Robert Heinlein Archive

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From the Lower Decks: Robert Heinlein, My Albatross

A long time ago (1996) my tenth grade English teacher (an atheist persecuting, bible thumping, religious crank) told me that, “nobody important writes science fiction and neither should I.” This statement did not have the intended effect of making me “get over” my infatuation with science fiction. Instead, it drove me to the local library. Within the stacks of the science fiction section – a place I knew well – I began pondering ways to spite my English teacher. I would find a science fiction novel that took his precious religion and used it against him. Two hours later, I was riding the bus home with a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land.

Thus did my desire to write SF run headlong into the worst role model a teenager interested in writing could hope for: Robert A. Heinlein. For a very long time I thought Heinlein could do no wrong. Through dumb luck, I managed to stay away from his weirder novels, which I think even teenage Adam would have eschewed. Instead, I reveled in Stranger, Friday, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Farnham’s Freehold, Starship Troopers, and a handful of his alternate history novels.

Those novels ruined me as a young writer.

Of all the twentieth century SF writers I could have picked, why couldn’t I have stumbled on to Asimov, Clarke, LeGuin, Gibson, or even Card – that is to say, Card before he turned into outwardly miserable human being. At least I was spared Lovecraft until my third year of university. But I digress. Returning to the question at hand, why was Robert Heinlein a terrible literary role model? First and foremost, Heinlein successfully convinced me that fiction is an ideal medium for a heavy handed political treatises.

There’s no reason why a SF novel can’t be political – in fact I’m reading a truly splendid collection of politically themed science fiction right now – but Heinlein often pushed his politics at the expense of telling a good story. Starship Troopers is the best example of this, but I’m going to pick on Stranger in a Strange Land to illustrate my point.

Would it surprise you to know that I don’t recall how Stranger ends? There’s something about Valentine Michael Smith joining a circus, I think. Otherwise, I have no idea how that book wraps up, despite having read it cover to cover on three occasions. What I do remember is Jubal Harshaw’s rights-minded diatribe when the Federation’s special forces kicked down the door to his house. I recall Harshaw blathering on about the political etiquette Earth should extend to Michael as a Martian ambassador. I remember Harshaw had three serving wenches for some reason. This is to say my memories of the novel are filler material, political vitriol, and anti-religious rhetoric.

The same holds true for Friday. I have only the faintest ideas of how that novel actually ends. It’s something about Friday going on an interstellar starship for some reason. Also, her father/handler/boss tells her that she’s a real girl after all. Now ask me about all republics of Balkanized America or the economic demands that a variety of political parties make during a blitzkrieg of terror attacks. It’s all politics and no plot.

Then there’s Jubal Harshaw. Long before I knew what a “mary sue” was, I knew there had to be a reason why Jubal Harshaw was peppered throughout Heinlein’s canon. Even in the books absent Harshaw, there was always the Harshaw-like character e.g. Professor Bernardo de la Paz, Friday’s “father”, or Lazarus Long. They were the sage-like father figures whose command of inductive logic inevitably illustrated why libertarianism is the best of all political systems. Naturally, I looked at these characters, who spoke with such a strong voice that it could only be the words of the author himself, and thought this was an ideal way to write.

My youthful syllogism went like so:

Heinlein writes himself into his novels

Heinlein won many awards for science fiction.

Therefore I should write myself into my stories and I will win awards like Heinlein.

Lest I forget to mention Heinlein’s approach to religion (and pretty much every other form of social/political consciousness), the very thing that made me seek him out all those years ago. One need only read the Revolt in 2100 stories to see that Heinlein’s relationship with religion was almost certainly pathological. True to form, he approached the dreaded American theocracy with all the pro-libertarian subtlety of figuratively kicking over the apple cart.

