Throwback Thursdays: The Bar Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

Back in June of 2009, the first book in author Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse series, The Sword-Edged Blonde, published. To celebrate the start of this fun and exciting series, Alex explained in the July Newsletter that his priorities, in writing a fantasy novel, are a little…flipped from most authors’. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back every other Thursday for more!

By Alex Bledsoe

A man walks into a bar.

If this happens in a science fiction or fantasy novel, the author has his job cut out for him. Not only does he have to describe the bar physically, but also its patrons. They might include aliens, ogres, trolls or elves, all of which can have any number of permutations. Then the drinks have to be laid out, and the money system enumerated. When all that’s done, the author might have enough imagination left to finally describe the man who walked in.

I’m unusual as a fantasy or science fiction reader, in that the details of made-up societies, worlds and cultures hold far less interest for me than the people (I include non-humans in that term) who inhabit them. I remember listening in wonder to another well-regarded fantasy author describe the elaborate monetary system he’d designed, and for which so far he’d had no use. It’s something I could never do.

When I wrote The Sword-Edged Blonde, I wanted to pare it down to the things I, as a reader, cared most about: namely, the people. Anything that distracted from them, and from the reader’s emotional commitment to them, I either left out or minimized. For example, many fantasy characters have names that, if not literally unpronounceable, at least challenge the tongue; I named my hero Eddie LaCrosse. Eddie’s office is, in fact, above a bar, one that is no different in feel and atmosphere from any you might walk into today. Eddie uses swords that, like modern guns, have make and model names, and the people speak in rhythms, patterns and tones that don’t try to sound “otherworldly.” There’s no time spent digressing into societal details that don’t apply to the immediate situation; this is not to belittle authors who do that sort of thing well, it’s just something I neither crave as a reader or excel at as a writer.

I did invent one term. Eddie is essentially a private investigator functioning in an Iron Age world. In our world, PI’s are known by various, vaguely derogatory terms: shamus, dick, peeper, etc. I decided that Eddie’s reality needed a similar term, and came up with “sword jockey.” To me it rings with the same thinly-veiled contempt as “gumshoe” or “snooper.”

The Sword-Edged Blonde (and its upcoming sequel, Burn Me Deadly) have been called high-fantasy stories written as if they were Forties pulp detective novels. That’s exactly my intent, but it’s not just an ironic stylistic choice; rather, it’s a sincere attempt to let readers connect with the characters by letting as few things as possible get in the way.

So the man (or woman) who walks into a bar in Eddie’s world could, hopefully, be you. And you’d be right at home there.

This article is originally from the July 2009 Tor/Forge Newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

Sneak Peek: Ringworld, The Graphic Novel, Part One

Ringworld: The Graphic Novel, Part OneA modern science fiction classic, Larry Niven’s Ringworld won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel in 1970. Now this SF classic is adapted into a thrilling manga adventure. We wanted to share with you a sneak peek at some of the pages of the upcoming first volume of the series, publishing on July 8, 2014. From editor Diana Pho:

Seven Seas’ takes readers beyond the borders of known space in this manga adaptation of Larry Niven’s SF classic Ringworld! In this excerpt from Part One, we meet Louis Wu, a two-hundred-year-old human who has done it all and is getting pretty bored with life. That is, until he meets a two-headed alien named Nessus, who offers him a chance in a lifetime: to join him, a catlike warrior alien named Speaker-to-Animals, and the infinitely lucky human Teela Brown to explore an alien artifact known as Ringworld.

Click through to read the excerpt:

Ringworld: The Graphic Novel, Part One

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From the July Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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Getting All Meta

All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

Written by Paul Park

Vladimir Nabokov’s story, Signs and Symbols, is about a young man in the middle of a psychotic break. He has become convinced that even the trivial details of the world around him are full of coded language. His distraught parents can do nothing to help him, and eventually he kills himself.

But the man, paranoid and delusional, is also correct. Because he is a character in a story, he lives in a world constructed out of language, which does not contain a single word that is irrelevant to him. It is no wonder he destroys himself; the wonder is that any character in any book remains alive at the end.

The story is an example of meta-fiction—a narrative that is self-aware. In this case the realization is gradual, and in other cases there is a wrenching sudden moment, when you realize the story that you think you’re reading is a subterfuge, and that the real story is hidden underneath. In both cases, for the writer, the problem is the same: once we puncture the illusion that we are reading about the real problems of real people, how do we maintain our emotional investment and interest? In Nabokov’s case, though we no longer care about the suicide, we can still feel the young man’s predicament as a symbol of our own, living in a world that is minutely crafted out of our own minds, and simultaneously oblivious.

