I have been thinking a lot lately about themes in Science Fiction and the difference between exploring a theme and proselytizing. The line isn’t a clear one, and I suspect we all draw it in a slightly different place.
To clarify my own thoughts on the matter I want to discuss three books by the same author that deal (at least in part) with the same theme in different ways.
Few science fiction fans are indifferent about Robert Heinlein. Reactions to his name tend to fall into three categories:
- I love him!
- I hate him!
- I like his early stuff, but not his later stuff.
I’m firmly in the third camp. Although I see from his bibliography that there is chronological overlap between what I consider “earlier” and “later”, I think that it’s clear that as a writer his work changed in character during the decade of the 1970’s.
So I am going to take these works out of chronological order–which is a pity, because I had a timeline all figured out before I went and looked up the actual publication dates. (Facts suck.)
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, (1966) I believe that this is not simply one of the best science fiction novels ever written, it’s one of the best novels, period. It won the Hugo award for 1967, beating out both Samuel Delany’s Babel 17 and Daniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon (the novel version, not the original short story).
For those who are unfamiliar with it, the story is told in first person by Manuel O’Kelly Davis, a citizen of a lunar colony who becomes (more or less by accident) caught up in a revolution to make Luna a free state, independent from Earth.
There’s a lot going on in this novel, including the intelligent computer Mike who instantly became the gold standard by which I judge all other AI characters, but what I want to talk about is specifically the theme of polyamory.
Manny Davis is a member of a poly household, what he calls a line marriage. It’s an important part of the book because it’s an important part of Manny’s life and shows what it is that he’s fighting for. There is some discussion of sexual customs in Luna, but I feel those discussions are also important to the story–Manny is explaining local culture to a citizen of Earth who needs to understand Lunar psychology in order to help with the revolution.
This novel, in my opinion, shows how speculative sociology can work in science fiction. Instead of telling the reader, “This is how families should be,” Heinlein is say, “This is how Manny’s family is, and his family is just as important to him as yours is to you.” I don’t mind admitting that the way the subject is handled here is a big influence on how I talk about alternative family structures in my work.
Glory Road, (1963) I was fairly surprised to see that this book was published before the one above. Like I say, I had a theory about Heinlein’s “evolution” as a writer, and this book messes it up. (Even more is the fact that Stranger In A Strange Land came out in 1961. I could have used that book as an example, except that I hate it a lot and refuse to talk about it in my blog.) Oh, well.
This book is kind of an awkward hybrid between Science Fiction and Fantasy. The basic idea is that the main character is recruited to take part in a daring commando raid in another universe with different physical laws.
For reasons that don’t hold up to any sort of logical analysis the narrator, Scar Gordon, isn’t told what he has been recruited to do, or who he’s really working for. That aside, the thing that really kills this book for me is how much time the characters spend discussing sexual ethics.
See, the narrator and his beautiful companion (and their comic relief/wise counselor) spend the night at the castle of a local lord (that’s the fantasy part) and Gordon doesn’t have sex with the lady of the castle.
This causes all sorts of problems because Gordon violated a social rule that he had no way of knowing existed. Fortunately, he’s able to smooth things over by having sex with the lady of the manor at her two daughters, one of whom is described as being very young.
At this point the action stops dead so that the two main characters can spend a couple of dozen pages talking about why, when given a choice between two contradictory ethical schemata, the one that offers the greatest latitude for sexual behavior must be given precedence.
Heinlein, alas, studied engineering, not philosophy. His arguments (which go on for the rest of the book, punctuated by the occasional, “Oh, look, a monster. Let’s kill it!”) are largely the dismantling of a succession of straw men. They have the somewhat strident flavor of a man who isn’t entirely sure he’s convinced himself, but wants to believe.
And this is where it crosses the line, in my opinion. Here, I believe, he is saying, “this is the way that things should be.” For me, this ruins what was, up until then, an interesting mix of genres with a likable protagonist.
I Will Fear No Evil, (1970) This book has been called porn, but I think that’s a bit harsh. I would call it erotic romance–specifically bisexual polyamorous erotic romance.
The story contains some science fiction elements, most importantly transplanting the brain of an old man into the body of a young woman. However, it seems to me that the medical technology is largely a pretext for discussing his social agenda.
Glory Road, I felt, suffered from telling, not showing. This book doesn’t have that problem–there is plenty of showing going on (albeit with the coy and slightly saccharine euphemisms required by the time of publication) but it’s a very one-sided show.
Johann/Joan Schmidt spends most of the book exploring different kinds of erotic relationships–with men, with women, with groups, with herself. I don’t object to the sex, exactly (I tend to skim such passages) so much as the way that sex is used to solve problems.
The book reads like an infomercial for a miracle drug.
Want to get information? Use Sex!
Trouble with your employees? Use Sex!
Need to get a judge’s ruling overturned? Use Sex!
The emotional dimension of the erotic relationships is universally positive. No one is ever possessive or jealous (we know this because the characters spend a lot of time talking about how non-possessive and non-jealous they are).
Again, I have the feeling that Heinlein is trying to convince himself of his thesis as much as his readers. There is a core of artificiality here, a feeling of a set piece put on to prove a point. For example, there is one outspoken Christian, one outspoken Jew, and one outspoken Muslim and each one finds it necessary to deliver a brief speech about how there is no contradiction between his faith and sleeping around.
So what’s my conclusion? Pretty much the same one I always come back to–it’s all about the story.
What I believe drives fiction are the questions, “What’s going to happen to the characters next?” and “What are they going to do about it?” What the characters believe should be a distant third, and what the author believes shouldn’t be visible at all, although it can’t help but color the events and the world they take place in.