Just a full balls to the wall Robert Heinlein novel. This means strong opinions about gender roles! Weird comments about sex! Being American in other worlds! Etc!
But more than that, this book is a reaction to the Vietnam War. Rather than making a book that covertly criticizes the war, or worse, making a book that openly supports it, this book looks at Vietnam and questions some core ideas from it. It’s clear that Heinlein knew the war was not like other American wars. This isn’t the hero-making, clear-conscience, historical good of something like WWII, it’s most certainly not the Revolutionary War, not the Civil War, and not even the helping out our allies war in WWI. Instead, it’s asymmetry leads to a kind of displacement, a clear sense of something broken.
We begin with our narrator going through college, joining the Vietnam War as a military advisor, and being shut out of the GI Bill because the law does not consider him a veteran. He’s tooling around Europe now no longer able to use his war service to pay for grad school, and he has a misadventure with an Irish sweepstakes ticket, when he goes to a spa town and meets a woman he calls Helen of Troy. He loses touch with her and thinks that this was his one shot, and now it’s gone. He’s about to head back to the US where he reads an ad asking “Are you a coward?” and promising adventure. He answers it, and gets pulled into a series of adventures that are based in so many familiar fantasy novel tropes. Because it’s self-aware, because it’s weird, and because Robert Heinlein has a fairly ability to elevate material, I ended up liking this one a lot.
Podkayne of Mars – 3/5 Stars
If you’re a kid in a Robert A Heinlein novel, especially one of the juveniles, there’s a very good chance your parents will be completely unexceptional, but you’ll have a powerful (intelligence, politics, warfare etc) uncle who will step in and save you from your boring, regular life. Podkayne lives on Mars, but dreams of visiting Earth. When her uncle shows up (see), she finds a way to join a trip to Earth (and Earth here is a fun adventurous destination, but otherwise still kind of normal). When she and brother join the trip, strange things start occurring on board the ship. Like other novella collections that are “fixed up” into novels, the parts are greater than the whole, but this is still a fun and interesting sci fi adventure.
“Think about it. Politics is just a name for the way we get things done … without fighting. We dicker and compromise and everybody thinks he has received a raw deal, but somehow after a tedious amount of talk we come up with some jury-rigged way to do it without getting anybody’s head bashed in. That’s politics. The only other way to settle a dispute is by bashing a few heads in … and that is what happens when one or both sides is no longer willing to dicker. That’s why I say politics is good even when it is bad
because the only alternative is force-and somebody gets hurt. — Senator Tom Fries”
The Star Beast – 4/5 Stars
Heinlein’s take on the “What if that thing has a brain” science fiction stories ala Little Fuzzy, and about 50 different Star Trek episodes. In this novel, we begin with John Thomas Stuart’s bit lunk of a pet, Lummox, running away and running amok in the neighbors. He eats some bushes, some wood, some metal etc, and is brought up on charges of being a public menace. Like Toto in Wizard of Oz, it’s clear that cruelty and vengeance fuels the prosecution more than actual public safety concerns. We learn the history of Lummox, that John Thomas’s great-grandfather found the creature, then quite small, on a mission to space decades ago, and he’s been in the family since. Coming from a long line of famous, adventuring John Thomas’s, our John Thomas begins to realize that this will be his adventure. Paired with his best friend (a girl!), they mount the defense of the creature in courts, and it becomes clear that not only is Lummox not to blame here, there’s a much more serious and complicated series of questions that will also need answering about him.
“The commonest weakness of our race is our ability to rationalize our most selfish purposes.”