SF Review: The Forever War by Joe Haledeman.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman


4/5 Stars

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is a short but sweet military sci-fi masterpiece. What makes it a masterpiece, of course, is that it’s not really about military sci-fi. It’s about people. It’s about war and the devastation and alienation suffered by those who are fighting, compared to the world they leave behind. It is about the futility of warfare on a cosmic scale (and, therefore, on a more local one). It is about how we live to die, and how we can still find room for aliveness. Does that make any sense?

Is it the best military sci-fi ever written? How the hell do I know? I can only read so many books. I think a lot of people are touting it as such without having read nearly enough (which would be all) other contenders. In my experience, it’s a solid front-runner. But there are hundreds of thousands of books out there that I haven’t read, and will never read. And which many people will never read. Maybe one of these unknowns, or lesser-knowns, should really claim that “best ever” title.

There are enough reviews out there to give you a decent idea of the plot of Forever War. I’m not into plot summary. But I did enjoy this book. Almost every aspect of it. Even the anachronistic horror surrounding homosexuality, because at least Haldeman tried. He was able to envision a time in which homosexuality was normalized. And although his protagonist, born in the 1970’s, never outgrows the prejudices of his era, those born afterwards see heterosexuality as the deviant behavior and turn “modern” ideas on their heads. In fact, if the book hadn’t ended with so many of the homosexual characters choosing to be brainwashed into becoming heterosexual at the end (seemed like Haldeman’s way of making these characters “likable” as opposed to “repulsive”), I would have given The Forever War a five star rating.

But I love Haldeman’s vision of war in space and the conundrums which arise with light-speed travel. The notion of a Forever War is frighteningly realistic (in my admittedly unscientific mind) in its futility. Never have I read a book which made me question human nature’s apparent inclination towards violence so thoroughly. And Halderman’s solution to our humanity is equally terrifying. The Forever War is definitely worth a read. And it will be a quick one. I promise!

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SF Book Review: “Undead Reckoning” by Mike Slabon

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2.5/5 Stars

I’m giving Undead Reckoning, a debut novel from Canadian author Mike Slabon, 2.5 out of 5 stars. This rating is based on Goodreads’ rating system with 2 meaning “it was ok” and 3 meaning “I liked it!”. Undead Reckoning is a difficult novel to categorize, falling somewhere in between SF and Horror and genre parody of the two, but I can safely say that it’s not a genre I typically read. I’ll try not to let that colour my review too much, though, I promise! Undead Reckoning was better than just okay, and there are parts of it that I really liked which is why I’m sticking with 2.5. But I felt the really good parts were dragged down a bit by areas that could have used a little tighter editing. That being said, Slabon shows definite potential as a developing writer and I will look forward to reading his work in the future.

I should clarify that by “tighter editing” I do not mean proof-reading. I was actually impressed by how few minor punctuation/typo style errors I found in the text. This is a huge challenge for indie press writers who often must rely on beta-readers to catch typographical errors, rather than professional editors (whose services are extremely expensive). I’m referring, rather, to content editing for pacing, clarity, and balance. I’m also going to question a couple of Slabon’s stylistic choices, which could have been used to greater effect with a couple of tweaks.

Tangent/ This review will probably be long. I apologize in advance for that. But I believe that new writers, especially independent writers, need and deserve precise and meaningful feedback in order to hone their craft. As a writer myself, I know how hard it is to come by honest constructive criticism and I hope that some of what I have to say will be helpful to Slabon and any other writers who may be reading. /end tangent.

Okay, let’s begin.

Slabon essentially has two different novels competing against one another in Undead Reckoning, and I feel that each would have been served better had they been given their own space. On one hand, Undead Reckoning is a kind of horror spoof. It’s a parody of the zombie genre, almost a parody of a parody it gets so goofy at times. Which is fine, if that is what it is. And I thought it was, at first. However, the hack and slash zombie slaying is used as a trope to move the subplots along, rather than being the meat of the novel. The subplots themselves are so bizarre and seemingly disconnected that blowing up zombies appears to be the only unifying theme (NOTE: the subplots are one area that could have been aggressively pared down without losing anything of the main plot, but more on this later). The effect is actually quite disorienting at first, and it took me well over 100 pages to get a handle on what was going on.

