#78 – Have Space Suit, Will Travel Review – Robert Heinlein

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A lot of science fiction novels have a tendency to get bogged down in weighty themes, big ideas and serious, brooding characters – which is why the occasional book that throws a little humor and wit into the mix can be a welcome respite. Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel is one of those books. As both a fast paced swash-buckling adventure tale across the farthest reaches of the galaxy and as a wry, humorous parable about a teenage boy who learns how to realize his dreams, the book takes off at a frenzied pace and doesn’t let up. Written during his “Juveniles” period, in which he published books aimed mainly at teenage boys, the book crackles to life with an energy that is infectious to readers of any age. Heinlein’s writing is sharp, smart and efficient (as well as funny) and manages to even make the mechanical intricacies and practical necessities of spacesuit design seem interesting. If you’re looking for some light Sci-Fi reading and a change of pace from your ordinary space operas, you can’t go wrong with this book.

Summary: The hero of the story is a teenage boy named Kip Russell. Scientifically inclined and obsessed with finding a way to travel to the moon, Kip enters a jingle contest for the Skyway Soap company in which first prize is an all expenses paid trip to the moon. Although he fails to win the grand prize, Kip perks up when his second place prize is delivered to his house: a real life spacesuit. Kip spends the summer fixing up the old space suit to the point where it’s actually in working condition, even though he still has no way to get where he wants to go – all the while planning and scheming on how he is going to make enough money to cover the tuition for his first semester of college. Kip starts to think that his dreams may have to be put on hold for a long time, until one eventful afternoon changes everything. Trying on his fully functional suit in his backyard one last time before selling it to help pay for school, Kip picks up a Mayday signal from someone on his suit’s radio. To his amazement, two flying saucers land near him and, next thing he knows, he’s captured and taken to the moon where he is held captive by a group of alien uglies that look like they have worms growing out of their faces.

Luckily he’s not alone. Joining him in captivity is a young girl named PeeWee (the one who sent the original radio message). She explains to him that they’re being held by a race of “Wormfaces” who we eventually learn are plotting to take over the earth for their own nefarious purposes. Also in captivity is a being known as the “Mother Thing,” a kindly, telepathic creature who PeeWee informs Kip is also sort of like a policeman for the galaxy (obviously trying to stop the Wormfaces). After a series of heroic escapes in which Kip uses his intelligence and ingenuity to save the day, including one across the moon’s surface in which we learn a lot about the workings (and limitations) of a spacesuit, the trio are eventually saved by the Mother Thing’s people and taken to their home planet: Vega 5. There they are made witnesses of and participants in the trial of the Wormfaces in what seems to be a sort of galactic court. Unexpectedly, however, the Wormfaces aren’t the only ones put on trial. Although they are considered heroes for helping stop the Wormfaces and saving the Mother Thing, they are made to stand trial for the entire human race -a race that the court has decided may some day pose a threat to peace in the galaxy (due to our penchant for explosive weapons and territorial aggression). While I won’t give away the ending, the question of whether the story written for teenage boys has a happy ending is probably not too hard to figure out.

Review: Even if the story seems a little childish and unsophisticated compared to some of the muli-dimensional, multi-character epics of science fiction, don’t let that fool you. What elevates this book above the majority of fiction written for the teen age group is that Heinlein never talks down to the reader, and that is exactly why this is a book that would have been just as entertaining to my 13 year old self as it was to my 32 year old mind. Sure, it may not be a mind-expanding, paradigm-shifting, otherworldly tour-de-force. But sometimes that not what you’re looking for in a book. If you’re looking for a quick, absorbing and fast-paced read while your sitting by the pool this summer (or gazing up at the stars), you couldn’t do a lot worse than this one. And if you’re of the type of intelligent, ambitious and searching souls as young Kip, you’ll find even more stuff in this book to relate to and dream about.

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January 7, 2010

#10 – Starship Troopers Summary – Robert Heinlein

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This is the first book on the list that could legitimately be classified as “Military Science Fiction,” in that it examines the nature of war, conflict and military service in the future (usually either in space or on another planet). And while I’m generally not very interested in anything having to do with the military, I still found this novel to be unexpectedly absorbing. Along with The Forever War (#21 on this list), Starship Troopers paints a gruesome, yet believable, picture of the emotional and physical challenges of taking part in an interstellar war with an alien species. And while the book’s overarching themes may lean more towards glorification of the military and personal sacrifice than I may have liked, I couldn’t help but be sucked in by the book’s fascinating political and moral arguments and the sympathy I had for a soldier who was stuck in the middle.

