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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein - a review with spoilers

It's difficult to say much about this particular book without giving away the overall plot and outcome, so I'm putting spoiler warnings up in lights here.

Read on...

... if that is not a concern.

Double Star is one of four novels to have won Hugo Awards for Heinlein. The others were Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. All four are among the classics of the science fiction genre, whatever their particular faults. They were published over a period of about a decade (1956 for Double Star to 1966 for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), and this was the period when Heinlein was a truly dominant force in SF. For those familiar with his work, note how diverse these four books (and others published during the same period) are.

While the title might suggest engagement with vast astronomical objects, that is, of course, misleading - as are some of Heinlein's other titles, such as The Star Beast. Double Star is about an actor who is called on to impersonate a politician who has been kidnapped, and who, after being released, suffers serious illness. The words "double star" can be read in various ways, but of course the actor thinks of himself as something of a "star", and he is a double for the politician. There is plenty of room to take this further, though I don't know exactly what Heinlein and his publishers had in mind. At any rate, even when we're in the know, there's a small frisson of pleasure in the contrast between what might be immediately connoted by such a title and what the book actually gives us.

The story is narrated in the first person by the actor, Lawrence Smith, also known as the Great Lorenzo, who is called on to play the role of political leader John Joseph Bonforte. At least on its face, the book uses first-person narration in the classic way: it is the story of someone who has survived life-changing experiences and is now reflecting on them, as well as merely recounting them, from a position of greater knowledge and wisdom than when he began.

Such narratives can also raise questions about the reliability of narrators, how much they have really learned, and so on. Often, they give us subtle, or not so subtle, clues about their narrators' unreliability. They can also be ambiguous or unstable, insofar as the narrator may actually have learned, and yet we are shown the limits to what has been learned, and that he or she has a (possibly long) way to go.

There are interpretations of Double Star along these more complex lines, but I'm somewhat resistant to them. I just don't think the book is all that complicated, much as it is well executed. The narrator starts out as a clever, but also vain and shallow, man who eventually matures - becoming trapped in his role, but also obtaining a degree of wisdom and depth, and certain satisfactions (not least marrying the woman who was in love with Bonforte when the story began). The events cover a relatively short period when "Lorenzo" made the switch to (more or less) becoming Bonforte. However, Bonforte dies, the switch becomes permanent, and it becomes clear at the end that Lawrence is telling us the story from a perspective twenty-five years later. That's probably complicated enough.

Interestingly, there is little in the action that required a futuristic scenario. A very similar story could have been told involving only events and political machinations on Earth and in the present. I.e., the story could have been a mainstream political and psychological thriller with little adjustment.

True, the political intrigue involves relations between humans and extraterrestrial aliens, but this is quite explicitly analogous to the relations of imperialist Europeans and colonised peoples. Part of Bonforte's political platform is anti-imperialist, in that he favours expansion into space in a way that involves some kind of inclusivity among all intelligent life forms, rather than a kind of speciesist human imperialism.

However, this is secondary to the story's focus on Lawrence's predicament and how he responds to it. Really, almost any vaguely idealistic political viewpoint would have been just as effective for the purpose: all that's needed is that Bonforte's views and (vaguely evoked) policies not be ones that readers would find repellent. If they had been, that would have created a very different and more sombre book (think, perhaps, of Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night). As a result, Double Star does seem to endorse Bonforte's ideals, and in doing so it contains something of an anti-imperialist message, but at the same time there is a sense that this is not what is important, what is really going on thematically. We have more a story about individual identity and how it can change - even radically. Again, it does seem to change for the better in Lorenzo's case, making this seem an optimistic story even if the narrator has been guided and shaped largely by forces beyond his control.

Heinlein writes with great efficiency, as usual. By this point of his career, he had mastered many techniques for moving a story along and dealing with challenges. One is his ability to create brief set-piece debates where one character is always a step ahead of the other - and manages to push the other to accept some viewpoint that initially appears odd or unreasonable. Heinlein is skilled at dealing with problems, or potential objections, by using this formula; thus, he resolves difficulties on stage (the metaphor is especially appropriate for this book) while also getting them out of the way swiftly.

The technique also enables him to show Lorenzo's growth - in the beginning, he is the one who gets bamboozled and browbeaten by characters who are a step of him, but as the action settles down he is increasingly the one who gains a deeper understanding and starts to be the one who does this to others.

Double Star is highly regarded by Heinlein fans - in my experience, some prefer it to more famous books by Heinlein, such as the other three novels that won Hugos. Despite its thematic complications, it is, as I say, not all that complicated, and it ends up being a good, rollicking yarn. There is a simple movement of events: from the beginning when the narrator is asked to impersonate Bonforte to the implied vantage point from which the story is being narrated (a vantage point that is made explicit only in the final pages).