This is when I began to realize that there was something more to Undead Reckoning than the simple spoof I thought I was reading. There are aspects of the novel which move outside the necessarily simple landscape of a zombie parody and into more serious speculative fiction. The main plot of Undead Reckoning is layered with complexity, and Slabon ultimately does an impressive job of tying his subplots together into a cohesive whole by the end of the novel. But I almost felt that he was afraid to give his main plot, the spec fic novel, the attention and seriousness it deserved. In the end, the underlying parody novel, acted as a defence mechanism to deflect from Slabon’s “real” writing—I actually think Slabon is a better writer than he is giving himself credit for, and the dual-genre does him a disservice in his debut novel.

When we first meet our hero, NFL superstar Eddie Griffin, we land smack-dab in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Griffin is coming to terms with the new world he’s living in as he helps Lieutenant Jim Shrike with a top secret mission investigating Undead activity at a nearby abandoned military base. We jump right into the action with limbs flying and brains exploding in typical zombie annihilating style. Fight scenes are interrupted by the obligatory wise-cracks and expletives, but otherwise make up the majority of the first hundred pages. This brings us to the issue of pacing.

Nothing is worse than reading a novel where nothing happens. It’s boring. I think everyone will agree with me there. So a novel that is full of non-stop action should be super awesome, right? Well, not necessarily. For non-stop action to equal good pacing, a couple of things need to happen. For one, “telling” must be balanced with “showing”. Too much telling, and the action reads more like stage directions in a screenplay than a paragraph (or chapter) in a novel.

Player A enters on right, weapon drawn. Player B turns at the sound and shouts in surprise. Player A shoots Player B between the eyes and exits stage slowly. Curtains drop.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Reading these initial action scenes, and some subsequent ones, was a little like grinding MOBs. Or worse, it was like reading about grinding MOBs—I didn’t even get to level up or loot anything. And with too much “telling” there is little opportunity for the reader to visualize the world and the action for him/herself. Other than knowing that Eddie Griffin was a big guy who used to play football, I had little idea what he looked like. Same with Jim Shrike. This isn’t too much of an issue for secondary characters, but main characters and setting should be clearly defined as soon as possible (I’d say first 20 pages). Putting this off disconnects the reader from the text, and limits empathy for the characters.

So action is great, but too much action is problematic for a couple of reasons: 1) The “big picture” plot gets lost in the grind, and 2) The lack of “showing” limits character development and world building. For example: For the first seventy pages or so, I was picturing Eddie Griffin as a thick, ruddy skinned white boy with a buzz cut and Jim Shrike as a lean, muscular black man who didn’t smile a lot. By the time I realized that Eddie was black and Jim was actually green—my first WTF moment—it was too late. My original pictures stuck with me, and I had to keep reminding myself of what they actually looked like as I read. Which is really too bad, because minority groups are severely under-represented in SF literature.

Tangent/ I think it’s great that Eddie Griffin is a young black man. But I think that it’s especially important to let the reader know that he’s black, specifically because there are so few non-white protagonists in the world of SF and Horror. It’s easy enough to do without rubbing it in the readers’ face. In the first couple of pages, a single sentence such as “My dark skin did little to protect me from the harsh rays of the sun” for example, could have clued us in without being too obvious (the fact that Eddie is a football player wasn’t enough for me—I thought there was a pretty even mix of black/white football players, but I know nothing about football). I know some will argue that the colour of his skin shouldn’t matter, but I disagree. I think it’s important that literary characters are representative of the world we live in: there should be many races, religions, genders and sexualities, and we shouldn’t shy away from defining them as such. Otherwise the tendency is just to assume that all characters are white, heterosexual men because for so long, that’s the way it has been. I had the same problem in my own novel, with identifying my main character as female. I left her gender ambiguous on purpose, but found that too many people were confused when I did finally describe her as “her”. I later ended up identifying her as female early on and then emphasizing her androgyny after that, which was better received. /end tangent.

Another thing that I found detracted from the main plot was that there were too many subplots. Each chapter seemed to have a new villain or conflict which, once resolved, didn’t carry over into the next scene. While some subplots did end up tying in to the main plot in the end, it was impossible to differentiate between the two. Slabon gets extra points for creativity, though. There are some gems hiding in the confusion, lots of good ideas that could have been great if they were working on their own (Juan the spider demon could have been the villain of a Christopher Moore-esqe comdey-horror novel) but just ended up competing with one another for attention. Kind of like a mini-version of the genre competition I mentioned earlier.

