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!

A look back at my weird, cool life

By Rudy Rucker

The thing I like about a novel is that it’s not a list of dates and events. Not like an encyclopedia entry. A novel is all about characterization and description and conversation, about action and vignettes. I decided to structure my autobiography, Nested Scrolls, like that.

This is a picture of me in my senior year at college. At that time I had the idea that Army-issue-style transparent glasses frames were cool. My roommate and I were writing things on the walls.

Plot? Well, a real life doesn’t have a plot that’s as clear as a novel’s.  But, as a writer, I can think about my life’s structure, about the story arc. And I’d like to know what it was all about. In writing my autobiography, I came up with a few ideas.

The picture below shows me with a “magic door” in Big Sur, California in 2008. I depict this a portal to a parallel world in my novel, Mathematicians in Love.

You might say that I searched for ultimate reality, and I found contentment in creativity. I tried to scale the heights of science, and I found my calling in mathematics and in science fiction. You don’t have to break the bank of the Absolute. Learning your craft can be enough.

This picture shows me as the singer of the Dead Pigs punk rock band in Lynchburg, Virginia, 1982. This was a time when I was still drinking and smoking pot. But eventually I found a way to stop. Once you’re in your forties, Jack Kerouac and Edgar Allen Poe aren’t good role models. They died in their forties.

Here I am with my daughter Georgia in 1973. In some ways I like children better than grown-ups. Their minds are more open, less encumbered. As a youth, I was a loner. But then I found love and became a family man. I’ve spent a lot of time with my wife and our three children over the years. And now we have grandchildren. New saplings coming up as the old trees tumble down.

Here I am selling prints at the Westercon in Pasadena, 2010. I’ve taken up painting as a hobby. It’s a lot harder, at least for me, to sell a print or a painting than a story or a book! I’ve had a number of careers. Initially I was a math professor—math always came easy for me. Nothing to memorize! Then I took up writing, really that’s my core career. But, even with thirty-odd books out, writing doesn’t pay very much.

So I spent the last twenty years working as a computer science professor in Silicon Valley. Riding the wave. It was a blast. And eventually I even got good at teaching, mutating from a rebel to a somewhat helpful professor.

Whatever I did, I never stopped seeing the world in my own special way, and I never stopped looking for new ways to share my thoughts.

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

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Sweepstakes: 25 Science Fiction Books from Tor

Sign up for the Tor/Forge Newsletter for a chance to win this prize pack of 25 science fiction novels from Tor Books!

Crystal Rain Tobias Buckell The Domino Pattern by Timothy Zahn Dream Park by Larry Niven and Edward Lerner Empress of Eternity by L.E. Modesitt Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer Hylozoic by Rudy Rucker Juggler of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward Lerner Makers by Cory Doctorow Mind Over Ship by David Marusek The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber Old Man's War by John Scalzi Orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright Out of the Dark by David Weber The Outback Stars by Sandra McDonald Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov The Silver Ship and The Sea by Brenda Cooper Spin by Robert Charles Wilson Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin Watermind by M.M. Buckner The Winds of Dune by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert

Every issue of Tor’s monthly email newsletter features original writing by, and interviews with, Tor authors and editors about upcoming new titles from all Tor and Forge imprints. In addition, we occasionally send out “special edition” newsletters to highlight particularly exciting new projects, programs, or events.

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What’s Your Favorite Heinlein Novel, Rudy Rucker?

Three Heinlein Juveniles: Starman Jones, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Tunnel in the Sky

Starman Jones by Robert A. HeinleinCitizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. HeinleinTunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

I remember loving Heinlein’s novels as a boy. My favorites were and still are his three adult novels: the lovely time-travel tour de force The Door Into Summer, the radical insurgency of Revolt in 2100, and the noir and speedy The Puppet Masters. I loved those exhilarating, spine-riding slugs of The Puppet Masters so much that eventually I worked them into my own novel, Master of Space and Time.

But in this note I’ll focus on three of Heinlein’s so-called juvenile novels, starring young boys as heroes—Starman Jones, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Tunnel in the Sky. I read these when I was twelve or thirteen years old, and I reread them again when I was fifty-two, and working my novel Frek and the Elixir—which was also aimed at teenage readers.

As others have noted, Heinlein had a great knack for presenting his futures as accomplished facts without a great deal of gee-whiz. Generally, his actual science is mostly calculus and Einstein’s theories of relativity. Heinlein’s analogy between warped space and a crumpled scarf in Starman Jones made a lasting impression on me—eventually impelling me to study up on relativity theory myself. And, as a future mathematician, I was marked by the scenes in Starman Jones where the boy hero has memorized the tables of numbers needed in order to carry out a hyperjump.

In drawing up the social organizations of his future societies, Heinlein was less creative. He tended to fall back on copies of certain pre-existing types of societies. To me, there’s something of old England in Starman Jones. Citizen of the Galaxy reminds me of Graeco-Roman times with its castes of nobles, guildsmen, and slaves. As a boy, I could certainly relate to the notion of a slave rising to power, as in Citizen of the Galaxy. But Heinlein’s spaceships are run like the Navy ships he must have known, and the expeditionary parties in Tunnel in the Sky are very militaristic as well. I never liked these kinds of rigid settings—already by 1959 they seemed stale and oppressive. And when I reread Citizen of the Galaxy as an adult and came across a scene with two weary, knowing colonels talking about how great some general was, I felt a total visceral revulsion.

