Sunday, December 7, 2008

Recommended Reading

I got to talking about science fiction books by Robert A. Heinlein with a friend who had only read a couple of bad ones written in Heinlein's later years, and he asked for a list of my recommendations. As with all things Robb and a keyboard, the list started simple and grew out of control, so I thought I'd provide it for others (I love an unwilling audience). I do this because Heinlein had a great influence on many others who eventually discovered Ayn Rand, and certainly on me.
Generally, the rule is ... everything Heinlein wrote before 1963 is worth reading, with the exception of his fantasy (not much of it, but it bores me). "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" in 1966 is the last good book he wrote, partly because it actually acknowledges John Galt and seems to make apologies for his overt Kantianism in "Starship Troopers" (1957).
I'm not talking of writing at the caliber of great literature, but his books are entertaining, thought-provoking, original, implicitly or explicitly rational, reality-based (within the constraints of the story premise), and often inspiring with themes that generally revolve around embracing and fighting for rational values, discovering your potential and growing as a human being. Generally, the sense of life in all his early juvenile fiction matches my own -- that the world is a place of endless potential and promise, filled with rational and interesting people you would like to know and boundless adventure. "A world as it can be and should be", as Ayn Rand said.
I'll avoid a cynical comment about what we're facing right now. Sheesh. Get out and fight for what it can be.

Robb’s Recommended Robert A. Heinlein books (and a couple others):

Door Into Summer (Heinlein’s best story, about an engineer who starts his own company building household cleaning robots, gets cheated by his partner and stuffed into suspended animation to make him go away into a future world, thirty years ahead in time – the year 2000! Lonely and depressed, he rebuilds his life working as a flunky in his old company, till he finds a drunken physics professor in Boulder, Colorado, who has a a time machine that the government doesn’t want anyone to know about, and this offers him the means to set things right. This is also, quite coincidentally, shockingly biographical for me, as others have remarked.)

Citizen of the Galaxy (Great novel with a hoaky title but a universal theme of the evils of slavery that Heinlein could have turned into first-rate literature if he had been more ambitious; I’d like to do a screenplay of this some day. About a young baby sold into slavery in another star system, after pirates attack his parent's ship, and I don’t want to tell you any more cause of the great surprise in the climax that would be revealed by any more detail.)

Star Beast (Great fun. A young beast is brought back from the first interstellar voyage and made into a pet, and three generations later has grown to the size of a tank. Surprise ending is great.)

Double Star (serious political intrigue that has relevance today and could be updated easily. A principled politician is nearly killed by the opposition to keep him from being elected to head the Solar System Federation, and a vagabond but talented actor is recruited to be his double. Many surprises, poignant in key spots, especially the ending. About growing up and learning to be concerned about fighting for serious values. Would make a great movie.)

Between Planets (One of his many stories about people fighting for their freedom. A young man from Earth gets drawn into a revolt on Venus, and learns he must fight for his freedom when the revolution suffers a setback-- the Federation on Earth decides to counterattack. Dated, but a good story. Pretend it’s another star system. )

Revolt in 2100 A short story collection including “If This Goes On”, a novelette about a secret Cabal seeking to overthrow a religious dictatorship that has had control of the United States for 75 years, in the year 2100. Told in the first person by a young Army officer who is part of the personal guard of the "Supreme Prophet" in his palace in New Jeruselum (aka, Washington D.C.) and follows his growth from devout soldier to active revolutionary up to the final battle where they overthrow the dictatorship government. What initially motivates the young officer is the discovery that the young woman he loves, a "Vestal Virgin", must soon "serve" the Prophet in the way virgins serve prophets, and with the help of his more worldly fellow officer Zebadiah, who is already a member of the Cabal, they rescue her. Etc.

The Man Who Sold the Moon (Collection of short stories, but the title novelette is classic – a wealthy industrialist finances the first trip to the moon in 1978, and how he raises the money.)

Have Space Suit Will Travel (Great story of interstellar adventure, intrigue and the role of the human race in the Galaxy, told from the perspective of a high school senior who simply wants to go to the moon, and enters a soap contest. He gets only second place and a used spacesuit, which he repairs, till the day he tests it in a field near his home and gets kidnapped by space monsters who want to rule the Earth and eat people. He and a prodigy 12 year old girl, who was also kidnapped by these aliens while on the moon, must save humanity. I know it sounds RIDICULOUS, but it’s a great story with a title that keys-off one of my favorite old TV shows, "Have Gun Will Travel". Of ALL Heinlein’s books, this is the one I most want to make into a screenplay. The space monsters are distinctly reminiscent of the movie “Predator”. But there are good aliens, too...)