This brings us to the two stylistic choices that I felt could have been used differently. One: footnotes. Footnotes are largely unnecessary, and interrupt the flow of the narrative. Unless you’re Terry Pratchett, in which case you have elevated the footnote to an art form in and of itself–rife with sly humour, supplemental story lines, and lessons in magic and/or physics. For the rest of us, 95% of material that could be footnoted could also be worked into the text or simply left up to the reader to figure out. The only exception to this rule would be for language translation if a word or phrase from another language is used without enough context to be understood on its own. Anagrams can be spelled out in full, and then abbreviated later if they’re going to be recurrent in the novel. For example, military anagrams like CFB (Canadian Forces Base) or LAV (Light Armoured Vehicle). Slang, military or otherwise, should only be defined by the context that it is used in not by footnote. I just finished reading Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, and I never needed to use the glossary once. Language is like that, we’re pretty good at filling in the blanks. Not only slang, but any words that were made up and only exist in the world of your novel should be defined by context or dialogue, not footnotes. Real words should never be footnoted. If you’ve chosen a word that is so obscure you doubt your reader will know it, use a different word. If it’s necessary, have another character be confused by it so that you can explain it in dialogue. Example: thanatology. If your reader doesn’t know what C-4 is, that’s his problem. Let him google that shit and give the rest of us some credit!

Stylistic Choice Two: Sound effects. Less is more when it comes to BANG! SMACK! RATTATATAT! and/or KABOOM! This isn’t a comic book. Again, this is just my opinion. I can see how the onomatopoeia lends itself to the parody genre, but I also preferred the non-parodical stuff, so that’s just my take.

Okay, I hope you’ve stuck with my ramblings this far, because now I’d like to talk about what I really liked about this novel. There are three sections of Undead Reckoning that really stood out to me. The first is in Keek’s lair. Slabon does a great job of describing the underground lair and entrance to Nabisusha. The novel started to feel alive to me at this point. And it is because of this scene that I feel justified in wishing there were more descriptions of characters and settings earlier in the book. Once I realized that Slabon had all this great imagery up his sleeve, I felt extra ripped off when I didn’t get it. The next scene that really stands out is in the Anomalies Amok fantasy that Eddie gets trapped in. Slabon shows real potential for world building here, and I’m curious to see what he would do with a high fantasy novel. Not only this, but the characterization of the AA players trapped in this fantasy are better developed, and the fight scenes better realized than anywhere else in the novel up to this point. Finally, the flashback scene explaining the fate of the Masters and Custodians—much high fantasy and speculative fiction potential is demonstrated in this scene. Again, Slabon is a much better writer than he gives himself credit for, or than he seems to, by hiding behind the goofier aspects of this novel. The complexity of the final plot actually stunned me, and I really wished that this main plot line had been more heavily invested in throughout the novel.

Really, Undead Reckoning had all the elements of a strong SF novel, but they were obscured by the sillier subplots and could have been enhanced by aggressive editing. Slabon could easily have written a spoof novel akin to Night of the Living Dead, a couple of Christopher Moore style comedy/horror novels, and have an SF trilogy started with the material that is in this book. It’s a little much for one novel to bear, but there’s no denying Slabon’s potential as an up and coming writer. I’d like to see him move with confidence into speculative fiction. Or parody, for that matter. But I think we’ll find that his strengths lie in those areas he was reluctant to meet head on in his debut novel—complex plots, intriguing characters, and fascinating worlds—and it’s my opinion that those strengths will be best realized in an SF or fantasy series. Whatever he chooses to do, though, I’ll be reading.

PS This novel and future novels need more ladies! Undead Reckoning was a serious sausage fest. I realize that half the world has been zombified, but shouldn’t half the survivors still be women? Especially with the reveal at the end of the novel about why some people turned and some didn’t. I doubt Slabon intended to make a comment about how fulfilling women’s lives are, and how many of us are essentially “dead already”. But that’s the conclusion I was forced to draw! I want to see chicks with machine guns riding on dire-wolves in the follow up. Make it happen!

Fantasy Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

3/5 Stars

A Discovery of Witches was a pleasant surprise for me. I didn’t really know what to expect, coming into it, which is probably a good thing. I hate having a book built up in my mind before I start, and the inevitable disappointment after imagining that it will be different than it is. Deborah Harkness’ debut novel came up as a book recommendation based on other books I’ve read. I gave the blurb a cursory glance, decided it had all the makings for a nice fluffy read next time my brain was too tired for “real” books, and tossed it into my virtual shopping cart. “Magic Realism” is a kind of cotton candy genre for me. They are light and sweet and disappear too quickly. And when I’m finished I have that twinge of guilt that I shouldn’t have gone there, and I worry about rotting some important bits of my head.

