Sunday, March 28, 2010

#10: Starship Troopers, #115: Star Maker

Starship Troopers:

"There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men."
“The instinct to survive is human nature itself, and every aspect of our personalities derives from it. Anything that conflicts with the survival instinct acts sooner or later to eliminate the individual and thereby fails to show up in future generations. . . . A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual's instinct to survive--and nowhere else!--and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.
We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level. Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race . . . .
The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual.” 
Starship Troopers is a classic of the subgenre of Military SF and, along with Ender's Game and The Forever War, probably one of the best novels of that subgenre. It is nothing like the film, which is an all-action, poorly written bomb, according to most movie reviewers.
I expected a fair amount of action from a book called "Starship Troopers", but there was less than I expected. However, the book as a whole vastly exceeded my expectations, which I admittedly got from the cover art and reading the back of the book. It's definitely a science fiction classic, although many critics have dismissed it, claiming that it promotes militarism. This claim is hard to argue with if you read the book, because, to be honest, it promotes militarism quite aggressively. Much of the book is focused on the neccesities of war, capital punishment, and dealing with juvenile delinquents. While reading it, I thought to myself, this is the kind of book politically-correct liberals would HATE. However, I am not one of those people, I'm an independent-leaning-conservative, so I found the book to be quite enjoyable, and I don't think you necessarily have to agree with Heinlein to enjoy Starship Troopers.
But make no mistake, some very strong views definitely come through (whether or not they are actually Heinlein's is the subject of some debate). This is one of the most criticized SF books of all time, and as you read it, it becomes clear that it would be very polarizing.
It is essentially a military essay, as the reader is taken back to Juan Rico's training to be an Infantryman, so he can fight in the war between earth and the arachnoid '"bugs". However, the battle with the bugs is just background story, the real plot of this book is Juan's trek through military training camp, filled with all sorts of militaristic philosophizing and the like. Let me stress this, if I haven't done so already, because this is the lifeblood of Starship Troopers: The conservative viewpoints in this novel are definitely not stated in a half-assed way. But by speaking through tough sergeants and instructors, Heinlein makes this military classic all the more realistic and unyieldingly right-wing. You could either appreciate this novel immensely, or, you could react as one of the leaders of the world in Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergerson", and get all politically correct. This book is required reading at all of the U.S military academies, and is an important book for SF in terms of the controversy and polarization it caused.
Read it if you are conservative or independent, and you'll probably agree with some of the views to some extent, and like or love the novel. If you read it, and you're staunchly liberal, you'll probably throw it against the wall in anger. But still, I'd recommend it to anyone just because of that. 

Star Maker:

“Sitting there on the heather, on our planetary grain, I shrank from the
abysses that opened up on every side, and in the future. The silent
darkness, the featureless unknown, were more dread than all the terrors
that imagination had mustered. Peering, the mind could see nothing sure,
nothing in all human experience to be grasped as certain, except
uncertainty itself; nothing but obscurity gendered by a thick haze of
theories. Man's science was a mere mist of numbers; his philosophy but a
fog of words. His very perception of this rocky grain and all its
wonders was but a shifting and a lying apparition. Even oneself, that
seeming-central fact, was a mere phantom, so deceptive, that the most
honest of men must question his own honesty, so insubstantial that he
must even doubt his very existence.” 

“In this passionately social world, loneliness dogged the spirit. People were constantly “getting together,” but they never really got there. Everyone was terrified of being alone with himself; yet in company, in spite of the universal assumption of comradeship, these strange beings remained as remote from one another as the stars. For everyone searched his neighbour’s eyes for the image of himself, and never saw anything else. Or if he did, he was outraged and terrified.”  
Star Maker is one of the best SF novels I've ever read, no doubt about it. It's wondrous, to put it in a word. It was written by Olaf Stapledon, and has attracted quite a lot of praise from hotshots of Science Fiction like: H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear and Robert Silverberg, and well as hotshots of "Serious Literature" , such as Virginia Woolf, C.S Lewis, Doris Lessing, and the highly esteemed Jorge Luis Borges!! Okay, so why have you never heard of it, even if you consider yourself a fairly big SF fan? 
Well, basically, it's a difficult book to read. I'll go ahead and give you the "problem" some critics seem to have with it: there is no dialogue.
Okay, still up for it? Star Maker is about 240 pages, and the language used in it is awesome in every sense of the word, but so powerful and large in scope that it can be hard to get through. Star Maker concerns an unnamed narrator who goes out on to a hill to contemplate the universe, and, through his mind, encounters many wonders, leading up to his meeting of the Star Maker, the creator of this universe and millions of others.
The opening scene is brilliant, Chapter Fifteen is epic, and the epilogue is awesome in scope. I have to recommend Star Maker very strongly, but with a warning: this novel is very dense, but in the best sense of the word possible. Give it a try, but don't try to rush through it like a typical 240 page book. Read a few pages and think them over... Stapledon introduces you to many alien races in various types of sub-utopia, empire, or socialist government: you meet the denizens of the Other Earth, in which taste, rather than sight, is the overwhelming sense, and on which creamy-white deserts dominate the planet in the same way that oceans dominate our own Earth, you meet races in which immortality is essentially reached through technological means, and people are only euthanized after tens of thousands of years if they become mentally unaware of their own personhood, you meet icthyoids and arachnoids who become symbiotes, and thus two of the universe's most succesfull sentient species, and you meet alien creatures completely unlike Earth creatures: beings formed of music and light.
The book is altogether a great one, but it certainly isn't light airplane reading. If you consider yourself a serious fan of SF who has an attention span and is ready for a challenge, read it and you won't be disappointed. It influenced science fiction authors immensely, thus leaving a lasting impression on the genre through their works as well. There's a reason Brian Aldiss called Star Maker "the great grey book of science fiction". Although many fans of the genre aren't familiar with it, many of the best science fiction authors of the twentieth century are, and it shows in their works. It's a wondrous work by a man who obviously possessed one of the most fertile and powerful imaginations in literature. 

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