Thinking about it now reminds me of another writer who I admired just enough to try and emulate – with horrifying consequences – the late Christopher Hitchens. Certainly a writer with pages of publication credits can get away with being an iconoclast. But for a rookie, namely me, to presume to model himself after such elder statesmen of the writing world is a terrible mistake. Had I a time machine, I would have given younger Adam a copy of Asimov’s and Silverberg’s Nightfall, and said, “here, learn to write like these two. Only after you win your first Hugo can you turn into a giant prick that pisses people off without consequence.”

On the positive side, Heinlein fueled the political consciousness and nascent outrage of a naive kid from the suburbs whose father often evangelized – much to my chagrin – about the virtues of the Canadian Reform party. He also cut through the gender and social norms that a childhood’s worth of juvenilia attempted to entrench in my brain. Yet looking back on who I used to be as a writer and the work I am producing now, I don’t think Heinlein taught me a single thing about being a good writer or a diligent consumer/critic of science fiction. In point of fact, I don’t think Heinlein’s books offer anything, to anybody, on the question of being a good writer. Heinlein broke almost every rule/guideline for writing and had enough talent to get away with it. It’s makes for great reading, but it’s methodological suicide.

Though I’ll always have a fondness for some of his books (nothing that involves underage incest or parallel universes crashing together in a meta-textual horror show) there is a world of writers, past and present, who are better teachers and objects for emulation.


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Book Review: Starship Troopers

Being that Remembrance/Armistice day brings about a lot of mixed feelings for me, none of which are particularly relevant to this blog, I thought I would use today to discuss the great grandfather of all military science fiction novels, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

As a first principle, I would submit that Starship Troopers is only a novel in the loosest sense of the word. Rather, Starship Troopers is little more than a manifesto employing equal measures of fiction and allegory. There are at most a dozen chapters in Starship Troopers offering anything in the way of an actual plot. So much of the novel is devoted to back story, world building, and outright exposition – to the extent that Heinlein included a chart depicting the command structure of the mobile infantry unit to which the novel’s narrator, Juan Rico, is attached – that I imagine most modern publishers wouldn’t let the book get out of the slush pile. Were the novel pitched today it would likely find a home as the source material for a table top war game.

Let us then enumerate what Starship Troopers does well, other than passing off exposition as narrative – much to the chagrin of countless aspiring writers. First and foremost, the novel is an exercise in voice. Juan Rico is a compelling narrator; he has to be to keep the reader’s attention through the various and sundry details of the Terran Federation and its government. Despite guiding readers through a world where franchise rights are dependent upon potentially dangerous service to the state, Rico remains an approachable character. His naivety with respect to the precarious nature of a civil state mirrors the reader’s own sense of alienation as they attempt to plumb Heinlein’s vision of the future. Despite Rico’s amiable nature, he is also wholly complicit in Heinlein’s condemnation of mid-20th century America, and by extension the contemporary nation state.

This brings us to the world of Starship Troopers. Heinlein’s vision of the future is like a master class in applied political science. Even though the book is bloated with exposition, it’s executed  with sufficient adroit as to be completely efficient and wholly intuitive. Indeed, it is no small accomplishment to simultaneously take a character from nascent adulthood to “manhood” proper while also building a fully realized world in a mere 263 pages. So there’s no doubting the efficiency of Heinlein’s writing.

Thus do we come to the novel’s tendency to evoke strong reactions with respect to its politics. Regardless of if an individual reader agrees or disagrees with the novel’s core conceit, Starship Troopers is nothing but forthright in its nature as a thought experiment. Heinlein never attempts to make the reader an accomplice in his political ramblings. Through Rico, he presents his criticism of liberal democracies and moves on with a recommendation for changing things, nothing more. Compare this to John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War – a novel richer in depth, narrative, and subtext – which quite cleverly leads the reader to empathize with the military establishment before turning heel and pointing out the short comings of said institution. Heinlein might be evangelizing, but he’s not offering any sort of trickery. The onus is upon the reader to exercise their free will, another fundamental tenant of Heinlein’s Terran Federation, and either accept or reject the world as presented.

