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Writing this so I can point to it in the future.

After reading for the nth time someone saying they once tried reading (insert title of mid-late Heinlein novel here) and ran away screaming, I thought I'd write up a little primer on how to discover if Heinlein wrote anything you might want to read.

Because if you pick up a highly recommended and easy to find Heinlein novel, chances are you're going to find yourself reading something written by a half-senile right-wingnut elitist libertarian nudist with an incest fetish who regularly interrupts his story to lecture you at length on his really quite peculiar ideas about sex and the virtues of polyamorous marriages. Chances are you're going put the book down and make a mental note that one should avoid Heinlein at all costs.

Which is just fine, except that not all Heinlein is like that. Early in his career, he was a left-wing socialist. Later on, he wrote a lot of books for boys that attempted to preach racial equality and tolerance. Then around 1959, he suddenly turned into an angry old man who wrote books full of ranting and lectures to the reader about politics and sex. Even then, he still managed to write some good books that weren't too annoyingly in-your-face with his politics and fetishes.

So, the question for Heinlein is not so much "what should I read first" as "what should I avoid as my first exposure to this person?" The problem is that as he got older, he got less and less able to keep his fetishes and quirks under control, and tended to let it all hang out. Which, given that he was a devoted nudist, is definitely not what you want to be exposed to when trying to get to know someone.

The last place to start with Heinlein are the brick sized novels he wrote in his dotage (after 1970). Not only are they long rambling books full of lectures about sex and group marriage and how people on welfare are parasites, but they tend not to work all that well as novels either. Some of them are fun if flawed, but you don't want to read one to find out if you're going to enjoy "books by Heinlein" or not.

The novels he wrote between 1959 and 1970 tend to be much better plotted, but they're just as full of angry lectures about sex and politics, so, likewise, not for a first go. Which means just about all of the award-winning and famous novels Heinlein wrote are not good places to start.

The place to start is with his early work. Not only are the books much shorter (so you'll be wasting less of your time if they're not for you) but they're also less angry and politically seem to come from an entirely different galaxy than the later works.

There are a few exceptions -- "Sixth Column" is a nasty example of "yellow peril" racism which he wrote on spec based on an outline by John W Campbell. The racist views in it are Campbell's, and it's best avoided. "The Puppet Masters" is a horror novel and a specimen of Cold War paranoia, kind of dated. The love interest for the hero in "The Door into Summer" is a young girl to whom he is a father figure of sorts (time travel lets him still be young when she finally gets old enough to marry), so, squick.

But in general, if you want to find out why it is that Heinlein became famous in SF before he was adopted as a patron saint of libertarians, if you want to find out why he remains so influential in the field of SF that numerous left-wing, non-libertarian authors, from Varley to Stross and Doctorow write homages and pastiches of his work, then the place to start is, first, with the short stories and novels that he wrote for magazine publication in the 30's and 40's, and second, with the novels that he wrote in the 50's (most but not all of which were written for teenage boys). Then, and only then, if you like what you've read so far, would I recommend picking up some of his famous work from the 60's (Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, and Glory Road, but not Podykane of Mars or Farnham's Freehold). His later brick-sized novels are best left till last (Time Enough For Love and Friday are the stand-outs there).
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Followed a link today to a series of posts on publishing myths by Dean Wesley Smith, and quickly discovered that if I read any more of this person's blog I will do something I will regret. After reiterating that every writer is different, he quickly forgets that motto and arrogantly assumes that his own unique experiences are or ought to be the norm.

Anyway, in the the second post in his series, on how writers should not revise their work, he trots out this old chestnut by Heinlein:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

And you know, I'm really, really tired of seeing this. Heinlein was a writer who was able to produce salable fiction in one draft. He was also extremely unusual in that he was able to produce salable first drafts more often than not from the very start of his career.

I know this is a shocking idea for all of the Heinlein-worshipers out there who have never read a slush pile or who have never taught freshman composition (I have done both, briefly), but not everyone can do that. In fact, 99.9% of amateur writers cannot do that, ever, no matter how hard they try to learn.

The tiny fraction of amateur writers who become professional writers have learned, one way or another, to produce salable material. For some, learning that takes a few years; for others, it takes decades. Some learn to write salable material by writing a lot of worthless first drafts that never see the light of day; others learn by rewriting over and over again until they get it right.

A few writers eventually learn how to produce salable material in the first draft, but most need to rewrite and revise, to some degree, for their entire career. And for a writer who is skilled enough to be able to sell his first drafts to continue to trot out that Heinlein quote in giving advice to amateur writers does a huge disservice to the vast majority of aspiring writers who are not like him, and will never be like him.

