King Kong but it’s excellent propaganda for a space program.  And it does contain all the correct tropes of the time.  If you are a sci-fi fan this movie is a must see.

Starman Jones by Robert A Heinlein – A Science Fiction Book Review

Starman Jones is one of Heinlein’s juvenile novels (today it would be called a young adult novel).  Many people feel that some of his best work is represented in these books.  I tend to agree with this.  Starman Jones is also one of his best juveniles.  Well, you can see where that puts it in my opinion already.

Max Jones is an Ozarks hillbilly.  He lives on the family farm and dreams of someday following his father’s brother, Uncle Chet, into space as an astrogator.  But the deaths of his father and uncle leave Max trapped on the farm, and duty bound to provide for his step-mother.  Max struggles to keep food on the table and has to forego his dreams of working in outer space.  But when his step-mother remarries and his new step-father sells the family farm and tries to steal the astrogation books that Max got from Uncle Chet, Max decides that his commitment to his step-mother is ended and he runs away to try and claim a berth as a legacy candidate in the hereditary guild of astrogators.

On the road he meets a hobo named Sam Anderson who shares his dinner with the hungry runaway but steals Max’s astrogation books and identity card before disappearing.  Max hitchhikes a ride with a freight transporter and reaches Earth Port, the main space port in North America.  Upon reaching the guild headquarters Max discovers that Sam had attempted to impersonate him and get a reward for returning the valuable astrogation tables.  Sam managed to escape without getting arrested.  Now Max receives the substantial reward for the books but learns that his Uncle Chet did not list Max as a guild candidate.  Crushed by the news, Max leaves the guild office and immediately bumps into Sam.

Max at first was thinking of turning Sam into the authorities but since their last meeting Sam had come into a windfall (gambling winnings) and was dressed as a prosperous citizen, whereas Max was disheveled and unwashed.  Sam actually ends up saving Max from arrest as a vagrant.  Spotting Max to a good meal, Sam apologizes for stealing Max’s books and lets him know that there is still a way for Max (and Sam) to obtain berths on a star ship.  Sam has connections that can fake identification papers that will indicate that Max and Sam are members of the guilds that work on these commercial space liners.  With this paperwork (paid for with Max’s reward money) and coaching by Sam, Max passes himself off as a Steward’s mate working for the ship’s Purser on the Asgard.  Max was greatly aided in this coaching by the fact that he has an eidetic memory, basically photographic recall of anything he’s seen.

Max and Sam work their way into different roads of advancement on the Asgard.  Sam had been a space marine long ago who had gone AWOL and was still a wanted man so now he uses his service training to become the ship’s Chief Master-at-Arms and uses that office to supplement his income with clandestine gambling operations for the crew.  Max is in charge of the ship’s livestock which includes the passengers’ pets.  An extraterrestrial animal called a spider puppy is the pet of Eldreth (Ellie) Coburn, the daughter of a VIP.  She meets Max because of his kind treatment of the spider puppy and once they become friends, she takes it into her head to use her connections with Captain Blaine to help Max advance into a position on the ship that would give him a high enough status to allow her to be seen with him.  Because his forged papers claimed that he had formerly trained as a chartsman (a lower level member of the astrogation team) he is given the chance to try out for the job on the Asgard.  Here he meets Dr. Hendrix the ship’s Astrogator.  Hendrix had trained under Max’s Uncle Chet and he is interested in seeing if Max has inherited the family’s mathematical skill.  Dr. Hendrix is generally sympathetic toward Max and goes out of his way to teach him the skills he needs.  Max also meets Mr. Simes the Assistant Astrogator.  Simes is an unfriendly, belligerent man who jealously guards his prerogatives as Dr. Hendrix’ assistant.  He resents Max’s presence and once Max’s eidetic memory is demonstrated Simes more than ever goes out of his way to denigrate Max’s skills.

