Tag Archives: writing

Heinlein and Beyond This Horizon

Robert A. Heinlein was a question-asker.

heinlein-beyond-horizonI consider Robert Heinlein’s most fascinating novel to be his prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. (A prescriptive utopia is where an author “prescribes” what he or she believes a better civilization would look like.) While Heinlein did opine, extensively, about society in many books, from Starship Troopers to Glory Road, it is in Beyond This Horizon that you’ll find him clearly stating This Is The Way Things Ought To Be.

And it turns out to be a fascinating, surprisingly nuanced view of our potential future.

Like most Heinlein novels, Beyond This Horizon divides pretty evenly into two parts and it is only the second half that I hold in high regard. Heinlein wrote the first half at behest of the famed editor of Astounding Magazine, John W. Campbell, who was then holding forth on one of his favorite themes . . . that “an armed society is a polite society.”

anecdotes-historyIn pushing this strange notion, Campbell was behaving very much like his arch-nemesis, Karl Marx. A few anecdotes and a good just-so story outweigh a hundred historical counter-examples. But no matter. Heinlein did as good a job of conveying Campbell’s idea in fiction as anybody could. So much so that the first half of Beyond This Horizon has been cited by state legislators in both Texas and Florida, proposing that all citizens go around armed! Naturally, this leads (paradoxically) to a wild shoot-em-up, in the first half of Beyond This Horizon… which RAH suddenly veers away from at the midway point.

heinlein-star-beastThis division between halves is typical of Heinlein novels and it makes reading them an interesting, multi-phase experience. Generally, RAH was a master at starting his tales–in fact, I recommend that all neo writers study carefully the first few pages of any Heinlein tale, for his spectacularly effective scene-setting and establishment of point-of-view. (The opening scene of The Star Beast is the best example of show-don’t-tell that anyone can find.) Alas, most of his novels reach a vigorous climax, concluding part one… and then peter out disappointingly in the last half, amid a morass of garrulous talk.

But this is where Beyond This Horizon reverses all expectations. Sure, part one is action and part two is talk, as usual… only in this case, the action is silly and the talk is terrific! In fact, this is where Robert Heinlein displays how broad his intellectual reach can take us.

heinlein-libertarianHere we see the clearest ever expression of his political philosophy, which is demonstrably neither “fascist” nor anywhere near as conservative as some simple-minded critics might have us think.

Indeed, his famed libertarianism had limits, moderated and enriched by compassion, pragmatism and a profound faith that human beings can improve themselves, gradually, by their own diligence and goodwill.

heinlein-solutionI was amazed by many other aspects of this wonderful book-within-a-book, especially by Heinlein’s startlingly simple suggestion for how to deal with the moral quandaries of genetic engineering — what’s now called the “Heinlein Solution” — to allow couples to select which sperm and ova they want to combine into a child, but to forbid actually altering the natural human genome.

Thus, the resulting child, while “best” in many ways (free of any disease genes, etc), will still be one that the couple might have had naturally. Gradual human improvement, without any of the outrageously hubristic meddling that wise people rightfully fear. It is a proposal so insightful that biologists 40 years later are only now starting to discuss what may turn out to be Heinlein’s principal source of fame, centuries from now.

heinlein-biographyhWhen it comes to politics, his future society is, naturally, a descendant of the America Heinlein loved. But it has evolved in two directions at once. Anything having to do with human creativity, ambition or enterprise is wildly competitive and nearly unregulated. But where it comes to human needs, the situation is wholly socialistic. One character even says, in a shocked tone of voice: “Naturally food is free! What kind of people do you take us for?”

None of this fits into the dogma of Ayn Rand, whose followers have taken over the libertarian movement. If Robert Heinlein was a libertarian, it was clearly of a more subtle kind, less historically or anthropologically naive, more compassionate… and more interesting.

But here’s the crux. For the most part, with Robert Heinlein, you felt he wasn’t so much lecturing or preaching as offering to argue with you! His books let you fume and mutter and debate with this bright, cantankerous, truly American soul, long after his body expired.

writer-science-fictionAnd this joy in argument – in posing and chewing over thought experiments – is the very soul of what it means to be a writer or reader of science fiction.

Finally, for more about Heinlein, see the extensive new two-volume biography by William H. Patterson, Jr.:

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Vol. 1 (1907 – 1948): Learning Curve., followed by volume two:

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Vol. 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948 to 1988.

