Monday, November 26, 2007

Heinlein in PolyDimension

Continuing the Blogging experience, so far successfully using the Lynx text mode browser and using some guidance from a book checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library, "Publishing a Blog with Blogger" by Elizabeth Castro, Peachpit Press.

I usually try to make the monthly meeting in West Los Angeles of the Karl Hess Club (KHC), named in honor of the political philosopher and welder. The Nov 2007 meeting was on "Rand and Heinlein: Beyond This Horizon", conducted by McCall Jones III.

At the meeting some attendees expressed, what I take to be, an impression of Robert A. Heinlein (RAH) as a militarist writer who never deals with ambiguity, uncertainty or doubt and is therefore of no concern. Some spoke of "Starship Troopers" (ST) as if it was the most representative statement of Heinlein's personal beliefs. I tried reading ST and gave up, while in high school or maybe earlier. All the talk in it seemed endless, and not what I wanted at the time. I've read several of his other novels, far from all of them, but my main impression of RAH is from having read all of the available short stories and novellas and a big chunk of his essays. Before commenting on my three favorite Heinlein stories, I want to suggest (tongue-in-cheek) that the central story, key to understanding RAH is not "Lost Legacy" as asserted by KHC speaker/RAH scholar Bill Patterson, but "--And He Built a Crooked House--", with it's multi-dimensional habitat a metaphor for RAH himself.

"Life-Line", RAH's first published story, is a stirring tragedy dealing with the political theory of special interest groups colliding with the economic theory of risk. We see similar social stuggles in the world today, such as Californias current economic civil war (So. CA/"Hollywood"/Traditional media vrs. No. CA/Digital Technology/Open Source). Right now I'm partway through watching the movie "Giant" - cattle/farming/old wealth vrs. oil/technology/new wealth in Texas. Many people have commented on their opinion that the basic idea behind "Life-Line", a machine that charts human life is bogus. I disagree - as time passes, Heinlein's idea only seems more plausible - the machine in the story merely charts out what we now know as a Feynman Diagram. FDs were used by it's namesake Richard Feynman to revolutionize back-of-the-envelope calculations on the frontiers of physics, but with RAH they are not for elementary subatomic particles, but for an entire human body. The book "A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Godel And Einstein" also seems pertinent. Could anyone of kicked off a writing career with a stronger story?

"No Bands Playing, No Flags Flying" was rejected for publication by John W. Campbell because it was non-fiction. In my mind it is linked Jorge Luis Borges story "The Challenge" - superficially both are brief, just a few pages, both deal with the subject of courage. Borges story rang so true he was bombarded with letters perporting to tell the real story of the protagonists crippling showdown with an anonymous thug from the other side of town. It rings true because it stands in for Borges own showdown with the anonymous, unseen forces that blinded him, and not so anonymous, all too often seen political forces that would hound him. Similarly, Heinlein cuts past hundreds of dreary pages about life in a tuberculosis sanatarium and deals directly with a crucial confrontation equal to Borges in significance.

"Water Is For Washing" is an extrapolation on Heinlein's essay on patriotism. The central character overcomes several irrational fears, literal phobias in some cases, prejudices in others, to act on Heinlein's definition of patriotism as given in his essay, surviving a geological catastrophe in the process.

An Alternate History Scenario.

I have to wonder how different peoples perception of RAH would be if "Stranger In a Strange Land" had been filmed first instead of "Starship Troopers". As his wikipedia entry hints, would these same people be dismissing him as a countercultural, New Age flake instead of a fascist militarist? It had been pointed out at previous KHC meetings even in ST, most of the people doing public service in the scenario's society are *not* in the military. RAH sold a lengthy 'action adventure war' story. It was Monty Python that finally filmed "A Day In the Life of a Chartered Accountant".


Anonymous said...

Excellent post Dallas. Great material!

Christopher Smith said...

You know, the funny thing is that I've never read Starship Troopers. To me Heinlein brings up Stranger in a Strange Land, the Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Time Enough for Love. I actually got to feel that Moon is a Harsh Mistress was closer to his thinking process, but that's more of a guess than any clear authorial insight. Part of what I've observed is that over his career his writing has covered a wide range of perspectives.

In the end, he wrote *fiction*, and telling a lot of different kinds of tales from different perspectives is merely a sign that you are doing it well. Why would one want to conclude narrow political viewpoints for fictional writes?