Saturday, November 27, 2010

Old [Sci Fi] Books You Should Have Read

Some people have a kneejerk reaction to any suggestion that they might like science fiction, which is “No, I won’t!” But there are so many kinds of sci fi within that broad genre that I’ll bet everyone would like something, if only they found the right something to read. An old classic sci fi writer (often called one of the "big three" along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke) is Robert Heinlein, who is perhaps most famous for Stranger in a Strange Land, which was the beginning of his unorthodox (and occasionally weird) explorations of social themes such as religion and relationships. I much prefer some of his early works, which rely on the adventures of space exploration. Three books I enjoy enough to re-read periodically are: Time for the Stars (1956), Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958). Is some of the science dated? Yes, definitely, but that’s part of the fun of these seminal speculations about the future—finding out how writers expected the world to be in, say, 2010!

Time for the Stars is the story of the first enormous colony spaceships, sent out to find new planets onto which the human race could expand. Since there is no form of instantaneous communication yet invented to keep the ships in touch with Earth, somebody has the brilliant idea of finding identical twins with the potential for telepathy, training and honing their talents, and then sending one on the ship while leaving the other at home, since telepathy is instantaneous. (Doesn’t everyone know that?) Of course, there are considerations about aging, because the twin traveling at light speed would experience the passage of a few weeks while for the twin stationary on Earth decades would have come and gone….

Citizen of the Galaxy takes place after people have conquered the stars, and follows the fortunes of a young boy who has been kidnapped from his family and sold as a slave. After a few bad experiences, he is lucky enough to be sold to an old beggar on a spaceport planet, who happens to be a government agent in disguise, and who adopts him, then trains and educates him to be a spy too. When his Pops dies, the boy has been directed to find the captain of a certain ship and call in a favor to become a member of its crew; he does so, and is bewildered by his new life on board a ship with social structures so inhibiting that he can barely function without offending someone. It’s a fascinating look at the ways different cultures deal with closed societies.

In Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, a high school boy writes a jingle for a contest to sell soap. He wins second prize—a space suit (first prize was a trip to the moon)—which he really wants to keep, but he needs money for college tuition and reluctantly decides to sell the suit. Before he does, though, he puts it on and takes a walk outside at night, and when he broadcasts on the suit’s radio, an alien spaceship lands and kidnaps him!


Despite their age and the occasional anachronism, all these books retain their charm and fascination. Heinlein successfully makes any kind of scientific idea sound perfectly believable, and that, along with his vivid characters, makes him a storyteller still worth reading. Other favorites of mine are The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (with a sentient computer a lot more fun than the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey) and The Door Into Summer, which recounts the invention of the robot from its obscure (and highly inventive) beginnings.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) was a multiple Hugo award winner, who was known for writing both "hard" and "social" science fiction. Some of the scientific gadgets he made up for his books that later were realized in the real world include: hand dryers, drafting software, mobile phones, moving walkways, solar panels, screensavers, waterbeds, and online newspapers. He published 32 novels, 59 short stories, and 16 collections during his life/career. He has both a crater on Mars and an asteroid named after him. Check him out!

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