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!

Honor Among Thieves— a Star Wars novel

Honor Among Thieves coverThus far, my favorite Star Wars novel is Steve Perry’s Shadows of the Empire, which takes place between the film The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. Familiar characters from the film are necessary, but Shadows also introduces the memorable Dash Rendar, and by fleshing out what happened between Han Solo’s freezing in carbonite and Luke and Leia’s rescue, Perry’s novel seems quite organic.

There have been quite a few Star Wars based novels published since Shadows, but with the upcoming new Star Wars movie, it is natural that a new story, with the original characters, come to market, along with a zillion tee shirts. So, we have James S. A. Corey’s Honor Among Thieves, which takes place between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, as Han continues to try to raise money to pay Jabba the Hutt, and Leia is involved in leading the rebellion, which is not just a war, but a fund raiser. Someone has to pay for all those X-wings. Anyway, a valuable spy sent a message indicating that she needs to be recalled, and Han needs the money, so he’s off to make contact, pick up Scarlet Hark, and pocket another reward. Nothing in their universe (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) is simple, however, and Han’s little errand gets complicated really quickly.

(spoiler alert)

One of the best ways to create suspense is to raise the stakes, and they are quite high in this novel. No, there is not a Death Star (twice is one too many IMHO) but a device that kills hyperspace travel is high stakes indeed, and Han, Leia, and Luke end up converging in an effort to wrest control of the hyperspace dampener from the Empire.

To be honest, I didn’t like Honor Among Thieves as much as I did Shadows of the Empire, but I did like it. Readers who want to revisit a young farm boy Luke, the pivotal Princess Leia, and the roguish Han Solo should pick up or download a copy of Honor Among Thieves. Before you know it, you’ll be right back in the groove, wondering when Darth Vader will swoop back into the action. This is a great way to get in the mood for the new film.

Star Wars Episode Seven

After seeing the second Star Trek reboot, all I can say about the new Star Wars is that I have a lot of hope and fear. Hope that it will be worthy of the Episode IV-VI trilogy, and fear that it will be even worse than episodes I and II. I actually kinda liked Episode III.

Harrison Ford looks older than dirt, but I’m not particularly young myself. Of course, any action will fall to the younger cast members, so let’s hope that the writers crafted them well. Abrams can make it look great, but if the writing is bad, nothing can save it.

Dark Space— a review

Dark Space coverRecently, I read a space opera called Dark Space by Jasper T. Scott. Although this book didn’t grab me at the beginning, there were enough innovations to keep me reading. Many science fiction fans pay tribute (deliberately or unwittingly) to their screen favorites. This novel blends elements from Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica for sure. It begins “in medias res” with the main character involved in a star fighter to star fighter dogfight, and when it jumps back to the exposition phase, I decided that this novel too much like every other space opera in print and on the screen. However, the use of a “holoskin” to disguise the main character, essentially allowing him to impersonate someone else, is a nifty plot device. So is the use of a “neurochip” inserted into the brain of another character— leaving her appearance as it was, but giving her a whole new personality. In a universe with such devices, the reader (or characters) never seem to know who is friend and who is foe.

Much of the action of Dark Space is like the original BattleStar Galatica; star fighters and ships shooting. This can be fascinating (think David Weber) or just action packed. One reason Weber is fascinating is his ability to craft characters that the reader can love or hate. The core problem with Dark Space is that I just didn’t care who was gonna win those skirmishes.

Dark Space is predictable, except when it isn’t. And it is action packed, but a tad boring. The ending, instead of satisfying the reader, is a build up for part 2. So, I guess I’d give it three stars….

But it was free, and that’s a good price, no doubt because the author is willing to give it away in hopes of selling the sequels. I didn’t go for the second installment, however.