Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein and wife Virginia in Tahiti, 1980

Yet another of my absolute favorite authors is Robert A. Heinlein. Perhaps the greatest science fiction writer ever to put pen to paper, he is certainly one of the most influential. I have not read all his books yet, but every single one I have read has been awesome. The first Heinlein book I ever read was Red Planet, his classic tale of the Martian colony, and how a boy and his pet save the day. I picked it up at our local public library when I was maybe 10 and I was instantly hooked. On both the works of Robert A. Heinlein and on sci-fi stories.

I think what I like best about his stories is how the hero is always someone you can root for. His heroes are flawed, and they do make mistakes, but their heart is always in the right place. It might be a touch old-fashioned, but that’s exactly how I like it. Of course, good characters are meaningless without a good plot and a brilliantly-crafted world to put them in. Mr. Heinlein delivers that in spades. His stories never fail to delight and enthrall.

I also admire Mr. Heinlein for his courage and boldness. He was not afraid to address social problems and themes in his books; in fact the opposite is true. Three themes in particular show up frequently in his work: personal liberty and self-reliance, a complete lack of racism, and the importance of freedom of thought and philosophy. (A sub-theme of personal liberty, the right to bear arms also makes several appearances in his stories.) Considering that most of his books were published in the 40’s and 50’s, this is a rather remarkable feat. Mr. Heinlein seems to me to have been an unusual paradox in his thinking – both ahead of his time and a throwback to another era. For fun, escapist reading with a sound political worldview, you can’t do much better than a Robert A. Heinlein book, especially one of his early novels targeted at young readers.

Moon Maid Trilogy

Well, I was wrong. Not all of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books have the same feel – his Moon Maid trilogy is a notable exception. The Moon Maid, first of the set, is kinda like his other books, but not quite; The Moon Men and The Red Hawk are radically different from his usual style. Moon Men, in particular – it’s almost a post-apocalyptic thriller. One of the primary differences from his usual work is that books 2 and 3 are set in North America, albeit reimagined as being under the oppressive rule of savage invaders from the moon.

This series is also different in that the 3 stories happen hundreds of years apart, not back-to-back about the same hero as most of his series do. He wrote The Moon Men first, and it wasn’t originally about Lunar, but Communist invaders. First written in 1918, when the Bolshevik Revolution was so recent as to not even be part of history yet, “Under the Red Flag” was rejected by editors 11 times. So he sat down one day and rewrote it, turning Bolshevists into Kalkars from the moon. A few months later, he’d written both a prequel and a sequel and all 3 had been published – in the proper order, of course.

In The Moon Maid, Earth has finally discovered space travel and the first spaceship is sent out with a crew of 5: Julian 5th, Orthis, and 3 others. Through Orthis’s treachery, they crash-land on the moon – or rather inside it, where they find a strange world. A somewhat typical Burroughs story follows; capture and escape; Orthis allies himself with the “evil” race, Julian with the “good;” Julian falls in love with Nah-ee-lah, the maiden of the title; and Julian, Nah-ee-lah, and the 3 other crew members repair the ship and return to earth.

About 100 years later, Julian 9th (Julian 5th’s great-great-grandson) lives in what used to be Chicago under the oppressive rule of the Kalkars. In the introduction to The Moon Men, we learn that Orthis helped his allies the Kalkars build a fleet of spaceships with which to attack earth. Under Kalkar rule, everyone is “equal,” no one owns anything, marriage is illegal, and freedom is a thing of the past. Julian 9th leads a rebellion that ends in the slaughter of those who fight with him and his own death, but not before he gets his pregnant wife to safety. This sets the stage for the 3rd and final installment of the Julian saga.

Another 300 years pass before the events of The Red Hawk occur; Julian 20th is the great chief of the Julian clans and is known as the Red Hawk. During the intervening 300 years, the “Yanks,” as the Kalkars derisively call them, have driven their oppressors ever westward until their backs are to the Pacific Ocean. Here, in California, the Kalkars have held the tribe of the Julians at bay for 100 years. The Julians are a tribe of 100 clans living in the Mojave Desert. What used to be the United States is now a vast wilderness dotted with “ancient” ruins and peopled by various tribes whose social structure and culture is very much like Indian tribal culture. When Julian 19th dies and Red Hawk becomes chief, he determines to drive them into the sea and end this nearly-500-year-long feud. How he goes about this, allying himself to descendants of Orthis and even falling in love with an “Or-Tis” along the way, is the story told in the final book, which I think is my favorite of this awesome trilogy.

Book Reading Contest

A friend recently challenged me to a book reading contest. Or maybe it was my idea – the details are a bit fuzzy. Anyway, he and I tend towards very different kinds of books. My bookshelves are primarily filled with works of fiction – adventure and sci-fi stories mostly, with a slight emphasis on the classics. Cookbooks would be my second-largest category, with a few non-fiction and political books to round things out. His reading history, on the other hand, is full of non-fiction – religious, political, and biographies. Supplemented with a healthy dose of young adult fiction. So we each made a list of 5 books – it wasn’t hard for either of us to think of 5 that the other hadn’t read – and swapped lists. The first one to read all 5 gets a prize from the other (we finally agreed on truffles since we both love chocolate).

So, properly motivated, I tackled his list. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to like more than maybe one of his books. I mean, if they were worth reading, they would have already been on my never-ending reading list – right? The first two have pleasantly surprised me. I really enjoyed both. Number 3 is a little bit weird; I don’t yet know how I feel about it. Books 4 and 5 look alright – I read a chapter or two of each whenever I get bored with #3.

I have no doubt that I will win our little book reading contest. I am highly competitive and a very fast reader. (I once read an 800-page book in less than 24 hours.) On the other hand, he could surprise me. But that’s not really the point. The point is having fun. And reading good books that neither of us would have picked up on our own. I know I never would have looked twice at any of these books had I come across them at the library or bookstore. And he’s never heard of any of the books I put on his list. And new reading material is never a bad thing.

This is why I typically say “books” when someone asks me what I want for my birthday or Christmas. Sometimes I’ll point them in a particular direction, sometimes I’ll leave it wide open. The latter is riskier because you never know what you’re gonna get, but it’s also way more fun. I can always tell who’s a reader and who isn’t by the book they choose. The non-readers play it safe with a generic uplifting piece like “The Power of Positive Thoughts,” or something like that. They pick something based on its cover. Something easy to read and just as easy to forget. The readers, on the other hand, that’s where things get interesting. Nine times out of 10, the book they choose is one they’ve read and loved themselves. And I love it. It’s so cool to pick up a book that someone you know has selected for you. It’s both a glimpse into who they are and a chance to expand your reading horizons. A double win in my book.