Robot See, Human View

Elijah Baley and Daneel Olivaw are together again in The Naked Sun. It’s a few months after the events of Caves of Steel, and Baley, now promoted to a “C-6” has been called to Washington DC, to meet with Undersecretary Albert Minnim. There has been a murder on the planet of Solaria, the first murder in the planet’s history, and Baley’s deductive presence has been specifically requested. Earth’s government sees this as a wonderful opportunity to actually have an Earthman receive first-hand knowledge of Spacer’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than relying on rumor and conjecture. Baley sees this as a terrifying, panic-inducing development. It is made clear that Baley is not being given a choice. In fact, an interstellar craft is waiting to convey him to Solaria immediately. (This is probably for the best, as it doesn’t give Baley time to dread the trip itself!)

Upon his arrival, Baley is surprised by his old partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, whose presence during the investigation was a pre-requisite for the planet Aurora’s assistance in having Baley sent in. On the journey to their temporary residence, Daneel is able to share some information about the planet with Baley, though he knows as little as Baley about the crime they have been called to investigate. Solaria’s population is rigidly controlled. Their 20,000 humans and 200,000,000 robots. (That’s right – two hundred million robots!) The people are scattered on

Same scene a few minutes later!

large (hundreds of acres) estates throughout the planet. Being so spread out necessitated the building of truly spectacular communication technology. You can “view” anyone else on the planet at any time and it’s like being in the same room with them. To an extent. In fact, the ever more brilliant and impressive viewing abilities created a taboo among the people of Solaria to personal presence, or “seeing” as they call it.  Baley believes himself to be meeting with their host, Head of Security Gruer, in person and is shocked when he seemingly disappears after providing them with specifics of the murder.

We get an excellent example of the Solarian ideas of “viewing” and “seeing” when Baley and Olivaw interview the victim’s wife, Gladia. When first contacted, Gladia is in the shower, drying off. When she gets out of the shower, she thinks nothing of Baley and Olivaw “viewing” her nude. Later in the conversation, however, she has this to say about her relationship with her husband:

“We were married. But I had my quarters and he had his. He had a very important career which took much of his time and I have my own work. We viewed each other whenever necessary.” (Kindle location 1192)

A different scene, but again from the book!

In Solarian society, it turns out, marriages are arranged, appointments are made for “seeing”, and ‘children’ is a dirty word. As you can imagine, this creates an interesting sociological conundrum for Baley, used to the overcrowded cities of Earth. This taboo about seeing also makes the mystery of the murder far more complex. Everyone is in agreement that the victim was “a good Solarian” and would never consent to SEE anyone but his wife, therefore she must be the killer. However, she was found unconscious near the body (by robots) mere minutes after the crime and there was no weapon to be found. Who then, could the killer be and how did he or she accomplish it?

Once again, the mystery itself is not all that complicated. The seasoned mystery buff will have at least an inkling of the means fairly quickly, if motive takes a bit longer. It is the unique cultural quirks of the Solarians, and their effect on Baley, that are the real interests in The Naked Sun. After all, Solaria is practically the exact opposite of Earth. Where Elijah’s Earth cities are enclosed underground, Solarian homes glory in expansive space. Where Baley regularly comes into direct contact with family, friends, and strangers on a daily basis, Solarian have trouble

Uhhh….I don’t even….I have no idea.

being in the same room with their spouses. The people of Earth gather for their meals in community kitchens with hundreds of others while Solarians eat their robot-prepared meals in solitude (though they may VIEW with others while dining). The people of Earth fight against robot intrusion on their homes and livelihoods while Solarians revel in the leisure their 10,000 to one robot society. These polar differences don’t go unnoticed by Baley, who realizes that Solaria and Earth share the same fate due to their relative excesses.

Throughout the book Baley challenges his own agoraphobia while he challenges his hosts’ anthropophobia. When he finally insists on being allowed to SEE his witnesses, it forces him to travel in the open. I’m hoping to see the result of his subsequent epiphany realized in the next book, Robots of Dawn. Which, if you’ll excuse me for ending a bit abruptly, I think I’ll get started on now!

