SciFi Classic Book Review: Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky

Short and sweet: this book is a good read and short and sweet – maybe 125 pages. Cool scifi ideas, and a couple memorable characters. One of the earliest stories to introduce the idea of generation ships. It explores some classic Heinlein themes of militarism, leadership and hard tech, and the idea of high adventure within a world that refuses to take its eyes off the mundane.

Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky is on John C. Wright’s list of essential SciFi reading. Grabbed a copy at Half-Priced Books, took it on last week’s trip as backup to the backup to the backup read, finished it last night. First published in two parts in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941, Orphans of the Sky was published as a novel in 1963.  Image result for Orphans of the Sky

Hugh Hoyland* is coming of age inside a five-mile long, 2,000 yard in cross section cylindrical generational ship. A mutiny centuries ago left almost all the scientists and engineers dead and ‘muties,’ short for both mutants and mutineers, in control of the upper levels near the ship’s core. Not only is the core where all the navigation and flight command centers are, it’s also the only place where there are windows to the outside universe. The non-‘muties’ hold the levels out near the hull and farm and live like illiterate peasants, ruled by the literate but not-comprehending crew and scientists. All the books left by the Jordan Foundation, builders of the Vanguard, are taken as religious and moral allegory – they pass along an elaborate mythology in which the journey is a metaphor for life, and the ship is the Universe.

Hugh is selected for his intelligence to become one of the Scientists, but, before he gets very far, is captured by the muties when recklessly exploring the inner levels of the ship. His captor wishes to eat him, but has brought him first to Joe-Jim, the two-headed leader of a powerful mutie gang. Joe-Jim takes a liking to Hugh, and spares him so as to have another intelligent person to talk to – the muties, for the most part, aren’t very intellectual if not out and out mentally deficient.

Joe-Jim teaches Hugh the truth: that the ship is flying through space, and that all those weird teachings in the sacred books were not metaphor but stone truth. Hugh is shaken to his core, and devotes himself to learning how to pilot the ship – and realizes he’ll need help.

The rest of the story concerns Hugh’s efforts to get Joe-Jim and the muties on his side, and then to get more help from among the scientists. After intrigue, bloody battles and betrayals, Hugh and a couple of his companions and a few women manage to escape the ship on its last remaining boat as Joe-Jim dies defending the door to the launch. They miraculously find a habitable moon orbiting a gas giant, and even more miraculously manage to land and find food.

(Heinlein does manage to get them all naked by the end – hey, it’s Heinlein – but nothing more is said about it. 1940s, and all.)

Joe-Jim is the most notable character, a two-headed genius with the smarts to rule a gang of muties but without the drive needed to do anything much beyond enjoying life as a petty mafia don. He dies heroically at the end. Bobo, his microcephalic muscle, is a murderous cannibal with a heart of gold, so that his death is felt as a tragedy. The other characters are pretty much perfectly functional stock, but hey, he’s got 125 pages to do this in, so two memorable characters is pretty good.

Writing aside: Orphans of the Sky is the second story featuring a generation ship I’ve read since beginning TNTSNBN, my stab at a story about a generation ship.**  The other was the first book of Gene Wolfe’s  Long Sun series. I cannot remember reading any other generation ship stories, although that says more about my memory, perhaps, and my switch to philosophy and history after age 17 or so, than about the prevalence and importance of such stories.

What attracts me is the idea of building and sustaining a culture – and the simple historical fact that virtually every culture, and absolutely any culture anyone would want to live in as anything other than a ruler, are built on families. Families are no guarantee of peace – hardly! – but lacking them gives you Stalin and Olympius. The bloody battles between families might get bad, but are nothing compared to the fighting once families have been destroyed – at least, that’s where I’m going.  The idea, expressed both in Heinlein’s novel and Wolfe’s, that people trapped in a generation ship would more or less quickly succumb to social gravity and settle at a base state of Mafia-style social organization, is my concern, too – only I’m trying to start from the position that everybody understands this and is trying to work around it. In fact, several aspects of the precautions are so antithetical to ‘enlightened’ thinking that they must be implemented on the sly….