But A Discovery of Witches did not end up being the fluffy read I imagined it to be. Harkness has built a surprisingly complex world in which three supernatural species—witches, daemons, and vampires—coexist, mostly unnoticed, with humans. She works a vast amount of history, science, and religion into this world and blends the lines between them quite seamlessly. A large portion of the novel is set in Oxford, particularly the Bodleian Library, where an enchanted text from the 1500’s finds its way into the hands of our heroine—Dr. Diana Bishop is a Scientific Historian—as she is researching her latest paper on alchemical poetry. Bishop, though she is a witch by birth, has long since denied her magical heritage and wants nothing to do with the shimmering book before her. She promptly sends it back to the stacks, and tries to forget about it. Which, of course, is never going to work. Her denial of the book sends a shockwave into the supernatural community, and suddenly Diana Bishop is thrust into the very world she has been avoiding for her entire life.

Now I didn’t go to school anywhere near as awesome as Oxford, but Harkness had me yearning for those early years of university. Reading it makes me reconsider my decision not to pursue a career in education. Oddly, the most “magical” aspects of this book for me were Harkness’ simple descriptions of that great, historical campus and the vast libraries, coffee shops, and academic fuss-budgets that are at the heart of any college or university.

Even better, is the fact that Harkness has peppered the text with beautiful little excerpts of poetry from some of my favourite writers—and some I’m not familiar with—which she almost seems to have written the text around. If you are in any way a lit geek, this book holds more than a few thrills. Harkness also uses folklore and mythology to her advantage. Myth enriches her story when she decides to embrace it, but she’s not afraid to deconstruct it intelligently when it doesn’t suit her purpose.

My only complaint about A Discovery of Witches is that it leans a little more heavily on the romantic subplots than runs to my taste. The star-crossed lovers theme has never been my thing. When the lovers in question are a witch and a vampire, my cheese-o-meter starts flashing. Their love, however idealistic and sickeningly sweet it is, is actually integral to the main plot, though. And so I will forgive it. But please, Harkness, if you’re going to make me sit through chapter after chapter of goo-goo eyes and endless descriptions of what vampire breath smells like (if it’s not blood, I’m not interested) you’d better make with the fucky-fucky. Seriously. If Diana and Matthew don’t have wild monkey sex in the first three chapters of the sequel I’m going to be writing a strongly worded letter.

Okay, that’s not my only complaint. The book moves a little too slowly at times. Diana seems to spend an inordinate amount of time denying the fact that she is a witch given the fact that she has been shooting sparks out of her fingers, reading people minds, and calling on torrents of wind and water every time she has an emotional breakdown. It felt a little bit like Diana’s acceptance of her situation was being dragged out so that the rest of the plot could catch up.

Also, Matthew is annoying. And his bleeding heart routine kinda made me want to stake him. In real life people lose friends, lovers, children, family, to any number of things: war, illness, car accidents, vengeful lovers, wild animal attacks, whatever. Death happens. For the most part, we expect a person to move on from loss within a reasonable amount of time. Of course you won’t forget the people you love, but if you lose your partner in your twenties and are still emotionally crippled by the loss when you’re eighty, there’s probably something wrong with you. Now, imagine you’re a two thousand year old vampire. Imagine that you lost your wife and child to some epidemic in the year 535BC. Shitty, right? Sure. But I’m pretty sure you’ve gotten over it by the time 2012 rolls around. Just sayin’.

Anyways, I prefer my vampires to be bloodthirsty assholes, I guess. And although Matthew spends a decent amount of time being an asshole it’s usually because he’s trying to hide his tender soul from the rest of the world. It’s all a little too cutesy.

All in all, I’m giving A Discovery of Witches 3 stars. The world building on its own deserves at least 4.5, but the characters fall a little flat for me. Or the dynamic between the two MC’s did. I realize that a lot of this has to do with personal expectations and tastes, so I’m not going to weigh characterization as heavily as I would if the plot and setting had been mediocre. I’m going to give Harkness the benefit of the doubt and assume Diana and Matthew’s relationship will gain a little more depth in the next book. Or at least hope their hormones get as much play time as their hearts did in book one.

