Saturday, February 05, 2011

"Mind" -> Robert A Heinlein Lives Again In John Scalzi

I often wonder if the modern age has lowered our ability to think and imagine.  Not that all electronics and web is bad, but that when our children sit in front of a PC and play games for an extended period, they are living other people's visual experience rather than creating their own internal experience.  We don't have the data on the new breed of children that we are raising, but we will have the data in the future.  So, we'll just need to wait to see what our culture reaps.

One of question asked in the "Old Man's War" universe is about the integration of technology into the human genome.  In many ways, Scalzi paints a picture of technology naturally extended, and provides a straight-forward and exciting read in the style of Robert A Heinlein.

But I get ahead of myself.

As a young child, my entertainment was either 7 channels of television, or the local library.  If seven channels don't sound like much (and we had no VCR kids), you are right.  You couldn't depend on video for entertainment.  We gravitated towards reading.

The Newport Library was just a mile away, and although I didn't often walk it, my mother would drive me down there so I could devour the science fiction section.  While I loved the short stories of Ray Bradbury with both of his books "R is for Rocket" and "S is for Space", the author that I loved to read best was Robert A Heinlein.

Heinlein's juvenile fiction often would feature a geeky type boy that would know more than those around him and was subversive for some greater good.  I felt like I was one of these individuals in my own young life.  I quickly wore out the young adult science fiction and I moved into books like "Stranger In A Strange Land."  Unfortunately, I found myself disliking Heinlein move toward sexuality and free love as a young unmarried Christian.  In addition, his writing simply started to get a bit sloppy and unfocused.  However, I always longed for the days of my earlier Heinlein, where he would write tight narratives of people struggling and planning.  Much of Heinlein did not have confused characters that were unfocused, but instead had people that reacted and moved with purpose.

John Scalzi could have scrapped his name off of the "Old Man's War" trilogy, and many individuals would have assumed that we had found another Heinlein book (ignoring the updated technology).  Scalzi did this on purpose and mentioned in his book that it was influenced by Heinlein.

Now it is with deep regret that Scalzi's writing references enough sex that I cannot suggest that my young Christian children read the books.  Not that there is an overabundance of sex.  If one chose, a bowdlerized version would leave 99.9% of the writing intact.  For those that can blow past a small amount of this, the book is just simply a great read.  Scalzi is not what I would call hard core technology.  However, he is thoughtful in his science.  In the blog post below this I mentioned Suzanne Collins.  Unfortunately, Collins is almost painfully ignorant of science in her books.  For all practical purposes Collins would have been better to describe her technology as magic, to give it some sense.

Scalzi, in contrast, actually shows science in the science fiction.  While his characters are not deep, they do show some great gedanken experiments on what will happen as we evolve our technology and what this means for life and the universe as a whole.

There is one section that borrows heavily from Gulliver's Travels that is less than believable, but overall this section is mercifully short, and may even be a wink at the audience.

The interesting thing about Scalzi is that he had no contract to publish his first book.  He simply wrote something and published it up on the web.  This was discovered by TOR, and they published the book.  The book then went on to be nominated for a Hugo award.  Sometimes talent will be found out.

The first novel simply dealt with the question of "what would happen if the end of your life just happened to be the beginning of a new life as a soldier?" From this simple premise, he is able to weave a compelling action-adventure story about the human race.  We are introduced to the main character, which plays through out the entire book.  His character is introduced to a potential love interest, and he nicely sets up the idea that this love interest may some day be introduced into the main characters life.  The book ends, however, without resolution of this theme.

Having a following, Scalzi then goes off to build on this universe and focuses the second book more on the love interest and leaves the first character behind.  This also allows Scalzi to ask the question "What is the nature of being human?"  Scalzi does not drive into some deep psychological driven discourse or spend lots of time navel gazing.  Instead, Scalzi puts force clear ideas of man's intrinsic human nature and places it immediately into context of an action-adventure theme.

I am a member of goodreads.com--as my daughter introduced me to this site--and I checked out the reviews of this second book of the series before dedicating 3-4 hours of my time reading the book.  Most of the readers said his second book has not as good as his first.

I disagree.  Scalzi was on a roll in his universe when he was writing the series, and his second book lends itself nicely to his constructs.  Overall, another great page turner.

Although there is no clear lead character to the novel, the love interest in the first book is prominently displayed in the second book and is one of the leads.  We get a bit more hint of this person's background, and there are a couple scenes where we can see Scalzi's thoughts about what makes a relationship tick, trickle into the picture.

"The Last Colony" is the last book.  It is nice that Scalzi is now able to pull the original character lead from the first book and the love interest into a final story to resolve his final question of "What  is family and how should a family relate?"

In some sense, because he attempts to place the characters into a situation that is more analogous to every day life on earth, the science becomes pretty thin.  However, at the same time, I think he does a nice job of introducing politics in a new age.

After all, the theme of the book is family, and we can see that Scalzi is favoring what his view of a family should be:  The parents are wise.  The kids are respectful but fun.  The situation is critical all the time, and bring out the best in our heroes.

In conclusion, there will be people that criticize Scalzi for not having much more dysfunctional heroes, which seem to be the trend these days.  I kept waiting for some horrid secret to come out during the dialogs, but Scalzi felt no need for these types of plot twists.

Scalzi simply decided to layout a strong and clear story.  He did this in the style of Heinlein, and if you are willing to overlook a small amount of sex, I can strongly recommend the books for any person that likes a does of SciFi every once in a while.

1 comment:

Trude said...

Now you've got me thinking about reading this set. I'll see if it's at the library.