The Menace from Earth (Short stories, but the title story is the best. About people who live on the moon who can strap on wings and fly for recreation in mammoth underground caverns in the low gravity... Great for the “what if” that it presents. The “menace”, by the way, is not at all what you might think!)

Tunnel in the Sky (A high school final examination for a “survival” course takes students to another planet through a “gateway” to the stars, where they get trapped and must learn to survive, live and form a civil society in a hostile environment. This “gateway” was the source of the premise of the "Stargate" movie and TV series. “Tunnel”, however, was intended as a rational alternative to the book “Lord of the Flies”, where, instead of reverting to barbarity, the kids pull together, use their minds, and survive.)

The Puppet Masters (Outstanding suspense-horror story of slug-like aliens that invade Earth and take over humans by attaching themselves like leeches to their backs. A male/female pair of secret agents working for a Top Secret organization fight desperately to defeat them before they take over the entire planet. The basic premise has been copied so many times it's not worth recounting all of them, but include "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", an episode of the original Star Trek, Stargate SG-1 (the "Goa'uld") and others.

Methuselah’s Children (Story of a selected group of long-lived people on a future Earth, taking place many years after the overthrow of a religious dictatorship of the U.S. When the existence of these people are discovered, they must flee to escape persecution for “the secret” of their long lives – which doesn’t exist, because they were the product of selective breeding encouraged by cash payments to long-lived people over many generations. They hijack the first interstellar ship in orbit around Earth, which has just completed construction, and take off to the stars, where they encounter two much more advanced civilizations and must deal with their own inferiority.)

Time for the Stars (Poignant story based around the famous “Twin Paradox” of Special Relativity, of the first interstellar voyages using twins who can read minds to instantly communicate across the reaches of space. One of the twins travels at the speed of light to different worlds over the course of decades, and doesn’t age, while his twin on Earth does... Adventure and pathos make this a good “what if” story.)

Starman Jones (Great story of a young and uneducated hillbilly who stows away on an interstellar star liner that travels via jumps through “hyperspace” to other worlds. When it’s discovered he has an unusual math ability, he rises through the ranks of the crew up to “astrogator apprentice”, until disaster strikes -- the chief astrogator dies of a heartattack and the ship gets lost in space after a bad hyperspace jump by the assistent astrogator. Our young apprentice must then save everyone. Probably the first example of “hyperspace” jumps in the Sci-Fi world. I used the “Ring” transports in the beginning of this story as a device to place my Atlas Shrugged screenplay adaptation into a future world.)

Podkayne of Mars (Entertaining story of an innocent young girl and her genius little brother who live on Mars and take a vacation to Venusberg – the only place where a “pure”, unsullied capitalism exists – and they get caught in the intrigues of evil power lusters (not the capitalists). Her genius younger brother is hilarious – and not to be trusted! The girl confronts the existence of evil in the world for the first time in her life. )

The Green Hills of Earth (Great collection of short stories about the early days of space exploration in the Solar System. Part of Heinlein’s “Future History” stories, for which he is famous, though not all his books are part of that series.)

Space Cadet (Young men join the Space Academy, learn to be men, and get out into space to guard the solar system – dated and for a more juvenile audience, but entertaining, and could very easily be updated.)

The Rolling Stones (A family on the moon buys an old spaceship to go exploring the solar system. In this story, “flat cats” -- small fuzzy creatures on Mars that are extremely cute but breed out of control -- were the basis for “Tribbles” on the original Star Trek series.)

Assignment in Eternity (4 novelletes, among his earliest, but all great. “Lost Legacy” is about three people who discover psychokinetic powers that lead them to “ancient” ones who survived the lost city of Atlantis, 50,000 years earlier. The three learn that the descendents of the ancients are combatting evil descendents of the same culture who are taking over the Earth today by keeping the secrets of the ancients secret from everyone on Earth -- how to use your mind's latent abilities. Sounds a little like Stargate SG-1, doesn’t it? Well, when I sent my synopsis to the producers of that series, this was where I got the idea.

“Gulf” is about a secret agent who discovers a race of supermen while trying to defeat an evil, wealthy, and monomaniacal woman who wants to hold Earth hostage with a "planet-buster" bomb. The “supermen” are the next stage of human beings, who possess an improved version of the one trait that sets humans apart from the animals: exceptional intelligence -- and they use it to eliminate the dangerous powerlusters who seek to conquer the world.