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Spelunking NYC

I started reading Caves of Steel with a sense of excitement. I’d thoroughly enjoyed I, Robot, after all, and I’m a huge fan of the turn-of-the-century mysteries of which Asimov was fond, so the idea of a good old-fashioned detective story set in the Robot universe was extremely appealing.

Okay cover, doesn’t have much to do with the story.

Detective Elijah Baley is a New York City cop some thousand plus years into the future from I, Robot. The city now exists entirely indoors, though I honestly never was quite clear on whether it was all underground or if the cities were somehow enclosed, and sprawls over 2,000 square miles (the state of Delaware is 1,948 square miles) including much of New Jersey. Connected by a single entry point to the city proper lies Spacetown, a domed open-area where people from the Outer Planets live. The Spacers are descendants of Earth Colonists who headed out to the stars a thousand years before. They have long-since gained independence from Earth and created their own societies and norms, which include the ubiquitous use of robots. Earthmen have never lost their fear and discomfort with robots so evident in Asimov’s short stories, and resent the Spacer’s attempts to introduce robots into their way of life. When a prominent Spacer is murdered, Baley is assigned the case and a new Spacer partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. The R. stands for Robot.

I have no idea what this thing is supposed to be!

Much of the first half of the book deals with Baley’s discomfort with his new assignment and partner. He repeatedly attempts to find ways to get out of both the case and the partnership. He also flatly refuses to consider that possibility that an Earthman may be the culprit, concocting wild speculations as to his partner’s guilt several times which are easily taken apart. Baley never visits the scene of the crime and takes the word of Daneel (his suspect!) and his boss as to the fact that there’s nothing worth bothering with there. Sherlock Holmes he is not. The real murderer is painfully obvious almost from the start, though the method and motive take some time for the reader to figure out. The “mystery” part of this story ended up a disappointment for me.

But I don’t think that the deductive process was Asimov’s main concern. Much of the story revolves around the conflict between the “Medievalists” and the Spacers.  The Medievalists yearn for a return to “simpler times”; to soil and open air, though the very idea of open air terrifies them to their core. The Spacers want to see more colonization, believing that the people of Earth need to move out to the stars and begin anew. On the face of things, it would seem these goals would complement each other. Where else is there open space and soil to tend than on other planets? But the Medievalists want to reform Earth, without the help of robots, while the Spacers want to see new societies born that combine the best of their technology and economics with the best of Earth’s. It turns out that the Spacers have been pushing Robots on the people of Earth in the hopes that enough people will lose their jobs to the machines that they will want to leave Earth. Instead, they create a backlash against themselves and their technology that threatens both sects’ ideologies.

This one at least tried.

The ideas presented are intriguing, though the storytelling was uneven at best. It’s hard to understand the apparent love the Earthmen have for their cities; the lack of fresh air, the homogenized culture (everyone speaks English and the cuisine of the world is flavored yeast), the lack of privacy or autonomy, it sounds like a nightmare to me. At the same time, the Spacers have eradicated disease and live for hundreds of years which has caused them to become hyper-vigilant when it comes to population control; long-since closing their borders to new colonists, who might bring disease with them, and euthanizing children born with congenital or mental defects. If you could only choose one of these ways of life, which would it be? If you were suddenly confronted with a 3rd option, one that combined the best of both, would you take it? These are the real questions Caves of Steel seeks to unwind. Me? I’d be the first one on the colony ship!

When I Get Home, I’m Going to Give my Roomba a Hug!

Hot damn, that was a good book!

As most good nerds know (even those who haven’t gotten around to reading it themselves) I, Robot, the Will Smith movie, has little to do with I, Robot, the book by Isaac Asimov, except for a few character names and the Laws of Robotics. The book is actually a collection of short stories originally published between 1940 and 1950 that have been interwoven with interstitial narrative of the world’s first robopsychologist being interviewed upon her retirement; in my opinion, a brilliant conceit.