SF Book Review: Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein

I’m sorry, but I’m going to give you yet another book review (and another Heinlein review, at that!) because I want to keep up the habit of writing every day even while there is no new on my own book just yet. Please bear with me, and feel free to skip if this is not why you visit Cat’s Liminal Space. I promise not to hold against you. Not too much, anyways…

Oh, and also, I’ve read a lot of books lately, and I made a promise to myself that I was going to review every book I read–good or bad–for GoodReads. Yes, you can find me there too, if you’re really into nerding out. And I have no friends, so I will desperately add anyone who sends me a request–even if you look like a creepy stalker and/or a homicidal maniac. But if you send me pictures of your penis, I will post them here and give you a critique that you might never get over. No, that is not an invitation; creepy stalker man, I’m looking at you.

Moving on.

Or perhaps not entirely, because we are talking about Heinlein. I haven’t really done my research; this is only the third of his books that I have read (the first two being Door into Summer and Starship Troopers). But he is often referred to as a pervert and a misogynist. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know him. I was four years old when he died, it’s not my fault. Or maybe I just tend to pic up his pervy, sexist books. I may never know. What I do know is that so far, his brand of pervy sexism doesn’t really bug me. And I’m here to tell you why.

People seem to have a love it or hate it kind of relationship with Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love. And I’ve gotta say I’m strapped firmly to the former bandwagon. I thought this book was epic in the truest sense of the word, it’s a great story that spans one man’s life from the beginning of WWI all the way to the the year 25-something-or -other. Granted, I can see why some of the Negative Nancy’s are getting their panties in a twist (okay, maybe the incest theme goes a little far, but he was using it to make a point), yet Heinlein’s weirdness just doesn’t give me the willies like some people. And I think some critics have missed the mark entirely, by focusing on the wrong stuff. Which is fully within their rights, of course, and an opinion is only an opinion. Blah blah blah. Here’s my two cents on why they’re wrong:

Time Enough for Love is set up as a series of tales told by the oldest living man in the universe, Lazarus Long. Lazarus is confined to a rejuvenation clinic, where he is being held against his will by a team of people dedicated to preserving his knowledge. You see, they’ve “rescued” Laz from attempted suicide, in order to record his life’s story and hopefully glean some of the wisdom he’s accumulated in over two-thousand years of life. And Lazarus has agreed not to try to take his own life again, until he’s told them about the most important lessons learned in his long life. Time Enough for Love is like Arabian Nights, but in reverse; Laz is telling his stories for his right to die. At least at first…

So the structure necessitates a kind of “bracketing” set up, wherein Lazarus’ tales are divided by his present experiences in the rejuvenation clinic. When you first get into the book, it’s kind of tough to wade through, and this bracketing doesn’t help the initial flow. I’ve got to admit, Lazarus’ voice is where Heinlein’s storytelling excels. I sometimes had to restrain myself from skipping forward until the next tale. Although, in the end I’m glad that I did (restrain myself, that is). Heinlein brings everything together nicely once Lazarus regains an interest in life and goes on to set up his free-lovin’ hippie commune on the planet Boondock, and all of a sudden his present becomes the next tale, “De Capo.”

I’m not going to summarize the book for you, there’s a whole bunch of that stuff floating around, and I really think that this is a must read for any SF fan. Instead, I’m going to address what I’ve perceived to be the main arguments against this text, and why they are not as bad or as relevant to Heinlein’s ability as they perhaps appear.

The number one complaint that I’ve noticed in other reviews is with Heinlein’s apparent preoccupation with incest. Love between brothers and sisters, close cousins, and once, even, a parent and child (except don’t set off those pedo-meters just yet, with everyone living for hundreds of years, and people physical ages hovering around mid-life, this was sex between consenting adults who weren’t too wrinkly. Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.) are a prevailing theme. But I think that, unusual as the theme is in modern writing, it has a place in this story and is essential to Lazarus’ character. I don’t think it’s simply that Heinlein really wanted to write some soft core sibling porn and this book was his excuse (although that’s possible, in which case I’m almost more impressed that he came up with a storyline like this to justify his ulterior motives).

