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Monday, February 25, 2013

Adventures in Science Fiction

I’m a smorgasbord-style reader: a bit of this, a taste of that. There’s no genre I won’t try and I believe there are good books and bad books in every genre.

Having said that, there are some genres I don’t often sample: sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, westerns, spy thrillers…I think of them (to myself) as “boy books.” But I do dip my reading toe into those waters every once in a while. I loved every Harry Potter book. I follow certain mystery writers: Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie. I’ve had Robert Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters on my guilty pile of unread books, oops, I mean my nightstand, for a long time – years, believe it or not – ever since my sci-fi/fantasy-loving #2 son told me, “You should read this, it’s good,” back when he was in middle school. He’s out of college now and I decided it was time.

I did read it – it took all of two days, being not much longer than a typical New Yorker article – and I did enjoy it. The story is familiar: alien parasitic “slugs” have invaded Earth from Titan, a moon of Saturn; they attach themselves to people at the upper back, and then control them completely. I assumed the book was the basis for the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, until a little Wikipoking revealed that this book became its own movie version in 1994, starring Donald Sutherland. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was first a book by Jack Finney in 1954 and then a movie in 1956 starring Kevin McCarthy, remade in 1978 with, yes, Donald Sutherland.

Donald Sutherland in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Heinlein’s writing is entertaining and over-the-top in a 1950s hard-boiled tough guy kind of way, which made me laugh out loud from time to time. The book is set in the far, far distant future: 2007. The world Heinlein imagines from half a century prior is not much like the one I see around me in 2013 – his America has ray guns and flying cars, space stations on Venus, a Marxist Sino-Soviet block that still has frigid relations with the freedom-loving West (following a nuclear World War III, which “had not settled the Russian problem, and no war ever could”). In his world everyone still smokes, and the Miss America contest is very popular. But there is a version of a cell phone, with the audio relay surgically implanted into the user’s skull (I’m sure that’s right around the corner for us: the iEar).

Couldn't resist a pic of him.
Heinlein imagines "scanning rigs," that are like video cameras, but when one blows a tube (a tube!), a critical mission is botched. And although he invents marriage contracts that make unions easily disposable, and a world in which people live on Venus, he couldn't imagine much change in the relations of the sexes. His main character, a government secret agent named Sam, makes Don Draper look like Betty Friedan. 

“A babe is just a babe,” Sam says when he meets Mary, the gorgeous (of course) agent with whom he soon falls in lust and then love. He calls her a “vixen” and a “wench,” she calls him “The Wolf” and “Bub,” to which he replies, “Don’t give me that ‘Bub’ stuff or somebody’s going to get a paddling.” Their boss at the agency, called the Old Man, tells him, “Most women are damn fools and children.” Sam doesn’t disagree.

Heinlein’s political propensities seem almost as outdated as his gender politics: “I wondered why the Titans had not attacked Russia first; the place seemed tailor-made for them. On second thought, I wondered if they had. On third thought, I wondered what difference it would make.” His philosophy is a powerful belief in self-reliance and the power of the strong, freedom-loving individual, which also seems a bit naïve and out-of-date, although that may just be my pinko-commie-liberal-Manhattan-elitist ear. Sam sounds a bit like President Reagan at times: “Whether we make it or not, the human race has got to keep up its well-earned reputation for ferocity. The price of freedom in the willingness to do sudden battle, anywhere, any time, and with utter recklessness.” 

My major criticism, as a piece of writing, is that Heinlein has a tin ear for dialog. Sometimes I wondered if he ever heard actual people speak. He doesn’t seem to believe in contractions (they’re for liberals too lazy to write out the words?) so his people say things like “they are” and “I will” and “it does not” instead of “they’re” and “I’ll” and “it doesn’t,” which lands awkwardly on my ears.

But despite the clunky dialog and the (often hilarious) politically incorrect attitudes, I enjoyed the ride. Like so many books set in the “future,” it reveals far more about precisely where it originates. I am awfully glad (as Sam might say) I live today. 

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