Here’s another example: I taught a course called Imitations and Parodies at Williams College. I got in the habit of introducing every third class with a minute’s description of an invented dream, which I pretended to have just woken from—the class was early in the morning. Some were foolish, but during the first month I inserted more and more symbols of psychic distress—then I stopped. Two-thirds of the way in, we spent a week writing imitations of H.P. Lovecraft stories in which the narrator succumbs to violent insanity. The next week I introduced the concept of meta-fiction, and asked them to read for Thursday’s class a story by an unknown author. This was a story I had written myself: a professor, tormented by distorted dreams, finally, resolves to murder his entire class after grading a particularly horrifying assignment. And here I included some excerpts from their Lovecraft imitations, including one section about a man deliberately blinding himself with a knife, which I had read aloud during the previous class. I aimed for this to be the meta-fictional moment where the students would realize that the description of the professor corresponded to me, that the described classroom was their own, and that various students from earlier in the story corresponded to their various colleagues. I was curious to see if any of them would skip Thursday’s session, but there they all were, uncharacteristically nervous and subdued. We spent the class discussing another assigned text—Signs and Symbols, as it happened. As the minutes ticked on, the discussion grew more animated and desperate. Five minutes to go, I announced that we wouldn’t have time for the anonymous story; I started talking about future assignments as a way of wrapping up. I rearranged my papers, and at the crucial moment, just before the hour struck, I allowed a butcher’s knife to fall out of my satchel.

The problem remains in meta-fiction: how to make the reader’s experience an emotional one, rather than a bloodless appreciation for a rhetorical trick. In the novel I’ve just published, All Those Vanished Engines, I have tried to combine a number of different strategies. Some are formal: in once section the story is made of intertwining strands, each narrated by a character in the other. In another, a description of an installation of steam engines turns into an implied description of the structure of the story itself. But some strategies are more basic than form: though the novel combines science-fiction and alternate history, it consists of the manipulation of actual true stories—things that really happened, people who really lived. My hope is that this will give the meta-fictional moments, where the narrative exposes their unreality, an added poignancy.

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From the Tor/Forge July newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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More from the July Tor/Forge newsletter:

  • Sneak Peek: Ringworld Graphic Novel
  • Little Green Book of Chairman Rahma book trailer

Throwback Thursdays: “Magic Calls to Magic”

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

Back in November of 2010, author A.M. Dellamonica explained the rules of magic in the world she created for her story “Nevada” and novel Indigo Springs. She brings the same skills to the world-building in her latest novel, Child of a Hidden Sea. We hope you enjoy her advice in this blast from the past, and be sure to check back every other Thursday for more!

By Alyx Dellamonica

The above line, from my story “Nevada,” formed one of the first rules I set out for the universe where Indigo Springs takes place. I had decided I was going to write about my grandparents’ home in Yerington, Nevada, an ordinary ranch house centered in a fenced-in patch of desert just outside town. The place has always been special to me. We moved a lot when I was young, but Yerington was always there. Going to Nevada meant being spoiled by my grandmother, of course, but their home also had a lot of physical objects that I was fond of–a cookie tin full of sun-melted crayons, my mother’s old stuffed bunny, Grandma’s polished rocks, and the possibility of finding a painstakingly hand-chipped arrowhead under every tumbleweed. I made all these childhood treasures explicitly magical when I turned them into the chantments that do so much good and harm in Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

Indigo Springs picks up on the groundwork laid in “Nevada” and the chantment stories that followed.  As I wrote these first stories, something that was immediately obvious was that if such objects of power were real, there would be people whose primary desire would be to own or control them. This conclusion led me to create the century-old chantment thief in “Nevada,” the corrupt music teacher in “The Riverboy”. . .  and when it came to writing Indigo Springs, it gave rise to the beautiful, fickle, and manipulative Sahara Knax.

I also had to figure out who was making the mystical objects. Sahara’s opposite number is her best friend, Astrid Lethewood. Astrid not only owns a number of chantments but in time discovers she has the ability to make new ones. She is less interested in having or wielding power–she’s responsible for the magic, and it’s a terrible load. She wants to do the right thing but is afraid of having her life consumed in the process. Having inherited the magic and being overwhelmed by it, she is vulnerable to this charming friend who’s offering to take care of everything. In her weakest moments, Astrid is that little piece of all of us who hopes someone else will combat climate change, speak out against poverty or oppression–who gives in to those moments of weakness when we don’t want to look beyond our day to day concerns and try to own the world a little.