If Heinlein hadn't been privileged and lucky enough to be able to turn out salable fiction from day one, then his rules might have looked like this (revisions in italics):

1. You must write work of salable quality.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting a finished work except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold or until it is rejected by all markets that might buy it.
6. If your work is rejected by all markets that might buy it, it was not of salable quality. Learn what lessons you can and try again with a new piece.
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Robert Heinlein is one of those authors who is sadly not being allowed to die - his estate keeps digging up old manuscripts out of the extensive archives he donated to UC Santa Cruz and publishing them. Some of the results have been interesting (pieces that had never been reprinted since their original magazine publication, like "A Tenderfoot in Space"), and some have been, well, unfortunate.

The most recent revivified Heinlein is Spider Robinson's 2006 novel, Variable Star, which was based on a story outline by Heinlein.

Be warned: despite the claims on the cover, which gives Heinlein top billing, Variable Star is a Spider Robinson novel through and through. Robinson, for those who haven't read him before, is a very distinct writer with a limited range -- all of his work is more or less similar in style and tone, so if you like what he does in one book, you will enjoy his other books; if you don't, you won't. And if you're like me, you'll start out enjoying his stories and then, after a while, start to find his writerly tics (which don't really vary) grating and irritating.

Rather than review Variable Star, I want to talk about the original story outline (working title "The Star Clock") by Heinlein which Robinson used. The outline is available in PDF from the Heinlein Archives for $2. It is bundled with a bunch of other stuff in the collection called "Story Ideas, part 1", file number WRTG201a-01.*

While Heinlein never turned the outline into a novel himself, he did did not abandon it as the marketing for Variable Star would imply. Rather, he took one core idea (near-light speed travel as a form of time travel into the future) and used it as the basis for Time For the Stars. Then he took the other core idea (poor boy suddenly finds himself dealing with a family more wealthy and powerful than most governments) and incorporated it into Citizen of the Galaxy. Finally he took the last idea from the outline (boy and girl seemingly separated by one-way time travel into the future discover that their ages are not incompatible after all because they've both traveled forward), and used it in The Door Into Summer.

Robinson talks in the afterword to Variable Star that the outline he had to work with was only seven pages long, with page 8 missing. The version in the archive is complete, so the last page must have gone astray somewhere between UCSC and Robinson's desk.

Extensive Googling has not turned up anyone else talking about this outline in specific terms, so here goes. Cut for length and boringness to those who don't care about Heinlein )

For those curious, Robinson's novel is extremely faithful to the first five pages of the outline (up to the point where Joel leaves on the starship). He used few of the brainstorming ideas Heinlein put in page 6 (the trip), and ignored page 7 (Joel's return to Earth) completely (and he didn't have page 8, as explained in his afterword).

Sadly, by staying so faithful to the initial outline, then diverging so widely from it, Robinson ended up with a book that egregiously violates the Chekov's Gun rule - the ending of Variable Star comes from nowhere, with no buildup or foreshadowing, while the beginning of it puts a good many plot threads in motion that are discarded abruptly without resolution to make way for the ending.

* If you buy this collection, you get the following in addition to the Star Clock outline: Numerous newspaper and magazine clippings that Heinlein evidently found evocative; two articles by Jerry Pournelle (one MS, one journal reprint); some handwritten pages that I did not try to decipher; 19 pages of worldbuilding notes for "A Martian named Smith" aka Stranger in a Strange Land from 1949; two typed letters, one to "Sarge" (dec 1963), and one (missing the first page, probably mid 60's also) to "Buz," both talking about race relations.
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Being a review of William Patterson's "Robert A. Heinlein In dialogue with his century: Vol 1, Learning curve."

I didn't have high expectations for this book -- after reading Jo Walton's critique of its poor fact-checking (and saw the author arguing with the reviewer in the comments of that post, which did not leave me a good impression of him), I knew it wasn't going to be great. Sadly, it failed to even be good. TL:DR version: incredibly poor scholarship is incredibly poor )

These failings aren't academic esoterica, but very basic issues of scholarship that anyone trying to write a serious biography really needs to have mastered. And they wouldn't stand out so much if the biography was an interesting and insightful account of Heinlein's life... but it isn't. TL:DR version: it's somehow simultaneously boringly overlong and breezily superficial )

Right from the first page of the introduction, we learn that this book is going to be hagiographical to a fault, when Patterson, with a straight face, claims that the day Heinlein died was comparable to such events as the Challenger disaster, the Kennedy assassination, or September 11, 2001.

As best I can tell, the only reason it was not rejected by the publisher is that Heinlein has a massive following of rabid fans who do see him as a saint, if not a god, and that it is an "authorized" biography that benefited from extensive interviews with Mrs Heinlein before her death.

As a massive compilation of notes and source materials for a biography, this book is great. As a biography, it's piss poor. If you are a Heinlein fan and want to know the story of his life, do your wallet a favour and check it out from the library -- and then be prepared to do a lot of skimming.


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