Is Starship Troopers worth reading? Certainly. It uses fiction to present a criticism of the established social order. Isn’t that the goal we set for all novelists? Is Starship Troopers a good novel? Not so much. It’s a great first person narrative that contents itself with building a very detailed world of which the protagonist inhabits very little. Instead, Starship Troopers is best seen as an address to the reader. It is Heinlein’s open ended invitation to join him in ushering in a social change. Personally, I reject that change and the politics that go with it – though sixteen year-old Adam was a little more receptive therein. However, I have nothing but respect for the way in which Mr. Heinlein made his argument, and his ability, even now, to make me reflect on my own world view.

 


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Podcast Episode 29: The Kaiju-sized Military SF Episode

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and K.W. Ramsey

It took a couple weeks of planning and schedule jockeying, but K.W. Ramsey and I were finally able to sit down to record an extended length podcast on military science fiction.

What could be finer than two white guys talking about the quintessential post-colonial white guy sub-genre? Am I right?

Seriously though, we begin the discussion by drawing upon Damien Walter’s Guardian piece on overly simplistic military science fiction. From there we jump back and forth between military SF on film and in literature. As with most ninety minute discussions, nothing gets resolved, but I think we come up with a few decent ideas on how military SF can evolve to reflect a slightly less antiquated world view.

Make sure to check out Mr. Ramsey’s blog at The Left Hand of Dorkness and follow him on twitter @kwramsey

Topics under discussion include,

- The ideology of the Federation and Starfleet’s role therein; also that time David Nickle trolled us on facebook about Cumberbatch’s character in STiD

- David Weber’s love affair with the 19th century and why military SF at large needs to get past the British Empire

- John Scalzi as the wild card of military SF – also included there is the story of the first time I met Scalzi and went from zero to fanboy in eight seconds.

- Mr. Ramsey’s very compelling theory on why I think Ender’s Game is a crap novel

- A discussion on how to responsibly consume art when the artist is a horrible person

- Robert Heinlein, kooky but honest

- How Pacific Rim does military SF in a slightly different sort of way

- Class and education as factors in crafting protagonists in military SF

Cold Intro Music: The Lady of Vastness by Dan-O at DanoSongs.com

Theme music: Bionic Commando stage 4 (Dale vs Wray mix) (NecroPolo) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0


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Book Review: First Impressions of Brave New Worlds

Brave New Worlds, an anthology of dystopian short fiction edited by John Joseph Adams, came my way via Netgalley. I knew I wanted to review this collection when I saw the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow, and Kim Stanley Robinson, just to name a few, in the book’s table of contents. When the review copy landed in my inbox, it proved to be something unexpected. Rather than a complete anthology, Netgalley sent me the additions included in the book’s second edition: three new short stories and a few essays.

Ah well, better than nothing.

Even on their own, these three stories work quite well as explorations of dystopian themes. As ambassadors for the larger anthology, the works of Robert Reed, Jennifer Pelland, and Ken Liu demonstrate a sound understanding of what the sub-genre owes to past writers while simultaneously examining the innocuous but potentially dystopian elements of our own contemporary world.

For want of a full anthology to review, I thought it would be fun to drill down on the stories at my disposal.

The Cull by Robert Reed

Reed approaches the dystopia through the lens of a small colony of humans who have survived the collapse of civilization. While there is still some life left on the Earth, it endures in a handful of self-contained enclaves. Thought control and social engineering contribute to most of the story’s dystopian themes. The central conflict itself speaks to the more specific issue of managing exceptional people in a controlled environment.

Orlando, one of the story’s two central characters, is equal parts bully and genius. He believes himself to be special while living within a community which necessitates an enforced egalitarianism as a means of survival. As readers we’re left to wonder if genius is capable of elevating a small community, or if such natural talent is inherently destructive for its tendency to raise the individual above society?