And how refreshing it was to read a series of stories where it is the inability of the robot to see harm come to a human (the first Law of Robotics; I’m not going to print them all here, everyone knows them, and if you don’t Wikipedia will tell you) that provides the impetus and often conclusion to the story after being bombarded by SkyNet, The Matrix, ARIA, Decepticons, HAL, etc.!

Moreover, Asimov managed to create a cohesive narrative through a group of stories that vary drastically in tone, largely to the theme running through them all of the primacy of the Laws of Robotics. There were stories to make you laugh (‘Escape!’), cry (‘Liar!’), and rage (‘Robbie’, that horrible mother!), but two stories stood out as particularly apropos of our time.

There’s something of a disconnect for me when I read books written in the future of now, by which I mean these stories are all supposed to have taken place in the first half of the 21st century, a somewhat distant future in 1940 but obviously now it’s – uh – now.  There’s an interesting dichotomy to see what leaps in technology seemed feasible at the time (interstellar travel! mining on mercury! functional humanoid robots!) and the stagnation of social mores within those achievements (everyone smokes! – indoors! men won’t curse in the presence of a lady!) Perhaps my favorite example of the strange backwards technology that occurs in the story is a description of a “‘visor-phone” which is basically a videophone, Skype, FaceTime, whatever you want to call it, whose display is black and white (or at least that’s the implication in the description of a “light and dark image”)! A videophone seemed perfectly conceivable, that it might actually be able to project color, not so much.

I mention these things, because it made the two stories at the end of the book stand out all the more. Both concern politics and a man by the name of Stephen Byerley. In “Evidence”, Byerley is an A.D.A. preparing to run for mayor of New York City. Francis Quinn, who seems to work for the opposition, believes Byerley may actually be a robot, as he has never been seen to eat or sleep in front of others. He, of course, releases this information to the public resulting in the following:

“The political campaign, of course, lost all other issues, and resembled a campaign only in that it was something filling the hiatus between nomination and election.” (Kindle Location 2884)

A one-issue election. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

The final story, “The Evitable Conflict”, again features Byerley, this time as World Co-ordinator. Benevolent Machines now, essentially, run the world. They calculate data, probabilities, statistics,  on everything from food production to mining to infrastructure needs. In this story, something seems to have gone wrong with the Machines and Byerley travels to meet with his four Regional Vice-Co-ordinators to discuss the problem. He eventually comes to the conclusion that members of the group the Society for Humanity are intentionally ignoring the Machine’s instructions so as to create doubt as to the Machine’s usefulness. Byerley’s proposed solution to this possibility is eerily familiar:

“‘There is obviously no time to lose. I am going to have the Society outlawed, every member removed from any responsible post. And all executive and technical positions, henceforward, can be filled only by applicants signing a non-Society oath. It will mean a certain surrender of basic civil liberties, but I am sure the Congress -‘” (Emphasis mine) (Kindle Location 3405)

This is a marked difference to the story of his first campaign:

“It’s rather symbolic of our two campaigns, isn’t it? You have little concern with the rights of the individual citizen. I have great concern. I will not submit to X-ray analysis, because I wish to maintain my Rights on principle. Just as I’ll maintain the rights of others when elected.” (Kindle Location, 2935)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’m not going to tell you how either of these stories turn out, they’re worth reading for yourself to find out, as is the entire collection. If I, Robot is any indication, I can’t wait to get into the Robot novels!

Bechdel Score: 1 out of 3. ‘Robbie’, the first story does have a conversation between mother and daughter, but I don’t feel like that really falls into the spirit of the Bechdel Test.

A Fine Kettle of Fish!

I’ve gotten myself into a bit of a mess. You see, when I conceived this project I knew that I’d be likely to find books that are part of a series on the list and that those books may not be the first in said series. This was confirmed almost immediately when the 1946 Retro winner turned out to be “The Mule” which is actually part 2 of Foundation and Empire, which is itself either the 2nd or 4th in the Foundation series, depending on whether you’re looking at things in publication order or chronologically. Obviously I’d need to do some reading before I got around to actually reading “The Mule”.

