Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and the veneration of veterans

Starship Troopers still image

Starship Troopers elevates military veterans to demi-god status.

The election and inauguration of Donald Trump has left-leaning book lovers scrambling for analogous stories in fiction. Most have cited George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, both dystopian novels. A few have pointed to Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction novel Starship Troopers, because of long-standing criticisms of what some believe is its fascist politics.

The 1959 novel, which won the prestigious Hugo Award and made into a 1997 movie, tells the story of Juan “Johnnie” Rico, a ne’er-do-well teenager who finds meaning and belonging in the “Mobile Infantry.” He goes off to fight in an interstellar war against the Arachnid creatures from the planet Klendathu. Rico goes from raw recruit to experienced sergeant to field-tested officer participating in a crucial battle to defeat the “bugs” and save Earth.

In Heinlein’s world, the combat veteran is the civic god incarnate.

The charges of fascism relate to the dominance of earth by a militarized government that places enormous prestige and civil power in the hands of military veterans. In Heinlein’s world, the combat veteran is the civic god incarnate. Only people who fought and bled understand the true meaning of freedom and the necessity of the voting franchise to sustain the public good, not just private interest. Continue reading

Reviews: It’s true. Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is science fiction.

State of Wonder cover image

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is really science fiction in disguise.

Writers love to complain about the necessity of genre. They’d prefer to write above the petty differences among romance, mystery, fantasy, and dozens of other pigeonholes and sub-pigeonholes. Most writers, though, acknowledge the need for publishers and bookstore owners to make book-finding and thus book-selling intuitive for the reader through categorization.

Genre gets mischievous when a literary novel is miscategorized. After reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, winner of the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction in the same year for her novel Bel Canto, it was clear that the 2011 novel belonged on the shelf next to Fahrenheit 451 and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. State of Wonder has so many science fiction elements that putting it anywhere else denies it a significant readership.

The irony of the sci-fi-ness in State of Wonder is Patchett’s own attitude toward technology.

The story concerns Marina Singh, a research scientist who learns of the death of a colleague in the Amazon rainforest. He was sent to Brazil by their pharmaceutical firm to urge another scientist, Annick Swenson, to speed up work on a treatment for infertility. Singh’s journey becomes a mashup of Heart of Darkness, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and the motion picture Fitzcarraldo. Continue reading

Review: Science fiction exists to explore the possibilities of change

Hieroglyph cover

Hieroglyph, an anthology edited by Ed Finn and Kathyrn Cramer.

Successful science fiction and speculative fiction reflect the hopes and anxieties of their day, the same as any other narrative art. Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury were men of their times. Writing at the peak of American technological, military, and economic power after World War II, much of their work was infused with can-do optimism. Sci-fi’s tone changed in the 1970s and 80s with the end of the Vietnam War and the public recognition of the environmental and social costs of so-called “progress.” Writers turned more realistic—”dark” is the favored word—as they struggled with reconciling the post-World War II ideals with actual results.

Some influential writers miss the good old sci-fi days of the 50s and 60s, among them Neal Stephenson, the Hugo Award-winning author of Crytonomicon and Seveneves. In his preface to Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, the 2015 anthology of “optimistic” sci-fi stories, Stephenson expresses disappointment in science’s failure to deliver on his dreams of space travel. “Where’s my donut-shaped space station?” he writes. “Where’s my ticket to Mars?” He blames the failure in part on the darker turn of sci-fi, which he accuses of dampening our faith in science as a positive force. “Our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,” such as building a moon colony or sending humans to deep space. I find this attitude puzzling. While it’s true the American manned program is at a nadir, a near-permanent space station with American astronauts is flying overhead, NASA is landing rovers on Mars, and space-based telescopes are discovering exo-planets almost daily. How are these not “big things?” Continue reading

Review: A faux-paleo world with email stumbles on its contradictions

Knocking on Heaven's Door, by Sharman Apt Russell

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Sharman Apt Russell

A strain of environmentalism sees civilization as a mistake, a wrong turn in history taken 10,000 years ago at the invention of agriculture. The error sparked a chain of events taking us down the path to global warming and if you extend the trendline, global apocalypse. It would’ve been better if the first seeds sown by humans had fallen on rocky ground or were choked by weeds, goes the logic.

That civilization might be an intelligent adaptation to a harsh, dangerous, and above all unpredictable environment (Will I find game this week? Are enough berries ripening this season?) doesn’t figure in this thinking. The success of farming and the resulting rise of urbanization has meant a paradise lost. Fiction writers in particular are prone to view our hunter-gatherer past with envy, seeing our ancient ancestors as “in harmony” with the earth. Continue reading

Review: In Ark warns against benign eco-ideologies

In Ark cover

Aidana WillowRaven’s cover art for Lisa Devaney’s In Ark: A Promise of Survival

Most books in the emerging genre of “climate fiction” fall under the label after the fact. Margaret Atwood, author of the Maddaddam trilogy, has embraced the “cli-fi” label, though she prefers “speculative fiction.” Climate activist and book lover Dan Bloom and editor Mary Woodbury have attached the label to dozens of books published as early as the 1960s. In contrast, London-based author Lisa Devaney’s In Ark: A Promise of Survival, is one of the earliest works to adopt the term up front as a way for readers to identify its dystopian worldview and ideological themes.

