Monday, August 17, 2009

Book Review: Robert Heinlein's Time for the Stars

According to their biographies, Destiny's favored children usually had their lives planned out from scratch. Napolean was figuring on how to rule France when he was a barefoot boy in Corsia, Alexander the Great much the same, and Einstein was muttering equations in his cradle.
Maybe so. Me, I just muddled along.
--excerpt from Heinlein's Time for the Stars

I came to do my work at the university today, as the double enticement of air-conditioning and a working keyboard were too good to pass up. (Yes, I have low standards in this area.) Sadly, when I reached the university, I realized I had grabbed the wrong set of books. Another proud moment for the future of intellectual scholarship. And they're the weirdest selection of books, too. Iris Murdoch's Unicorn. Jim Harrison's English Major. Huraki Mirakami's Kafka on the Shore. Why do I even *HAVE* a copy of "Language and Style in Leaves of Grass"?

Anyway, the only one of the books I have with me that I've actually finished reading is Heinlein's Time for the Stars. And since I'm here and have access to a working spacebar, I might as well review it.

In the last Heinlein book I reviewed, I delivered the Introduction to Heinlein 101 speech, so I'm not going to revisit it here. Suffice to say, he's called a sci-fi grandmaster for a reason. As for the book at hand... like I said before, Heinlein's work comes in two basic flavours: the juvenile-level stuff, and the more mature stuff. Time for the Stars is definitely at the juvenile end of the spectrum; the main character never explicitly uses the phrase "gee willickers," but sometimes you can tell he really wants to.

So: plot. Heinlein combines two big sci-fi ideas: telepathy and space travel. A long shot think-tank develops a program for testing and developing the telepathy between identical twins. Pretty soon, they've reached the point where the twins can communicate instantaneously regardless of distance. This, as it turned out, is the solution to the last hitch in the space exploration problem--how to communicate with earth when you're light years away. Tom and Patrick Bartlett are such a pair of telepathic twins. But the system requires that one of them stay home, while the other gets to explore space. This creates some tension.

But that's just the first portion of the book. Once the main character, Tom, actually gets into space, the other built-in drawback of the system becomes apparent. Like in The Forever War, faster-than-light travel hasn't been invented yet, so as Tom gets further and further out, his twin brother rapidly becomes his much, much older brother. (Actually, it's not just like Forever War, it's exactly the same plot but with twins instead of a space war. Sci-fi writers like to share their conventions.) The program is saved somewhat when it's discovered that, with each pair, the older twin's descendants can be brought into the link. Then disaster strikes during one of the missions, as the crew finds a planet that is inhabited, and the inhabitants think human would make a good change of diet. Half the crew is taken in a disastrous rescue attempt, and the survivors face a bleak set of prospects: they can either go on, practically crippled, or return home with their mission prematurely failed, while the entire world has moved 60 years forward in their absence.

The climax of the book is Tom being arrested for mutiny. As the last communication link to Earth (all the other twins on board having reached the point when their Earth-linked twin has died without producing suitable heirs), he chooses to stand up for the crew and talk about going back to Earth; the new captain, however, is intent on establishing his own authority and following his orders. The situation is defused when a new wave of ships reaches the crew: following up on faster-than-light telepathy research in twins, they've discovered a new means of space travel, and the entire situation has become moot. As Tom comments, it's the equivalent of Columbus getting half way to the new world, then told to head home, because someone just invented the steam engine. The book's final passages concern how the crew acclimatizes to an Earth that views them not as heroes, but antiquated relics.

As you might gather from that description, the book's a bit of a mish-mash. The closest thing to a binding thread is the idea of space exploration under the near-light speed problem, but mostly, it's about presenting the elements that would most likely be of interest to a 1950s teenage boy: sibling rivalry, family issues, space travel, a romantic subplot that's not TOO romantic, exciting battles with aliens, and a rebellion against authority. It's telling that the climax of the book is not the fight with the aliens, which are, like the Forever War aliens, largely ciphers, but Tom's fight with the captain. Don't get me wrong--the book is more than compelling enough to sustain its 192 pages, and Heinlein uses his conventions in a clever, engaging manner. It's just very clear that this a book written with its audience in mind at all times.

The other reason that the climax of the book is a rebellion against authority is that it fits with Heinlein's long-running theme of masculine independence (the rebellion doesn't quite fit as well with Heinlein's other theme of military loyalty, which would make it an interesting companion to a reading of Starship Troopers). A similar strand shows itself earlier in the book when Tom argues for the right to include twins on the first away teams to a planet. The argument makes little sense, frankly: as the most valuable piece of equipment on the ship, the twins should be exposed. But the problem is presented more as "a real man protects himself," which means the twin must fight, doggon it.