Indigo Springs is a love triangle and the third person in the mix is Jacks Glade, who tries to mediate between Sahara and Astrid. Jacks is an active, take-charge guy–he rescues people from burning buildings, tells people the truth instead of guessing what they want to hear. . .  and he’s madly in love with Astrid. It’s these three people who come to be caretakers of the mystical well.

The thing about magic in Indigo Springs is that it is an immensely powerful force–one capable of creating amazingly beautiful things and doing great good, but only when wielded with good intentions. In a sense, the magic has an agenda of its own.

This article is originally from the November 2010 Tor/Forge Newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

Throwback Thursdays: Space Cadets and Starship Troopers: The Eagle Has Landed

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In 2010, we published the first of a two volume biography of one of the giants of science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein. At that time, we had an idea: why not ask our authors about their favorite Heinlein novels? Tor editor Stacy Hill was our shepherd for this series, and updates us on our journey. Now that Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 2 has come out, we’re revisiting that series. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back in every other week for more!

Robert A. Heinlein, Vol. 1 by William H. Patterson

From Tor editor Stacy Hill: Regular readers of Tor’s newsletter and our blog know that Tor has recently published an all-new biography of Robert A. Heinlein. Written with the blessing of Heinlein’s late widow, Virginia, the work was many years in the making and contains a wealth of interesting information, including never-before-published excerpts from Heinlein’s correspondence. Even if you thought you knew everything there was to know about the man, I can promise you there are surprises to be found within these pages.

So, in celebration of the man and his works, we asked a number of sf writers to tell us which Heinlein novel is their favorite, and why. We were lucky enough to get a host of great authors, including:

David Brin
David Drake
David G. Hartwell
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Rudy Rucker
Joan Slonczewski
Charles Stross
Michael Swanwick
Vernor Vinge

What’s Your Favorite Robert A. Heinlein Novel, Joan Slonczewski?

Have Space Suit—Will Travel was one of the more important books I read as a child. It starts with a bright teenager obsessed with getting to the moon, like I was. To get there, the teen has to win a space suit and get kidnapped by aliens, and escape with the help of two females—a child genius and an advanced alien—both clearly brighter than he is. Back then, bright females were scarce in any fiction.

In Have Space Suit, Heinlein’s ability to hook the reader draws us through a remarkable introduction in which an entire space suit is described at length. We keep turning pages through the teen’s course selection for senior year, as he takes up Spanish, Latin, calculus, and biochemistry—all of which later help him escape the aliens and worse. The book feels deceptively simple; its opening line consists of seven words of one syllable. Yet Heinlein weaves in concepts of mindboggling depth, from gas exchange in a space suit to linguistic development in the Roman Empire. Through it all, the humor is fresh and obvious to any reader. The Roman soldier even cracks a queer joke—imagine getting that past the juvenile censors in 1958.

From the protagonist’s teenage viewpoint, Earth-bound adults appear distant and preoccupied. The only ones who seem to be having fun are scientists. That, too, seemed familiar to me as the child of a physicist who worked on a Hal-like IBM 360. In the sixties, science was the stagecoach, the mule train heading toward the future’s ever-receding frontier. Have Space Suit was the kind of book that did that, a fictional journey driven by science.

Heinlein’s aliens are completely fantastic, yet somehow as real as a neighbor next door. Even the most advanced creatures are fallible, making mistakes that might doom an entire race. Yet the story begins and ends in small-town Ohio, near the home of the Wright brothers, and near where we raised our two sons. Today, this area still feels about the same. Any day now I expect to see those two alien space ships racing in.

This article is originally from the October 2010 Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

Throwback Thursdays: Space Cadets and Starship Troopers: The Voyage Continues

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In 2010, we published the first of a two volume biography of one of the giants of science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein. At that time, we had an idea: why not ask our authors about their favorite Heinlein novels? Tor editor Stacy Hill was our shepherd for this series, and updates us on our journey.

Robert A. Heinlein, Vol. 1 by William H. Patterson

From Tor editor Stacy Hill: In August, Tor will be releasing an all-new biography of a singular figure in the history of the genre: Robert A. Heinlein. This will be the first-ever authorized biography, and it’s a fascinating look at a famously private man.