–David Brin

http://www.davidbrin.com

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under literature, science fiction, writing

Questions I am frequently asked about… (Part III) Brin Books, The Postman etc.

Continuing this compilation (from Part 1 and Part 2) of questions that I’m frequently asked by interviewers. This time about…

 ==ABOUT DAVID BRIN’S BOOKS==

 –Which of your own novels is your personal favorite? 

DBBooksMontageThat’s like asking: Which of your children do you like best? Glory Season is my brave, indomitable daughter. The Postman is my courageous, civilization-saving son. Earth is the child who combined science and nature to become a planet. The Uplift War…well, I never had a better character than Fiben the earthy-intellectual chimp!

 –Were you happy with the Kevin Costner adaptation of your post-apocalyptic novel The Postman? 

PostmanPBThe Postman was written as an answer to all those post-apocalypse books and films that seem to revel in the idea of civilization’s fall. It’s a story about how much we take for granted – and how desperately we would miss the little, gracious things that connect us today. It is a story about the last idealist in a fallen America. One who cannot let go of a dream we all once shared. Who sparks restored faith that we can recover, and perhaps even become better than we were. 

The-Postman-1997-movie-posterWas The Postman film faithful to this? Well, despite several scenes that can only be called self-indulgent, or even goofy… plus the fact that I was never consulted, even once… I nevertheless came away more pleased than unhappy with what Costner created. Though flawed, it’s a pretty good flick – if you let yourself get into it. One that deals (a bit simplistically) with important issues and is more faithful to the book’s inner heart than I expected at any point during the long decade before it was released.

Costner’s postman is a man of decency, a calloused idealist, not particularly courageous, who has to learn the hard way about responsibility and what it means to be a hero. The movie is filled with scenes that convey how deeply we would miss the little things… and big ones like freedom and justice. In fact, it includes some clever or touching moments that I wish I’d thought of, when writing the book. 

Visually and musically, it’s as beautiful as Dances with Wolves. Kevin Costner is foremost a cinematographer, I will gladly grant him that. Rent and watch it on a wide screen.

VideoPostmanBrin Would I have done things differently? You bet! In a million ways. But I didn’t have the 80 million dollars to make it, and in keeping true to the heart of the book, he earned some leeway when it came to brains. Anyway, life is filled with compromises. I’d rather look for reasons to be happy. 

I have posted my full response, discussing the book and the movie, on my website: http://www.davidbrin.com/postmanmovie.html 

–Are you planning on returning to the Uplift Universe? 

Yes.  Soon, even!  Next big thing.  Have a look at the Uplift Universe Web Site.

banner_uplift

–Can you reveal some of the inspirations behind the Uplift Saga? How did you come up with the idea? 

If we don’t find intelligent life in the galaxy, humanity will create it. We might contrive new entities through artificial intelligence. It could happen the American way – by encouraging more and more of us to diversify in new directions, with new interests and passions and quirky viewpoints. And of course, diversity spreads whenever we add new intelligent life forms called our children. 

Then there is the idea of creating other kinds of beings to talk to through some change in the animal species that already exist around us. 

0345447980.02.LZZZZZZZOther authors have poked at this idea before. Cordwainer Smith and Pierre Boulle and H.G. Wells. Boulle’s Planet of the Apes and Wells’s The Food of the Gods or The Island of Dr. Moreau, and all other attempts to deal with this topic did stick to just one perspective, however.  Just one dire warning. They all  portray the power to bestow speech being executed in secret by mad scientists, then horribly abused by turning these new intelligent life forms into slaves. 

FoodI believe that – partly because of these cautionary tales – that’s not what we will do. Because of those self-preventing prophecies, I wanted to show something else instead. What if we try to uplift other creatures with good intentions? With the aim of making them fellow citizens, interesting people, accepting that in some ways they might be better than us? Certainly that’s worth a thought experiment too? Adding to the diversity and perspective and wisdom of an ever-widening Earth culture? 

 Wouldn’t those creatures still have interesting problems? Of course they would!  More complex and interesting than mere slavery.  At least, that is what I hoped to explore. 

For more on Uplift: See Intelligence, Uplift and our place in a big cosmos

=====     =====     =====

==Return to Part 1: Questions about Writing and Science Fiction

or Part 2: Questions about Science Fiction and Fantasy

 

Leave a comment

Filed under literature, science fiction