“Jerry was a Man” is about the morality of creating intelligent, genetically engineered apes by genetic modification, and then enslaving them. Great courtroom climax. Written in 1947!)

Starship Troopers (I always liked this when I was a kid, till I read Ayn Rand and discovered Heinlein was endorsing blatant Kantianism that directly contradicted the rationality he promoted in his other books. This book was his philosophical magnum opus to the world, advocating the worst kind of duty ethics based on an ethical hierarchy that put the individual at the bottom of a food pyramid that went: individual – family – society -- world. But the story is well written and entertaining and the main character is likeable, right up to the end where he loses his life fighting giant bugs to save Earth. The horrible message: sacrifice is the noblest ideal. Blecch. Clearly shows what happens when someone lacks philosophical guidance to understand the proper source of his highest values, cause believe me, this does NOT come through in most of his other works.)

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Excellent story of a revolution on the Moon by colonists against the tyranny of Earth. Mentions John Galt as the role model for the savior of the colonists – “Mike”, a computer that has somehow come to life with intelligence and free will. I personally am convinced that Heinlein was shocked to the core when he read Atlas Shrugged, which came out in the same year as Starship Troopers, 1957. He then wrote almost nothing till “Moon” came out -- which took an opposite philosophical point of view more in line with Ayn Rand. His mention of Galt was thus, in my opinion, something of a mea culpa for the philosophy promoted in “Starship Troopers”. “Moon” is the last book he wrote that I would recommend reading. )

Farmer in the Sky (Good story of colonization and farming on a moon of Jupiter after it has been terraformed and made habitable with a special machine that holds in the atmosphere and keeps the place warm enough with a sort of "greenhouse effect" to live without space suits -- till one day the machine breaks down. )

Entertaining, but more dated and less memorable:

Sixth Column / a.k.a The Day After Tomorrow (Unrelated to Al Gore’s idiot movie of the same name.) The first title is the original, the second the product of an idiot editor unrelated to Al Gore. An early Heinlein revolution story – after the future takeover of the United States by "Pan-Asian" forces who have conquered most of the planet. 6 remaining Army men hide within a Citadel in the Rocky Mountains and plot how to defeat the enemy using an advanced technology that was under development before it accidentally killed almost everyone in the mountain, which had been a secret research facility. Kind of sounds like the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Stargate, again, and the good guys even develop weapons that sound remarkably like the "staff" weapons of the "Goa'uld". (Brad Wright, the producer of Stargate SG-1, was a fan of Heinlein, I’m pretty sure.) Moreover, they plot to re-take the county by spreading a fake religion which is tolerated by the conquering forces. (Robert Cooper, who collaborates with Wright, created a religious enemy, in later episodes of Stargate SG-1, which sounds similar.) Dated by the WWII era it was written in, but still entertaining. Some have seen some racism in this book, but A) keep in mind, this story was written in 1941 and updated in 1947, B) there are sympathetic Asian-Americans in the story, and C) Heinlein was not a racist in any of his other writings, quite the opposite. Speaking of comparisons, the chief scientist (Dr. Calhoun) who leads development of the "ray weapons" used by the heroes in this story bears eery similarities to the arrogant Dr. Robert Stadler in Atlas Shrugged (1957), even to the point of going mad and taking over the central control panel of the main ray weapon defending the rebels headquarters, and attempting to turn the weapon on if he can't rule the country. Till stopped by the brave Frank Mitsui. The real point of this story is stated clearly in the beginning -- if a country sticks it's head in the sand and attempts to appease and "just get along" while another country is conquering others, it will get defeated itself, eventually. So true.

Rocket Ship Galileo (very dated story of first trip to moon, but still entertaining. Most juvenile of all Heinlein's books.)