As our own little celebration of Heinlein and his works, we thought it would be fun to find out just how much of an impact Heinlein’s stories and novels had on a number of our—and your—favorite sf writers. We asked them a simple question—what’s your favorite Heinlein novel?

We’ve been posting their answers once a week as we head toward publication of the biography and so far we’ve heard from David Brin, David Drake, David G. Hartwell, and L.E. Modesitt, Jr. Additionally, we’ve been picked up by Tor.com and Boing Boing, and Cory Doctorow has been posting notes on the biography. In the coming weeks, you’ll see contributions from Michael Swanwick, Charles Stross, and many more.

Thanks to all of you who have jumped in to tell us about your favorites: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, Stranger In a Strange Land, and JOB are just some of the novels discussed in the comments so far. What other Heinlein novels do you all love?

What’s Your Favorite Robert A. Heinlein Novel, L.E. Modesitt, Jr.?

I’m certain, that, if asked, more than a few readers will list Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as one of their favorite novels… and more than a few others will denounce it vigorously as a fascist military dystopia, no matter how the semi-libertarian Heinlein portrayed “our” future society. I’m one of those who happens to like it, because, after having been a military pilot and having served as a political staffer in Washington, D.C., Heinlein’s insights into both the military and into what supports workable government and what does not seem to me, at least, to be validated by what I’ve observed in politics and government over the past several decades. At its core, Starship Troopers examines what is required for effective and responsible government. For Heinlein, those who govern must pay a price for that privilege, and since he believes in broad-based governance, that means that every member of the electorate must pay through a term of military service. He doesn’t require military service, and no one is forced to serve, but if you don’t serve, you can’t vote, and you cannot be elected to public office. Interestingly enough, Heinlein does not suggest that this future society is optimal – only that it will work.

What is often ignored by those who criticize Starship Troopers is the fact that Heinlein was literally only fictionalizing the predictions of earlier scholars and politicians, such as deTocqueville and MacCauley, who predicted that any democracy would eventually fail because too great a proportion of the electorate would vote themselves greater and greater benefits without having paid for them in one way or another. Yet few criticize those who first made those points, which may also demonstrate why fiction is often more powerful than either scholarship or rhetoric directly from politicians.

What I also find amusing is that, in a sense, the military draft in place at the time that Heinlein wrote the book was in fact considered a price of “freedom” during World War II and immediately thereafter. In the Vietnam era that followed, however, the wide-spread use of educational deferments placed that price disproportionately on the less-advantaged males in American society, one of the factors leading to the abolition of the draft, in turn effectively repudiating any idea that citizens owed any moral debt to society, which was, of course, Heinlein’s point in his fictionalization of a future collapse of American government.

The other basic point underlying Starship Troopers is the idea that, like it or not, force in some form determines whether societies survive, and that any society that fails to understand that is doomed to fail. Heinlein was not, in fact, glorifying force, at least not as I read the book, but looking back through history and pointing out that such was the pattern human societies had exhibited from time immemorial. In presenting a biologically and socially very different culture in the “Bugs,” he was essentially postulating that any intelligent species would be both aggressive and territorial… and interestingly enough, I’ve recently read several scholarly articles suggesting the same thing, although the scholarly types use the term “predatory.” To me, that’s aggressive and territorial.

In the end, in Starship Troopers, Heinlein offers, if through a glass darkly, a fairly accurate picture of human faults, foibles, and virtues…and that may well be why some don’t like the book… and why I do.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. can be found online at http://www.lemodesittjr.com

This article is originally from the August 2010 Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox twice a month!

Hurricane Fever and the Caribbean’s Forgotten Space Program

Hurricane Fever
Written by Tobias Buckell

It is, without doubt, the biggest gun I’ve ever seen.

I’m in Barbados doing research, and I’m standing under a 100 caliber barrel. The thing looks big enough to crawl into, but not quite. And the barrel just keeps going and going. Big enough that I have to trudge through the wet grass a ways to get some perspective on the whole thing. This cannon is so damn big it has a structure around the barrel to keep it rigid. It’s mounted on a concrete pad the size of an office building’s foundation. And there’s this huge space for recoil: a dark pit that I don’t want to fall down into, because it’s filled now with stagnant water.