Personal Jesus by Jennifer Pelland

Personal Jesus is an exposition on American theocracy. Set in the near-future, the story reads as an informational brochure for new arrivals into the Ecumenical States of America. Within this devoutly protestant nation, citizens are expected to wear a “personal Jesus,” which monitors their actions for any indications of sin. The device and the state it represents are couched within the language of loving correction, but ultimately they create a national panopticon, complete with all the Orwellian trappings of anonymous informers, thought control, and forfeiture of self to a greater power.

The story evokes memories of Robert Heinlein’s If This Goes On, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and even some elements of Frank Miller’s “Martha Washington” series of graphic novels. Fascinating as the story is from a thematic point of view, Personal Jesus leaves any immediate plot or conflict as a purely sub-textual element. I would be quite surprised to find out this piece isn’t a Rosetta Stone to a larger work.

The Perfect Match by Ken Liu

Liu plays the allegory very close to the surface in his tale of technological ubiquity. In fact, I was quite leery of this story when protagonist Sai talks to an AI named “Tilly”, who acts as a combination of personal assistant and life coach, and subsequently chides his neighbour for the technophobia she directs against search engine turned tech giant Centillion. Yet the narrative, through a few twists and turns, proves wholly satisfying. Equally interesting is the The Perfect Match’s discussion on the digital age turning humans into Cyborgs, after the fashion of Donna Haraway.

The most compelling question is found when Centillion’s CEO asks Sai what he expects to find in an off-the-grid world where privacy is “protected.” Amid real world discussions on Facebook and Google mining personal information, it seems apropos for Liu to examine the endgame from both perspectives. How do we reconcile a desire, perhaps even a need, to be connected with privacy as an abstract concept? The Perfect Match does not attempt to answer these questions outright. Instead it positions itself as a think piece, challenging readers to consider technological integration, and its market impact, as an imperfect solution for an imperfect species. Is a Google crafted infosphere not a better thing than some Hobbesian state of nature? Is the self-same data aggregator a gilded cage, or a study in practical post-industrial efficiency?

Verdict

With only these stories as a sample of the entire anthology, I’m quite confident Brave New Worlds would appeal to readers with even a passing interest in exploring dystopian themes.

Brave New Words

Edited by: John Joseph Adams

Published by: Night Shade Books


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Movie Review: Starship Troopers Invasion

Hey there, are you a sheltered adolescent male of sub-normal to average intelligence who has never so much as talked to a girl for more than ten minutes let alone considered one to be anything more than a mobile boob delivery platform? If so, then have we got a movie for you. Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for some non-stop action because Starship Troopers Invasion is about to rock your galaxy.

As a member of this film’s target demographic, we know that you say “whatever” to the book version of Starship Troopers and its messages of alternative government, mandatory military service, and a comprehensive inventory of Robert Heinlein’s political views. Reading is too much like school, and who needs that when you can have an adrenaline filled mile-a-minute dragon upper cut to the face filled with explosions, space battles, giant bugs disembowelling humans, and three out of four speaking female characters naked within the first twenty-five minutes? That’s right, this is one of those movies where the women get naked but the men stay comfortably dressed; kind of like Game of Thrones but without the cultural subtext on the role of women in Westeros. So what are you waiting for? The sooner you watch it the sooner you can troll some people on the internet when they dare to tell you this isn’t the greatest film of all time. Maybe you could even use a connection to the Third Reich to win the argument?

But wait, there’s more! Do you like Halo? Do you think there should be more Halo in things outside of the Halo universe? Then hold on to your seats because Starship Troopers Invasion is going to give you all the Halo you can handle. From sniper rifles to the Mobile Infantry’s power suits, you’ll swear director Shinji Aramaki stole a whole bunch of concept art from his previous work in Halo Legends and changed it just enough to make it legally distinct from any other intellectual property.

