Variable Quality?
April 28, 2009 8:59 AM   Subscribe

James Wallace Harris on Variable Star, Spider Robinson's posthumous collaboration with Robert A Heinlein, the elements that make up a Heinlein juvenile and what the equivalent might be today.
posted by Artw (82 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Readers should note that he appears to be down on that whole "science fiction doesn't have to be sciency" thing and that kind of tints his view.
posted by Artw at 9:00 AM on April 28, 2009


I've been thinking I should read the juveniles to my boys. They (the juveniles, not the boys) are relatively icky-libertarianisms-free, IIRC, but they might also be too old-timey. I doubt I will recommend Spider Robinson to my kids, though, as I'm ashamed of my younger-but-still-adult self for having read more than one of his books.
posted by DU at 9:10 AM on April 28, 2009


(After reviewing the plots of a few of the juveniles, I'm remembering how permeating the icky-libertarianisms are even in the books for kids. Also, are executions of Lunar Nazis relevant to today's young boy?)
posted by DU at 9:22 AM on April 28, 2009


*Waves hand in air*

Let me just add that writing a Heinlein novel is harder than it looks. (I speak from experience.)

There's some recent evidence from the original MSs that Heinlein's 1950s juveniles were ruthlessly edited, and if they'd been published as written they'd have been a bit flabbier and bloatier. Never underestimate the value of a good editor! (And I'm not talking about vi or emacs.)
posted by cstross at 9:26 AM on April 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


You don't have to look at recent evidence to find flabby, bloated Heinlein writing. Look at I Will Fear No Evil or Time Enough for Love among others.

And now I should stop commenting in this thead.
posted by DU at 9:28 AM on April 28, 2009


John Barnes, Orbital Resonance.

That period should be emphatic.
posted by sixswitch at 9:28 AM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Do randroids dream of electoral sheep?
posted by mhoye at 9:28 AM on April 28, 2009


I would think your kids would look oddly at you, Artw, if you tried to read a Heinlein juvie to them. Protagonists use sliderules, have crewcuts, drink malteds... it's very much the Fifties with spaceships until you get off the planet. That said, I love them back in the day, and found them entertaining, exciting, and challenging in terms of the tech. Have Spacesuit, Will Travel was actually the very first "real" sf I read, when I was about 9 or 10. Others that might hold up better are Citizen of the Galaxy and Farmer in the Sky.

Just my two cents.

Also, for a non-Heinlein Heinlien juvenile, check out Alexi Panshin's Rite of Passage. His critical study of Heinlein, Heinlein in Dimension, was much derided by Heinlein and Spider Robinson, et al.

Panshin's website here.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:29 AM on April 28, 2009


Past a certain point, all of Heinlein's books are juveniles.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:30 AM on April 28, 2009


Autopost of Metheny on G to any "posthumous collaboration" discussion: check.
posted by freebird at 9:38 AM on April 28, 2009


Let me just add that writing a Heinlein novel is harder than it looks. (I speak from experience.)

You've gotta be talking about Saturn's Children, although I'd never put the two together before. Funny, when the cover is almost exactly like the one for Friday, not to mention the stuff inside.
posted by TypographicalError at 9:42 AM on April 28, 2009


Harris's prescription for a 2010s YA SF novel sounds a lot like Accelerando, and I hated that book. Then again, I'm not a young adult.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:48 AM on April 28, 2009


A lot of critical comments here about Heinlein..

In the 50's I used to visit the local library branch on a daily basis, begging them to order more science fiction, about all that was on the shelf at the time was Heinlein's books and Asimov... these were the books that turned me into a reader..... If you were ten or eleven at that time, these were wonderful!
posted by HuronBob at 9:48 AM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Variable Star wasn't bad, but it wasn't the real thing either. I think what I minded most about it was that the characters were exceptional and the plot relied on a couple dei ex machina.

By "exceptional", I mean that the protagonist is the son of a Nobel prize winner, his antagonist is the richest man in the world. This is (mostly) not in the Heinlein tradition in the juveniles especially, the characters are all "normal" people (maybe the protagonists are brighter than average). Ok, the eponymous Starman Jones has eidetic memory, but he comes from a modest hillbilly background. And Andy Libby is a human calculator, also from the Ozarks. But by and large, the heroes of juveniles are Everymen.

And Heinlein's dei ex machina are at lest more subtle, more likely, less multiplied on atop the next, than Robinson's. Jones becomes as astrogator through chance deaths and his rare memory, but Joel in Variable Star gets seduced by the daughter of the world's richest man, then gets ruined by her father's machinations, then improbably encounters them both after the Earth is destroyed. It's a whole multiplication of coincidences, not really necessary to the story, in contrast to Heinlein's much more probable turns of events.

In sci-fi, it's conventional to allow the author one a-scientific improbability (FTL drives being the epitome), with the understanding that everything else is scientific or logically follows from the one improbability. You want something similar with coincidences or dei ex machina. Robinson takes the coincidences too far, and then he piles on top of his near-lightspeed drive a bunch of metaphysical hand-waving hoo-haa about psionics, and then he gives us an unscientific solar nova and an FTL drive, with none of these things shown to have a common departure from real physics. It's too much, and it's unnecessary.