First of all, in the argument against Heinlein being a perv, is the fact that Lazarus Long is completely obsessed with genetic purity. And he has to be, and I think that, in a novel where people live for as long as they do, Heinlein is right to address the issue, rather than skirting by it and letting us wonder. Let’s just think of the logistics here: when everyone (or at least the majority of people, there are still some people with normal lifespans, but they’re suckers. Laz even falls in love with one, much to his sorrow.) lives for hundreds and hundreds of years A) People do not, obviously stay in a marriage for their whole lives, but rather for as long a it works for them. Sometimes that’s a couple of years, or long enough to raise a family, and sometimes it’s for decades, but it’s not “forever.” That would be a little crazy. There would be a lot more domestic violence going on if people had to stay together for five hundred years… That’s just my opinion.

Anyways, with people living so long, and being either serially monogamous, polygamous, or just generally free-lovin’ it’s a lot harder to keep track of people geneologies, especially if you consider an average lifespan many times longer than our own. As a result, everyone is very concerned with genetic compatibility, and none more so than Lazarus. As one of the first “long-lifers” on Earth, he was contractually obligated to reproduce only with other long-lifers in order to preserve the longevity they had acquired. Then, there is the fact that old Laz, being nearly three-thousand years old, is the great-to-the-nth-degree grandfather of nearly everyone in the universe, so the older he gets the harder it is for him to find partners with whom he is genetically compatible (not being related to them is virtually impossible).

Lazarus comes to view the appropriateness of sexual pairings solely through the lens of healthy reproduction—and then, only if reproduction is the goal (in the most extreme example SPOILER ALERT!!!Lazarus travels back in time and accidentally falls in love with his mother, an affair that is able to be consummated only because his mother is already pregnant and therefore won’t become pregnant by Laz END SPOILER ALERT!). And although the taboo of incest, in the traditional sense, once served a primitive purpose to people who didn’t really understand genetics—the over simplified concept is not applicable in Lazarus’ world. It sometimes seems like Lazarus is beating a dead horse with his reasoning for who is allowed to sleep with whom, but I wonder if Heinlein was worried about the reception of his book and felt the need to defend himself a little bit. Had he just breezed over the idea, perhaps the backlash would have been worse than it has been. I don’t know what his reasoning was, but in any case, I really didn’t find any of the questionable relationship in this novel to be creepy, even if I did raise an eyebrow at them initially.

Creepy incestuous relationships aside, the next biggest complaint of this novel that I’ve encountered has to do with Heinlein’s characterization. Really, everyone in the novel except for Lazarus himself, seems to fall into a stereotypical kind of mould. Every male character is interchangeable with every other male character, and the same goes for the female characters, even if they have slightly different physical characteristics. And strangely, they are all horny all the time. I imagined a cheesy ’70’s porn beat in the background for at least half of the book. I guess that’s how Heinlein imagined it would be if we lived in a world that wasn’t ashamed of human sexuality. Maybe he’s right! It was funny, for sure. But many people seem to think that this is just an example of Heinlein being a shitty writer.

Not so! I would argue that, perhaps this sameness has more to do with Lazarus’ memory than Heinlein’s skill as a writer. Heinlein is a man with a vast imagination, and he might not be the most technically skilled writer out there, but he’s not a hack. It seemed to me, that people kind of blend together for Lazarus; every character is a mixture of all of the people he has ever known, their personalities and their deeds are not necessarily attributed accurately (Lazarus is a textbook unreliable narrator, and is frequently caught in contradictions and fallacies throughout the book). The secondary characters in Lazarus’ tales are place-holders, used by Lazarus to get his point across to his audience, but not important in their individuality. They are anecdotal.

This sameness, I would also argue, serves to illustrate Heinlein’s vision of human kind. Ultimately, even thousands of years in the future, human beings can be reduced to their basic needs—the same needs that we have had since the beginning of time.  And first and foremost, is our need for love. Lazarus’ overarching lesson for humanity is that a person’s worth is measured not by the property and wealth that they accumulate, or by the fantastic deeds that they accomplish, but by the quantity and quality of the time that they spend with those they love—whether it is family, friends, or lovers.

And that’s a position that I can stand by.

But tell me what you think. Where do you stand in the Heinlein camp? Do you know some juicy secrets about his real life that might sway my opinion. C’mon, people. Dish!

SF Book Review: The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein

I picked this up at a used bookstore because I loved the cheesy ’70’s sci-fi cover art, and it didn’t disappoint. I didn’t intend to write a review for it at all, but I’ve been inspired!