The story proceeds very skillfully and Max is shown to mature and take responsibility for the choices he made that put him on the ship.  And circumstances on the ship lead to excitement from various sources.  The ship is lost during a poorly executed transition, sort of a translation through folded space that sends the ship to a completely uncharted area of the universe.  A planet where they take refuge has hostile lifeforms that threaten the lives of the crew and passengers of the Asgard.  And due to death, suicide and mutiny Max finds himself the only astrogator left on the ship and dependent on his memory to provide astrogation tables need to attempt to return the Asgard to familiar space.

I won’t go into all the details but suffice it to say that Starman Jones is a lively and fascinating story that combines various types of characters interacting in a consistent science fiction plot.  Some of the details of how astrogators do their jobs now would seem quaint and illogical with the advent of powerful computing equipment but this in no way diminishes the interest in the story.  As a naval officer Heinlein paints a very convincing picture of life on a star ship.  His hierarchy among the crew members and their relation to the passengers allows the dynamic of the story to play out.

This book was written in 1953.  Mores and attitudes have changed drastically in the sixty-five plus years since Starman Jones was written but I’ve given this book to a grandson of mine who reads science fiction voraciously and he gave it high marks.  It still maintains a high position among any young adult science fiction books written since then.  Highly recommended.

 

After you’ve read enough sexbot articles on Drudge maybe switch to something interesting

17MAY2018 – Quote of the Day

Heinlein was probably exclusively thinking of religion but the relevancy to the Left’s brand of politically correct propaganda is extremely obvious to me.

It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creeds into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics.

Robert A. Heinlein

08MAY2018 – Quote of the Day

I grew up on this guy’s stuff.  We don’t see eye to eye on everything but he did get a lot of stuff right.  Plus he definitely was an American original.  In his novel “Friday” he represented the balkanization of North America.  I wonder whether he would be surprised by where we are today.  My guess, probably not.

There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.

Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein – What Was He?

I’m a Heinlein fan.  That’s not to say I like everything he wrote.  I believe “I Will Fear No Evil” is remarkably bad.  I know of several other of his books that I don’t think very highly of.  But a lot of what he wrote, especially during his heyday was very good.  And comparing him to those writing at the time when he came on the scene it is striking how much better he was.

So why was that?  What made him so good?  First of all, I think Heinlein happened to be a very intelligent man.  Secondly, he was well educated and this included the fact that he had an upper middle-class upbringing that included good literature.  Thirdly, he had a decent work ethic.  Between these things he probably brought much more to the table than most of his peers.  And finally, I think he modelled his stories not on other science fiction authors but rather on successful authors in the wider literary world.  And I think this has been recognized for a long time.  Many years ago, I read some literary criticism that posited that Heinlein had taken Kipling’s British Raj and mapped it onto the Solar System or some such thing.  Another critic said that Heinlein created America as Science Fiction.  While I don’t think either of these premises are completely true I think they hint at the fact that Heinlein wanted to take science fiction out of its ghetto and make it interesting to the grown-ups.

And to a great extent, he succeeded.  Especially in his early future history stories, the feel is very much of a mid-twentieth-century American dynamism.  It combines wit, enthusiasm and confidence.  It belongs with such other products of the time as John Houston’s motion pictures The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  He has turned the American Century into the source for his characters and their ethos.  And in some of his stories like Citizen of the Galaxy and Double Star, Heinlein did borrow some of the flavor of Kipling’s British Empire.

But really all this shows is that Heinlein wanted his stories to belong to the Anglo-American tradition of storytelling.  He recognized good work and he incorporated the spirit of the best works from his time and of the literary past that he enjoyed and projected them on the future.

Some might say that he thereby lacked originality.  This may be somewhat true.  But it is also universal.  Even James Joyce when he wrote his stream of consciousness in Ulysses is using Homer for his plot basis.  And to the extent that Ulysses is original it is also a failure as literature.  Every writer borrows from the past.  He has to.  As Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun.  The trick is making it new and making it your own.  I think Heinlein was well within fair usage.

