The right lessons

You don’t have to be a fan of John Scalzi, Robert A. Heinlein, or science fiction in general to enjoy Scalzi’s piece “Lessons From Heinlein,” especially if you’re a writer in any genre. Heinlein stood the entire SF field on its collective ear in the mid 20th century and his work remains popular for a lot of good reasons, as well as a great many bad ones. As a model for how to construct a fast-moving story in which characters develop and reveal themselves through their actions, Heinlein is one of the best. The trouble is, a great many people of the libertarian stripe see Heinlein as a sage as well as a storyteller — a readable Ayn Rand, if you like.  There’s a line from Paul Theroux’s novel The Mosquito Coast — “Your father is the worst kind of pain-in-the-neck — a know-it-all who’s sometimes right.” — that applies perfectly to Heinlein. John Scalzi, to his great credit, understands this and has absorbed the right lessons from the man’s work.

Scalzi reposted this essay to mark the tenth anniversary of his novel Old Man’s War, which he wrote with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in mind. Oddly enough, the 1997 film version of Starship Troopers has been all over cable the last few weeks — nothing says Christmas like freshets of human gore and insect goo, I suppose. I wouldn’t argue for Paul Verhoeven’s film as a good movie, though it is one of the most watchable bad movies ever made. It’s also the only film adaptation I can think of that expresses such blatant contempt for its source material. With its propagandistic news broadcasts, Albert Speer-derived sets, and Third Reich haberdashery, Starship Troopers deliberately cocks its leg over everything Heinlein argues for in his novel. Even the casting of Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards as Johnny Rico and Carmen Ibanez mocks Heinlein’s deracinated characters, who have Latino names but are interchangeable with Heinlein’s other white mouthpieces. (Hilariously, some Heinlein fans have cited Rico to answer charges of racism arising from his less palatable works, such as Farnham’s Freehold.) The film’s broad satire is fun, but unfair. One may dispute Heinlein’s contention that raw force “has settled more issues in history than has any other factor,” but flipping it off doesn’t really serve as an answer.          

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