A while back I tried to listen to the audiobook of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. I gave up on it for two reasons. First, I didn’t find any of the characters engaging, and second, the world in which it is set didn’t make any sense. I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about Snow Crash because I don’t like writing negative reviews. I bring it up as a counter-example because as a happy accident I switched over to a different book, one that I have heard multiple times and still enjoy very much.
I realized that this other book was not simply more enjoyable that Snow Crash, it was also more diverse, tolerant, progressive, and (in the classical sense) liberal, and was set in a more believable future than Snow Crash.
The other book was The Star Beast.
Written by Robert Heinlein.
Published in 1954.
The novel is a semi-serious comedy of errors with an ensemble cast. The main character is the titular Star Beast–an enormous alien who has been living in relative obscurity on Earth for several human generations as the pet of the Stuart family. Lummox, as the Star Beast is known, is very powerful physically but naive and gentle. The novel opens with Lummox getting out of his yard and causing massive property damage without really meaning to–after all, if humans make their buildings fragile, that’s not Lummox’s fault.
Lummox’s human companion is a young man named John Thomas Stuart XI–the descendant of a man who was famous for leading the revolution to free the Martian colony for colonial rule. Johnny is fairly provincial, a straightforward and simple young man who is nearly as naive as Lummox, with a tendency to act first and try to figure things out after the fact.
Fortunately, Johnny has Betty Sorenson to watch out for him. Betty is one of my favorite characters from all of science fiction. She is a Free Child–she divorced her parents in order to become a ward of the court and lives in a supervised dormitory. (The reason for the divorce is never explicitly stated–she tells Johnny at one point, but the reader isn’t allowed to overhear it.) Betty is everything that a strong female character should be. She is clever, resourceful, emotionally stable, and more than a match for the bumbling local authorities who are set on killing Lummox as a dangerous monster. All without ever needing to pick up a weapon–she outthinks the opposition so thoroughly that she has no need to resort to violence.
On the side of the government–specifically the Bureau Of Spacial Affairs–is the deputy director of the BSA, Dr. Henry Kiku. Dr. Kiku is a career civil servant born and raised in Kenya. His background is vital to his character in several small ways–his attitudes were formed from growing up in a small nation among superpowers and his use of diplomacy has the charming more-British-than-Britain politeness of former colonies.
Dr. Kiku’s assistant is Sergei Greenberg, a Martian national (at one point he tells Johnny, “I was born within sight of your great-grandfather’s statue.”) Greenberg has a freewheeling anti-authoritative style–a laid-back James Bond to Kiku’s M. Unlike Bond, however, Greenberg ends up realizing that his boss is right and that going off half-cocked causes more problems than it solves.
Lastly we have the other non-human main character, Dr. Ftaml. Ftaml is Rigelian translator working for a mysterious alien race who appeared in Earth’s skies with an inexplicable ultimatum that seems–at first–to have nothing to do with Lummox. Dr. Ftaml is amusingly alien, from a species that believes in mimicking local customs to the greatest degree possible, but whom fails to understand certain rather important things about human beings.
All in all, a fast paced and exciting read, full of humor but with some very tense scenes, and a deep and thoughtful message that isn’t shoved at the reader–it comes naturally out of the unfolding of the story.
If I had to sum up the moral of the story in one sentence it would be, “Don’t judge people by appearances, they can and will surprise you.”