Coming back to the question of what Heinlein was, I believe he was the right man at the right time.  He was an intelligent, literate American at just the moment in the American Century when science fiction was becoming mainstream and relevant to the culture.  Atomic bombs and space craft were crossing over from science fiction to front page headlines.  Science fiction readers were seeing their stories become respectable and even literary.  Legitimate periodicals included some of the more refined writers between the glossy covers.

Will we see his like again?  I would have to say no.  Not so much because he was some towering genius, but because the times have changed.  No one would mistake our present culture for 1930s America.  Even in the depths of the Great Depression there was an optimism and solidarity that just doesn’t exist anymore.  Authors today reflect that despair.  And maybe that is interesting to some, a sort of decline of the Roman Empire sensibility, but I don’t think it lends itself to good storytelling.  Even in the most realistic story I think you need something beyond fatalism and ennui.  Otherwise it feels like the story is not even worth your time to read.

But, of course, maybe a change is just around the corner and an American renaissance is on the horizon.  Well, if that’s the case, I better reread Green Hills of Earth.  Delilah and the Space Riggers?  Sure why not?

Back to the Future (Make That Back to Heinlein’s Future History)

Back in the nineteen-forties and –fifties Robert A Heinlein was writing his “Future History” stories about the time period that currently is the recent past. And on his very impressive chart somewhere between the beginning of space flight and the beginning of a theocratic dictatorship in the United States was a period around the nineteen sixties that he called the “Crazy Years.”  You get a flavor for what he meant in a story called “The Year of the Jackpot.”  In this story social mores were unravelling.  Women would spontaneously strip naked in public without knowing why they were doing it and transvestite men and women would challenge the authorities with prosecution for daring to notice that they were queer.  Whether Heinlein was truly prescient or whether he just detected the beginnings of the curve and extrapolated it to its outlandish extreme is unknown to me.  But obviously he was being cautious.  No kidding, the current events that greet each of us as we survey the contents of our daily purveyor of fake news is well beyond what would have passed for science fiction or parody a few decades ago.  States are suing the federal government to prevent it from ascertaining if a census form is being filled out by an illegal alien.  A “woman” who used to be a man is marrying “man” who used to be a woman and we are supposed to believe that somehow now a man will be giving birth to the child.  A porn actor is suing the President’s lawyer for defamation of character.  Does a porn actor even have a character that can be defamed?  We’ve been laughing at these insanities for decades but none of it has gone away or even slowed the march to the brink of insanity.  Heinlein’s theocratic dictatorship is looking less and less like a nightmare scenario and more and more like a really good idea.  I’m really starting to wonder how much worse Sharia Law would be than the current politically correct straight jacket we currently endure.  At least under it there are easily recognizable roles for the traditional individuals most of us remember as normal.

 

Heinlein later in his career wrote a sort of spy novel with a female replicant heroine called “Friday.” In that universe the United States and Canada had balkanized into a number of smaller states.  Some of the states mentioned are Brit-Can, Quebec, the Alaska Free State, the California Confederacy, the Republic of Texas, the Vegas Free State and the Chicago Imperium.  This later novel is significantly less optimistic than his earlier works.  I definitely don’t claim that Robert Heinlein was particularly more skilled as a prognosticator than any other seers around but I begin to see a rationale for separating from behavior that keeps trending not only farther and farther from normalcy but even begins closing in on suicidal.  I still hope that the path forward is the majority of Americans rejecting the progressivist nightmare that is currently unfolding and at the least restore the conditions needed to allow a functional society.  But I have to admit I’m starting to worry that the Alt-Right may not be just making up their apocalypse.  I better get my passport stamped for the Republic of Texas, or should that be the Vegas Free State?

25MAR2018 – Quote of the Day

Robert Heinlein used this poem as the inspiration of a science fiction story and included the poem in the text.

Requiem

Under the wide and starry sky

Dig the grave and let me lie:

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

 

This be the verse you ‘grave for me:

Here he lies where he long’d to be;

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

(written 1880)

Robert Louis Stevenson. 1850–1894