It just so happened that I’ve had Prelude to Foundation, Forward the Foundation, and Foundation all sitting on my shelves for at least a year. I pulled out Prelude to Foundation and read Asimov’s Forward. In it, I found out that the Foundation series follows the Robot series and the Empire series. In fact, Asimov very helpfully laid out the order he’d prefer they be read in.

  1. The Complete Robot: A collection of stories published between 1940 and 1976.*
  2. The Caves of Steel
  3. The Naked Sun
  4. The Robots of Dawn
  5. Robots of Empire
  6. The Currents of Space
  7. The Stars, Like Dust
  8. Pebble in the Sky
  9. Prelude to Foundation
  10. Foundation*
  11. Foundation and Empire
  12. Second Foundation
  13. Foundation’s Edge
  14. Foundation and Earth

Now I had a bit of a conundrum. I’m the type of person who likes to read things from beginning to front. If I buy a magazine because I’m interested in the cover article, I will still read that magazine cover to cover without skipping around. Did I then need to start with I, Robot? Would starting with Prelude to Foundation suffice? Should I ignore Asimov’s suggestion to read chronologically and instead start with Foundation? After some thought, I decided that the fact that Asimov made a distinction between the three series meant that I wouldn’t be missing anything by jumping straight to the Foundation series. I also decided that I’d respect the author’s suggestion and start with Prelude to Foundation.

I was stupid.

Turns out that, while knowledge of previous series is not necessary for the enjoyment of understanding of Prelude to Foundation, it most certainly would have helped. There’s quite a bit of discussion about pre-Galactic history, myths and legends about robots that quickly become an integral part of the story. At the same time, I had the constant impression of foreshadowing. The idea that those who read the series as they were published would have gotten a bit more out of some of the conversations and snippets from the “Encyclopedia Galactica” was pervasive. By the time I finished reading, I knew that I should have started with I, Robot in order to get the most out of Prelude to Foundation.

To that end, I’m going to wait on publishing my full account/review of Prelude to Foundation until I’ve gotten through the Robot and Empire books. I intend to write a draft that will include my original thoughts on Prelude and then perhaps add to that after reading the books leading up to it. At this point, I’m not sure if this will help or not, but I’m hopeful.

Has anyone out there encountered this problem themselves? Any suggestions on the proper reading order? Help me internet!

*The entire collection is not easily available in eFormat, but I, Robot is, so I’m starting with that. I’ll hunt down the rest on AbeBooks, but I, Robot’s got to be better to get me started than nothing!

**Forward the Foundation had not yet been written or published at the time Asimov wrote this list, but I’ll be reading it before Foundation.

Time Travel is Never Simple

Yesterday I read the super short and super intense The Big Time by Fritz Lieber, winner of the 1958 Hugo for Best Novel. I’m still trying to process it, but I also want to get some of my thoughts down here before I forget everything that happened in those 110 pages. (According to LibraryThing anyway, I was reading the Kindle version; no actual pages.)

The Big Time is told in first person by 29-year-old Greta Forzane. Greta is a Demon and Entertainer for the Spiders during the Change War. It seems that there is a war raging throughout time between the Spiders and the Snakes. Both sides travel through time and change events in the hope that their side will eventually come out the victor:

 

Our Soldiers fight by going back to change the past, or even ahead to change the future, in ways to help our side win the final victory a billion or more years from now. A long killing business, believe me. (Kindle Location 12)

Demons are people who were plucked out of their own times, (kind of) to act as Soldiers and Entertainers. Entertainers exist in Places in the Void, which is the nothingness between times in the cosmos. Greta is a part of a six-member Place. Sid, an Elizabethan poet who knew Shakespeare, is the pilot. Beauregard (Beau), an antebellum gambler, is the co-pilot and piano player. Doc, whose job is self-evident, is a Russian drunk. Maud, a 50-year-old party girl hails from the 23rd century where they have technology that keeps her looking and acting like a teenager. Lili, the newest, was a flapper. Greta herself is from Chicago in what must be the late-40s or early-50s, though it’s never really specified. Their job is to provide comfort and relaxation (and some occasional first aid) to Soldiers coming back to the Void between missions.