I’m on the coast of Barbados, so there’s a pleasant, salty wind kicking up that’s cutting the heat as I walk around the 119 foot long barrel. It’s pitted with exposure to the corrosive Atlantic, but still majestically aims off over the Atlantic crashing against the low cliffs not too far away. Credit Tobias Buckell

I was born in Grenada, an island further to the west of Barbados, both of us at the southern tip of the sweep of the Caribbean as it curves down toward South America. Only Trinidad and Tobago lie between Venezuela and us. And all that time growing up, I had no idea that a lost, but no less major and fascinating chapter of humanity’s early attempts to get into orbit lay just one island over from me.

Jules Verne first tinkered with the idea of just shooting things into space with a giant enough gun. In the 1950s and 60s, some scientists actually did the math and realized that, hey, it wasn’t as crazy as you might think. Sure, human beings would get turned to toothpaste. But maybe you could get a satellite up there.

A Canadian scientist named Gerard Bull, the US military, and Barbados all collaborated together to actually try to launch small satellites into orbit from Barbados. They achieved the world record, shooting a micro-satellite up to 110 miles. Alas, the program was shut down due to a too-real-to-fictionalize stew of inter-personal and inter-country politics, and the creation of the rocket-oriented NASA. Gerard Bull, in a sadly-fascinating-maybe-ready-for-film twist, sold his idea to Saddam Hussein and prepared to build the largest cannon in the world for the dictator, and then was assassinated by parties unknown in 1990.
Buckell_canon2
When I set out to write Hurricane Fever, my follow up novel to Arctic Rising, I wanted to explore the role of the Caribbean in a larger world. As someone who grew up in the islands, it was always dispiriting to see the world view my homeland as only a beach, a cocktail, and an exotic location. I enjoyed the James Bond films, but they had a habit of disregarding the people actually living in the far flung regions of the Commonwealth the spies had their adventures in.

I created Prudence Jones to push back at that. A Caribbean spy, trying to help the Caribbean deal with the larger nations throwing their weight around in his backyard, he’s stepping it up. And when I found out about the HARP gun project in Barbados, I knew I had to revive the program, bigger and better, and feature it as the capstone of the book.

Bond has always featured rockets and mega-projects. It’s part of the discussion. And when I walked around the HARP gun project, I thought this was a project a villain would love to take over.

As for what they’re planning to do with one, you’ll have to read Hurricane Fever to find out!

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From the Tor/Forge June 16th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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Enough With Zombies! Bring on the Pirate Apocalypse!

Child of a Hidden Sea
Written by A. M. Dellamonica

The first time I saw the Global Warming Coffee Mug, it was at the American Museum of Natural History. The mug is a commonly-found gift store item in science-y tourist attractions: aquariums, Biodiversity Centers, science museums. The idea is that you pour hot fluids into the mug, and its heat-reactive plastic artwork changes color, transforming alarming chunks of the planet’s land mass into ocean.

It’s dramatic. South America gets to looking especially moth eaten. Were you fond of Buenos Aires? Too bad! Want to visit the Amazon basin? Don’t wait until you retire.

My primary feeling, though, the first time I saw the mug, was relief. I could still recognize everything. Sure, habitats of millions of animals, plants and people vanished. But I could take comfort in the shape of the continents, in what remained.

Yes, I am appallingly Bad at Maps. Also, like many writers, I tend to imagine disasters in the starkest terms possible. Don’t get me wrong—that coffee-heated map is dire. But I could still find Saskatchewan on the mug. So… win?

In Child of a Hidden Sea, a marine videographer named Sophie winds up on a world, possibly Earth, where the continents aren’t recognizable. Almost all the land is gone; only the moon is familiar. Is Stormwrack a parallel world? A future one? If the latter, is the catastrophic whatever that rearranged the world’s geography going to happen to us? And how soon?

Though Stormwrack is an imaginary worst-case scenario for a real world problem, it isn’t scientifically realistic. According to Echopraxia author Peter Watts, the only way to transform the map of present day earth to the tiny Galapagos-like archipelagos of Stormwrack would be to flood the planet with the water ice from multiple comet strikes.

Or, alternately, a magical cataclysm. Luckily I’m better able to imagine those than I am at looking at Google Earth and envisioning a six meter ocean rise.

The good news, for Sophie and for Stormwrack anyway, is that whatever it was that made this world what it is, it took place millennia ago. Human beings survived. We’re flourishing on those little islands in the Nine Seas—there are 250 separate island nations, in fact, each with its own culture, form of government, and ecosystem. Each practices a form of magic, called inscription, which depends on the wildlife within their microclimate. Tiny variations between plant and animal species can yield great differences in the kind of magic practiced: the feathers of a blue penguin from Ylle, for example, might create a spell that’ll save a person from eighty-below weather. An almost identical penguin that nests on Murdocco, meanwhile, might be good for inscribing weather seers, people who predict those same cold snaps.