Anyway: good book, short read, just do it!

* Don’t want to get too crazy with analysing names, but Hoyland is a town in South Yorkshire, where the English hicks live – see Monte Python’s Four Yorkshiremen – and Hugh means heart or soul. So our hero has, but rises above the, soul of a hick.

** Although, after crunching some numbers and taking relativistic effects into account, it seems there are a lot of places such a ship could get to in one very long lifetime with any decent level of continuous acceleration – so the generations in my book will include great-grandchildren of still-living members of the original crew. I guess that still qualifies as generations.

Funsaster!

I’m coining a new word – and you can’t stop me! – a combo of fun and disaster – funsaster! It is for those cases where you do something, and turns out disastrously bad, yet was a lot of fun to do.

That fiberglass shield the Caboose and I were making? (item E) Well, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong: the gel coat on the hardboard form wasn’t thick enough (spots showed through) so we added a second coat – so far, so good. When we cut the fiberglass, it was really hard to get the sizes right because I’d already curved the board and attached support pieces, so we had to kind of wing it – the pre-cut pieces were not very close, making for a lot of hurry-up patching. We did not have enough epoxy. I may have added too much hardener to one of the batches. It got goopy too fast. We were trying to spread it and press down the glass while it got harder and harder to work with – and then we ran out. Tried to stick on the handle and strap for holding the shield – barely got the handle on before completely running out – it’s a hairy mess. Never got the strap on.

So we’re looking at this pathetic mess, wondering if we could salvage it, somehow. That evening, we removed it from the form – it kinda worked, which is to say it kinda didn’t – maybe 2/3rd of the shield came right off with a little coaxing, leaving a nice shiny red gel coat finish – but 1/3 did not, leaving either patches where the fiberglass came off the gel coat, or the hardboard did not.

Mangled-looking shield with only a handle, no strap, so it sorta waves round, and is scratchy where we ran out of epoxy and the fibers are exposed.

Ugly.

BUT! It’s a Funsaster! On the plus side, we didn’t cement ourselves or any tools, pets or wildlife to the patio, nor did we destroy any clothing we had on. I maybe ruined a pair of scissors, but even that’s only a maybe. Otherwise, we used disposable stuff and threw it out when done – easy-peasy. We had fun doing it, and learned a lot, mostly of the cautionary tale variety. Maybe next weekend, when I have 4 days off in a row, we’ll try it again.

Image result for this time for sure bullwinkle

 

Update: Writing, Reading, etc.

Finally got back into the writing groove, and finished a story. No, seriously, I, decorated member of the Procrastination & Self-Defeat Hall of Fame, finished something. It’s a trifle, really, under 3,000 words, but it’s done. Will let it sit a couple days, make a single clean-up/formatting pass, and then send it off to an appropriate publisher. THEN, I’ll read it to the family.

Time to start my collection of rejection slips.

Next up are two more stories that are almost done as well. The first is a bit more ambitious, maybe 7-8,000 words worth. Got maybe another 1,000 to 1,500 words to go.

The first two stories were begun in the last few months. The third story has been rattling around for 20 years. I’ve actually written it twice already – the draft I’m now on is #3. So, instead of continuing to rethink and over-think it, I’ll follow Heinlein’s advice and just do it.

The second one will probably take a few days; the last I can probably finish in one sitting.

Next up: I’ve three other stories that are not so close to being finished, one of which has this elaborate tense moment/flashback/even more tense moment/flashback/really tense moment/flashback/climax structure that may frankly be out of my league to pull off. Plus, if I recall (been a while since I looked at it) it’s chock full of info-dumps. Not sure if I can work it, but, again, taking Heinlein’s advice, I should just finish it and send it out. Who knows?