I loved the cool Heinlein spaceports, huge and sprawling, with oddly shaped out-buildings filled with diverse, colorful aliens. Many of Heinlein’s ships are freighters, hauling around minerals like thorium, and rare food stuffs, and drug plants, and jewels. In order to get around the hassle of having years-long sub-light-speed trips, he used hyperjumps in Starman Jones. Here, you had to fly in a spaceship out to some kind of nodal location, and jump from there. This was a good move, as then we get to have the excitement of being in a bulbous spaceship, as well as the thrill of hyperjumping to the other side of the galaxy.

In Tunnel in the Sky, Heinlein dropped the spaceships, and had people simply stepping through star gates. I loved the flying jellyfish-like aliens in Tunnel in the Sky, and later I’d write some stories about creatures like this myself—although even now I still haven’t written about them as much as I want to. An odd false spoiler in Tunnel in the Sky is that early on someone tells the boy hero to look out for “stobor.” My nimble young mind quickly noticed that “stobor” is “robots” spelled backwards. So all through the book I was waiting for the killer robots to arrive! They never did, and near the end of the book, someone remarks that “stobor” is simply a slang word akin to “snafu,” meaning some unexpected problem.

In both Tunnel in the Sky and Starman Jones, the boy hero’s relations with his parents are artistically unsatisfactory. In both novels, the parents are ineffectual bloodless liberals, and the somewhat militaristic boy never makes peace with them. He never reaches any kind of atonement with his father and mother. And, still in the psychoanalytic vein, the boy’s sexual attitudes remain at an undifferentiated polysexual juvenile level—quite unlike the more typical kind of hero who finds a partner and begins to think of forming a family.

For instance in Tunnel in the Sky, the hero’s big sister grabs him and kisses him on the lips, and her chrome battle armor digs into him. She’s in the “Amazon” army unit and she speaks of getting her subordinates to “peel down” to their underwear for “night duty.” And then Big Sis takes over the stewardship of the boy from ineffectual Mom. This is fairly kinky but, as I recall, as a boy I enjoyed reading about this and mulling it over. We valued Heinlein’s titillating or naughty bits, and no matter that they had very little connection with real life.

Regarding Heinlein’s slang—at this point a lot of it seems painfully corny. Is this simply from the passage of time, or was Heinlein already painfully corny in the 1950s when he wrote the books? The 1950s Beat writers like Kerouac and Burroughs used contemporary slang, and their books still don’t seem corny. Perhaps the difference might be that Heinlein’s slang was fake, a literary construct. That is, I’m guessing that his contemporaries never did talk like the characters in his books. One feels, on the other hand, that the Beats were writing the slang used by actual living and breathing individuals of their particular historic time. But, again, as a boy, I thought Heinlein’s snappy lines were cool.

So, from this vantage point I’m finding a few flaws. But I want to come back to the point that, when I first read Heinlein’s novels as a boy, they hit home in a way that no other novels did. He was showing me a believable future in which, as I think Vonnegut has remarked, I could become a hero just as I was. I didn’t have to go to college or grow up or change in any way. All I needed to do was to find my way to a spaceport or a stargate and—wow! I’d be off, wisecracking with girls, moving up the ranks, hopping through space warps, ditching my parents, slaughtering aliens—and learning to think.

Rudy Rucker can be found online at http://www.rudyrucker.com

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Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve (978-0-7653-1960-9 / $29.99) will be available from Tor Books on August 17th 2010.

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Related Links:

News: *Starred* Review for Rudy Rucker’s Hylozoic

Rudy Rucker’s Hylozoic receives a *starred* review in the April 15th issue of Kirkus Reviews!

They call it “Serious, uproarious fun, with brain-teasers and brilliant ideas tossed about like confetti.”

Full review:

HYLOZOIC
Author: Rucker, Rudy

Review Date: APRIL 15, 2009
Publisher:Tor
Pages: 336
Price (hardback): $$25.95
Publication Date: 6/1/2009 0:00:00
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2074-2
ISBN (hardback): 978-0-7653-2074-2
Category: FICTION
Classification: SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY

A star is assigned to books of unusual merit, determined by the editors of Kirkus Reviews.

Sequel to Postsingular (2007), Rucker’s yarn of a future where everything—animals, rocks, the planet Earth—is conscious, telepathic and often irrepressibly chatty.

This weird future stems from the exploits of teenager Chu, who strummed the Lost Chord on a golden harp to unfurl the eighth dimension and unleash limitless computing power. Though based on respectable extrapolations of current physics theories, Rucker’s approach takes a high-comic trajectory with a satirical edge, adding plot and imagery evidently inspired by the paintings of medieval Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. Once everything’s telepathic, there’s little or no privacy, and the Founders—Chu, friends Thuy, Jayjay and many others—do pretty much as they please. Chu strives to become more connected and less fixated. Thuy writes hypertext novels. Jayjay, addicted to the “high” afforded by deep communion with Gaia, spaces out. However, various alien species take notice of the now conscious Earth. While brain-surfing toward a (temporary) pinnacle of omniscience, Jayjay encounters a talking pitchfork, Groovy, and his girlfriend Lovva (the harp who played the Lost Chord). Groovy betrays Jayjay into the clutches of the Pekklet, an invading alien who quantum-entangles Jayjay and forces him to reprogram large blocks of matter; the objects affected lose their “gnarl,” becoming dull and predictable and allowing colonists from distant planet Peng to project themselves into Earth’s reality and take up immovable residence. Chu, meanwhile, meets big trouble of his own.

Serious, uproarious fun, with brain-teasers and brilliant ideas tossed about like confetti.