Clay's Reviews > Time for the Stars

Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
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Jul 01, 09

Read in March, 2008

Pop culture is often dismissed as simply low culture – in contrast to the high art of opera or classical music or abstract expressionism. And there’s good reason: As long-ago scifi author Theodore Sturgeon once pointed out, “Ninety percent of everything is trash.”

A simple tour through the cable channels, or spin of the radio dial, will prove Sturgeon right, and in the mass of modern pop culture it’s much harder to filter out the signal from the noise. In classical music, for example, the bad symphonies simply never get played because time has winnowed the field to only the best.

But even if pop culture doesn’t always deliver quality, it does have something else to offer: a window on the modern world. Though movies, books and music take time to work their way from inspiration to dissemination, they still have a relatively brief gestation, and taken as a whole, they reflect and amplify some oftentimes hidden aspects of our culture.

Since this is a science fiction and fantasy column, it’s pretty obvious what the focus will be, but the same arguments apply across a much broader spectrum – and the same insights emerge.

Recently, publishers sent me a couple of books by writers from the so-called Golden Age (which shines much more brightly because, like classical music, the trash has been forgotten). The first, “The Voyage of the Space Beagle” (Orb, $14.95, 215 pages), by A.E. Van Vogt, holds up remarkably well, while Robert Heinlein’s “Time for the Stars” (Orb, $14.95, 244 pages) shows it age. Nonetheless, both share a quality that is almost always missing from modern scifi: optimism.

In both books, there’s a sense that problems will be solved, both individually and collectively. The future is bright, human beings are capable (if not exceptional) and the triumph of progress (and thus the good) is inevitable. You can read far and wide in 21st century scifi (especially that with a serious intent) and not find much to bolster any of those beliefs.

Two other veterans who worked in the 1950s (“The Voyage of the Space Beagle” came out in 1950, “Time for the Stars” in 1956) combined for a new book, “The Last Theorem” (Ballantine Books, $27, 299 pages). It’s not up to their best work, which is not surprising, but even so, that sense of optimism shines through. Human beings will still struggle and make mistakes but Arthur C. Clarke (who died recently) and Frederick Pohl not only acknowledge, but celebrate, humanity’s abilities.

Most writers whose careers are firmly rooted in the 21st century have little truck with such sunny outlooks. At a surface level, the books are full of blood and pain. Authors make sure that their heroes fight realistically – the crunch of bone, the burst of blood, the tide of pain, are always meticulously recounted. But beyond that, there is an underlying despair that humanity will ever get it right. If it’s not environmental disaster, it’s the inability to control technology; if it’s not escaped microbes gone wild, it’s war with civilization-destroying weapons.

And that, to this American who remembers when the United States did not invade foreign countries for no apparent reason (from Vietnam to Iraq), when the promise of technology was greater than the dangers of terrorism, when Mother Nature seemed to be kind rather than vengeful, is more than a little depressing. For if the light shone on modern culture by science fiction in particular and pop culture in general is so obscured by the grey fog of despair, does it mean that the 21st century world is on the way to giving up? If the heroes can’t solve the problems, or are turned into antiheroes who cannot find a way to glory without compromising their ideals and values, then who will stand up and lead? If these dark visions are correct, what will the world our children and grandchildren inherit really look like?

Of course, every older generation always thinks the world is going to hell in a hand basket – and the phrase itself gives the lie to its prediction. I don’t even know what a hand basket is, which reminds me that the pessimism of the elders does not necessarily doom the young ones. And in fact, there are some science fiction authors who still cling to the old tropes, the vision of humans as problem-solvers and not carriers of a culture-killing disease.

At the top of that list for me is John Scalzi, who has a new book out (“Zoe’s Tale” (Tor, $24.95, 336 pages)) that brings a different narrator to some of the events from the satisfying “The Last Colony.” “Zoe’s Tale” isn’t completely successful, as its depiction of its female teen-age heroine seems to me – someone who has coached teen-age girls for more than 20 years – impossible to credit, but it is still a book in which problems are solved, and positive resolutions are reached.

The same is true Scalzi’s “Agent for the Stars” (Tor, $14.95, 352 pages), which he wrote more than a decade ago but is just now getting widespread distribution. “Agent for the Stars” is also funny, and not in a dark, vein-slicing way, which is another rarity as the young century wears on.

A pair of writers – Gary K. Wolf and Archbishop John J. Myers – went all-out for the past with “Space Vulture” (Tor, $24.95, 333 pages), an unabashedly old-fashioned space opera with heroes, villains, coincidences, and all the trappings of old-time science fiction – and old-time westerns, as far as that goes. But simply re-working the old themes doesn’t make this book more than just a diversion, while the Isaac Asimovs and Clifford D. Simaks of the ’50s and ‘60s were reflecting the underlying positive attitudes of an entire culture.

Scalzi echoes that optimism, but the vision of most of the writers working in this pop culture field is generally darker, more depressing and seldom ends well. Even when the heroes win, the scars take long to heal, and there’s no sense that the most serious problems will be solved, or that progress has been made. Usually, in fact, the protagonist is pretty much back where he started, after much pain and suffering, and more blows to any belief that the world can be made a better place.

Of course, it’s not possible for scifi and fantasy writers, or anyone involved in pop culture, to truly shift the direction of the great mass of people, and if they are too far from the edge of the pack, they will simply be ignored. Nonetheless, the message that’s being sent – that the future is dark and getting darker -- is not one that should be ignored, as it’s just one more warning sign that the road the worldwide culture has been traveling does not appear to lead to many happy endings.
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