SF Book Review, Part 1: The Heinlein Juvenile Edition

In case you can't tell from my recent posting history, I've been reading a lot of science fiction lately. I've always had an affinity for the genre, but I came to realize recently that I've only really explored a rather small portion of what's out there. One area I was notably deficient on was the Heinlein juveniles, a subgenre that seems to be almost universally revered but which I had largely neglected. I'd read several of his later novels (including Starship Troopers, which seems to be the turning point for when Heinlein started writing for adults), but his juveniles seem to hold a special place in SF history, so I wanted to explore them a bit. In a discussion at the 4th Kingdom, I got several recommendations for Heinlein juveniles along with some others. I've also been looking at various best-of lists to get some ideas about the history and best examples of SF. As such, I still have lots of books I want to work through, but I figured what I've covered in the last few months is worth a recap. I have 10 books I want to cover, but today we'll only take the first 5 (most of which are Heinlein juveniles). The next 5 will be posted on Wednesday.
  • Between Planets by Robert A. Heinlein (1951): And we start with perhaps my least favorite of the novels covered in this post. It's not especially bad, I just didn't connect with it in a good way. The plot concerns a teenager caught in the middle of a war, yes, between planets. From a storytelling and thematic perspective, it seems to be pure Heinlein, stressing the individualism and implicit distrust of political institutions and social engineering that would become his hallmark. Eric S. Raymond has written a fascinating take on the history of SF from a political perspective, and he describes Heinlein's philosophy as being the core of what's called "Hard SF." Raymond writes:
    There was also a political aura that went with the hard-SF style, one exemplified by Campbell and right-hand man Robert Heinlein. That tradition was of ornery and insistant individualism, veneration of the competent man, an instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that that valued knowing how things work and treated all political ideologizing with suspicion.
    This is something we'll see in all of the juveniles I'm reviewing today, and Between Planets is no exception. Take, for example, this paragraph from page 91 of my edition (about halfway through the book):
    He had lived in security all his life; he had never experienced emotionally, in his own person, the basic historical fact that mankind lives always by the skin of its teeth, sometimes winning by more often losing -- and dying. ... But never quitting.
    All that said, I found the execution of the story somewhat lacking. Heinlein's prose seemed awkward and stilted (though perhaps that has something to do with reading this book 57 years after it was written). In any case, some of the specifics of the plot also seemed a bit too on-the-nose and coincidental as well. It was an entertaining and short read, but definitely not even close to Heinlein's best.
  • Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953): When Clarke died earlier this year, lots of folks listed their favorite Clarke stories, and this one often topped the list. I've read his 2001 and Rama series (both of which started off excellently, but eventually ran out of steam) and was interested in his other works, so I figured this was a good place to start. The book is short, intriguing, entertaining and it tackles similar themes as Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. To say more would give away too much of the story, but Clarke has always been enamored with the idea of transcendence, and it was interesting to read this story with the knowledge that he was writing this long before concepts like the technological singularity were being thrown around. In that, the book is prescient, though in other things, perhaps not so much. Once again, the book's prose seems a bit on the simplistic side, but it worked fine (it was not awkward at all, but neither was it very literary - this is rather common with Golden Age SF, which seems to be written in a more pragmatic manner that favored clarity over literary flourishes (I remember Asimov writing in a similar fashion)). The plot, concerning a technologically superior alien race appearing in our skies, is something that seems familiar at first (and why not? This book must have influenced the likes of Vand Indepence Day), but plays out differently than you might expect. The structure of the plot was a little strange in that there didn't seem to be any one main character, and we end up following several threads... but not simultaneously. Perhaps it's that I'm so used to multi-threaded stories that a story told from various perspectives in serial form seemed odd. But there's really nothing wrong with that, and it works well. Ultimately, I think I still prefer Rendezvous with Rama and maybe even 2001 to this book, but it's still quite good.
  • Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (1955): Probably the most involving and taut of the juveniles that I've read, this story is more concerned with basic survival techniques more often seen in frontier westerns than science fiction. But from a SF perspective, it does make sense. If we do create something similar to the star gates in the book, we will essentially be expanding into new, uncharted wilderness filled with alien ecologies, and as such, survival skills would be at a premium. The SF ideas are certainly there, but they do take a backseat to the survival elements. The story concerns a group of students sent on a survival test to an uninhabited planet. The test is supposed to last only 2-10 days, but naturally, someting goes horribly wrong and the students must fend for themselves in an unhospitable environment for much longer than anticipated. Thematically similar to Lord of the Flies, Heinlein uses the setting to delve into human nature and politics, as various groups of students must band together and organize themselves to survive. A quote (from page 6 of my edition):
    Man is the one animal that can't be tamed. He goes along for years as peaceful as a cow, when it suits him. Then when it suits him not to be, he makes a leopard look like a tabby cat.
    Again, this story stresses individualism and especially the veneration of the prototypical Heinleinian "competant man" (and, I should note "competent woman" as well since the story features several, which was apparently something of a rarity at the time). Unlike Between Planets, the prose here is fluid and the pages seem to turn themselves. The story is economical, realistic and thrilling, and is the most consistently good of Heinlein's juveniles that I've read so far. From beginning to end, I loved this one. Perhaps not my favorite Heinlein book, but right up there at the top of the list.
  • Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (1956): This is technically not an official Heinlein juvenile, but it resembles one in both tone and style. It's another story that seems kinda familar, but it doesn't play out the way I thought it would. An entertaining yarn about an actor hired to impersonate a politician during a critical negotiation. Of course, things don't exactly go as planned, and there are lots of roadblocks that present themselves along the way. Not as thrilling or involving as Tunnel in the Sky, it was still consistently good throughout. An interesting quote from when the actor must confront the Emperor (from page 145 of my edition):
    Like most Americans, I did not understand royalty, did not really approve of the institution in my heart -- and had a sneaking, unadmitted awe of kings. ... Maybe that is a bad thing. Maybe if we were used to royalty we would not be so impressed by them.
    And once again we see Heinlein's implicit politics embedded into the story (though I should say that he's not very preachy about it in these books - at least, not as much as he was in something like Starship Troopers). Overall, a solid read, and apparently very popular at the time as it won a Hugo award.
  • Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein (1958): The trademark characteristic of "Hard SF" is the high standard of both scientific rigor and storytelling skill required to make a good novel. Most SF before 1940 was decidedly not realistic and poorly structured. Heinlein and his contemporaries raised the bar in terms of scientific plausibility while retaining an entertaining edge. This is perhaps more difficult than it sounds, as scientific plausibility can easily take the form of boring tedium. But in this book, Heinlein is able to wring a lot of suspense out of seemingly boring details like the amount of oxygenavailable for your trek across the moon (which comprises one of the most intense set pieces in the Heinlein juveniles I've read). Ultimately, this book veers off in a different direction and ends on a different note (including the appearance of a rather interesting Roman centurion). A little uneven compared to Tunnel in the Sky and Double Star, but where it's good, it's really good.
That's all for tonight. Stay tuned. The next 5 books will be posted on Wednesday, and cover books ranging from 1967 to 2008, by the likes of Zelazny, Vinge, and Gaiman.