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

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review

One time I mentioned on the site that I wondered what a combination of science fiction and fantasy would be like.  TomD, whose opinions on matters political, photographic and literary are always enlightening, immediately volunteered two examples, The Majipoor Cycle and the Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  I have previously reviewed the Majipoor books.  Here I will address D.O.D.O. and just to get it out of the way the acronym stands for Department of Diachronic Operatives, a government issue time travel story.

Neal Stephenson wrote this book with Nicole Galland.  I’ve heard of Stephenson but never read him before.  I’d never heard of Galland before this book.  So, the book finally got to the top of the pile and I just finished it on Thursday past.  The first thing I can say is that this is a hybrid creation.  The outline of the story is a time-travel science fiction story of the giant government project category.  On that framework is a story that combines historical fiction, fantasy and a satiric contemporary novel about day to day life in a government bureaucracy.  The other fact about the story is that most of it is a first-person narrative by a modern female character.  And this particular character is a college teaching assistant with expertise in linguistics.  And I am intimately familiar with this subspecies.  And I’m not greatly sympathetic to its idiosyncrasies.  Also, the story takes place in Cambridge, MA.  And I am also intimately familiar with the habits and foibles of the people who live there.  And I am also not greatly sympathetic to their idiosyncrasies either.  So, this starts me out in the wrong place as a reader and reviewer.

Moving on from there, the story ingeniously constructs a scenario where the present-day American military becomes worried about losing a global arms race in magic.  Military intelligence has somehow detected anomalies in the present that lead them to believe that someone has figured out how to travel back in time.  And based on a thorough computerized analysis of historical documents, they believe the method involves witchcraft.  And since witchcraft doesn’t seem to exist anymore, they need to figure out how to revive it.  And reviving it hinges on manipulating quantum states of matter and invokes Schrodinger’s Cat who literally shows up in the story (the cat, not the Schrodinger).

From there we meet a Japanese scientist/Mayflower descendant, husband/wife team, which is a category that believe it or not, I’m also personally familiar with.  He’s a quantum physicist who has been investigating the mechanism that the story needs to restore magic and she is the descendant of a burned Salem witch.  Mix in a surviving one hundred and eighty-year-old Hungarian witch, a dashing young army lieutenant colonel, a plucky and annoying female linguist (these last two being the love interests in the story) and assorted scientists, generals, computer geeks and bureaucrats both academic and military and you have the cast that becomes project D.O.D.O.  Once they succeed, we add into the stew, witches from colonial Massachusetts, Elizabethan London, thirteenth century Constantinople and various times and places in medieval northern Europe.  And the non-witch historical characters include Byzantine emperors and empresses, Varangian guards, Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Richard Burbage and a raiding party of Vikings in a Walmart.

The text is a collection of Victorian era journal entries, Elizabethan era letters, some medieval vellum codices, U.S. military documents and a copious collection of e-mail messages from a variety of bureaucratic organizations.  The story is in several voices modern and antique but as mentioned above is primarily the journal of the young woman linguist who is the protagonist and the focal point of several of the original plot elements.

Despite my obvious lack of sympathy for the protagonist and several other of the main characters, the story works on its own terms.  The characters are self-consistent and wherever I am competent to compare them to their real-life exemplars highly accurate.  Because of the details of the time travel mechanism, the action is of necessity episodic and sometimes repetitive.  This situation is written pretty well and only results in a little slowness in the action at the beginning of the book.  Toward the end the pacing picks up quite a bit and the book ends by resolving the latest crisis but the finish requires that there will be sequels.

My opinion on the book is that if you are like me and rather dislike bureaucrats and modern women then you will have limited sympathy for the protagonist and several of the main characters.  There is a good amount of swashbuckling action by the military officer who is a main character and likable.  The story line is extremely clever as a science fiction plot.  So, I recommend it as a story with the proviso that men of my generation will be tempted occasionally to toss the book at the wall when modern New England feminist empowerment rears its ugly head.

Chuck Dixon’s Avalon #1 – The Street Rules – A Science Fiction & Fantasy Review

I’ve never been a comic book guy.  My thing was always science fiction books.  My closest approach to comics was the Marvel and DC tv shows I saw as a kid.  So, I never really had a reason to buy any.  But my policy on right wing artistic and commercial endeavors is to always give them the benefit of the doubt when they compete on the Left’s turf.  I decided to pick up Avalon #1 to see if I could understand what it was all about.  A comic book is like a book chapter with pictures.  You tell a piece of a story and try to hook the reader in for the next installment.  The story and the art work are of equal importance.  Well, to me they are.  I guess if you’re really more of an art lover then the pictures might be the main attraction.  But I don’t think that would work for me.  There’s got to be a story I want to hear.