But perhaps worst, in Heinlein's juveniles, the protagonist kid learns and grows, in maturity and responsibility, through error and reassessment. Not so much Robinson's protagonist. He "finds himself", but he doesn't seem to grow. Like the other elements of the novel, it's much more slap-dash.

Don't get me wrong, it's an enjoyable read, but it lacks as much Heinlein as it emulates.

(I read Variable Star a year or so ago. I can really empathize with the linked reviewer, because two months ago, I finally read Heinlein's last novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset. I'd purposely not read it in the two decades since Heinlein's death, both to have "one last" Heinlein to look forward to -- but with my own age beginning to tell on me, I decided I'd better read it --, and out of worry that it would be another of his cringe-worthy incestuous late novels. of course, it is chock-full of incest, but to my surprised, other than that it mostly wasn't cringe-worthy. It's mostly a first-person look at how America grew and changed over the course of the Gilded Age to the 1980s, and if it reminded me of anything, it reminded me of Willa Cather's My Antonia or O! Pioneers. Too much incest, but as Heinlein's look at/farewell to America, well worth reading. )
posted by orthogonality at 9:48 AM on April 28, 2009


My favorite Heinlein book is Old Man's War.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:58 AM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


the original MSs that Heinlein's 1950s juveniles were ruthlessly edited

This is my theory of why many authors begin to suck as they go along - they become to big to be properly edited. No one is going to take their red pen to Margret Atwood's latest turgid tale of turpitude. And in genre fiction it's even worse. Why bother spending money on an editor when the latest Piers Anthony novel (or whoever) is going to sell anyway? I'm sure Robinson's book would have seemed truer to the original if he had been edited as heavily as they were. But he got chosen specifically because he was beyond heavy editing.
posted by GuyZero at 10:14 AM on April 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised to find from that Wikipedia link that Podkayne of Mars isn't considered one of the juveniles. It's my favorite - along with Space Family Stone - and I gave it to my kids, although they were not as impressed as I was. It's the book that led to my long fondness for Heinlein (until, yeah, the incest just got Out of Hand) and I still love it. There wasn't a lot of science fiction in the kids section in my local library in the mid seventies and there was even less with a female protagonist. After years of reading my way through the whole library, accepting the fact that Dr. Doolittle, on Earth or his moon trip, had a boy for an assistant and all the other Heinlein books only had boys and Nancy Drew just was never as interesting as the Three Investigators and even in a series of obscure, vaguely political 60s books that I treasured and yet have forgotten (featuring teenagers who changed the world through Dadaist pranks) the girls made coffee and mended things, well, Podkayne rocked my small world. I wanted to be her. I still kind of want to be her.

I didn't even know that Spider Robinson had done a new Heinlein. It sort of makes sense: they're both tone deaf in the same way and they're both kind of embarrassing to be caught reading. I will probably read it when it gets to my Heinlein/Robinson infection vector, a.k.a. the Goodwill. At least the protagonist smokes, drinks and curses, because, oh please. Things change in half a century.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:15 AM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've been thinking I should read the juveniles to my boys.

I have read a couple to my seven year old son:

Tunnel in the sky: Great experience! The story has plenty of straight-forward action but it also led us into some good discussions on leadership and government. He did ask my wife worriedly if all high-school students get sent to another planet for survival training. Maybe I should have emphasized that it was fiction.

Rocketship Galileo: The future as imagined in the 1940s raised some problems. My son asked if the protagonists in the book were going before or after Neil Armstrong and was confused about the cargo rockets used for intercontinental travel as he had never seen one. He enjoyed it though, and he learned quite a bit about orbit mechanics.

Between planets: We are reading this one now and really enjoying it. I think it's good for him to hear that governments can be evil and we have had good discussions about what the tell-tale signs might be. This book also has a little more humor and feels less preachy. It is my son's favorite so far.
posted by Triplanetary at 10:18 AM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wait wait wait.

Spider Robinson wrote something that didn't involve impossibly smug characters alternately having squicky sex and drinking Irish coffee (for which they've made up a vomit-with-rage-inducing nickname) immediately before becoming telepathic, all the while making horrible intrusive puns?

All I need now is a two-headed calf for Apocalypse Bingo.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 10:35 AM on April 28, 2009 [6 favorites]


Spider Robinson wrote something that didn't involve impossibly smug characters alternately having squicky sex...

Well, it's a Heinlein novel.
posted by DU at 10:54 AM on April 28, 2009


Spider Robinson wrote something that didn't involve impossibly smug characters alternately having squicky sex and drinking Irish coffee (for which they've made up a vomit-with-rage-inducing nickname) immediately before becoming telepathic, all the while making horrible intrusive puns?

You've sold me. I'm reading more Spider Robinson.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:57 AM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Having no other experience with Spider Robinson, I rather enjoyed Melancholy Elephants (dedicated to Virginia Heinlein). It's a short story, so maybe he didn't have the space to fit the sex and drinking in.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:08 AM on April 28, 2009


Yah, hang on a second there. Heinlein had ridiculous (and kinda bad, frankly) sexual obsessions; often silly plotting; and was honestly not in the same category of prose craft as some other science fiction writers of his day.