The Place is operated by two Maintainers. The Major Maintainer allows them to hold their place or navigate within the Void. The Minor Maintainer controls the gravity (and one assumes other life-support systems) within various sectors of the Place. The Place itself is broken into a variety of areas for entertainment. There’s an Art Gallery, a Bar, a Kitchen, and a Surgery, among others. Within the Surgery is an apparatus called the Inverser, which allows doctors to turn patients inside out (more or less) to operate without cutting them open.

The story kicks off when the Place picks up 3 Soldiers who were just trying to kidnap the baby Einstein back from the Snakes in Russia. Soldiers seems to be chosen from people who performed the same function in life, so this group consists of Mark (Marcus) a 2nd Century Roman; Bruce, a British World War I soldier; and Erich, a Nazi commandant. Bruce and Erich are in the midst of an argument that results in a duel. With swords. Bruce is new to the Change War and is upset by the whole idea of Changing history:

“Here’s yet another example. To beat Russia, the Spiders kept England and America out of World War Two, thereby ensuring a German invasion of the New World and creating a Nazi empire stretching from the salt mines of Siberia to the plantations of Iowa, from Nizhni Novgorod to Kansas City!” (Kindle Location 226)

The argument is ultimately resolved when it turns out that Lili was a fan of Bruce’s poetry when they were both alive, in fact, Lili has been in love with him from afar for a very long time. Shortly thereafter, they receive a strange S.O.S. and the final three members of the party arrive; Kaby, a Cretan; Illy, a furry, tentacled Lunan from a billion years before; and Sevensee, a Venusian satyr from a billion years in the future. They bring with them an atomic bomb which Erich, Mark and Bruce are supposed to set off in Ancient Alexandria. This announcement pretty much kicks everything into high gear. Bruce begins agitating for peace, suggesting that they travel to other Places, both Spider and Snake, and try to bring an end to hostilities. Meanwhile, Erich advocates the continuation of the war. At some point during the debate, the Major Maintainer is switched to Invert (removing the Place from access to the Cosmos) and disappears. Chaos ensues. Accusations abound. And the bomb is activated.

In the end, this story seemed to be a variety of things all at once. It’s a study of the difference between men and women; between Soldiers and Entertainers; between Past and Future. How well it explores these themes is up for debate. I tend to have trouble with stories that have too much substance and not enough form and I’d venture this story falls into that category. While there’s a coherent plot to be found, I’m not sure that it does all that much to advance the ultimate theme Lieber seems to want to get across of evolution and change. When you reach the final thesis statement, it’s difficult to discern exactly where it came from, which is why I say I continue to ruminate on the story as a whole. I’d encourage you to read it for yourself and see if you feel different.

Bechdel Score: 2.5 out of 3; I’m giving it a half-point because, while the women to talk to each other and it’s never overtly about a man, there’s a pervasive undercurrent of misogyny throughout the story that seems to say that, for women, everything revolves around their feelings for men. I just couldn’t bring myself to give it full marks.

Captain Future Living in the Past

When I created my Hugo novel spreadsheet earlier this week – yes, of course there’s a spreadsheet! If I ever start a project without first creating some sort of spreadsheet or database to track it than there is something seriously wrong and someone needs to get me to a doctor, fast! Anyway, when I created my Hugo novel spreadsheet earlier this week, I forgot to scroll down on the Wikipedia page to the “Retro Hugo” nominees and winners. Oops! That meant that I missed several earlier novels so I had to go back and add them. I surprised to find a couple of the oldest (1946) were available for the Kindle and as soon as I saw the cover (and $2.99 price tag) of Red Sun of Danger by Edmund Hamilton (writing as Brett Sterling) I knew it would be the next one I would read. There’s something about ridiculous pop art of the 1940s and 1950s that I love. Despite the whole, damsel-in-distress thing there’s an inherent goofiness that speaks to me. It’s perhaps one of the reasons the sci-fi covers of the 1980s and 1990s turned me off so much, with their wide shots of planets and distant ships; where was the danger? The romance? I mean, look at this thing!