And while those other studios and art directors chart new frontiers in making animated features, Starship Troopers Invasion stays close to home. If you hate critical thought as much as I do, then there’s a good chance you don’t go in for artsy hyper-realism in animation. After all, movies aren’t art; they’re just things to watch to kill a couple of hours before going to bed and fantasizing about being stuck on an island with Katee Sackhoff. Who needs animated characters looking and sounding distinct from each other when they can all be bland carbon copies? Let those Harvard elitists point out that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is eleven years old but still manages to look better than Starship Troopers Invasion. Interchangeable characters speaking in such bland dialogue, so much so that not even Casper Van Dien was willing to reprise his role as General Johnny Rico, means you, the viewer, will have less to keep track of as the story lurches from battle sequence to battle sequence.

The producers of Starship Troopers Invasion understand your busy lifestyle, and subsequent challenges in focusing on a single thing for a given amount of time. And while past entries in the Starship Troopers franchise depended on such dated and inconsistent technology as compelling soundtracks to direct viewer attention while building tension, Starship Troopers Invasion’s advances in sound mixing will let you know exactly when it’s time to put down the smartphone and watch the movie. All you need to do is remember this one simple rule: when people are talking you don’t need to watch. But once you hear gunfire, it’s time to look up because Invasion is delivering its pulse pounding derivative nonsense akin to what GI Joe was doing back in the 80s. But who cares, because GI Joe is old, and this is new, and we all know that newer is better.

Sure, you could go with a movie offering decent pacing, a somewhat well ordered plot, fair gender roles, and a visual aesthetic which doesn’t make a person nostalgic for the 1999 Starship Troopers animated series. But where’s the fun there? Starship Troopers Invasion delivers high-octane thrills guaranteed to reduce a viewer’s ability to hear into the higher registers and think complex thoughts.

Would you like to know more?


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The Daily Shaft: Coming Soon to Blu-Ray, Starship Troopers Invasion

Today has shaped up to be a pretty big day in science fiction. The BBC announced that Jenna-Louise Coleman is replacing Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as the Doctor’s companion on Doctor Who. SyFy offered a carrot for fans of man-on-robot warfare with a trailer for their much talked about (web?) series Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. Oh and BioWare’s co-founder, Ray Muzyka, took to the internet to say that Mass Effect 3’s ending is getting retcon’d due to popular outrage. Is this a thing now? If I complain loud enough will the endings to other things get changed? Somebody dig up Heinlein, I want to talk to him about the ending of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

While we’re talking about the grand master, let’s take a minute to change the news cycle. In a day already filled with revelations, I happened upon a trailer for a new Starship Troopers movie. My thanks to friend and PoR reader Jay Helstrom for the tip.

Let’s all have a watch, shall we?

Compared to some other things that I’ve seen within the last twenty-four hours, that looked pretty good. The redesign of the starships makes them look like instruments meant to drop troopers from orbit with pinpoint accuracy. Whatever the grunt in the trailer was putting on, it didn’t look like canonical powered armour per se; perhaps it’s an update on the standard issue power suit from Roughnecks the animated Starship Troopers series. I even recognized the voice over as a modification of Heinlein’s own words.

FYI: The passage actually reads like this.

I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can’t really be afraid. The ship’s psychologist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important – it’s just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate.

I couldn’t say about that; I’ve never been a race horse. But the fact is: I’m scared silly, every time.

So perhaps this trooper is a bit more gung-ho than Juan Rico was before his assault on the Skinnies in the first chapter of the novel. The bottom line is that I look at this trailer and I’m reminded of the excitement that I felt fifteen years ago when I caught my first glimpse at Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Sony Pictures and Stage 6 get to put one in the win column because I really want to see this movie.

Being the good trooper that I am, I always want to know more. This is what I found in the “about the film” section of the movie’s website.

A distant Federation outpost Fort Casey comes under attack by bugs. The team on the fast attack ship Alesia is assigned to help the Starship John A. Warden stationed in Fort Casey evacuate along with the survivors and bring military intelligence safely back to Earth. Carl Jenkins, now ministry of Paranormal Warfare, takes the starship on a clandestine mission before its rendezvous with the Alesia and goes missing in the nebula. Now, the battle-hardened troopers are charged with a rescue mission that may lead to a much more sinister consequence than they ever could have imagined….