Nonetheless, he is one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time! "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"! "Orphans of the Sky"! "Starship Troopers"! Come on, these are Monoliths! These are beacons which cast light into uncharted wastes for the illuminated horde which would follow his lead - perhaps with sensibilities more in line with our own, perhaps with more lyrical prose and rich characters - but follow nonetheless.

I *love* Robinson's RGB Mars books. Among my favorite fiction ever. Yet I was really shocked to re-read Moon is a harsh Mistress and realize how much it informed that later work. In many ways, RGB Mars can be seen as a simple updating of the latter for a more modern reader. So have fun at Heinlen's expense - god knows he deserves and would enjoy it. But don't forget how much and how many rest upon his shoulders.
posted by freebird at 11:21 AM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Guyzero: This is my theory of why many authors begin to suck as they go along - they become to big to be properly edited. No one is going to take their red pen to Margret Atwood's latest turgid tale of turpitude. And in genre fiction it's even worse. Why bother spending money on an editor when the latest Piers Anthony novel (or whoever) is going to sell anyway?

It's a bit more complicated than that. I just handed in my 15th novel today; I speak from experience when I say that once your editor figures that you know what you're doing, they won't edit you any more unless you kick up a fuss and demand it. Editors don't just edit books all day; the commissioning editors who acquire the books you read are actually middle management and spend a lot of time in policy meetings, or in meetings with marketing and sales folk. Their time for editing is limited, and so they tend to spend it where it'll have most effect -- on authors submitting their first or second novel.

If they think you know what you're doing they'll take whatever you hand in without a sanity check. And it is very easy once you've written a dozen novels to assume that you know what you're doing and to trust your own self-evaluation of the work.

(I kicked up a fuss and demanded an edit on my last novel, because it needed one. I'm not ashamed to admit it: the result will be a better book.)
posted by cstross at 11:34 AM on April 28, 2009 [7 favorites]


My first intro to sci-fi was the collection of Tom Swift Jr books at a school library in Oklahoma. I've recently started putting together a set, so I can read the whole series start to finish.

I didn't get into Heinlein until freshman year of high school, when I discovered a nearby gaming/hobby shop that had a selection of classic sci-fi they had been trying to sell since the '70s. Dozens of never-read paperbacks that included all of the Heinlein juveniles, tons of Asimov, Anthony, and more.

By the end of the school year, I had one of those foot-locker guys completely full of all this amazing classic sci-fi. I shipped it home UPS, but only insured for the default $100, and they never arrived. I am still so pissed.

"The Cat Who Walks Thru Walls" was when I realized that the Heinlein I'd known and loved was no more. But I bought and read "Job", just to be sure.
posted by nomisxid at 11:45 AM on April 28, 2009


I... demanded an edit on my last novel... I'm not ashamed to admit it

And you shouldn't be. Rare is the writer who doesn't benefit from a good editor.
posted by GuyZero at 11:50 AM on April 28, 2009


"Citizen of the Galaxy" is a serious book. What does it mean to be free? Truly free? The main character starts out as a slave, and goes through various changes in life circumstances and meets other people in different situations too. But, can any of them be said to be truly free? Each of them have their own constraints, sometimes physical, sometimes not ...
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 11:55 AM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh man. I will take any opportunity to talk about Heinlein Juvies and how much I love them.

Yeah, they are massively anachronistic. But to this day The Rolling Stones is one of my favorite SF novels ever, full stop, because it so charmingly encapsulates a particular scenario I love in SF—the lonely space traders plying the void between orbits in a single star system. I loved it in Stones, which set me up to love it in Cowboy Bebop and Firefly and any number of stories since.

Also, I am seconding sixswitch's suggestion of John Barnes' Orbital Resonance. It's pos-def a novel with many of the elements that have kept Heinlein's juvies close to the hearts of those who already love them, but excises the ones that have aged poorly. Also, it's a much more heartening book to read than Barnes' Kaleidoscope Century. I'm just sayin'.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go reread Time for the Stars.
posted by pts at 11:58 AM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


"'Citizen of the Galaxy' is a serious book. What does it mean to be free? Truly free?"

And in addition to all that, Heinlein sketches out both a slave-holding culture and that of the Trading families, where the need to maintain ties among distant ships while avoiding in-breeding by exogamy logically leads to their novel culture and family organization. And all that's mostly detail to rest of the novel. That's what made Heinlein so great: instead of Potempkin villages, you got the feeling you were looking into a real, logically self-consistent world.
posted by orthogonality at 12:05 PM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


I *love* Robinson's RGB Mars books.

Erm, wrong Robinson?
posted by adamdschneider at 12:09 PM on April 28, 2009


Never underestimate the value of a good editor! (And I'm not talking about vi or emacs.)

Why was vi in that sentence?
posted by thatwhichfalls at 12:11 PM on April 28, 2009


The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is still the essential Heinlein novel for me, and my favorite.

Oh, okay, so I like The Star Beast and The Puppet Masters too, so fucking sue me.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:16 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sadly, these two excruciatingly annoying individuals have left me, lately, with a misplaced aversion toward new SF.

