Reading Robert Heinlein

I re-read Starship Troopers today. It has been so long since I read it that I had forgotten almost everything but the core themes of the book. Reading it was a reminder of why Heinlein alone among the Big Three – the other two being Clarke and Asimov – remains one of my favorite writers.

In Sri Lanka, where I live, this idea is minor heresy among those who actually read science fiction (a small and harmless minority). We are supposed to revere Clarke: the man lived here, set his novels here, even advised our President. A next choice would be Asimov, who with great daring laid down the intellectual touchstones of robotics in science fiction.

But to me, Robert Heinlein has aged better. Not just because of his pioneering status in science fiction, or his science. Yes, Starship Troopers is credited with practically having started the mecha genre, and those drop-pod sequences are marvelous – but I am a child of Halo: ODST and Neon Genesis Evangelion: I grew up used to these ideas. Heinlein persists because of a far more ephemeral quality: the strange-but-logical humanity that forms the heart of his fiction.

Heinlein’s military theorists lecture on the stupidity of war while glorifying their fallen comrades. His soldiers champion military-run societies that have done away with gender and race discrimination. Look a little further, and his citizens are found adapting themselves to the moon, abandoning that social construct sacred to conservative societies – nuclear family – in favor of communal marriages. He rages against communism, but in the next breath he admires the hive-mind version of it. He glorifies militarism, but in every paragraph he seems to be talking about its monumental and tragic waste.  And when Heinlein sermonizes – which he does often –  each society and Gandalf-character he builds presents their own logic, rigorously bound to their environment, undeniable. Look, he seems to be telling me, this is what you would be, under the same circumstances.  His protagonists, aware of the Logic-that-Binds, struggle with these truths, and emerge like caterpillars, changed by the chrysalis into some altogether new form.

This humanity I cannot help but admire. Clarke’s and Asimov’s characters fail this test: in Asimov’s characters are ciphers driven by the larger plot, and Clarke’s humans act with painful logic with great self-awareness, but without the slightest capacity for change. Doubtless their books were mind-blowing in their time: after all, all of the Big Three were powerful futurists. But as time goes by, technological change sweeps us up, and what may have been profound sixty years ago becomes everyday technology to me. But Heinlein, in all his controversy, survives by channeling the one thing that has not changed: humanity.



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