The second is only maybe 1/2 done, and, If I recall, ran aground on technical issues – I couldn’t see why, exactly, events would unfold as I wanted them to, given the underlying tech. Bradbury would just write the hell out of that sucker, and it would be so good that you’d not even notice that it didn’t make much sense until long after you’d wiped the satisfied tears from your eyes. If it were pure stand-alone story, I’d just hold my nose and finish it. But it’s part of the TNTSNBN* Universe, and so I want to work it out so that it makes sense, rather than having to orphan it. Heinlein would say: Just Finish It! I should not be a schmuck and listen!

The third is an attempt at humor (actually, several of these stories are funny at least to me!) that projects a cowboy attitude into space – Mike Flynn, among others, has already done this (and Flynn’s efforts should make a fellah like me saddle up and get out of Dodge, if’n I had any horse sense.) But really, if you’re imagining what kind of culture would develop or be required in space, you’re kind of limited, at least in the early going, to maritime and frontier – those are basically the types of people you’ll attract, and the culture will likely reflect what we’ve seen on earth. Cowboys in space is not really far-fetched, but almost inevitable. It’s really just a matter of degree – do you want to play it for laughs, or make it less obvious and play it straight? (And those aren’t really mutually exclusive options.) The only other is sort of barbarian migration, but that conflicts with the high tech ideas – at least, ships and cowboys were on the cutting edges of the tech of their day (think: marine chronometers and six shooters).  Maybe this one gets skipped? Is that Heinlein I hear tsk-tsking?

After triaging those 3, think I’ll start some new ones. I’ve started a folder of story ideas, many just a phrase, some a sentence or two. I’ll pick one and write it next, eschewing the tendency to think too hard about it – just gotta do it. I’m afraid my mind runs toward thinking tech/nature/politics before thinking people (Asimov, anyone? If only I were that good!) such that my characters, to me, seem a little thin. I hoping I’m wrong. The solution is to just keep cracking and hope for useful feedback.

Then, once I’ve steeled myself with ample rejection notices and, one hopes, gotten an item or two published, I’ll plunge back into TNTSNBN.* I’ve got maybe a dozen or two pages of useful introductory materials/scene setting/character introduction written, plus many pages of notes and research, and stray drafts of key scenes, written so I could focus on where the story is going.  Family trees, backstories, charts and graphs figuring top speeds and acceleration and relativistic effects, doodles of what the ships look like, descriptions of the key tech, whole planetary systems mapped out and named, screen grabs and web pages – yea, gotta stop and write the darn thing.

Finally, probably after I retire (7 years, but who’s counting?) I’ll write a book or two on education history.

Reading? Well, the pile is not getting any shorter. Have 80 pages of an early Heinlein novel to finish. We’ll be starting The Everlasting Man for the Bay Area Chesterton Society reading groups starting in July, so I’ll be rereading that.

Aaaand, this weekend all our kids are in town! Woohoo! Older Daughter and Middle Son are driving up from SoCal; Younger Daughter and the Caboose are here already! The hammock I ordered has arrived, the weather is supposed to be near-perfect this weekend, and the lemon tree still hangs heavy with lemonade-in-potentia. The shield (item E) needs to be finished, the half-finished brick oven cries for attention, and there’s a dude about 20 miles away trying to get somebody to take 1,900 paver bricks off his hands – that are still in the ground. I could use them, except I might be dead by the time I dig ’em all up.

I’m real busy, but happy about it!

* The Novel That Shall Not Be Named

One Last Thought (no, really) on Guardians of the Galaxy II

Somebody check my meds – over the last few days, I have written about 2,000 words on GotG II, and would need another 1,000 to finish off where I was going. This, while I’ve only finally gotten back to the stories I was writing  after my week-long business trip.

And it’s not even a big deal – a relatively minor point raised a couple times by Malcolm the Cynic set off my hair-trigger ‘must EXPLAIN!’ reaction, and BOOM.  Sheesh.

So, going to try to cut it down and be done with it.  This is it – no more overthinking this popcorn flick for me. (BTW: I have about, I dunno, 15,000 words on the Matrix in a folder someplace. It has some philosophical implications, ya know? I have issues.)

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Drax’s backstory is even more tragic than this! And this is a pretty tragic backstory. 

