Tag Archives: robert heinlein

Are science fiction/fantasy writers insane?


Writers in general are just not sane, according to Karen Miller, Australian author of the 2005 novel The Innocent Mage and a whole host of other science fiction and fantasy works.

Writing as a guest blogger on the Babel Clash, the science fiction blog of book retailer Borders to coincide with the launch of her new book The Prodigal Mage, Miller says writers simply have a kink in the brain:

“It’s a kink that means we are at the same time deeply and intimately involved in the process of being human while standing outside that process watching it happen. It means that we can never truly be at one with our own lives because we can’t ever totally lose ourselves in the unconscious moment. A part of us is always conscious, always watching, analysing, pulling the moment apart so we can put it back together again as fiction.”

To illustrate her point, Miller says her first thought during a car accident during her university years wasn’t of whether she could die or what was going to happen next. Instead, her brain went straight to Star Wars. “Wow,” she thought. “This is what it was like when Luke crashed on Dagobah.”

“In what could’ve been my last moments of life, I was thinking about Star Wars,” Miller added. “And by the way, if that doesn’t make me a fan then I don’t know what would.”

Setting aside Miller’s more general argument about writers and going onto a slightly tangential track, the idea that science fiction and fantasy writers in particular may be a few bottles short of a six pack in places is one that has probably been bandied about for as long as the genres have existed.

It likely has its basis in the fact that sci-fi/fantasy writers’ work is, of course, rooted in speculative worlds, be they worlds based on our own or completely different realities where concepts like magic exist. The idea goes that the creators of such worlds must be slightly nuts to be able to imagine them, and all their rules of physics and so on that don’t exist in our own world.

I can’t keep track of the number of people that have told me in my life that they couldn’t be bothered reading science fiction or fantasy books because they had “nothing to do with the real world” and were thus irrelevant and boring.

However, personally, I disagree with Miller. I feel that in writers in general are in fact the sanest people in human society. And furthermore, I believe science fiction and fantasy writers are among the best examples to prove that theory.

My reason for stating this is that the observing ability that Miller comments on means that writers are often the first people in society to notice and start to critique the reality that underpins what is often the deceitful surface of human society. When it comes to sci-fi/fantasy writers, I feel their ability to envision speculative worlds heightens their ability to impartially observe their own reality.

A prime example of this observation would be the famous science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who passed away in 1988 at the age of 80, after writing a series of enlightening books that also happened to shed light on and critique American and world society of the day.

Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein

In Stranger in a Strange Land, perhaps Heinlein’s most famous work, he pre-empted or perhaps even caused much of the sexual enfranchisement of the 1960’s and 1970’s through depicting the revolutionary sexual mores of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars by Martians.

In the 1959 book, Starship Troopers, Heinlein arguably makes a case for individual responsibility and sacrifice for society’s common good; the book has been seen as anti-communist and also as a lightning rod for those who wish to debate the role of the military in society; both positive and negative sides.

And of course, who could forget I Will Fear No Evil, the gender-bending novel which explores human sexuality (from both sides at once and everything in between) and its connection with emotional love, spirituality and more.

Was Heinlein insane? Many people in the late 1950’s society in which he first achieved recognition for his works would certainly have thought so after reading his books. How could any rational person come up with so many crazy ideas at once? There are sections in all of these three books which will make even very open-minded readers a little uncomfortable as they readjust their worldviews.

But in hindsight, and of course many people realised this at the time Heinlein’s books were published, his work also constituted an intense and powerful critique of current human behaviour and societal structures … in a way that revealed Heinlein had a phenomenal understanding of them. Ultimately, Heinlein was probably more sane and clear in his knowledge of the world than most of those around him.

What’s your opinion? Are writers in general sane, or insane?

Joe Haldeman’s Marsbound: A review


Joe Haldeman‘s Marsbound can best be compared to the pop music of an idol like Britney Spears. It’s an easy and comfortable journey, but ultimately leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied due to its lack of deeper substance, real human emotion and complex ideas.

The book represents an unrealistic coming of age tale set in the context of a trite first contact experience with human-like aliens found on Mars. Its genderless main character and the holes found within its entirely predictable plot will leave many science fiction fans wondering what happened to the great science fiction author who penned The Forever War thirty years ago.