All in all, this is a lovely little book (an ordinary reasonably fast reader could whip through it in a couple of hours; I am more distractable, but it didn't take me long) that deserves its continued classic status. Its main interest, however, does not especially depend on the science fiction elements. It is interesting to see how they do and don't play a role (as it were), and, conversely, how Heinlein dealt with this kind of thematic and psychological material in an SF setting.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Joss Whedon cancels his Twitter account - why?

Joss Whedon has left Twitter: he has cancelled his account. Why? Well, he has not made an explanatory statement, and we always have to be careful before we make assumptions about people's motives. Perhaps, for example, he no longer feels the need to maintain a prominent social media presence. Perhaps...

But at the same time, we can't ignore the fact that the US release (a few days ago) of his latest movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, has led to this kind of abuse and demonization from some quarters. It should go without saying that much of it is deplorable from any reasonable viewpoint ... although it's notable, today, how few people with large footprints on the internet have been prepared to stand up and plainly condemn the viciousness. If it's not clear from what I've said above, I hereby do so. There is no excuse for it.

Whatever Whedon's personal faults may be, and whatever legitimate critiques of Avengers: Age of Ultron may be available from a range of viewpoints, many of the responses on Twitter are unfair, unprovoked, vile, cowardly, and morally despicable, and I utterly, unequivocally denounce and condemn them. This won't prevent me, in the future, from making whatever criticisms of the movie I might think fair and fitting; however, I will always try to show appropriate generosity and charity toward Whedon, as I always do when discussing movies, books, and other such cultural products (and their creators). That attitude is obviously not the case for the people who have attacked Whedon with the poorly evidenced and patently ridiculous claims that he is a racist, a misogynist, etc., etc.

Those terms have not entirely lost their hurtfulness for those of us who support basic ideas of social justice, although they are starting to leak away their meaning as - increasingly - they are applied to decent, gentle, thoughtful people with solid liberal and feminist credentials. They are used as a weapon against precisely those sorts of people because they are the people who can be most hurt by them. It's a case of using words as weapons - of using them to wound - rather than using them accurately.

It's long past time to push back against this.

Taking the point a bit wider... I am very unhappy with the sort of personal nastiness - even against individuals who should be acknowledged, respected, and assisted as cultural and political allies - that has become so prevalent on the internet over the past few years. Again and again, reasonable charity and basic decency are not even factors. Accusations are made in the hope of inflicting psychological wounds and social harm.

Very many people have disappointed me in recent years with their abdication from the realm of rational debate and discussion - preferring the tactics of smearing, abuse, and psychological destruction. The result is a toxic environment for everyone. People trying to oppose it are often poorly organised and confused about what they are trying to achieve, and some of them are prone to counterproductive actions. In certain cases that I won't specify, I am unhappy with the approaches they have taken. Some appear to have unpleasant ideologies and agendas of their own - but who can be sure these days?

This is an unhappy situation, and I'm unsure what can be done about it that might be meaningful and effective. I'll continue to monitor developments, but I don't have to acquiesce in what's happening.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Rocketship Galileo (by Robert A. Heinlein) - a brief review

As I mentioned the other day, I am currently starting a program of reading/re-reading a whole bunch of books by Robert A. Heinlein, and I'll review some of them here as we go.

Rocketship Galileo does not merit a lengthy review, but it is notable for being the first of the Scribner juveniles, written by Heinlein in the 1940s and 1950s. It was published in 1947 - obviously not long after World War II, V2 rocket attacks against England, the Nazi Holocaust, the Manhattan Project, and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All of these momentous events were in the immediate historical background - and, indeed, at the forefront of consciousness - for Heinlein's original readers. Conversely, 1947 was well before any meaningful space program by the United States (or even the USSR's dramatic launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957).

Accordingly, Rocketship Galileo is the product of a special time in recent human history, making it dated for contemporary readers. Most notably, perhaps, it hugely underestimates the cost and complexity of real-world efforts to send spacecraft to the Moon, despite Heinlein's efforts to portray a private space program with considerable circumstantial detail and thus a degree of verisimilitude.

In essence, the story is of a successful moon journey arising from the work of a distinguished (though still relatively young) scientist, Don Cargraves, who enlists the help of three teenage boys (they seem to be about 17 or 18) to help him design, build, and fly his nuclear-powered rocketship. On the Moon they discover that a military base has already been set up by a group of Nazis, who have equipped themselves with nuclear weapons and an effective delivery system. These bad guys plan to blackmail the earth's nations to surrender and accept Nazi rule.

Obvious themes include the fear of nuclear war (together with an embrace of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, such as powering electricity grids and space vehicles, e.g. the heroes' eponymous rocketship). Since the bad guys are out-and-out ruthless, totalitarian fanatics, there is no complexity here when it comes to good versus evil. I don't imagine that I'd have much - or anything at all - to say about Rocketship Galileo in my forthcoming book on science fiction and the moral imagination. There's nothing especially subtle or innovative about the book's moral positions apart from the strong interest in nuclear war and its potential for catastrophe.