 

However expertly the filmmakers have worked this – and it’s good!  – I find myself after the fact wondering about it.  That’s not good.

The esteemable Malcolm the Cynic and I agree, as can be seen here, that upping the emotional stakes was the only way to go – you’ve already saved the galaxy once, if all you do is save it again, that’s unlikely to be very satisfying. BUT – if our heroes can resolve or at least make progress on their terrible family issues *while* saving the galaxy again, that’s something! That’s what the filmmakers did, and did very well, so well that I paid to see this movie twice.

Let’s reframe my only issue with this by means of a story I read who knows where years ago, told in order to give advice to writers:

A pulp editor was buying a series from a new promising writer, where an adventurer named Flanagan (something like that, work with me) got into and out of a series of tough spots, with each instalment ending with a cliffhanger which was resolved at the start of the next.

One week, the editor gets an episode that leaves off with Flanagan really stuck – he’s been left in the bottom of a deep pit, with razor-sharp spikes lining the walls, and has nothing with him except the clothes on his back. How will he ever escape?

The editor is eagerly waiting for the next installment, dying to see how, this time, Flanagan escapes. When it arrives, he quickly reads until he reaches the part where it is written: “With a mighty leap, Flanagan leapt out!” At which point, we can assume, the manuscript hit the wall.

So, is it wrong for a hero to leap out of a deep pit? The answer is ‘it depends’. If the hero is Spiderman, Superman or the Hulk, no – they leap (or fly) like crazy. The problem in the case of those heroes is that everybody knows they can leap out of a pit, so it’s really not a cliffhanger unless the writer adds other things to the scenario: the spikes are kryptonite, or Bruce Banner is feeling particularly melancholy for some reason, or Spiderman knows that Mary Jane gets it the second he gets out.

Being trapped in a pit is only a problem if something like the normal human rules apply. Batman or Indiana Jones are not leaping out of a deep pit – their escape would have to be set up in some other way.

In short, we have expectations, that the rules set up by the writers will be followed. Hulk can throw a tank, so having him throw a mountain is really not that much of a stretch; Superman can shove a planet, because he can pretty much do anything. But Batman can’t survive a 200′ drop onto pavement without changing the rules. He’s a rich man in a cool suit, not a superhuman.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make: what leaps out of emotional hell are we willing to accept? Is the leap plausible enough not to ruin our suspension of disbelief?  I say: in GotG II, in the moment, the leaps are believable, but upon reflection, at least some are not. Further, to believe them upon reflection, I contend that one must accept the modern lie that the abandonment, manipulation, torture and use as tools *of children* isn’t all that big a deal – you can leap out of it. Like a hero falling 20 stories, you just dust those kids off and send them back into the fight. No harm done.

This – the abandonment, manipulation, torture and use as tools of children – is the heart of the divorce and hookup cultures. This is the world – Hollywood, everywhere – in which this movie is viewed. Instead of victims of such treatment being horrible outliers, they are instead everywhere. They are the norm. To recognize how profoundly traumatic divorce and abandonment are makes the emotional leaps in the movie contrived and insufficiently convincing, as if Spiderman could suddenly turn invisible or Batman had laser vision.

How is it supposed to work? Here’s Ed, from City Slickers, describing his best day ever:

I’m 14 and my mother and father are fighting again. You know, because she caught
him again. Caught him! This time, the girl drove by the house to pick him up.
I finally realised he wasn’t just cheating on my mother. He was cheating on us.
So I told him. I said “You’re bad to us. We don’t love you.”

“I’ll take care of my mother and my sister. We don’t need you any more.”
He made like he was gonna hit me, but I didn’t budge. Then he turned around and he left. Never bothered us again. But I took care of my mother and my sister from that day on. That’s my best day.

What was your worst day?

Same day.

City Slickers is an interesting parallel: friends, each suffering wounds in his personal life, accept a journey that turns out more difficult than they could have imagined, both in terms of physical challenges and self-discovery.  An unlikely emotional leader emerges, then dies. Wounds are reopened, yet, through the love and heroism of friends and the catharsis of achieving their mutual goal, great progress is made.