It’s not the worst piece of copy that I’ve ever read, but it’s not the best either. Perhaps we could make the first sentence active so the bugs are attacking rather than the fort getting attacked. Should this copy suggest that Carl is the minister of paranormal warfare? Or is he just a member of said ministry? And why would the Terran Federation have ministers, anyway? That’s more of a parliamentary thing.

I know these aren’t huge details, so why am I making a big deal out of it? Because if a person walks into a room full of nerds and says the words “Starship Troopers”, they’ll meet with giggles, groans, outrage, and maybe the odd approving nod. The name and associated story lines, from Heinlein and others, have a bit of an image problem. At best, Starship Troopers is a campy big budget B-movie. At worst, it’s a screed from Heinlein that attempts to legitimize semi-fascist military juntas as effective governments. So when something comes along that looks like it might just transcend either of those narratives, the least the producers can do is offer up some copy that doesn’t look to have been written by a nervous intern.

So here’s how I would have done it.

When the bugs attack Fort Casey, an outpost on the fringe of the Federation, the fleet dispatches the fast attack starship Alesia and its battle hardened troopers to assist in the evacuation. As the Mobile Infantry fight a losing battle to hold the fort, Carl Jenkins, an operative with the Department of Paranormal Warfare, coordinates the evacuation of vital personnel and research aboard the base’s lone orbiting defender. The Alesia’s troopers expected an easy hot drop and bug out. That is until they arrived at Fort Casey and found Jenkins and his starship missing. Loyalties will be tested when the Federation orders the Alesia to hunt down one of its own.

Starship Troopers Invasion drops later this summer as a direct to DVD release. Shinji Aramaki of Appleseed and Appelseed: Ex Machina is directing. Edward Neumeier and Casper Van Dien are attached as executive producers. Neil Patrick Harris does not appear to be reprising his role as Carl Jenkins.


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Retro Television Review: Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles

Summary Judgement: It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s certainly a diamond in the rough of late 90’s animation.

To say that Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a controversial novel is a literary understatement. For every scholar/author/book critic who champions the work as a masterpiece of military science fiction, there is another waiting in the wings apt to dismiss the book as a plotless fascist screed. Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 big screen adaptation of Starship Troopers gave members of both groups an occasion to unify against what is largely recognized as a technically impressive, if wholly brainless, action movie. Yet two years later the visual aesthetic of Verhoeven’s, ahem, “masterpiece” yielded one of the more impressive animated series of the 1990s. I refer to Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles. Having recently discovered that the entirety of this series is now available to watch, legitimately, on youtube and crackle.com, I thought it fitting to say a few words about this often over looked bastard child of Robert Heinlein, Paul Verhoeven, and Richard Raynis.

The series follows the exploits of Alpha Team, a rifle squad within the Strategically Integrated Coalition of Nations’ (pronounced Sci-Con) mobile infantry. Note here that the morally dubious Terran Federation is a non-entity. Among the troops, Alpha Team is commonly known as Razak’s Roughnecks. The cast of characters share more in common with Verhoeven than Heinlein, but not necessarily to their detriment. Dizzy Flores remains a woman, though she is a little more level headed with her affections toward Johnny Rico than in the movie. Rico, despite a slight shade of brown in his complexion, is still very much Johnny and not Juan. Razak is an amalgam of the novel’s Mr. DuBois and the movie’s Lt. Rasczak. Oh and Xander Barcalow is in the series; he’s still a pompous swaggering subordinate-seducing asshat. On a positive note, none of the movie actors, save for a late entry from Clancy Brown as Sergeant Zim, reprise their roles in the animated series. Thus the characters all feel quite distinct from what Casper Van Dien and friends brought to the movie, especially Carl Jenkins – Sorry, NPH.