I really need to get over it and move forward.
posted by Ratio at 12:18 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I re-read Have Spacesuit, Will Travel recently and I found it claustrophobic. I felt like I was in this funny head all the time. Sure this head was really smart and going to interesting places and doing interesting things but it seemed so small. All these amazingly different things were all alike, squashed into this small, hard, round perceptive field. I'm glad it didn't go on for much longer. I have fond memories of all the early Heinlein, but now I'm a little worried about rereading any of them. My favorite juvie I have not reread is The Rolling Stones. My favorite juvie I have reread is Time for the Stars.

Growing Up Weightless, by John M. Ford may be good for young persons. I remember it fondly, but not well.

The most Heinlein-like writers I know of that I still read and re-read are John Varley and Lois McMaster Bujold. Bujold's style has matured into it's own thing and seems to get better and better. She has always handled the more grown-up stuff of sex and violence with grace and sympathy, definitely un-Heinleinian and vastly improved for it. I haven't read much recent Varley and although I wouldn't recommend what I have read to kids, it's definitely more like Heinlein's style, subject matter, and themes but way better somehow.
posted by wobh at 12:26 PM on April 28, 2009


For those saying that kids today wouldn't find them relevant:

I grew up on Heinlein in the 80's-early 90's. No one used slide rules. I /did/ in fact, have a crew cut. I loved them. Then again, I also loved Stephen Meader (anyone ever heard of him?).

I mean, kids still read Robert Stephenson and "get it" don't they? Despite the paucity of (sailing ship) pirates?

Have Space Suit, will Travel will always be my favorite, hokey as it may be.
posted by Yellowbeard at 12:27 PM on April 28, 2009


Also, it's a much more heartening book to read than Barnes' Kaleidoscope Century. I'm just sayin'.

No fucking kidding. The accumulation of shitty situation on shitty situation followed by the big twist at the end (signposted by the title) made for a rather harrowing novel.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is still the essential Heinlein novel for me, and my favorite.

Everyone who's read some Heinlein novels has a clutch of usually different favorites - tMiaHM is in everyones group though. I think it, with all its faults, is one of the best SF novels ever written. Anyone who enjoyed it should read John Varleys "The Steel Beach" which is kind of an updated remix with added sex-changes. I have a suspicion that "The Steel Beach" itself (and it's conceptual sequel "The Ophiuchi Hotline") was on influence on Iain (+/- M) Banks Cultute novels.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 12:28 PM on April 28, 2009


I'm in agreement with Yellowbeard. Heinlein can be as much fun as Sherlock Holmes to modern kids. Be interesting to see if he has the staying power 50 years from now.
posted by Mitheral at 12:33 PM on April 28, 2009


Yeah, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is my favorite too. I've probably read it twenty times or more.
posted by orthogonality at 12:39 PM on April 28, 2009


From orthogonality's comments above:

By "exceptional", I mean that the protagonist is the son of a Nobel prize winner, his antagonist is the richest man in the world. This is (mostly) not in the Heinlein tradition in the juveniles especially, the characters are all "normal" people (maybe the protagonists are brighter than average). Ok, the eponymous Starman Jones has eidetic memory, but he comes from a modest hillbilly background. And Andy Libby is a human calculator, also from the Ozarks. But by and large, the heroes of juveniles are Everymen.

Actually, don't forget Kip Russell in my aforementioned favorite. His dad's occupation wasn't exactly specified (though seemed to span several careers from professor to politician to spy) but it was mentioned that he was incredibly smart and that he had married his smartest student. That said, like Jones and Libby, Kip was raised in small town USA in a modest background (and, might I add, Heinlein was even then saying that American public education was getting watered down to the point of being useless - our school system seems to have had at least perceived problems for years).

That being said, I generally agree with orthagonality's other observations about Variable Star. While I enjoyed the novel, and there were definitely some very Heinlein moments, it just wasn't a Heinlein novel to me. Also, though I applaud Mr. Robinson's efforts and am not exactly knocking this aspect of the book, I did find all the other references to other Heinlein novels to be a little jarring. Just not something that I think RAH would have done, or else wouldn't have done in the manner in which they were done.
posted by Yellowbeard at 12:43 PM on April 28, 2009


"Actually, don't forget Kip Russell in my aforementioned favorite. His dad's occupation wasn't exactly specified (though seemed to span several careers from professor to politician to spy) but it was mentioned that he was incredibly smart and that he had married his smartest student."

But didn't that come from Kip? Who can be seen as an unreliable narrator, especially as to his opinions about his parents and to stories he heard from his parents (i.e., his never observed his parents' courtship, and "smartest student" might be Kip's bias, his father's bias, his father's politeness (akin to a man asserting that his wife is, to him, the most beautiful woman in thee world), or true but true only in a local sense (she may really be the smartest, but of the limited universe of Kip's father's students)). There are lots of smart students -- there are lots of smartest students, one per course/professor/class/college/university. But a Nobel laureate -- there are what, at most three per category per year.

Don't many of us, at that age, think our parents are really smart?