The difference: in City Slickers, everybody (well, except maybe Curly) is a regular human being, and so regular human being rules apply. In GotG II, nobody is a regular human being – yet, this isn’t Solaris, we’re supposed to relate to their humanity however packaged. The path to healing and recovery must be something a regular human being could do, otherwise, it’s an emotional Deus ex Machina.

Here are the emotional journeys I find unconvincing upon reflection:

Peter: Peter is abandoned by his father, but raised by a loving mother (and her family) for about 10 years. By modern standards, that’s almost idyllic. In reality, Pete’s is probably already a somewhat emotionally messed-up dude, but not in a way he couldn’t normally overcome with the love of others.

Then, his mother dies in front of his eyes when he’s still a child. He is kidnapped, bullied (somewhat, at least) and used by Yondu for about 24 years. Those would be pretty scarring experiences by any measure. And, they do scar him: he grows up to be a free-wheeling playboy adventurer without much of a conscience. During the opening sequence of GotG I, we learn he’s willing to betray Yondu, risk the life of the blue girl whose name he can’t remember and who he’s brought along as a bang buddy.

Despite being untrustworthy in these comparatively small things, is the stuff of heroes.

Believable? Well, maybe. Part of the drama between Gamora and Peter turns on him being a charming scoundrel willing to do plenty of evil if it works out for him – the ‘a little of both’ line at the end of GotG I cements this. So, do we buy that? Upon reflection?

The stakes are raised by increasing the emotional damage. The father who abandoned him returns, talks nice, but is ultimately revealed to be more than willing to hurt, use and even kill Peter, to have used and killed Peter’s mom and be willing to  kill anyone else who gets in the way.  And to destroy the universe to remake it in his own image.

On an emotional level, is this not exactly the way divorce looks to a kid ? In any other context, it stands beyond even Greek myth in its horror, more, perhaps, like Hindu myth in embracing the unreality and ultimate meaninglessness of the universe.

So Peter turns on his father and kills him with the help of his friends. He gets a little kids’ revenge on the parent who destroyed his life. He discovers that his foster dad, who had himself been horrible abused as a child and likewise used and abused him, is nonetheless his real daddy, willing to die for him.

Believable? No.  In the real world, kids do not have a cathartic experience of killing off daddy that makes it all better. This is not so much exploring Peter’s emotional journey as it is acting out 70% of the audiences’ revenge fantasies. As a revenge fantasy, it works. As a plausible plot point, it fails – upon reflection.

Gamora and Nebula: These are the two characters who, under just about any believable scenario, should end up raging sociopaths or curl up and die. Perhaps they had a few years deeply and unconditionally loved by their parents before Thanos murdered their parents and proceeded to torture the girls into becoming killing machines? The problem here is if the girls were raised well enough by their natural parents to have any reserves of decency, love and morality, Thanos would not have been able to turn them into remorseless assassins. He would first have to destroy any residual goodness.

Nevertheless, like Finn in SW:TFA, each woman has reserves of goodness that no amount of trauma, torture and mistreatment could destroy, even as they act as assassins, even as they fight daily. While they are both cripples, they nonetheless can be launched on the road to healing by a little loving, by a boyfriend and by a sister. Harkening back to the divorce and abandonment culture, the relationship between these sisters is also horribly common – you can’t take it out on daddy or mommy, so you take it out on your sibling. Once you can come to grips that your mutual hatred is really simply redirected hatred of your parents, all is good! You only ignored and mistreated your sister because daddy was so mean to you! How could you be expected to notice the physical and emotional destruction – he’s turning sis into a machine on both levels – when daddy is being so mean to you?

All that’s left is to get revenge on the parents…. That’ll have to wait for a future episode.

Again, perfectly functional as a revenge fantasy. But upon reflection, not a plausible plot point. Emotional fantasy.

Yondu and Rocket: We are informed that they are each other. Where Yondu got his moral compass is unknown – again, maybe he had loving parents before his capture and molding into a soldier? But Rocket’s is pretty much inexplicable except by assuming his makers toyed around with giving him a conscience? If they could do that, why not make him obedient and docile?