The story follows the core rule of climate fiction, that is, climate change is the driving force behind the narrative. In 2030, digital archivist Mya Brand lives in a New York City where everyone must wear protective clothing against heat that is destroying the planet. Though fresh food is scarce, and social life happens literally underground, the irrepressible culture of New York thrives. But the overall social trend is downward. Continue reading

Review: ‘Fleet’ revives sci-fi’s nautical tradition

Fleet cover

Fleet: The Complete Collection

Science fiction’s nautical tradition goes back to the genre’s origins. In 1870, French writer Jules Verne predicted the nuclear submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and he created one of the great megalomaniac characters in literature, Captain Nemo. My own love of sci-fi was sparked in part by the 1960s TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which featured the research vessel Seaview and its resourceful crew. In recent years, however, the ocean has fallen out of fashion as a sci-fi platform. The 1995 Waterworld, the most expensive movie ever made up to that time, killed Hollywood’s interest in the watery parts of the world for years. And few of today’s science fiction writers regard the sea as a place for storytelling.

Andrew D. Thaler’s work Fleet may signal a change. The biologist and science writer has taken an old premise–that Earth’s land is submerged or uninhabitable–put a new set of complex characters on a motley collection of boats, and told them to survive. The action takes place in the 23rd century after the seas have risen and a plague has wiped out most of humanity. Man-made climate change is implicitly blamed for the creation of this dystopia. The boats range from a shrimp trawler to a cruise ship, and they sail the waters of the North Atlantic fishing for the last stocks of edible creatures. Originally published as a four-part series, I read all four parts in a single ebook packaged as Fleet: The Complete Collection.

As an experienced writer and scientist specializing in deep-sea ecology, Thaler knows his subject. His characters appear to be drawn from the men and women he’s come to know in his work with fisherfolk. The details of the boats and their operation are convincing, and the dialog is first rate. The structure of the novel is confusing at times, and the suggestion that a wooden sailboat might survive more than a century in salt water is far-fetched. But Thaler deserves credit for picking up science fiction’s nautical thread, and showing that the oceans still have many lessons to teach landlubbers.

What are your favorite nautical sci-fi stories?

Review of Voyage: Embarkation

Voyage Embarkation cover

Voyage: Embarkation’s cover was designed by Aubry Kae Andersen, who also created 14 interior illustrations.

Some novels demonstrate how a writer evolves over time and practice. His or her style changes over the years it takes to write a novel. Some themes are important early, and they’re supplanted by others later on. That’s the case with Zachary Bonelli’s first science-fiction novel, Voyage: Embarkation, published in 2013 by Fuzzy Hedgehog Press. The novel is the first in the author’s Voyage Along the Catastrophe of Notions series. Bonelli says the novel began in 2000 as a series of posts on a fantasy forum. Written in high school, the posts formed the early chapters of the book. Though the novel is really a series of loosely connected anecdotes, the reader can see how Bonelli’s writing becomes more confident and polished by the end of the book’s 515 pages.

The novel’s arc focuses on Kal Anders, a teenage boy with an unusual allergy that exiles him to an alternate Earth populated with giant house cats. Nanotechnology forms the core of his ability to visit Earths in other, parallel timelines via the “metaxia,” described as “the unspace between universes.” He meets Tria, a virtual brother, who tags along on the protagonist’s adventures, and he encounters worlds ranging from the uninhabitable to an update of the old TV series Fantasy Island. Much of the action takes place in and around variations of Chicago and the surrounding geography near Bonelli’s childhood home. Important themes are intolerance, sexual identity, loneliness, and the acceptance of things one cannot change.

As a first novel, Voyage: Embarkation is an imaginative experiment, with its episodic structure and unpolished narrative. A few of the episodes, such as “Benevolence,” about a world dominated by a monster made of mud, stick in your mind, while others are forgettable. “Liberty” is a transparent rant against a crazy boss and the self-repression of workers in a technology corporation. (Bonelli works a day job as a programmer.) Mature readers who have fumed at the stupidity of management will immediately recognize Kal’s experience at the hands of his supervisor. The episode comes late in the novel, and it’s something Bonelli could not have written as a teenager. It’ll be interesting to see how he matures further in his next works.

Review: Shackleton’s Man Goes South

Shackleton's Man LogoA science museum ought to be a temple to experimentation and odd ways of thinking, because that’s where new knowledge is often born. But you wouldn’t have guessed that an institution as prestigious as the London Science Museum would offer an altar for a literary experiment, though Shackleton’s Man Goes South has plenty of scientific discourse and head-scratching exercises. The 175-page novel by English writer Tony White promotes the opening of a new museum gallery, “Atmosphere: exploring climate science,” by taking up human and scientific themes related to global warming. It’s an interesting, but unsatisfying book that hybridizes non-fiction and fiction approaches to climate change narratives. After a promising start, it winds up in a storytelling cul-de-sac, much like a horse and donkey can lead to a mule, a biological dead-end.

The novel was inspired by two things, according to White: a 1911 speculative story about climate climate by British Antarctic explorer George Simpson, and the world-famous black-and-white movies brought home by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. He never made it to the South Pole, but he gained fame for rescuing his team from certain death, in part by an epic journey by open boat from Antarctica to South Georgia Island. White asks, What if global warming led to an ice-free Antarctica, which becomes the last hope for refugees fleeing climate disasters in Europe and elsewhere? In his story, a mother and child, Emily and Jenny, seek help from a man named Browning to reach the husband and father, who has begun a new life on the formerly frozen continent. Continue reading