One of Verhoeven’s most infamous crimes against Heinlein’s novel was his treatment of the mobile infantry. The mad Dutchmen stripped the MI of their power armour, as well as their clothing from time to time, and turned them into an ill-trained rabble that only occasionally got the job done and even then only through brute force and superior numbers. Where Heinlein saw the MI and Fleet as precision instruments, Verhoeven turned them into a sledge hammer and collection of the worst Top Gun clichés, respectively. The mobile infantry of Raynis’ Roughnecks lean much closer to Heinlein than they do Verhoeven. Orbital insertions through drop pods are the word of the day. All troopers wear powered environmental suits with select members of each squad piloting “marauder” exo-suits. It’s not exactly shoulder mounted nuclear rockets, but it’s more than a few steps in the right direction.

So what about the bugs? Raynis actually kept Verhoeven’s bugs for the series. Call me a heretic, but I liked Verhoeven’s bugs. I could never get past the idea that space arachnids would develop firearms; there’s something too human-centric in that notion especially when a species is capable of evolving sub-species suited to individual tasks (warrior bugs vs worker bugs in the novel). Plasma bugs, tankers, and warriors, as seen in Verhoeven’s movie, feature prominently in Roughnecks first story arc. As the series moved on to new campaigns, so too came new bugs. To balance this Verhoeveian influence, Roughnecks’ brought the Skinnies, an alien race mentioned in the first chapter of the novel but ignored in the movie, into the galactic conflict. Just like in the book, the Skinnies began as allies of the bugs but gradually shifted their loyalties to SICON.

Partly because it was aimed at a young adult audience and partly because it’s hard to sell space facism on television, Roughnecks put politics in the back seat. It’s still there, but it’s much more subtle than Neil Patrick Harris decked out in his jack-booted future-Nazi regalia. One particular episode sees Lt. Razak fighting to stop SICON from giving Rico a lobotomy when he presents prolonged symptoms of post traumatic stress. Another episode sees Karl Jenkins breaking under the pressure that SICON is putting on him to militarize his psychic talents. The enduring theme is that the troopers on the ground know much more about war than the Sky Marshall and Generals. There’s even a bit of character death, as well. People don’t die with the frequency that they did in something like Exo-Squad, but there is an evident human cost to the bug war. Not bad for a YA audience.

Though the animation looks a bit stiff by contemporary standards, Roughnecks has aged fairly well as far as late 90s CGI productions go. It’s comparable to any late season episode of ReBoot, and leaps and bounds beyond Voltron: The Third Dimension.

While Roughnecks isn’t what I would call a “must watch” sort of series, it’s a certainly worthwhile throwback to the early days of computer generated animation. It’s more sophisticated than the movie that served as so much visual inspiration, but it’s still likely to make novel purists grind their teeth.

Overall score: +2, maybe even a +2.5

Would you like to know more? Here’s the first episode.


From Crackle: Freefall
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Book Review: Variable Star

Co-Authored by: Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson

Summary Judgement:  It’s not really a fit successor to the Heinlein legacy.  Fortunately, the book is so mediocre that it in no way threatens to eclipse the Heinlein legacy.

In 2006, two of Science Fiction’s grand masters found themselves temporarily resurrected.  Although Brian Herbert had been wading toe deep in the creative legacy of his father for years, 2006 was the year that the Dune series began to resolve a twenty year cliff-hanger.  Not to be outdone by an equally deceased contemporary, 2006 also saw the release of Variable Star, a juvenile novel that Robert Heinlein began and subsequently tossed in the ‘write it later’ pile back in 1955.  To co-writer Spider Robinson’s credit the first hundred pages read like a Citizen Kane for pie-eyed idealists.  Despite this promising beginning, it is hard to escape the feeling that this book is nothing more than a nostalgic hodgepodge of Heinlienesque ephemera.

The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Joel Johnston of Ganymede, is a remarkably accessible character.  While Joel’s behaviour can be painfully shallow and predictable, this does not belie the author’s intention to tune his character for an audience of idealist males aged 18-40.  Credit should also be awarded to Robinson for elevating Variable Star to a level fit for adult consumption, although this is mostly accomplished through references to alcohol, drug use and non-hetero sexuality.