My point being that Heinlein allows the reader to construe Kip's life as the reader will. Which gives the story and Kip more verisimilitude, and makes it easier for the reader to empathize with Kip, because in the abscence of contradictory information, the reader will construe Kip to be like himself. (Which may also explain the vagueness of Kip's father's work.)
posted by orthogonality at 1:02 PM on April 28, 2009


Erm, wrong Robinson?

huh? no, that's the one...
posted by freebird at 1:05 PM on April 28, 2009


Erm, wrong Robinson?

huh? no, that's the one...

In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, Heinlein and Robinson are much more similar than I tend to think. Plots which sometimes feel like thin high tech membranes stretched tight over a framework of political and technical ideas? Check. Characters which tend to be archetypes and caricatures? Check. Somehow cynical and warm love for humanity with all its foibles and surprises? Check. Strong female characters who are not just sex objects? Hmm. Well OK I didn't say *identical*, just more similar than I'd thought about before.
posted by freebird at 1:11 PM on April 28, 2009


orthogonality But didn't that come from Kip?

In fact, no. Well, some of it does (Kips quotations of his father's conversations with the tax man, among other things). However, the part about his father being amazingly smart and his mother being his father's smartest student comes from Peewee's father, who knows who Kip's father is and remarks upon it. I want to say that the other scientists in the room (this, at the end, after Kip and Peewee have returned from their adventure) know of his father as well, but, not being able to find the book (did I loan it to someone? I hope I can find it), I couldn't confirm that. Also, keep in mind that, though I have probably read the book 4-5 times, I have not done so in several years.

Of course, all of what I am saying is as reported by Kip, as he is the narrator. However, I am going to assume that he has reported this part honestly; my alternative being to call into question his entire reporting of the events and, thus, the entire story itself (I think I would tend to doubt his extrasolar adventures before I would doubt his reporting of a remark by someone made about his father).
posted by Yellowbeard at 1:16 PM on April 28, 2009


Kim Stanley Robinson = Red, Blue and Green Mars
Spider Robinson = multitudinous crap

Different people.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 1:16 PM on April 28, 2009


Kim Stanley Robinson = Red, Blue and Green Mars


No spoilers, please. Just getting around to reading Red Mars (followed by the rest) now. And not too far in, either.

Thanks.
posted by Yellowbeard at 1:20 PM on April 28, 2009


Oh I see - I didn't even think about the confusion with Spider Robinson! I just got excited thinking about RGB Mars vs. MiaHM. But I'm not confusing them, I'm just ignoring the Spidery one.
posted by freebird at 1:22 PM on April 28, 2009


In many ways, RGB Mars can be seen as a simple updating of the latter for a more modern reader.

Only if you are completely insane.

It is interesting that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is always recommended as the universal option when really it is a pretty poor novel. It is true that his others are even worse but it is still crudely written libertarian wank. I'm not surprised Heinlein was popular with Americans in the olden days but I'm amazed he continues to be read.

I've not seen it mentioned in this thread but Robinson is doing more of these, a trilogy in fact. Not everyone is happy about this.

Oh, and Rite of Passage is rubbish too.
posted by ninebelow at 1:24 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I really appreciate ninebelow's exuberant testing of the purported probabilities of Godwinning a thread, here. ;)
posted by Yellowbeard at 1:27 PM on April 28, 2009


Sorry, should have actually said "Case's Corollary," above.
posted by Yellowbeard at 1:31 PM on April 28, 2009


Although I guess that actually applies to the whole thread. Not trying to pick on you, ninebelow.
posted by Yellowbeard at 1:32 PM on April 28, 2009


See also Varley's Red Thunder. Not exactly a juvie as there's, like, sex and stuff, but Heinleinian in spirit.

Never underestimate the value of a good editor! (And I'm not talking about vi or emacs.)

Well, no. You're talking about good editors.

I have a suspicion that "The Steel Beach" itself (and it's conceptual sequel "The Ophiuchi Hotline") was on influence on Iain (+/- M) Banks Cultute novels.

You have some of the chronology wrong. Steel Beach is from 92 (unless you mean a short fiction precursor?), towards the end of the Eight Worlds works. The Eight Worlds stuff started in the mid 70s, and Ophiuchi Hotline is from 77. Consider Phlebas, the first Culture novel published, was in 89.

You'd have to ask Banks (though I guess cstross might know) the extent to which the Eight Worlds stuff influenced the Culture. But, Banks had been playing with the Culture for a long time. ISTR that the first (utterly unworkable) draft of Use of Weapons dates from the mid/late 70s.

But if I had to bet, I'd bet that Steel Beach itself was more influenced by the Culture books than the other way. It certainly feels a bit different than the Eight Worlds stuff that had gone before, especially the way the Mind-equivalent is so front and center.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:21 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


On the other hand he's acknowledged TMIAHM as a big influence.
posted by Artw at 2:29 PM on April 28, 2009


You have some of the chronology wrong.

You're right - I didn't realise Steel Beach was so comparatively recent. Looks like the influence went the other way, if at all. A shame because I have a hard time finding direct US influences on Banks and you just took away my main one ...

Actually the UK publication of CP was mid-eigthies. I mention it because I was at Edinburgh University at the time and Banks came to the SF club and read a couple of stories from what was to be State of the Art.