Stormwrack is a pretty fun place. When Sophie arrives, it’s enjoying an unprecedented period of peace, the Cessation of Hostilities, that dates back to an international effort to stamp out piracy in the Nine Seas. The unified front against bandits was so successful that the five pirate nations were forced to go legit, and join the United Nations-type organization created with their destruction in mind. But you can’t keep a pirate down forever, and the Isle of Gold is looking for revenge. Soon Sophie has cutthroats at her door, and problems far more pressing than some little matter of ocean rise here on Earth.

Which, you know, don’t we all?

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From the Tor/Forge June 16th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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Throwback Thursdays: Space Cadets and Starship Troopers

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In 2010, we published the first of a two volume biography of one of the giants of science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein. At that time, we had an idea: why not ask our authors about their favorite Heinlein novels? Tor editor Stacy Hill was our shepherd for this series, and introduces us to our first guest: science fiction author and futurist David Brin.

Robert A. Heinlein, Vol. 1 by William H. Patterson

From Tor editor Stacy Hill: Sometimes, a topic comes along that’s just too big for one article.

In August, Tor will be releasing an all-new, first-ever authorized biography of a towering figure in the history of the genre: Robert A. Heinlein.

So, as our own little celebration of the man and his works, we thought it would be fun to find out just how much of an impact Heinlein’s stories and novels had on a number of our—and your—favorite sf writers. We asked them a simple question—what’s your favorite Heinlein novel?

We’ll be posting their answers once a week as we build toward publication of the biography, and I hope all of you will jump in and let us know if you have any favorites, too.

But enough about us.

What’s Your Favorite Heinlein Novel, David Brin?

Heinlein and Beyond This Horizon

RAH was a question-asker.

I consider Robert Heinlein’s most fascinating novel to be his prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. (A prescriptive utopia is where an author “prescribes” what he or she believes a better civilization would look like.) While Heinlein did opine, extensively, about society in many books, from Starship Troopers to Glory Road, it is in Beyond This Horizon (BTH) that you’ll find him clearly stating This Is The Way Things Ought To Be. And it turns out to be a fascinating, surprisingly nuanced view of our potential future.

Like most Heinlein novels, Beyond This Horizon divides pretty evenly into two parts and it is only the second half that I hold in high regard. Heinlein wrote the first half at behest of the famed editor of Astounding Magazine, John W. Campbell, who was then holding forth on one of his favorite themes…that “an armed society is a polite society.”

In pushing this strange notion, Campbell was behaving very much like his arch-nemesis, Karl Marx. A few anecdotes and a good just-so story outweigh a hundred historical counter-examples. But no matter. Heinlein did as good a job of conveying Campbell’s idea in fiction as anybody could. So much so that the first half of Beyond This Horizon has been cited by state legislators in both Texas and Florida, proposing that all citizens to go around armed! Naturally, this leads (paradoxically) to a wild shoot-em-up, in the first half of Beyond This Horizon…which RAH suddenly veers away from at the midway point.

This division between halves is typical of Heinlein novels and it makes reading them an interesting, multi-phase experience. Generally, RAH was a master at starting his tales–in fact, I recommend that all neo writers study carefully the first few pages of any Heinlein tale, for his spectacularly effective scene-setting and establishment of point-of-view. (The opening scene of The Star Beast is the best example of show-don’t-tell that anyone can find.) Alas, most of his novels reach a vigorous climax, concluding part one…and then peter out disappointingly in the last half, amid a morass of garrulous talk.

But this is where Beyond This Horizon reverses all expectations. Sure, part one is action and part two is talk, as usual…only in this case, the action is silly and the talk is terrific! In fact, this is where Robert Heinlein displays how broad his intellectual reach can take us.

Here we see the clearest ever expression of his political philosophy, which is demonstrably neither “fascist” nor anywhere near as conservative as some simpleminded critics might have us think. Indeed, his famed libertarianism had limits, moderated and enriched by compassion, pragmatism and a profound faith that human beings can improve themselves, gradually, by their own diligence and goodwill.