For a story that orbits very closely around a female character, Variable Star seems intent on alienating its female audience.  At the narrative’s outset readers find Joel content to spend his life with the woman of his dreams, Jinny Hamilton.  But life is never so simple.  Jinny Hamilton is in fact Jinny Conrad, the grand-daughter of the richest man in the Solar System.  In an instant Jinny is transformed from a scrappy independent woman into a snivelling ‘daddy’s little girl’ who refuses to understand why Joel is hesitant to marry into the Conrad family.  In her mind Joel should abandon a burgeoning musical career and accept his place in the succession line of the Conrad financial empire. Weeping and incredulity continue as a theme for Variable Star’s female characters.  Notwithstanding the chapter that Joel spends in therapy after going on a bender and signing aboard an interstellar colony ship, interesting, let alone strong, female characters are few and far between.

Salvation for Variable Star’s meandering story could have been found if Joel agreed to become a cog in the Conrad empire.  Such a course would have allowed Spider Robinson to keep to the spirit of criticism that made Heinlein such a profound writer.  Since Robinson pasted together a setting that awkwardly fused reality and Heinlein canon, why not use Joel as a tool for exploration of corporate culture and its ultra rich denizens?  Instead, readers are left to observe Joel ‘googling’ about the internet and perpetually introspecting about his lifetime of accumulated angst.  All the while, the minutia of more than a dozen Heinlein novels are splattered throughout the book.  It’s not bad writing so much as it is unrealized potential.

But then things get ugly.  Within the pages of Variable Star, Spider Robinson presents himself as an unrepentant borrower of popular culture.  There are unsubtle references to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy as one of Spider’s characters utters the ‘shikata ga nai’ catchphrase.  Jinny Conrad unapologetically refers to one of her family’s butlers as Smithers.  However, these references are, at worst, whimsical when compared the book’s biggest slap in the face.  Aboard the colony ship Joel has a misadventure with the ship’s “criminal” element.  In a one-off chapter of bumbling comic relief readers are introduced to Richie and Jules.  An attempt to entice Joel, who is now one of the ship’s agricultural technicians, into growing a drug called “happy weed” precipitates a shipboard trial where the aforementioned stooges offer the pseudonyms of Jay Rock and Corey Trevor.  Trailer Park Boys, in a Heinlein novel, what the hell?

Putting aside the ‘What would Heinlein do?’ and ‘Trailer Park Boys as low brow high satire’ arguments, is it fair to ask Spider Robinson for original characters?  The tendency to borrow liberally from popular culture strikes as lazy writing rather than a nod to sources of inspiration.  Provided a reader has a spreadsheet of Heinlein novels handy, they will also find that many of the novel’s speaking characters are simulacra of other Heinlein characters.  Perhaps this is an allusion Heinlein’s later works where characters as well as real people were brought together within a tale.  If Spider Robinson is attempting to mimic Heinlein’s penchant toward exploring Pantheistic Solipsism, then the attempt is far too clumsy.

In the final assessment, Variable Star is a study in contrast.  There are some moments of genuine insight where Robinson draws on Heinlein’s alternate version of the 20th century to explore the hubris of the last hundred years.  Sadly, each of these moments is oafishly paired with Robinson’s Heinlein inspired mishmash.  To reference the 9/11 attacks as the catalyst for propelling George W. Bush into the role of Nehemiah Scudder – a Heinlein created preacher turned American dictator and theocrat – is utterly tacky.  Despite an afterward that rivals Plato’s Apology in its pathos, I remain generally aloof to the pressures Robinson felt trying to flesh out eight pages of notes from one of Science Fiction’s grand master.  This book could have been stronger and more genuine to Heinlein’s style if it was not so preoccupied with being ironic and cheeky.

Overall Score: 60%