I’ll make this short because I don’t have the background to talk any nuance about comic books.  The story is introducing a world where people with superpowers are a fact of life and not all of them are good and not all of them are heroes.  We meet a small cross section as we are primarily introduced to King Ace and Fazer.  They are close to the classic vigilante super hero like Batman or Superman.  They fight crime outside of the prescribed legal framework that superheroes adhere to in this world.  They do it according to their code.  Well, for the most part.  Some hints of a less selfless motive do show up in the book.  The story is good.  It’s set up as Fazer telling his story to a reporter but the action bounces back and forth between narrated action and other events that give additional information on other characters and other plot lines.  I like the art work but I will not claim I know much or even anything about the state of the art in comic book aesthetics.

Long story, short I think it’s good.  I look forward to the next installment.  I won’t say I’m hooked but I’m interested enough to want to see where this all goes.  Bravo Chuck Dixon and good for Vox Day for venturing into enemy territory.

Valentine Pontifex – Volume Three of the Majipoor Cycle by Robert Silverberg – A Science Fiction-Fantasy  Book Review

This review is for both the final volume and also an overall review of the series.  I got started reading this series a while ago because of an on-line discussion I had on Orion’s Cold Fire (OCF) with Tom about whether there were any stories that could be considered science fiction and also fantasy.  Tom pointed to the Majipoor Cycle and piqued my curiosity enough that I picked up the books.  For the curious my reviews of the two earlier volumes are here and here.  If you don’t want any spoilers then put this aside until you’ve read those reviews (and possibly the books) and then decide if you want to risk this review.  Otherwise here we go.

The Majipoor books have been a fairly unique experience.  They combine a relatively straight forward adventure tale with a world-building framework that tries to encapsulate approximately ten thousand years of the colonization of a new world by a number of cooperating intelligent alien species.  And Silverberg is an idiosyncratic writer with a style that came of age in the 1960s.  This combines to create a very complex and sometimes meandering tale.

In the third book, Valentine Pontifex, the eponymous protagonist of the first book, Lord Valentine, is re-established as the principal ruler of Majipoor and is preparing for a triumphal tour of the far-flung cities of his realm when premonitions of disaster begin intruding on his mind.  In Majipoor dreams are regarded as legitimate warnings from the reigning spiritual powers, the King of Dreams and the Lady of the Isle.  Under this cloud Valentine and his friends and advisors begin the ill-fated Processional and unsurprisingly a long series of disasters occur.  Valentine identifies these cataclysms with a karmic reaction to the original conquest of Majipoor and attempts to expiate this original sin through diplomacy and love.  The tension between his actions and the situation on the ground makes up the action of the story.

Valentine Pontifex is, as I mentioned, a very complicated and meandering story line.  There are close to a dozen threads weaving through the book with their own characters, locations and subplots, some more important to the main narrative and some less so.  And Silverberg provides a veritable Tolkienian plethora of Majipoorian names.  There is a veritable blizzard of names; names of cities, regions, rivers, forests, animals, trees, fruit, cereal crops, food dishes, wines, medicines and people.  Also Valentine’s character is of a contemplative and judicious nature so that he agonizes a good deal about the conflicting needs of the various parties involved.  Luckily some of the other characters are less conflicted and help to push the action forward.

Another aspect of the story and the Majipoor series in general is the metaphorical nature of the story.  To my mind, Majipoor is a metaphor for the English colonization of the United States.  The aboriginal inhabitants of Majipoor, the Shapeshifters, defeated and relegated to life on an inhospitable reservation, are a stand in for the Native Americans.  The other species brought to Majipoor by the humans equate to the other nationalities and races that have immigrated to the United States.  To be honest, I am not a big fan of this kind of representation.  All too often this kind of metaphorical story telling is just a chance to bash this country and curry favor with the social justice apparatchiks.  And Valentine does have a certain amount of the Jimmy Carter syndrome in his make-up.  There is even a subplot that involves humans hunting and harvesting an intelligent water dwelling species that is the equivalent of whales.

Looking at all these detrimental story elements, you would be unsurprised if I gave Valentine Pontifex and the Majipoor cycle in general a failing grade.  I’m going to instead provide an opinion that combines warning with guarded approval.

My first statement will be the warning.  Majipoor is not for those who are looking for fast-paced adventure and classic fantasy ala Middle Earth.  It is not that.  And if you absolutely are not in the mood to hear about the rights of the dispossessed aborigines skip this story.  And lastly, if you have a very strong aversion to human/lizard-man romances then absolutely skip the second volume Majipoor Chronicles.  As mentioned in my review of that book, this was a weakness of Silverberg living through the Crazy Years of the 1960s.  For them sex was something they had to inject into any scenario.

So those are all the reasons to skip Majipoor.  Now, here’s the guarded approval.  Silverberg has created a genuinely interesting universe.  His characters are engaging and genuinely recognizable humans (even the non-humans).  The story, for the most part, works within its boundaries and despite some pacing problems gets to the finish line intact.  For someone interested in a fusion of science fiction and fantasy the Majipoor books are a quirky read.  Let’s say it’s for the hard-core sf&f connoisseur.