How could you not want to read that?! I mean, really? What could possibly be happening? Some sort of dragon is attacking a robot while Jane of the Jungle cowers in the background. What does any of that have to do with a red sun? And who is Captain Future? I was psyched! I did some quick “research” by looking up Captain Future on Wikipedia (this was #18 after all, I didn’t want to go in blind) and then I started reading.

Captain Future is Curtis Newton, born to a pair of scientists living on the moon. Together with their friend and colleague Simon Wright, they built a giant robot (Grag) and a shape-shifting android (Otho). They also transplanted Simon Wright’s brain from his aging body into a box with lenses to see and magnetic means of locomotion. As with any good hero story, Curtis’ parents are killed and Grag, Otho, and Simon “The Brain” Wright (soon to be known collectively as “The Futuremen”) raise him on the moon. Curtis is super-intelligent, athletic and the all-around perfect human specimen and actually wants to use this surplus of awesome to help people, anonymously. Captain Future is born.

Our story starts when the colonists of the distant planet Roo threaten to secede from the System Government, a problem because the planet provides 90% of the vitron (a substance that provides long life) to the System. Were the secession to succeed, prices for vitron would be driven up and the entire System might collapse. It seems the native Roons, peaceful co-habitants for nearly a decade, have suddenly begun attacking the colonists and the colonists are blaming the government for not being able to stop it. The President calls upon Captain Future and the Futuremen, as well as the scientists who discovered vitron, to go to Roo and discover who’s behind the obvious plot to monopolize vitron.

What follows is the standard series of cliff-hangy chapters and ridiculous adventures you’d expect. There are “atom-gun” shootouts, giant worms, paralyzing spiders, toxic flowers, and the “night-dragons” seen pictured above. (I have to admit, as a huge fan of John Scalzi, the night-dragons gave me a serious case of squee as I imagined them leaving Roo after the events of this book and heading to Skalandarharia!) It’s as predictable and cheesy as you could want. Check out the inflated language and over-use of adverbs endemic of the style and period:

Quord was tearing the weapon away from Newton, and Otho could not shoot because Captain Future was between him and the Venusian.

Newton rallied his dizzied faculties to avert the tragedy. Quord already had the butt of the gun and his finger was tightening on its trigger. Dazedly, Captain Future lunged forward, twisting the Venusian’s arm around at the moment he pulled the trigger. (Kindle location 1876)

At the same time, there’s an obvious parallel to be drawn to the treatment of the Native Americans (indeed any indigenous people) by European settlers and pioneers. The culture clash that can so easily occur when no one bothers to take the time to learn about each other is all there in the “superstition” (involving Kangas, of course) the criminals use to incite the Roons to violence. It’s not subtle. And, thankfully, it’s generally a positive message as the government refuses to even consider genocide (you never know so soon after WWII!) “It’s utterly against System Government policy to massacre the native inhabitants of this world.” (Kindle location 845)

While a surprise that something so obviously pulp was nominated for a Hugo, it’s a good reminder that even the silliest of stories can have something to say. I truly enjoyed my introduction to Captain Future. Wikipedia mentions that a movie was in the works at sometime, and while IMDb lists is simply as “in development” I sincerely hope that it will one day come to fruition. The world could stand to learn a little something from Captain Future and the past.

Bechdel Score: 1 of 3

My First Heinlein

While I’m making an effort to read the oldest books on the Hugo Novel list first, the 1953 and 1955 winners are not available as eBooks or, for a reasonable price, as “new” books. I placed an order at AbeBooks for five of the early novels on the list unavailable on my Kindle and those should be winging their way to me soon. In the meantime, I got started with the earliest novel that was available for the Kindle, which turned out to be the 1956 Winner, Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein.

