Stranger in a Strange Land— another item from my “Keeper” shelf

Stranger CoverAs a youngster, I loved science fiction. From being a little kid watching Fireball XL5: The Complete Series on television to reading the novels of Robert Heinlein while in school, to seeing the original Star Wars: A New Hope at the cinema while in college (gosh, I’m old, right?) I really loved sci-fi. Actually, I still do, but this is a blast from the past post, so here goes.

Heinlein, now considered one of the “grand masters” of classic science fiction, wrote young adult novels and short stories for a number of years. However, his groundbreaking and movie inspiring Starship Troopers is considered a turning point into adult fiction because this novel begins his exploration of themes that appeal to a more mature audience, including libertarian politics. Perhaps modern readers wouldn’t realize it, but the powered body armor in Starship Troopers was one of those prescient inventions that makes reading and watching science fiction so important to the development of technology.

Stranger in a Strange Land (Remembering Tomorrow)was published a couple of years after Troopers, and while less “realistic” the novel takes some giant leaps into thematic explorations. The novel deals with the life of one Valentine Michael Smith, the first human born on Mars, and because he was orphaned he was reared by the natives of that planet, and later brought back to earth as a young adult human who knows absolutely nothing about his home planet or its inhabitants, hence the title. This situation is a fabulous set up for what science fiction does best: explore what makes humanity work (or not.) I used to read this novel annually, and I have never tired of it, because there are so many themes. Indeed, while doing a master’s degree in English, I wrote a pretty decent term paper on the topic of how Heinlein uses the world savior theme in the novel, and didn’t get thrown out of my fairly conservative program.

The characters in Stranger are often larger than life, but Jubal Harshaw, lawyer, doctor, and homespun philosopher (as well as the voice of the author) is my favorite. His employees and associates included Anne, a “fair witness” which is sort of a human version of a body cam, as she only reports what is seen. As in many Heinlein works, there are any number of gems, but even people who haven’t read Stranger may use the invented word “grok” which is a Martian term for being one with someone or something, in such a way that it is fully understood or appreciated.

Modern science fiction has split into many sub-genres, but Stranger in a Strange Land pre-dates that, and in a good way. Grand Master Robert Heinlein was not restricted to hard science or the softer “social” aspects of the genre, although he uses both hard and softer themes to challenge societal norms. Indeed, this novel broke new ground when first published, and it is just as thoughtful and thought provoking today. Certainly, it deserves a read, but it is so complex that it almost needs a Cliff Notes commentary but not quite yet. Despite its age, it is still in print, so go get a copy!

Terms of Enlistment

Cover art of Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

Space Opera!

Okay, I’ve never “served” as military folks put it, but I really enjoy reading about the exploits of those who have done so. Perhaps due to watching the exploits of astronauts with military titles in my youth, I still believe that the military will play some role when (or if) mankind actually goes into space and establishes colonies on other worlds. In my own Trinity on Tylos my main character, Major Venice Dylenski, has a military background, but I viewed her as a bit like “Captain” Miles Standish might be viewed in American history. He’s a military guy who is there for security, and my character is the security chief, because someone ought to be in charge of that when landing on uncivilized planets.

In Terms of Enlistment, by Marko Kloos, the military is far more than security; it is the force that keeps the homeworld (earth) and colonies safe. Andrew Grayson is the main character; he grew up in a welfare section of Boston. Desperate to leave the vicious cycle of generations on public assistance, he joins the military. Okay, that is hardly a new plot line, but as Kloos paints his picture of Grayson’s world, readers can easily believe this dystopian view of the “North American Commonwealth.” As a new NAC recruit, Grayson is under quite a lot of pressure. Failure in any area, from taking orders to passing tests, will cause him to “wash out” and go right back to eating welfare rations and watching his folks succuomb to treatable illnesses. Thus, there is an additional layer of suspense added to the usual risk/reward of enlistment. Once our hero gets through basic, he can expect a five-year hitch, then go back home with cash, and education, and a fresh start.

(spoiler alert)

However, once Grayson gets through basic, instead of being posted to a naval (spacegoing) vessel, he is placed into the TA (territorial army) and tasked with policing the very sorts of places that he sought to leave. However, as the yarn rolls along at its brisk pace, Grayson faces domestic enemies with courage and is able to use his heroism under fire to wangle a transfer to the space navy. Once there, he hopes to be set for his five year enlistment, but an alien species invades, and he has many more opportunities to be heroic, and less and less to return home to, as the government pours all of its resources into saving the colonies, leaving the homeworld to become barely habitable.

While it doesn’t break much new ground, Terms of Enlistment does an excellent job of entertaining the reader. The  main characters are more than stereotypes, and the world building is quite good. I’ve already re-upped for the second novel in the series (Lanes of Departure) and am enjoying it, too.

Terms of Enlistment is a bit like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, but with less of Heinlein’s political agenda. Fans of space opera and/or military fiction would be wise to check out this well-written novel. Oh, and it is rather long, so for $3.99 it really is a bargain, too.