Friday, October 5, 2007


Robert A. Heinlein

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Usually spoken as the acronym TANSSTAAFL (pronounced Tan-staffle) it is the national motto of Luna, the Earth's moon, in the 2100's thriving as an independent nation-state. Dr. Richard Ames (aka Colonel Colin Campbell) is a resident of Golden Rule, a luxury space habitat orbiting Luna. While dining late one evening at one of the habitat's classiest and priciest restaurants with Miss Gwen Novak (aka Hazel Stone), a man comes to their table and delivers a cryptic message. The mysterious messenger is immediately killed by a poison dart and is quickly and mysteriously whisked away by extraordinarily well-timed waiters.

So begins The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, my first exposure to the science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein. In the following 24 hours Campbell and Stone will fall in love, marry, disarm and kidnap a man sent to assassinate them, are evicted from their apartments on Golden Rule, accused of a murder and barely escape from the habitat, disguised as a Japanese woman and her samurai in a rent-a-wreck Spaceship from Hertz.

What appealed to me most about this book, at a time when I thought that I did not like science fiction, because I neither understood or appreciated the science in most science fiction, was that with Heinlein it never mattered. Heinlein was a master story teller and entertainer and his books were always written such that you neither had to know nor be able to understand the science behind the plot, although he always explained it. And the explanations were always easily understandable even to the non-scientist.

Suffice it to say that the newlywed's marriage does not get any less zany or frantic in an adventure that will take them to the other end of the galaxy, several thousand years into the future and back and end ambiguously with them in a fight for their lives attempting to save a computer named Adam Selene, a computer said to have "woken up" and become sentient. If you enjoy a fast paced, comic adventure story this one is Highly Recommended.

Equally frenetic and comic in it's way, Friday is the story of an artificial person or AP, named Marjorie Baldwin who works as a combat courier for a mysterious un-named quasi governmental espionage agency. Created in a laboratory from various genetic materials, artificial persons ("my father was a test tube, my mother was a gene knife") are designed to be and in fact Are completely, beautifully, fully human. Exceptional intelligence, strength and other abilities enable them to do all sorts of otherwise impossible jobs. Because their unique and amazing abilities are resented, AP's are often regarded as super-human or less-than-human and are widely reviled in society. Most hide their status and often claim to be orphans when asked about their parents.

Thus Heinlein is able to work in some pretty sophisticated social commentary on prejudice and discrimination without ever mentioning black vs white or any other real life examples of discrimination which might inflame animosities or make it appear that he was taking sides. This novel also provides examples of the types of plot and scenarios that earned Heinlein a reputation as a "sexual libertarian"-- group marriages and casual promiscuity are presented in a tone that is clearly proscriptive rather than judgmental. This theme of sexual liberty would appear again in many other Heinlein works including Time Enough For Love and To Sail Beyond The Sunset. Highly Recommended.

Stranger in a Strange Land, widely regarded as a hippie "bible", and considered by some of the free love generation as a religion or at least a life plan manual, is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human born on Mars and raised by Martians after his human parents and the rest of their space exploration team perished. A subsequent space ship arrives and spirits the now fully grown off-spring back to earth and things quickly get antic in the classic Heinlein manner.

Due to a peculiarity in Earth's inheritance laws and the terms of the contract under which the ship carrying his parents was sent to Mars, Mr. V. M. Smith is legally the owner of all mineral, development and other rights for Mars. The fact that Mars actually belongs to the Martians quite escapes the pompous governmental flunkies, business executives, slimy television preachers and reporters of every stripe who are all insistently drawn to the Man From Mars. He quite fails to understand what all of the fuss is about. You see, he thinks in Martian. And that makes quite a difference.

Brought from the returning space ship to a hospital to recover from space sickness and adjust to Earth's much heavier gravity, Mike displays a number of extraordinary behaviors, such as slipping into a catatonic trance when nervous or excited. Spirited from the hospital by a kind-hearted nurse who sees the dangers implied by the many people desperately trying to sneak in to see her patient the two take refuge with one of Heinlein's most memorable upper-middle aged male curmudgeons, Dr. Jubal Harshaw (who also appears in several other Heinlein novels).

In an extremely clever maneuver orchestrated by Harshaw, Smith appoints Joseph Douglass, Secretary General of the Federation of Free States, Earth's de facto planet-wide government, as his agent, thus neutralizing the threat of his many sycophants and shifting it onto Douglass, who in a manner preiscient of Ronald Reagan's government run by Nancy and her astrologer is guided in all things by his wife Alice, the classic power behind the throne.

Thus shielded from the dangers of his exceptional wealth, Mike begins the process of learning human language and culture and does so at an astonishing rate. Mike consumes entire encyclopedias as quickly as most people read dime store novels. After a season of learning, Mike sets off with Jill, the nurse who spirited him from the hospital, and sets out to work as a sideshow magician with a traveling carnival. His Martian-taught ability to move, create and destroy matter by Thought (Martian's find the exertion expended by humans to do such things physically strange and pitiable) enable him to produce some amazing effects but his lack of showmanship dooms the act to failure.

Learning from his mistakes and inspired by the lead preacher of The Fosterites, a religious sect that might be described as Mormons go Vegas, Mike earns a Divinity degree and starts his own church. He teaches his followers to speak, then read, then think in Martian and his church is a wild success, with rituals and practices that are at once familiar and utterly foreign to readers familiar with modern day Christianity. In a very Christ-like finale Mike marches unafraid into a pack of hostile rowdies who kill him. His followers retrieve his body and take it home to eat, thus closing the circle of life in the Martian way.

Stranger In A Strange Land introduced into the vernacular, "I am only an egg", an expression of the individual's insignificance in comparison to the group and of the long road of learning required to become an elder, which for a Martian means watching and learning from the world around him until so much is grokked that the next stage of growth is not just possible, it is inevitable. Which brings us finally to the word grok, Heinlein's most unusual and enduring contribution to the language. Because I do not speak Martian, I do not yet grok grok. For me, waiting is not yet filled. If after reading the book, you too fail to grok grok, Wikipedia may be of some help. Highly recommended, particularly to anyone who ever was or ever wanted to be a hippie.