What follows immediately is something I wrote a day or so ago and didn’t get around to posting right away. I’ve read another Heinlein book since then that I’ll discuss separately.
I’ve read two Heinlein books in the past week and part of a third. The two I read were Starman Jones and Podkayne of Mars. Each of those was an enjoyable, if not particularly great or memorable, sci-fi story. Each deals with an individual who yearns to travel in space and their adventures once they are able to do so. The latter is told in a first person perspective that is interesting and combines an elements of a thriller with the standard sci-fi space yarn. The former is just straight sci-fi goodness. Neither will earn a spot on my shelves, nor do I have plans to re-read them, but they weren’t bad. (Pet peeve: Why does Heinlein need to call his interstellar navigators “astrogators”? It’s annoying. And how is that pronounced anyway? “A-strog-a-tor”? “Astro-gator”? That last sounds like it was an carnivorous space-reptile.)
The Heinlein book of which I read merely part was Stranger in a Strange Land. It started out well, with an interesting hook about the first mission to Mars being unsuccessful and the second mission years later finding that Mars was inhabited and that there was one survivor of the original expedition. But after this survivor was transported back to Earth, the feel of the book changed. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but something was off. So I skimmed ahead and read some Amazon review information online and discovered that the book turns quickly away from anything to do with science fiction and is instead a Randian anti-religious, free love screed. All the religions of the world are corrupt and wrong, everyone is a god, god is just what feels good, nothing is bad as long as everyone present is a consenting adult, etc. It was inane, amateurish and repulsive. Granted, the other books of his that I have read (the two mentioned above and Starship Troopers) were not masterpieces of plot and dialogue, but at least they weren’t insulting grade-school philosophies dressed up as the wisdom of the ages spoken through the mouth of a fictional “prophet”. The only reason I can come up with to explain how such a book became a best-seller is to note that it was originally published in the 1960’s when there were more people willing to give credence to such nonsense and the fact that many people will always welcome a philosophy that tells them that they don’t have to do anything different, that what they are already doing is just fine.
Since I wrote that I’ve also read Heinlein’s Glory Road, and my opinion of him hasn’t really changed. His work is puerile and the only redeeming quality is that he can sometimes come up with a pretty good plot that his writing and characterizations don’t completely destroy. Glory Road was nothing more than adolescent male fantasy expanded to book length. A young ex-soldier bumming around Europe is picked up by a beautiful woman who recruits him to be her sci-fi knight-champion and after he does several deeds of derring-do, he marries her, finds out she’s Queen of the universe(s) and then he finds out she doesn’t feel at all possessive and he can basically have his pick of all the women in the universe(s) and she won’t care. Throughout the book most of the women are remarkably attractive and wear remarkably few clothes. While there aren’t any outright sex scenes, the implication is certainly there. What’s ridiculous is that what could have been a half-way decent sci-fi story similar to Alan Dean Foster’s trilogy The Damned (A Call to Arms, The False Mirror and The Spoils of War), though on a much smaller scope. The conclusion at which I am arriving regarding the fiction of Mr Heinlein is not so much that it is really bad, but that it is extremely immature.
The last new book I read was one of the earliest of the Saint novels, Knight Templar. This book, in contrast to Heinlein was not necessarily immature, but it was bad. It was mind-numbingly awful. The writing was like the detective stories that Wodehouse parodied in his Jeeves and Wooster novels. As an example take this description of the Saint himself:
He lounged against the binnacle, a fresh white cylinder between his lips, his lighter flaring in his hand. The adventure had swept him up again: she could mark all the signs. The incident of which he had returned to speak so airily was a slight thing in itself, as he would have seen it; but it had turned a subtle scale. Though he lounged there so lazily relaxed, so easy and debonair, it was a dynamic and turbulent repose. There was nothing about it of permanence or even pause: it was the calm of a couched [sic] panther. And she saw the mocking curve of the eager fighting lips, the set of the finely chiseled jaw, the glimmer of laughter in the clear eyes half-sheathed by languid lids; and she read his destiny again in that moment’s silence.
As Bertie would say, “I mean to say, what?” And consider that something like that crops up every third page or so. But I have read a Saint story (written several decades later than this one) that wasn’t bad at all, so I’ll probably sample a few more books before giving the up as a lost cause.