I think Ophiuchi Hotline has been a big influence on may people - the "Earth is off limits" setting was a major part of Schismatrix, the shifts in personalities part of almost everything Alastair Reynolds has written.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 3:12 PM on April 28, 2009


TBH I think if you're looking on American influences on the development of Bank's SF work you're probably looking more at people like John Brunner, Ursula LeGuin and Samuel Delaney rather than anyone more recent than that.
posted by Artw at 3:37 PM on April 28, 2009


Aha here it is:

Here is Banks' Top Ten SF books that he specified in an interview in Arena magazine.

1. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - Robert Heinlen
2. Tiger! Tiger! - Alfred Bester
3. Hyperion - Dan Simmons
4. Fire Upon The Deep - Vernor Vinge
5. Neuromancer - William Gibson
6. The Dispossessed - Ursula K Le Guin
7. The Muller-Fokker Efect - John Sladek
8. The Pastel City - M John Harrison
9. Stand on Zanzibar - John Brummer
10. Babel-17 - Samuel R Delany


So I guess it's not all 60s/early 70s.
posted by Artw at 3:40 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


(I have to admit I've never read Hyperion - seeing it on the list there I may give it a go. I've never even heard of The Muller-Fokker Efect)
posted by Artw at 3:41 PM on April 28, 2009


Actually the UK publication of CP was mid-eigthies.

Indeed; 87 not 89.

I didn't realise Steel Beach was so comparatively recent.

The 8 worlds stuff spans so much time, and is internally consistent enough, that remembering what came when is legitimately hard, especially in relation to the internal chronology.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:20 PM on April 28, 2009


I thought Doctorow's "Little Brother" could be the modern equivalent of a Heinlein juvenile. It was smart, funny and had those nice asides that were almost lectures.
posted by zzazazz at 4:35 PM on April 28, 2009


A lot of critical comments here about Heinlein..

In the 50's I used to visit the local library branch on a daily basis, begging them to order more science fiction, about all that was on the shelf at the time was Heinlein's books and Asimov... these were the books that turned me into a reader..... If you were ten or eleven at that time, these were wonderful!


Early to mid-eighties too, I spent several wonderful summers sailing with my parents and constantly holed up in the forward cabin breathing bilge fumes and devouring the sci-fi collection of my local library (when I wasn't learning how to hand, reef and steer), so much Heinlen and Asimov, which quickly led to a million other authors, but I distinctly remember moving from Boys Own Adventure type stuff (Treasure Island, My Side of the Mountain) to Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and it cracked my poor fucking brain wide open
posted by Divine_Wino at 5:10 PM on April 28, 2009


In many ways, RGB Mars can be seen as a simple updating of the latter for a more modern reader.

Only if you are completely insane.


That is trenchant analysis indeed, but I'm afraid you are completely insane or a jackass. Maybe an partially insane jackass, I don't know you very well.

Let's leave off any deep discussion of trope and subtext, you're swinging an axe not a scalpel. Also, I don't want to spoil anything for yellowbeard :)

1) Both are about how the first offworld colony develops it's own culture and what that might look like. Among other things, how the technical aspects of colonization/terraforming affect that culture, and the tension between the new lifeways and the inherited ones.

2) Both revolve heavily around the tension that emerges between Earth and its colony as the latter becomes self-sustaining.

3) Both give major billing to a specific technology that allow this tension to play out in a much more balanced scenario than without. The technology is different, but 1960s scifi has a different set of tools and obsessions than millenial scifi, duh.

4) Both are practically built around exploring specific western traditions and theories of politics and uprising, largely in relation to the time they were written.

5) Both explore shifting notions of "family", "generation", and "environmentalism" in ways that reflect both the future technical context and, perhaps more strongly, the issues and recent history of the writer.

So, sorry. I think you have to be completely insane to pretend there's no relationship. Not only for the above reasons and not only for the detailed specifics I'm leaving out: do you really think a man who got a PhD focused on Science Fiction would not have read this book everyone here agrees is a seminal work of Science Fiction? Do you think he would write something with all these parallels BY FUCKING ACCIDENT?
posted by freebird at 5:19 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


That came out wrong. I don't think you're a jackass ninebelow, I just think you're wrong. But I look forward to you explaining your view and am interested. I was surprised myself by how much I felt RGB Mars was informed by MiaHM.

Also, a "simple update" is a bit of hyperbole - there's obviously a great deal going on in Mars that's not really present in Moon at all, largely about humanity's relationship with the environment. Like I said, I love both books deeply.
posted by freebird at 5:29 PM on April 28, 2009


Hyperion was pretty good, but I don't think I'll read any more Simmons. I was looking forward to Drood, but if it's as lame as Ilium/Olympos ended up being...

I liked Ilium, but I stopped reading Olympos 50 pages from the end. That's right, I read 1600 pages, and decided that the last 50 weren't worth it.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:36 PM on April 28, 2009


For what it's worth, being a huge Heinlein fan, I never cared for the Moon is a Harsh Mistress at all. Outside of the latest 4-5 books that are universally disliked, and one of the first books (The Fifth Column), "the Moon .." is my least favorite novel. Juveniles are the best. Heinlein's awesome.
posted by rainy at 6:46 PM on April 28, 2009


Interesting, freebird -- but I think ninebelow may have called you insane for saying that Mars is a "simple updating" of Moon. I truly loved Moon, don't get me wrong (and I really should reread it), but ... I'm halfway through Blue Mars for about the umpteenth time and it just ain't a simple update. Which, of course, you point out in your second comment.