Nonetheless, whatever its faults, however dated it might be, and however incredible its premise might seem (the idea that a small group of teenage boys could get together with the uncle of one of them to develop a successful space program), the novel is elegantly crafted. Heinlein displays his expertise in moving the action along at just the right pace to make unbelievable events seem somewhat believable, without cheating by solving problems offstage.

There is also a careful balance in giving credit to Cargraves but also to each of the three boys. Cargraves has to be shown as heroic (putting ourselves in the shoes of Heinlein's adolescent male readers, he is the cool, adventurous, smart uncle we might have wished we had back in 1947), while also being dependent, to an extent, on the much younger Ross Jenkins, Art Mueller, and Morrie Abrams. Each of them is given a chance to shine as they overcome odds, battle and outwit evildoers, and ultimately become heroes.

While Cargraves is brilliant, resourceful, physically strong and courageous, and otherwise impressive, he makes mistakes and has limitations. Most obviously, he soon realises that he is too staid and adult - and that he lacks the required youthful reflexes and nervelessness - to pilot the rocketship as well as needed. At crucial moments, he hands that over to Morrie. In all, the book praises and encourages (and offers some guidance to) the sorts of teens who were headed for engineering careers and were keen on fooling around with home science experiments and hot rods.

Again, it is a book from another, albeit recent, era: for one thing, a contemporary novel along comparable lines would not be so overwhelmingly aimed at adolescent males; we could surely expect female characters among the Galileo's crew. For what it is, however, and read with an imaginative sense of its time, audience, and original context, this remains a fine story. Rocketship Galileo still creates some sense of realism, and certainly a satisfying level of suspense and intrigue. Although it is not one of Heinlein's most revered works, it began his run of SF juveniles from Scribner's with evident storytelling skills and considerable cunning in the way it addressed its audience. There was better to come, but this was a sufficiently auspicious start.

Age of Ultron opening in US

The United States opening weekend for Avengers: Age of Ultron has fallen short of the opening for the original Avengers movie three years ago, but was still an enormous $188 million $191 million [edit: original, lower, figure was a studio estimate].

Outside the US, Age of Ultron appears to be doing even better than its predecessor - and it has yet to open in China and Japan. The rapidly developing Chinese market has a seemingly insatiable appetite for Hollywood action movies, and particularly superhero movies, and it will probably produce far bigger numbers this time around than were possible in 2012. In all, Age of Ultron may ultimately bring in higher global receipts than The Avengers, though it will pretty clearly end up lower in the lucrative US domestic market.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Currently reading: The Heritage of Heinlein

I'm currently reading The Heritage of Heinlein: A Critical Reading of the Fiction, by Thomas D. Clareson and Joe Sanders. I'll be reviewing this for The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Clareson and Sanders (mainly Sanders, since Clareson's contribution was some early chapters of the book that he drafted before his death in 1993) have produced a clear, careful, often insightful, and comprehensive discussion of Robert A. Heinlein's entire oeuvre of novels and short fiction.

In fact, reading this book has inspired me to go back and reread (or in a small number of cases, read for the first time) all of Heinlein's novels. We'll see how many I get through, and I expect to review some of them here - starting soon.

Heinlein has a strong claim to have been the most important science fiction writer of the twentieth century.  If there is an SF writer who clearly surpasses him in importance, it is H.G. Wells, but Well's best and most innovative work was published in the 1890s. (Jules Verne was another great innovator, of course, but his most important books were published in the 1860s and 1870s; he died in 1905).

Obviously Heinlein has a few twentieth-century rivals - Arthur C. Clarke, to name just one - and some individual SF novels by more mainstream authors are more important than any single book by Heinlein. Think of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, and perhaps some of the works of Margaret Atwood, such as The Handmaid's Tale. Nonetheless, Heinlein's fiction was innovative, varied, often superbly crafted, and enormously influential.

It is, moreover, often undervalued by academic scholars and critics... for whatever reason. For example, there is no chapter on Heinlein in Blackwell's reference work A Companion to Science Fiction (ed. David Seed, 2005), even though there are chapters on H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, John Wyndham, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Gwyneth Jones, Arthur C. Clarke, and Greg Egan (I mean no disrespect to any of these fine writers - indeed, I wrote the chapter on Egan, and elsewhere I've written in depth on Delany). Nor is there a chapter on, say, Stranger in a Strange Land among the ten chapters on individual books.

As I've previously announced, I have a contract with the academic publisher Springer to write a book that will be (in brief) about science fiction and moral philosophy. This will involve much research that I expect to be enjoyable, in the form of immersing/re-immersing myself in much classic SF. There will be updates here as that book proceeds.