While some readers may be more familiar with the 1997 film of the same name, the book has a much different tone. Where the movie is an almost satirically over-the-top look at how war can create a culture of senseless violence and aggression (and the propaganda that supports it), the book can actually be taken (and was by some critics) as a philosophical treatise on how military service and unquestioning allegiance to the state is actually a virtue and the responsibility of any good “Citizen.” While action and combat take center stage in the movie, the book spends a lot of its time in the classroom where the students and potential recruits are given lectures on history and moral philosophy – including the realization that “violence has settled more issues in history than any other factor.” Although Heinlein does offer a brief counterpoint to these ideas, they really aren’t very fleshed out and don’t seem to hold much weight with any of the main characters.

Starship Troopers Summary:The story is told from the point of view of Juan “Johnny” Rico, a member of the mobile infantry, as he rises through the ranks of the Federation military while fighting an ongoing war with an alien race of arachnids, also known as “Bugs” (I’m not sure what it is with science fiction’s fascination with killer bugs). Told in flashbacks, the novel follows Rico through his initial training and combat missions all the way up through his eventual promotion to officer. Besides flashing back to various combat operations and points during his military career, the book also shows some of Rico’s high school experiences (including the classroom discussions discussed above). Through this we learn that Earth is currently ruled by the Terran Federation, a result of the collapse of the unlimited democracies of the 20th century. While certain human rights remain intact, the ability to vote or hold office is reserved for “Citizens” – that is, people who volunteer for a minimum level of military service. While this is one of the original motivations for Rico joining the military in the first place, he eventually decides to become a career soldier.

Starship Troopers Review: I’m not going to dance around the fact that a lot of the novel’s ideas about personal responsibility and sacrifice for the great good rub me the wrong way. And while I admit that violence may have solved the majority of the world’s disputes in the past, I don’t think it makes the use of military might or aggression “Noble” in any way shape or form. I do, however, understand that Heinlein wrote this book at a much different time in history and had a much different relationship to the military (he served in the Navy for five years, although never saw active combat). His views reflect a time in which self-sacrifice for the greater good against a common enemy was much more clear cut than it is today. But regardless of how I feel about Heinlein or his politics, I can’t deny that this book paints a startlingly vivid picture of a world at war with a menacing alien threat and the ways in which men are motivated to join the cause against it.

Starship Troopers Quotes: “Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.” – Lt. Col. Jean V. Dubois

“I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can’t really be afraid. The ship’s psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important — it’s just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate. I couldn’t say about that; I’ve never been a race horse. But the fact is: I’m scared silly, every time.” – Juan Rico

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September 22, 2010

#6 – Stranger in a Strange Land Review – Robert Heinlein

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Few books deserve the title of “Cult Classic” more than Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel about a Martian-raised human who returns to earth and ends up transforming human culture in profound ways. Although it started out as a minor hit in the science fiction world, Stranger in a Strange Land would eventually became a crossover success – attracting a devoted following among the counterculture movement of the 1960’s due to its emphasis on free love, liberty and the shared human experience. And while it may not seem as controversial and groundbreaking today as it did back then, it still has a lot to say about our current culture of consumerism and our reliance on organized religion to dictate our social and spiritual interactions.

Stranger in a Strange Land Summary

The novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, the offspring of the first human astronauts to reach the planet Mars. After the death of the crew, Smith becomes an orphan and is raised by the native Martians as if he were one of their own. During his time there, he acquires a number of the traits of the Martian culture, including the ability to read minds and control matter in strange and unusual ways. When he is eventually found and brought back to earth by a second expedition to Mars, he becomes an instant celebrity as the only known human to have made contact with the Martians and returned to Earth.

Valentine’s acclimation to human customs and mores (as well as Earth’s gravity and physical constraints) is slow and awkward – helped along by a Nurse named Gillian Boardman who inadvertently becomes Smith’s first “Water-Brother.” After escaping the grasp of leaders who wish to use him for their own personal gain, Valentine and Gillian (along with the help of the famous author and bon vivant Jubal Harshaw) are able to set about constructing a religion of their own based on the principles and teachings of the Martian way.

While some of the overall themes may seem a little heavy-handed to a modern audience, I can see how they may have caused a stir when they were first published.

Stranger in a Strange Land Quotes

“Smith is not a man. He is an intelligent creature with the genes and ancestry of a man, but he is not a man. He’s more a Martian than a man. Until we came along he had never laid eyes on a human being. He thinks like a Martian, he feels like a Martian. He’s been brought up by a race which has nothing in common with us. Why, they don’t even have sex. Smith has never laid eyes on a woman — still hasn’t if my orders have been carried out. He’s a man by ancestry, a Martian by environment.”

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own”

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September 25, 2010