Jumpdrives & Cantrips

Starship Troopers

Starship TroopersFor a first exposure to Robert A. Heinlein, I sure picked a doozy. Historically speaking, Starship Troopers signalled the end of Heinlein’s “juvenile” science fiction era and garners a fair amount of controversy to this day. Do a cursory search online and you’ll see what I mean–there’s a lot out there. This book also helped to kick off military science fiction as a subgenre, along with placing powered armour in the spotlight. Let’s not forget it also won the 1960 Hugo Award, which Heinlein followed up with Stranger in a Strange Land, leading to another Hugo.

Starship Troopers is a densely-packed, brisk-paced novel narrated by Johnnie Rico, who enlists in Earth’s military as a member of the Mobile Infantry upon his graduation. The book follows him through basic training with the MI, into combat with the alien “Skinnies” and “Bugs”, and officer training. Johnnie’s training and his own thoughts on the military are in the forefront, with only brief instances of combat scattered throughout the story.

The story itself is simple, but Heinlein’s writing drew me in. However, I finished the book and was left thinking that not all that much really happened. Outside the military aspects of the story, there really isn’t all that much other than dialogues regarding moral and philosophical issues, which is interesting and provoking, but doesn’t do terribly much for character development. The relationships seem oddly skewed: there is no romance despite a date, and Johnnie’s father ends up as his platoon sergeant–which in and of itself seems inappropriate within a chain of command.

The political and moral philosophies espoused in the book are polemic, and the centre of many a debate. Heinlein held many controversial opinions about communism, nuclear weapons, and so on, but he isn’t really the focus of this specific review since he isn’t the book (if you are interested though, see these links where Michael Moorcock and Spider Robinson take different views on the man and his philosophy). The book itself is based in a world where to earn the vote and full citizenship one must serve in the military, where corporal punishment is accepted as a means to teach moral behaviour, and where aliens are all uniformly enemies. I seem to recall sometimes they are also the enemy of Earth’s enemy–that is, other aliens. Starship Troopers takes a strong us vs. them position and certainly the imagery is there to see “the Bugs” as a representation of a hive-mind communist society, circa America’s cold-war.

Unfortunately there’s so much background in the world left open to interpretation that it confuses the context of the philosophical arguments; we don’t have any evidence as to what sort of government Earth has, what its policy or motives are for space expansion (reacting to attack, or attacking first?), or anything else beyond Johnnie’s limited viewpoint. In fact, at times his vantage of his world is so narrow that I wondered if he really knew much of anything upon graduation.
In this respect, the construction of the future Earth in Starship Troopers is both thought-provoking and frustrating because of the obvious holes left in the story. Because of this, it’s difficult to build a well-structured argument about the book without relying on information about Heinlein himself, which is a questionable practice regardless.

I noted some interesting conflicts in the writing in terms of portraying gender and ethnicity. Women in the military mostly end up as Navy captains, reportedly in part because of their superior math skills which puts them in a position of power. However, they are almost completely absent from the infantry and seem to exist within cocoons of military protection for the most part. Ethnicity seems to be implied by name and what language the person speaks, which seems a little presumptuous to me. But if you accept that along with minor stereotyping of minor characters the book has a multi-ethnic cast, with the implication that since Johnnie speaks Tagalog he is Filipino.

It seems as though Heinlein perhaps was wanting to break out of the thought patterns of 1950s America, but couldn’t quite set his existing ideas aside. Or who knows, perhaps there was an editorial hand in this somewhere that made the book more “acceptable” for mass consumption, whichever direction the stereotypes were pushed towards. I doubt the political aspects of the book were massaged, as they are pretty explicit. Taken in context of the human-alien conflict, Heinlein makes an interesting commentary on conceptualizations of “the other” between cultural groups of one species and differing species, and certainly one influenced by when it was published.

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a good read, and should not be missed due to its controversial nature and its influence on the military sci-fi subgenre (including John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series and Harry Harrison’s Bill The Galactic Hero). Regardless of the flaws in this novel, I found I enjoyed it quite a bit and had lots to chew over in my head, which if nothing else, I’m sure Heinlein had fully intended.

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Berkeley Medallion Books, 1959 [1968]. 208 pages. $0.50 (Canadian), used.