Really, Yondu is the same as Nebula and Gamora, not Rocket. He just managed to escape earlier, and use his skills to become a captain – of pirates.

(All the pirates seem to be cut from the same mold – damaged children. None, certainly not Taserface, come off as the bloodthirsty psychopaths real pirates of necessity tend to be. They seem, rather, to bumble about like the Lost Boys until one captain or another executes them. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean all over again: they have heavily-armed ships and a homicidal code of honor in order to pick pockets and do a little light burglary? Yet, they’re the *good* guys, like Peter, just a little rakish.)

A 90-second heart-to-heart spot between Yondu and Rocket sets up the grand finale – Yondu’s heroic self sacrifice to save Peter.

Really worked well in the moment. Believable upon reflection? No.

Moral: don’t reflect much on popcorn flicks?

Research!America

Against my better judgement, took a phone poll from Research!America, the caller for which claimed Research!America is an independent non-partisan research group.

This claim of neutrality might be somewhat less than completely accurate:

Research!America is the nation’s largest not-for-profit public education and advocacy alliance working to make research to improve health a higher national priority. We urge Congress and the administration to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Science Foundation (NSF) at levels that keep pace with scientific opportunity. We also advocate for federal funding for global health research and a legislative and regulatory climate that stimulates growth in industry research and development.

Maybe it’s just me and my pesky reliance on logic and English, but ‘advocacy’ and ‘neutrality’ are pretty much mutually exclusive in this space-time continuum.

The questions themselves bore my suspicions out. Seems the state of California has passed a bunch of legislation intended to “fight climate change,” and the poll was intended to frog march me to the right conclusion – that anyone who cares about THE CHILDREN!!! must support the efforts of Comrade Brown and his Lysenko-ite hench-minions to have California lead the way in Stopping Climate Change!

I was asked to give my opinion on various statements that, when boiled down, took the form of ‘do you support the efforts of all right-thinking people to SAVE THE CHILDREN AND THE PLANET or are you a greedy, callous SOB who probably works for the oil companies and would just as soon inflict fatal asthma on babies as say hello?’

More or less. Mostly more.

(This is certainly an appealingly simple way to view reality. None of those pesky details or facts or trade-offs need trouble the serene innocence of one’s mind.)

Maybe one of these days, I’ll turn down a pollster’s request, on the invariably confirmed premise that it’s just playing into the whole puritanical elitist drive to lead us little people to the correct positions that we, poor dears, can’t be trusted to reach on our own.  For now, I’ve contented myself with trying to get the pollster off script and rolling my eyes *hard*. It’s some small comfort.

Father’s Day Recap

Here’s hoping all 3 of you fathers who read this blog had a nice Father’s Day! I sure did. After this, I’ll lay off the autobiographical stuff for a while, I promise. Well, except for pictures of the brick oven and fiberglass shield when I get them done. But who wouldn’t want to see those?

As mentioned in the last post, went to see Guardians of the Galaxy II yesterday with our 2 kids currently home for the summer. It was fun. Younger Daughter and the Caboose also did breakfast and dinner for ol’ Dad. Breakfast consisted of Eggs Benedict. While they did buy the English muffins, Younger Daughter made the Hollandaise sauce while the Caboose poached eggs, chopped Canadian bacon and did assembly. Delicious.

Dinner was falafels, with pitas, hummus, that yogurt stuff  – all homemade that afternoon – along with tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados, and other good stuff to add in.  Also delicious. My daughter makes the best hummus, and fresh pitas are way better.

Then, came dessert:

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That is a carrot cake. Anna Kate was wondering why I took a picture, because to her that’s just a cake like you’d whip out any old afternoon. Not like these, say, or this.

Other than that, we caught the 10:30 Mass with grandma. That’s a production – she does not move quickly. At. All. Must allow 15 minutes minimum at either end for helping her into and out of the car.  And sat around in our air-conditioned home. It was 105 F here yesterday. Only supposed to be 98 F today.