But you're right in pointing out the parallels. I never thought of it before, but it's clear they're at least exploring the same ground. I really am going to have to reread Moon -- unfortunately, it's no longer in my collection. I'll have to find a new copy.

Yellowbeard, I envy you. The Mars books are fantastic. I had the misfortune of reading them first in Green-Red-Blue order (which made it more like reading history) but I still fell in love immediately.
posted by Michael Roberts at 6:52 PM on April 28, 2009


Strong female characters who are not just sex objects? Hmm. Well OK I didn't say *identical*, just more similar than I'd thought about before.

Not quite sure whom you are excluding. Surely not Heinlein; but Robinson gave us Maureen/Sherry, who is nothing but a young Heinlein's wet dream.

Also, Spider Robinson not only dedicated novels to Heinlein, but meta-dedicated "all of them" to Heinlein on at least one dedication page.

they're both kind of embarrassing to be caught reading

Yeah, no kidding. I've outed myself on my blog as being a lover of Robinson, to some general dismay. With the immortality of the typed word, that is going to come back and bite me some day -- if only as ammunition from a girlfriend, in an argument. That will be OK, though. I'm sure she will just be a whore with a heart of gold on the inside, anyway. :^)
posted by quarantine at 6:58 PM on April 28, 2009


Damn it, for a second, I thought Spider Robinson had died! Don't do that to me!

/Proud Spider fan. I got to meet him once and was a blathering fool. He was very gracious.
posted by thebrokedown at 7:45 PM on April 28, 2009


"I thought Doctorow's 'Little Brother' could be the modern equivalent of a Heinlein juvenile. It was smart, funny and had those nice asides that were almost lectures."

For this, we must burn you.
posted by orthogonality at 8:46 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Do you think he would write something with all these parallels BY FUCKING ACCIDENT?

They are both books about colonies elsewhere in the Solar System, obviously there are going to be some parallels. The ones you have listed are extremely broad though and Red/Green/Blue in no way amounts to a "simple updating". Robinson's trilogy is a substantially broader and deeper work with a much more sophisticated examination of political, social and technological issues.
posted by ninebelow at 3:40 AM on April 29, 2009


I thought Doctorow's 'Little Brother' could be the modern equivalent of a Heinlein juvenile. It was smart, funny and had those nice asides that were almost lectures didactic, had paper thin characters and was already totally obsolete.
posted by ninebelow at 3:43 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Red/Green/Blue in no way amounts to a "simple updating"

I already agreed to the "simple" part. As above, we can't really get into specifics without revealing spoilers, but I think your misguided disdain for all things Heinlein makes you underestimate the depth of the relationship between the texts. There are plenty of books about colonization which share much less, surely?

I have my own issues with Heinlein, and as I mentioned, was surprised and strangely disappointed when I reread MiaHM. I love RGB Mars deeply, and felt somehow as though it was lessened by the similarities. I've since come to think that it's the opposite:

Even someone like you who dislikes Heinlein would surely agree that he typifies a certain "type" of American Science Fiction of his era. With that, he typifies a certain view of the world and our role in and upon it. So to write a book about these subjects and *not* address MiaHM, and in some way retell it from a new perspective, would be a sign of ignorance and shallowness. I think we can both agree that KSR is neither of those things.

So: I think it's ridiculous to make the claim that "the books are so similar only because they are about the same things" which seems to be your position. I think you lessen RGB Mars by ignoring what seems a clear dialogue with it's "heritage".

I thought Doctorow's 'Little Brother' [...] was already totally obsolete.

I'm not going to defend Doctorow, but I'm intrigued by this notion of a book being "obsolete", rather than simply "good" or "bad". It seems like this is your biggest problem with Heinlein, honestly. "Those old white guys with their 1950s mentality can't have anything of interest to us Cool Kids." It's cute, but you're missing some good stuff.
posted by freebird at 9:27 AM on April 29, 2009


Hmm. The Doctrow bashing seemss a little extreme, and i say that as someone who finds the guys public pronouncements frequently annoying. I've not read Little Brother, but he's turned out some solid SF over the years, with Down and out in the Magic being a great novel and some of his short stuff being not bad as well (I particularly like "After the Seige"). Some of his stuff is a little flabby and indulgent, but that could be said of a lot of authors.
posted by Artw at 9:50 AM on April 29, 2009


I think it's ridiculous to make the claim that "the books are so similar only because they are about the same things" which seems to be your position.

Why have you put that in quotes when it isn't something I said? I don't think they are particularly similar, that is my whole point. I'm glad you've backed down from your original unsupportable claim but I don't see what grounds we have for agreement. I certainly don't believe that it would be ignorance and shallowness to write a book about colonisation that wasn't in dialogue tMiaHM but even if RGB Mars is in dialogue with it this is only a very minor of the work.

Regarding obsolescence, there are a lot of books out there and I won't be able to read all the ones I want to before I die so I'd rather read books that are of more than just historical interest. That doesn't mean not reading novels from the Fifties but it does mean not reading ones that are hopelessly outdated.