Very Bad Deaths
February 6, 2008, 0006
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Very Bad Deaths
I have to confess: I am a horrendously huge fan of the bargain bins at large booksellers. I always check them, and I nearly always come out of the section with some kind of treasure. The last bargain bin binge I went on, I found a copy of Spider Robinson’s Very Bad Deaths. I generally enjoy Spider Robinson’s writing, with the exception of the Callahan series, which simply wasn’t to my taste. His writing is exceptionally distinct, and has an identifiable voice. So identifiable, in fact, that if you are familiar with any of Spider Robinson’s books, you can probably spot one without anyone telling you who wrote it.

His works share a few characteristics: some mention of marijuana, free love, music, puns, and communes (generally in that order). But the most important is a sudden revelation, usually by one character regarding another character that the latter is either a) a time traveler, b) a telepath/empath/etc., or c) an alien. Sometimes this revelation makes no sense to the reader and seems vaguely like a MacGuffin attribute, existing only to move the plot forward (or create a pun, if the piece is short fiction).

This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost like stepping into your most comfortable pair of shoes, or your favourite pair of jeans that have been worn in for about 4 years but aren’t yet worn out.

In Very Bad Deaths our main character is Russel, an American ex-pat and writer of an op-ed column for a national newspaper who lives on a remote island outside Vancouver. The realization comes earlier than usual–if you read the summary printed on the book this is no spoiler–that Russel’s old college roommate is a telepath, so sensitive that it hurts him to be around people. And he needs Russel’s help to stop the very bad deaths of an innocent family from a serial sadist, since he can’t get near anyone except Russel. This ends up creating our odd couple within the trio: Russel who tends to fly by the seat of his pants and Nika, the perfectionist police officer, a token officer stuck in the public relations division despite her talents for law enforcement.

Once the set up is taken care of, the book turns into more of a suspense novel with a little police procedural flavour tossed in for good measure. This is not a hard SF book, and in fact, the only thing that separates in from mainstream suspense is the telepath–and even then they can pop up on occasion.

But the beauty of the story is Spider Robinson’s deft writing, engaging characters, and compassionate humour. Robinson is one of those rare authors who can truly craft a gut-wrenching, laugh-out-loud moment on paper and does so frequently. His writing is a joy to read, his description is precise and evokes immediate imagery. As in most of his novels, Robinson provides a book that is an astute commentary on humanity.

In Very Bad Deaths, Robinson is at the height of his form, which is tall to begin with. I suppose I can’t lay the blame on him for fueling my bargain bin addiction, but he certainly hasn’t helped.

Robinson, Spider. Very Bad Deaths. Riverdale, NY: Baen, 2004. 271 pages. $5.99 (Canadian) from the bargain bin.

Zero G Dance!
February 4, 2008, 0003
Filed under: news | Tags: , , ,

StardanceI remember the first time I found Stardance by Spider & Jeanne Robinson at a used bookstore. I took one look at the cover (incidentally not this one, but a slightly more garish one with a redheaded Shara in a sparkly orange body stocking floating in the midst of space) and thought, “What the hell is that?!” I cautiously decided to buy it, as it couldn’t possibly be worse than the Red Sonja books I’d picked up a few months earlier (I was in junior high, give me a break!). It was far, far better than the Red Sonja books. It was one of those books that really opened my mind, and also was my first Spider Robinson book. I fell in love with the idea of zero G dance, art, whatever. It also fueled a love of dance and movement that has followed me throughout life.

Later I found out that Jeanne Robinson had actually been on a shortlist to get into space on the virtue of a space-inspired choreography and the Nebula she and Spider netted for the novella form of Stardance. Sadly, this was cancelled abruptly with a civilian death with the Challenger. I kept thinking to myself that this was a massive loss but couldn’t understand why things hadn’t moved on from then after so many years.

Now they have. There is a Stardance Project website that I stumbled upon, complete with video clips of zero G dance. It’s mesmerizing to watch, and I want to be up there too! You must go and check out the site, as it explains the technology and is completely fascinating. Jeanne also has a blog about the experience up, which is connected to the site. AND it will be an IMAX movie!

When I grow up… *wistful sigh*