As the smart reader can probably guess from the title of this post, I hadn’t read any Heinlein before. (I know there are people out there who would say I can’t call myself a Sci-Fi fan without having read any Heinlein, but I don’t really care and besides it’s kind of the point of this whole venture, catching up on the classics.) Anyway, while I’ve seen the Starship Troopers movie more than once, I hadn’t actually gotten around to reading it or anything else of his. (Starship Troopers is coming, it won in 1960.) Double Star is the story of actor Lorenzo Smythe (nee Lawrence Smith) who accepts a job as a double without knowing who he’ll be doubling or why his services are needed. (I’m going to go ahead and be a bit spoilery as the book is 56 years old, I’ll try not to give away the whole plot.) After a fairly lengthy talk with his would-be employers, they are interrupted by a Martian and a human who attempt to kill everyone in the room and, as often happens, end up getting themselves killed instead. Smythe helps his employer, Captain Dak Broadbent, clean up and they hightail to Dak’s ship. It’s not until they’re on the rendezvous ship and heading to Mars that Lorenzo finally gets the full story.

Smythe has been hired to “play” The Right Honorable John Joseph Bonforte, a major political player in the Expansionist Party. Bonforte is to be “adopted” into a Martian family, a ritual is to be performed in just 2 days, and the opposing Humanity Party has kidnapped Bonforte. Unfortunately, the Martian’s notion of “propriety” is such that if anything but death were to keep Bonforte from his appointment, he would need to submit to death rather than shame himself and his proposed family. (This is, of course, why he was kidnapped in the first place instead of being killed outright.) Smythe is needed to perform the ritual in Bonforte’s absence to avert war. He studies up and does his duty. While performing the ritual, Dak and the others who know about the kidnapping find Bonforte, brainwashed and ill and Smythe is asked to step in for what ends up being considerably longer.

I know enough about Heinlein to know that many of his books have an overtly political bent to them, and this one is no exception. The point seems to be no matter how hard you try to avoid it, politics will get you in the end, as poor Smythe never even registered to vote before being pulled into the this conspiracy.

“I had never meddled in politics. My father had warned against it. ‘Stay out of it, Larry,’ he had told me solemnly. ‘The publicity you get that way is bad publicity. The peasants don’t like it.” (Kindle Location 654)

There is also a point to be made about the power one charismatic man (or woman, says I) can have to provoke change if he wields it well. Certainly a point that is as true today as it was then.

Speaking of “then”, I knew going into this that some of the older books were sure to have ideas and rhetoric that were out-dated and foreign to me. It was still something of a shock to me when in the very first chapter Smythe worried that Dak might be interested in him sexually. Having just finished reading the 2012 Hugo nominees, wherein at least half of the stories included a LGBT, omni-sexual or, in one case, hydro-sexual character with little to no comment, the idea that such blatant homophobia could still exist in the future was jarring. (There was also a huge amount of cigarette smoking – or, deathsticks as I like to call them (pretty much the only thing I like in Attack of the Clones). But it was the rampant misogynism that bothered me the most. Here are just a few examples:

“Stow it, Penny, or I’ll spank your round fanny – at two gravities.”  (Kindle Location 726)

“I took hold of her chin and tilted her face up. ‘I know why you find it so hard to have me here, in his place. You love him. But I’m doing the best job for him I know how. Confound it, woman! Do you have to make my job six times harder by treating me like dirt?‘” (Kindle Location 957)

“Penny sighed softly and fainted again.” (Kindle Location 2577)

And that wasn’t all. Pretty much every scene with Penny in it (the only woman, an epic Bechdel Test fail) had men condescending to her or threatening her (or both). While I realize that it was a “different time” in 1956, but it’s obvious that the idea that women might be equals in the future obviously didn’t even cross Heinlein’s mind, even as he wrote a story about accepting alien races as a part of the human empire.

In the end, I actually did enjoy the book. It was a good story and by the end I had come to like the bombastic blowhard Lorenzo Smythe. I’d definitely recommend this book to someone looking to read more classic sci-fi, just be ready for a future that, in some ways, is socially mired in the past.

Bechdel Test: 0 of 3