The main character of Marsbound is Carmen Dula, a 19-year-old who gets dragged along as her scientist parents join one of the first groups to make the still-risky trip to the great red planet for several years of habitation and research based in a semi-permanent facility humans have managed to erect there. First port of call for the Dula family is the Galapagos Islands, where Dula, her parents, and her annoying little brother Card are scheduled to ride a space elevator up to an orbiting space station.

Much of the information Dula relates from the first person perspective allocated to her by Haldeman are mundane, yet ultimately the sort of details that people will be fascinated with when emigration to space and other planets starts to become a reality.

For example, what sort of food do the travellers have available to them (generally it’s poor stuff, and all water is recycled; Dula ruminates to herself that all of the water has passed through her annoying brother Card several times), what sort of entertainment do they have (virtual reality technology is quite advanced), and what are the shower facilities like (bad)?

Dula also puts a high level of importance on the relationships of the various men and women around her; she has the late-teenager interest in sex and evaluates the young men in her life in terms of potential partnerships with them. With a 19-year-old female protagonist from the United States, it’s no surprise that she will eventually find love interests, engage in what we humanoids refer to as “sex” and so on.

But of course, as the book’s blurb aludes to, the humans who are taking the first, oxygen-hoarding steps in colonising Mars are shortly to discover they are not alone on the planet. An excursion beyond humanity’s facility leads to an accident, and the young Dula is rescued by an angel: “An angel with too many arms and legs, a head that looks like a potato gone bad — and a message for the newly arrived inhabitants of Mars: We were here first.”

Sound like an interesting read so far? You could assume so. The intricacies of Dula’s life as a relatively normal young adult thrust into humanity’s race to conquer Mars are fascinating, and Haldeman has clearly thought through many of the logistical problems humans will eventually face when we inevitably attempt to do so. His style of writing is comfortable and you’ll find yourself relatively absorbed while you’re turning pages and wondering … what exactly is it like to have sex in lower gravity?

However, that’s about all Marsbound has going for it. Haldeman fails abundantly in his attempts to either meaningfully develop Dula’s character or to provide an exciting plot for her to operate in.

Young adults grow, develop and change at an extremely rapid pace; especially as they are exposed to more older peers and role models, and they develop the sexual side of their lives and a sophisticated world view. They are not static, reasonable people, able to calmly and rationally accept every challenge thrown at them. And the different sexes, of course, have entirely different challenges and approaches to meeting them.

Joe Haldeman, credit: Mikko Aarnio, Creative Commons

Joe Haldeman, credit: Mikko Aarnio

Yet this is how the mid-60’s Haldeman portrays the 19-year-old Dula. And for all the insight that is given into her female nature, she might as well have been male. Worse, most of the other characters are simply forgettable cardboard cut-outs.

Haldeman pairs this lack of character development with an entirely predictable first contact plot that contains all the elements of the traditional first contact science fiction tale; but without any of the excitement and alien-ness that is so fundamental to this type of story.

Remember Heinlein‘s Stranger from a Strange Land? Remember how you felt after the final climactic, mind-bending scene, how the book make you question what ways of thinking were essentially human, and which could be moulded, changed, developed, under the influence of an alien intelligence? Or what about the slowly developing and completely alien world contained in Arthur C. Clarke‘s Rendezvous with Rama, that you didn’t really understand even by the end of the book?

Yup. None of that grandeur here. Marsbound‘s “aliens” are as rational, reasonable and ultimately as boring as Dula herself.

Now it would be easy to say that Haldeman’s getting old — he’s been writing for more than 30 years. However it’s important to remember that the author won both the Nebula and Hugo awards back for his 1997 novel Forever Peace, and he appears to have been pumping out books regularly since then; about one a year, according to Wikipedia.

No, my theory is that Haldeman has actually underestimated the complexity of the first contact genre he undertook in Marsbound, given that much of his previous best work has been focused on the military science fiction sub-genre, informed very much by his own experiences in the Vietnam War. Then too, you could make an argument that his approach to the 19-year-old Dula didn’t ring right due to the age factor.

The cover of the paperback copy of Marsbound that I reviewed contains a quote from Stephen King. “If there was a Fort Knox for the science fiction writers who really matter, we’d have to lock Haldeman up there,” says King. Personally, I hope Haldeman can break his writing out of the chains he appears to have imposed on it and challenge himself and the readers once more for his next effort.