Tag: robert heinlein

Heinlein on my mind

Heinlein has been on my mind over the last few days because he keeps popping up in various places. Fellow Arlington Writers Group member, Libby Heily recently recommended Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. Heinlein came up somewhere else in conversation. And, of course, Heinlein has two stories in the May 1941 Astounding: “Universe” under his own name; and “Solution Unsatisfactory” under his pseudonym, Anson MacDonald.

Robert Heinlein was one of the Big Three of science fiction (along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke). Of the three, he is the one about whom I have the most mixed feelings. I really enjoy some of his fiction and I really dislike some of what he wrote.  And whereas I generally see eye-to-eye with the political and scientific views expressed by Asimov and Clarke, I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Heinlein. One significant difference, I think, is the fact that while Asimov and Clarke were clearly fans of science fiction, Heinlein seems more of an outsider, someone who came into the genre with some ability to tell interesting science fiction stories, but without the passion for science fiction that other writers of his time had.

The first Robert Heinlein fiction I ever read was his novel The Puppet Masters (1951) during my junior year in college, back in 1993. At the time I was a big Piers Anthony fan and somewhere in his writings, Anthony mentioned reading and loving Heinlein’s Puppet Masters. I recall sitting in my apartment bedroom reading the book in virtually a single sitting. I enjoyed it but I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. (Some years later, I was invited to a screening of the movie The Puppet Masters, where the audience was paid to watch the movie and give their opinion on it before it was released. I didn’t much like the movie.)

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Some Heinlein quotes that seem apropos today

I just finished reading Robert Heinlein’s “Logic of Empire” in the March 1941 Astounding* and there were two quotes that jumped out at me as particularly apropos to current events in the Federal government today.

First quote:

“I suppose you’re a radical now?”

Doc’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “Not at all. Radical and conservative are terms for emotional attitudes, not sociological opinions.”

And the second quote, from toward the end of the story:

“…sweet reasonableness won’t get you anywhere in this [political] racket. To make yourself heard you have to be a demagogue, or a rabble-rousing political preacher like this fellow Nehemiah Schudder. We’re going merrily to hell, and it won’t stop until it winds up in a crash.”

“But–Oh, the devil! What can we do about it?”

“Nothing. Things are bound to get a whole lot worse before they can get any better.”

It’s eerie how we sometimes read seventy-year-old science fiction stories that are near perfect reflections of today. I guess some things never change.

(*I’ll have more to say about “Logic of Empire” in Episode 21 of my Vacation in the Golden Age, coming on August 8.)

I have no desire to see Tron Legacy (and other sci-fi films)

Because many of my friends and coworkers know me to be a science fiction writer, I am often asked if I have seen the latest sci-fi blockbuster and what did I think of it. The truth, I’m afraid, tends to disappoint them.

I generally hate sci-fi movies.

There are some exceptions–very rare ones–but the truth of the matter is that I get bored almost instantly and if I stick it out too long, I can find myself growing angry over things in the film that probably mean little to anyone else.

But as a science fiction writer, how can I hate science fiction films?

I think there are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. Science fiction films are often based on source material originally found in science fiction literature, and in these cases, they are almost always far worse than the books. In fact, I can think of only one science fiction film that measured up to the book upon which it was based, and that is Carl Sagan’s Contact. Most people I know who like sci-fi movies, hated Contact. Go figure.
  2. The sole purpose of many science fiction films is to demonstrate how far we’ve come in terms of special effects. But when I read a book like Foundation or Rendezvous with Rama, I get all of the special effects I need by combining the words on the page with my imagination. So far, Hollywood as not been able to outdo my imagination when it comes to special effects.
  3. Science fiction films tend lean much more toward fiction and much less toward science. They tend to be fantasies more than anything else (take the entire Star Wars saga as an example).
  4. Science fiction films have taken audiences away from written science fiction. People are generally lazy. When Star Wars came out with its dazzling special effects, anyone who wanted to see spaceships battling it out among the stars could drop by their local movie house–which was much easier to do than to pick up a book like The Forever War and actually sit an read. Reading requires active participation. Watching a film is almost entirely passive.

This is nothing new for me; I’ve always been this way, and I admit, I am somewhat of an anomaly, I think, even among science fiction writers. I can’t recall ever seeing the original Tron, and I have no desire whatsoever to see the sequel.

A month or two ago, I finally got around to seeing Avatar because it showed up on HBO. I hated it. Absolutely despised it. The special effects were stunning, but the story was terrible, the characters were cardboard cutouts and the plot was recycled from a dozen or more science fiction classics. Even the dialog was terrible and made what I considered to be amateur mistakes in speaking to the audience as opposed to the characters in the story.  One example: the bad-guy colonel says, at one point, that if your not careful, “They’d suck your eyes out like Jujubes.” This is a story that is supposed to take place at least several hundred years in the future. I doubt that anyone in that time would know what the hell the Colonel was referring to, even if he himself knew it was a type of jelly candy.

I did like the movie based on Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. It was simplified a bit, and there were some things left out of it, but the thrust of the novel came across clearly and it was a well-done, well-acted film. Most people I know didn’t like it.  The same is true for the The Bicentennial Man, which was based on Robert Silverberg’s expansion of Isaac Asimov’s Hugo and Nebula-award-winning story of the same name. The film starred Robin Williams and even Williams later made fun of it in one of his standup routines. But I think the film captured the essence of the original story, which happens to be one of my favorite all-time pieces of short science fiction.

It is ironic that bad science fiction films are gold at the box office, while outstanding science fiction novels rarely made the bestseller lists, and I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that this played into my frustration with science fiction films. But the fact it that I love the literature of science fiction so much that I have no need for a visual medium in which to imagine my favorite stories. What goes on inside my head is good enough, and seeing it on the big screen might ruin for me an otherwise cherished image.

There will be some movies that I would go see out of sheer curiosity. If they end up making a movie for The Forever War, I’ll check it out. Ditto for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. But I have no high hopes for them. Perhaps they will surprise me, but I doubt it. (The truth it, I’ll be surprised if they get made at all.)

Many years ago, when I lived in L.A., I attended a private screening of The Puppet Masters starring Donald Sutherland. We had to rate the film afterward and discuss it with a panel of people who were getting our opinions before release. I think I was the only one there who’d read (and enjoyed) the Heinlein novel upon which it was based. The movie was so terrible that I absolutely refused to see Starship Troopers when it was released. To this day, I haven’t seen that film.

I liked 2001: A Space Odyssey, but generally liked the first half better than the second half. I didn’t like the sequel, 2010 at all.

This is why I have no desire to see Tron: Legacy. Special effects don’t impress me. 3D doesn’t impress me. What impresses me most is a compelling story that fits neatly together with rich characters that come to life and for whom I want to love or hate. That’s pretty rare in science fiction in general, but it’s almost a recipe for disaster for a science fiction film.