The most interesting part of the book for me was actually the least sci-fi based: the Bartlett family dynamic. The family is composed of a father who feels that society has kept him down and oppressed him to the point where he was cheated out of his true prominence, a mother who is quietly but grimly determined to keep her family together at any cost, and a pair of twins bitterly opposed to each other, each convinced that the other is the dominant one. Also three sisters, who are most notable for having boyfriends that keep referring to the twins as freaks. So you know, charming. I'll get on the gender dynamic stuff in a minute, but for now, note that the brothers are named after figures in American history and Italian artists: Thomas Paine Leonardo Da Vinci and Patrick Henry Michelangelo. The sisters are named Faith, Hope, and Charity. 'Nuff said. This sounds like a fairly gloomy family picture, and it's true that they don't spend a lot of time in loving conversation. But it is a fairly compelling family portrayal, and fits well with the tradition antagonism between family members that would be coming out in the adolescents the book is aimed toward.

Note the emphasis here on the masculine, because that's certainly what we're dealing with. There is a fairly odd mix of genre roles in the book, which dates it more than any other element. The crew of the ship is about equally split between the genders--in fact, a female engineer gets the main role of explaining the technological aspect of relativity and so forth. That's another thing to remember about the book--Tom is a clear surrogate for its ideal reader. In this case, it means that he spends a lot of time having things explained to him, whether it's relativistic time, or women. (The poor boy understands neither, of course.) The book isn't dumbed down, exactly, but again, it's clear that it know its own audience.

Okay, that was a bit of a digression. To continue on the treatment of women, in addition to the empowerment is a "woman's place" theme. The men of the Bartlett clan are all fierce independents; the women are mostly quiet wallflower types. Tom's mother is described as a quiet wallflower compared to her independent husband, who forces the family to live in sub-standard conditions because he refuses to pay the tax for having more than three children, as it is "unconstitutional, unjust, discriminatory, against public morals, and contrary to the will of God." And Tom's nieces don't come to see him when he reaches Earth because "their husbands didn't see any need for it." Because apparently going to the return of the uncle you've never met but communicated to telepathically for years is something you let your husband decide the RSVP for.

The telepathic connection brings me to my final talking point. Heinlein's use of telepathy is very interesting. The twin connection is simple enough--talking to a twin is only one step away from talking to yourself. But this is complicated significantly when you factor in the time difference; when you're still in your late teens and your twin is worrying about his business and mortgage, things are going to get weird. But the really weird part comes in the future telepathic links. All of Pat's children and grandchildren that are telepathically compatible are also female, and there's an odd sexual intimacy associated with the link. To continue with the above, the reason his neices' husbands don't like Tom is that they are intimidated by the idea that he has communicated with their wives on a level deeper than any they can reach. But if telepathy has connotations of sexuality, then there's also a hint of taboo at work here, since Tom can only do it with women related to him. It's not incest, not by a long shot, but it's not entirely innocent either. In fact, two seconds after they meet for the first time, one such descendent, Vicky, decides she is going to marry Tom. And he goes along with it. It's a nice reversal of the gender domination dynamic, in that Tom admits straight away he's not going to be wearing the pants in this relationship, (because apparently someone has to be in charge) but it has to be said: Tom is marrying his own great-niece. The granddaughter of his twin. Which makes her pretty genetically close to Tom. And he's never actually seen her before they decide to get married. And he's been talking to her telepathically since she was a little girl.

I swear, it's falling in love with the 11 year old all over again.

Don't get me wrong: Heinlein is a good writer, and even his dreck is head and shoulders above standard sci-fi fare, and this book is not dreck. And on one level, it's interesting to see how Heinlein can include these subversive elements in a book that is simultaneously so intent on hitting its mainstream sci-fi audience. But just once, couldn't the hero find a spunky heroine he DIDN'T play a significant part in raising? I mean, am I making a mountain out of a molehill, or is there something intrinsically creepy about a relationship that begins when the man is sexually at his prime and the girl is at her most vulnerable? Isn't it saying that the way you get an independent female character is to find an independent male to make her that way?

For more attacks on sci-fi concepts of masculinity, join me next time (or, you know, eventually) when I return to Haldeman's ouevre to investigate his novel "The Hemingway Hoax." Hemingway and Haldeman. That should be fun!

Later Days!

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