I was amazed by many other aspects of this wonderful book-within-a-book, especially by Heinlein’s startlingly simple suggestion for how to deal with the moral quandaries of genetic engineering — what’s now called the “Heinlein Solution” — to allow couples to select which sperm and ova they want to combine into a child, but to forbid actually altering the natural human genome. Thus, the resulting child, while “best” in many ways (free of any disease genes, etc), will still be one that the couple might have had naturally. Gradual human improvement, without any of the outrageously hubristic meddling that wise people rightfully fear. It is a proposal so insightful that biologists 40 years later are only now starting to discuss what may turn out to be Heinlein’s principal source of fame, centuries from now.

When it comes to politics, his future society is, naturally, a descendant of the America Heinlein loved. But it has evolved in two directions at once. Anything having to do with human creativity, ambition or enterprise is wildly competitive and nearly unregulated. But where it comes to human needs, the situation is wholly socialistic. One character even says, in a shocked tone of voice: “Naturally food is free! What kind of people do you take us for?”

None of this fits into the dogma of Ayn Rand, whose followers have taken over the libertarian movement. If Robert Heinlein was a libertarian, it was clearly of a more subtle kind, less historically or anthropologically naive, more compassionate… and more interesting

But here’s the crux. For the most part, with Robert Heinlein, you felt he wasn’t so much lecturing or preaching as offering to argue with you! His books let you fume and mutter and debate with this bright, cantankerous, truly American soul, long after his body expired. And this joy in argument–in posing and chewing over thought experiments–is the very soul of what it means to be a writer or reader of science fiction.

This article is originally from the July 2010 Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox twice a month!

The Magic of Heists

California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout

Written by Greg Van Eekhout

I don’t like thieves. After I lost my first bike to a thief, it became hard to think of thieves as charming rogues. They’re people who would steal a kid’s sweet, sweet ride, a very special ninth birthday gift equipped with front shocks and a plastic bit that looked like a motorcycle gas tank. Thieves are jerks. And yet, I love heists. I love them so much I wrote an entire trilogy full of them, beginning with California Bones. The results of a heist are the same as those of a theft: someone takes something that belongs to someone else, and the thing taken may well be missed. But the word “heist” implies planning. It implies craft. Perhaps some style. And, sometimes, magic.

Just a couple of examples:

At 1:24 AM on the morning of March 18, 1990, security guards let two men into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The two men were thieves, and they walked away with $500 million in works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and other pieces. One might ask why on Earth the guards admitted them into the museum, these two men, these jerk thieves, who stole half a billion dollars in art. The men were dressed in police uniforms. And they were wearing fake mustaches. The mustaches are critical. The mustaches did amazing things. They transformed criminals with ill intent into trustworthy authority figures. The mustaches overcame the physical barriers of doors and steel locks and overtook the minds of the guards. The fake mustaches became powerful magical objects. Not really magical, but they functioned as well as magical objects, so we might as well consider them magic mustaches. They did the trick.

When a magic mustache won’t get the job done, a thief might turn to sleight of hand. The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida used to possess a gold bar from a 1622 Spanish shipwreck. After 5:13 PM on August 18, 2010, the museum no longer possessed it. The bar was substantial, a 74.85-ounce, 11-inch long piece of heavy metal, worth an estimated $550,000. It was displayed in a case of lexan bullet-proof glass with a small hole in it so visitors could insert a hand and lift the bar, but not be able to remove it from the case. In video surveillance footage, you can see the thieves wandering around the museum, dressed like schlubs in t-shirts and baggy jeans and baggy shorts. Their outfits were not accidental. It takes big pockets to hide an 11-inch long gold bar, which is what the thieves did after approaching the lexan bullet-proof glass case and cracking the edges such that they could poke a hand in and lift the bar and exit the museum with it. One of them smokes a cigarette on the way out. You can watch the footage on YouTube. You can actually see the moment one of the thieves take the bar. You will have no idea how he actually did it. As with any good act of sleight of hand, you know it’s not actually magic because actual magic doesn’t exist, and yet what you’re witnessing is magic.

Again, I don’t like thieves. They cause pain, loss, and consternation. A thief stole my awesome bike. And yet, I love heists, and I am far from alone. It would be overstating it to say we love the sin but hate the sinner. But in our admiration of a good heist, we often do overlook both sin and sinner while admiring the act of sinning. And making us do that is a nice bit of misdirection and illusion, which are, after all, the essence of effective magic.

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From the Tor/Forge June 2nd newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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