Farnham’s Freehold ...About an American family that survives a massive nuclear attack and gets thrown 2000 years into the future when a 10 megaton bomb hits their bomb shelter. I DO NOT recommend this book, but I initially stuck it in this list based on my apparent lack of memory of what it was about from last reading it 30 years ago, and decided I should re-read. This book, above all, signals Heinlein's turn to the Dark Side. Written in 1963, it is wedged in between "Starship Troopers", which was at least well written if horrible philosophically, and "Moon is a Harsh Mistress", which was his last entertaining book, IMNSHO. How dark is "Farnham's Freehold"? Apart from long boring sections on the nuances of the family playing bridge in a bomb shelter, and later with a congenial cannibal in the future, the hero's wife is an alcoholic without redeeming quality, his son is a racist lawyer, and after the attack, while trying to survive in the wild, his daughter dies a horrible death in childbirth. That's the good part. In the future, they are slaves to the dominant black race, who castrate his son, turn his wife into a willing whore, and who just happen to eat white folk as the daily meal. Yes massah, that's right. The only mildly redeeming aspect of this horrible novel is that in the last few pages their black master uses the two survivors (I don't count the hero's castrated son and drunken wife, who choose to stay behind to serve as pet and concubine) as an experiment in time travel, sending them back from whence they came. Enough said, and I damn sure don't feel guilty revealing the ending for this garbage. It was Heinlein's pathetic attempt to make a statement that anybody can be a racist given the time and place, but he ignored Rand's cardinal rule of fiction that you've got to want to experience the events and characters of a story if you are going to enjoy it. His tendency towards naturalism (endless minutae unrelated to the plot, like bridge playing tactics) was also overwhelming in this meandering saga.

Time Enough for Love is good in parts, if you’ve read Methuselah’s Children, but rambles and doesn’t have a plot. About what happens when a man outlives everyone he knows or loves. Lazarus Long is the oldest of the Methuselah’s in the previous book, and after that book ends, he goes on to live an astonishing 2000 years. He tells the stories of his life, from his birth in 1912. Very poignant in spots, but not one I re-read. Too sad.

I’m leaving out other Heinlein stories that I don’t like including most of his fantasy (eg, “Glory Road”), his most famous book, “Stranger in a Strange Land”, which became the bible of hippies in the sixties (mostly an endorsement of “free love” told through a Christ-like figure), and anything he wrote after “Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, which are badly written (almost plotless), dark (especially “I Will Fear No Evil”), and not worth reading. I think he was going senile and depressed about the course of the culture for everything after 1966.

The Worlds of Robert A Heinlein (short stories)

The Past Through Tomorrow (A collection of many "future history" stories found in other volumes.)

6xH ( Six short stories with a fantasy emphasis, but entertaining, particularly “And He Built a Crooked House, about an architect who designs a house in the shape of a tesseract, but somehow it acquires doorways to the 4th dimension...)

Red Planet (A revolution on Mars. For a juvenile audience. Okay for kids, a little simple for adults.)

Recommended Zenna Henderson: “Pilgrimage: the book of the People”. She has a writing style that reminds me distinctly of Ayn Rand. The stories all have a quasi-religious undertone that grates, but the characters are thoroughly engaging and the stories are all warm, entertaining and delightful. I love them for the sense of life. Sue me.

Recommended Ian Fleming: All the Bond books. Forget the movies. They’re crap compared to the books, which are intelligent. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is also a great kid’s book, unlike the movie with Rex Harrison.


  1. Thanks for the list. I can hardly wait for my next trip to Half Price Books.

  2. I have to strongly disagree with you assertion that everything RAH wrote after ~1963/66 is unreadable or without plot. I wonder if perhaps you're also not a fan of Vonnegut? I would say that Number of the Beast, the Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset are some of his best work. RAH tended to stray a bit into the fantastical, yet not entirely improbable, toward the end of his career - that is true - however his plots became more involved, more complex, often stretching across novels. For example, the Cat Who Walks Through Walls actually completes the story of the events in the Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

  3. I'd heard a lot of people recommend Heinlein. The library, and they didn't have any of the names I remembered... so, I picked up "To Sail Beyond the Sunset".

    I found it pretty boring. It lacked plot, even though one might say it was full of "sub-plot". I forced myself to persist, but ended up stopping somewhere halfway (which was probably 200 pages).

    I now realize that book was probably written for fans. it would be like reading back-stories by Rowland, without knowing much about Harry Potter.

    I guess I should try "Door into Summer" or "Citizen of the Galaxy".

    Thanks for the list.

  4. Thanks for this post. I recently read three Heinlein books: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (TMIAHM), Stranger In a Strange Land (SIASL), and Starship Troopers (ST). I have to say that I liked TMIAHM despite its anarchist leanings but I disliked ST and I hated SIASL.

    Politically, Heinlein is all over the place. In ST, as you said, Heinlein comes across as rank Conservative with a Kantian philosophy. In TMIAHM, Heinlein sounds like an anarchist libertarian. In SIASL, Heinlein reads like a damn hippy (and I understand the book was the bible for the 60s Left). I don't know what to make of him. But I have not read his earlier stuff which you recommended. After ST and SIASL I was so fed up with Heilein that I wrote him off. But I am going to give him one more try based on this blog post. Thanks!

    B. Tatum


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