Artw: Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom is a great book but Little Brother is like a novel-length version of his more over-the-top public pronouncements.
posted by ninebelow at 10:20 AM on April 29, 2009


I've never even heard of The Muller-Fokker Efect

Read that second-hand back in the day... though to be honest I remember the other Sladek I read at the time more. In particular the one about the robot murdering his way to President (Tik Tok, I think)

(... though it is an interesting one to ask for in the book shop)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:46 AM on April 29, 2009


Lets just say I won't be rushing to buy it, or download it free from the interwebs then buy a T-Shirt from Cory, but that's no reason to dismiss his entire body of work.
posted by Artw at 10:46 AM on April 29, 2009


I'm pretty sure I've read some M John Harrison, but it's a bit of a blur and I don;t know if it was the Virconium stuff. Might have to track that down as well.
posted by Artw at 10:48 AM on April 29, 2009


FWIW I can’t recommend the other books on that list highly enough.
posted by Artw at 10:50 AM on April 29, 2009


Apropos fearfulsymmetry: I'm a big John Sladek fan; alas, nobody is writing anything quite like his satires on the military-industrial complex these days -- but The Muller-Fokker Effect is high on my re-read pile right now. Highly recommended, FWIW.
posted by cstross at 11:15 AM on April 29, 2009


The list is really solid, although I wonder at the inclusion of The Pastel City rather than a later Viriconium book such as A Storm of Wings. I suspect that if the list were made today that Harrisons fairly recent Light would be on it - a triumphant return to SF after a couple of decades away and as fully messed up as any of his "mainstream" novels.

I shouldn't have been surprised to see Tiger, Tiger (far superior UK title for what's known in the US as The Stars My Destination) on there. Parts of The Use of Weapons are a direct hommage to that book and Bester has always been extremely popular among UK SF writers.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 11:28 AM on April 29, 2009


I'm glad you've backed down from your original unsupportable claim but I don't see what grounds we have for agreement.

I've simply agreed with folks who said more gracefully than you that my "simple updating" hyperbole understates things that are unique in RGB Mars. But you seem very unwilling to have a real conversation, so please don't consider my continued interest in discussing this as being directed at you.

One of the things I find interesting about this juxtaposition (Mars and TMiaHM) is that the differences in some ways speak to the former being an "update" of the latter. For example, much of what I love about Mars is the philosophizing about what "environmentalism" means. That certainly doesn't exist in the Heinlein book, and I think is a lot of what people are objecting to in my claim. But I think that's almost "the exception that proves the rule": it is a cultural issue of great importance today, and was much much less so when TMiaHM was written.

So, if someone sat down and said "I want to rewrite TMiaHM and update it for today's readers and issues", what would be different?

1) Biology is in many ways a more exciting field of science now than (strong) AI. So more biology, less Mike.

2) "Environmentalism", what it means, and how we relate to "the world" is a huge issue now.

3) Having seen the 60s and 70s, we have a complex view of utopia and social movements: we've seen them go very wrong, but we also understand that a lot of our assumptions about How Society Works are just that. This mix of cynicism and idealism is actually common in Heinlein, but I do think societally there is a difference in how we think about history with concepts like "Temporary Autonomous Zones".

So, if someone started with TMiaHM and "updated" it with the above themes, it seems to me it would look a lot like RGB Mars. I'm genuinely curious what people think is so different about RGB Mars that doesn't fall into that model - not including different writing style or superficial stuff like "use of drugs" or "specific gravity well technologies". Not that I'm claiming it's derivative, but it's nice to talk about books and what we love about them.

Again - I love both, and am in no way denigrating either. I just see a relationship between them I find appealing and interesting, in what it says about the authorial intent and context.
posted by freebird at 11:53 AM on April 29, 2009


Goddammitall, I had thought I was done dealing with science fiction when I stopped writing it a few years back. Don't make me keep talking about it, you fuckers.

1. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - Robert Heinlen
2. Tiger! Tiger! - Alfred Bester
3. Hyperion - Dan Simmons
4. Fire Upon The Deep - Vernor Vinge
5. Neuromancer - William Gibson
6. The Dispossessed - Ursula K Le Guin
7. The Muller-Fokker Efect - John Sladek
8. The Pastel City - M John Harrison
9. Stand on Zanzibar - John Brummer
10. Babel-17 - Samuel R Delany

I have read and enjoyed 1, 2 (as The Stars My Destination), 5, 6, 7 (well worth searching out), 9 and 10. I could not finish 4, althoughI liked his earlier novel The Witling rather a lot and was disappointed by FUTD. Haven't read 3 or 9, but I know of the authors, and have read lots (I mean, even the pulpier stuff like The Atlantic Abomination and To Conquer Chaos) of Brunner.

I'm old-fashioned, I guess, because I like the Heinlein, Bester, Leguin and Delany books best.

<>
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 11:30 AM on May 1, 2009


Fuck -- 8, not 9. It's the Harrison and Simmons I haven't read.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 11:36 AM on May 1, 2009


Someone is going to get hurt if I have to keep posting in this thread. I just sold a short horror story today so I am in no mood to keep talking about sf, you hear me???
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 11:37 AM on May 1, 2009


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