It is not very often that I read a book that makes me smile the entire time I’m reading it; this is one of them. From the hilarious anachronisms of the 1950’s Futurist to the brilliant side-kick cat, Pete. (Cat lovers will appreciate this book on a completely different level than other readers). I was laughing out loud at least once every 20 pages or so.

It is only because I read some of the other reviews for this book that I felt the need to write a review myself. After seeing that a number of reviews that charge The Door into Summer (and sometimes Heinlein himself) as being both misogynistic and perverse, I felt the need to defend it (and him).

First of all, on the complaints that Heinlein’s vision of the future (from 1956, remember) is sexist, misogynistic, anti-woman, etc.:

There are not many women in this story, true enough, which may be a mark against it in and of itself. Because of this, the heinous Belle stands out as being a particularly unlikable femme-fatale. Though I would argue that, had Belle not been foiled by Dan’s foray into time travel, her plot would have succeeded and she would have made a respectable villain. She was well-equipped for it: calculating, edgy, violent, and un-emotional. But because the other women in the book (Jenny Sutton, the Girl-Scout Matron, and later Ricki) are fairly minor they do little to offset the influence of Belle and rather support the 1950’s housewife stereotype. And Dan Davis’ engineering vision of rescuing women from the drudgery of housework is a little dated, to be sure.

However, I consider these to be the faults of a novel written in the 1950’s. I always find it best to approach a book with the understanding that it is a product of the time in which it was written. If a novel breaks through the conventions of its time, great! But it would be unreasonable to expect it every time one picks up a new book. Our modern sensibilities might be offended by some archaic ideas, but out-dated notions don’t necessarily devalue an otherwise good yarn. (not to mention historically important works, which this isn’t, but the point stands)

It’s true that science fiction often pushes boundaries: of politics, religion, war, gender, sexuality, human nature, etc. But it is not necessary. And it is certainly not necessary to push all of them at once. The Door into Summer is not a book about gender roles. It reflects opinions common to the time in which it was written, but it does not address them specifically. It cannot be said to be particularly forward thinking on the subject, but at the same time it is a passive position. Heinlein is not actively or purposefully oppressing women in this novel, but he is describing a world very similar to the one in which he lived. Which, for me, is enough that I didn’t hate the novel for its faults.

Heinlein has shown in this and other novels that he is not rigid in his notions on the future of gender roles. In Starship Troopers women make the best fighter pilots because of their superior reflexes and mental dexterity. In this novel, there are suggestions that–outside of the narrative–women are fulfilling more diverse roles than we see them in. Dan Davis, when discussing the merits of his engineering robot ‘Drafting Dan’, admits that most women don’t care much for it unless they are engineers themselves! The offhand nature of this remark is indicative that it is not an alien idea to Dan. Perhaps his housekeeping robot is more liberal-minded than we initially supposed, if it has freed women from the role of housewives to pursue their dreams outside the home. Something to consider, anyways.

With that out of the way, I wanted to talk about the so-called perversion of Dan’s unconventional (temporally speaking) romance with Ricki. Many people have commented on the “disturbing” nature of the love story sub-plot. And maybe it’s because I’ve recently read Lolita, but I really didn’t feel too put out about it. I actually found Dan and Ricki’s relationship kind of cute, mostly because Dan falls in love with Ricki because she understands and appreciates his cat–which Dan feels is indicative of the kind of person she is (although she is only a child). It is important to note that there are no overtly pedophilic suggestions in this book, unless the reader supplies them (I’m sure there are those who will disagree)

When it comes down to it, Dan’s romantic feelings towards Ricki are not directed at her juvenile self but at the woman he imagines she will become. It is not unusual, I think, to idealize and idolize romantically (particularly after one has had ones heart broken). Ricki is the only female that Dan has ever felt any connection with, and he values her friendship. It is only after Belle betrays him that he begins to think “if only Ricki were older”. Not because he fantasizes about being with a child (obviously, he wouldn’t then wish she were older) but because he fantasizes about being with someone he loves and trusts.

He cannot even be said to be taking advantage of her childish crush on him. He tells Ricki to wait until she’s 20 to decide if she wants to be with him (he is, and will remain, 30). Ricki has 8 sobering years to decide if she still has feelings for Dan once she is an adult, during which he can supply no pressure. Thanks to the invention of suspended animation their love is possible without being creepy!

Ok, so that’s a longer rant than I intended. But there it is. Thanks for bearing with me if you got this far!