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Throwback Thursdays: Steven Brust on Animals, People, and Vlad Taltos

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

Vlad Taltos is back in Steven Brust’s Hawk! In the November 2007 Tor Newsletter, author Steven Brust talked about the characters—and the animals they’re similar to—he’s created over the years. Be sure to check back in every other week for more!

Hawk by Steven BrustBy Steven Brust

Why is it that I put animals in my books, or, more particularly, put in people with some sort of symbolic relationship to an animal? Is it because, in human history and pre-history so many people identified themselves with animals? No, that’s the justification, not the reason.

Is it so I can explore the animal nature within us all? Yeah, right, whatever.

Is it that it makes it easier to explore what it really means to be human? No, but if the New York Review of Books ever interviews me, that’s what I’ll say.

No, it’s so I can make fun of my friends without them knowing about it.

In the world in which the Vlad Taltos novel is set, the population is divided into what are called Great Houses, each named for an animal. Some of these animals are familiar to us all, some are made up, and some are familiar but altered. In truth, all human beings are a delightful mix of personality traits, some of which can appear dominant at various times depending on circumstances. In fiction, particularly fantasy, I get to exaggerate characteristics and make animal comparisons, and when I need to, make up the animal—all for the pleasure of laughing at my friends. I love this business.

Like, that guy who cares just a bit too much about money? Orca. The one with the temper? Dragon. The manipulative bastard? Yendi. The guy with ethics but no principles? Jhereg. The one who would cut off an arm rather than be rude? Issola. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had hours of fun figuring out which House all of my friends belong in.

My latest Vlad Taltos novel—out in paperback this month—is called Dzur. A dzur is your typical big, nasty cat. The people who identify with it are of the House of Heroes.

What, exactly, do I mean by “hero?” I’m not talking about real heroes, because real heroes only happen where character meets circumstance. Nor am I talking about people who constantly look for situations where they can show off their courage—they aren’t heroes, they’re adrenaline junkies. By “hero,” in this context, I mean someone who always goes in with the odds against him—in fact, who only goes in when the odds are against him. Sounds good, right?

You know them. At a party, he’s the one who won’t venture an opinion unless he’s pretty sure everyone in the room is on the other side. On the highway, he’s the ones zipping down the empty lane that’s about to vanish for construction, expecting you to let him in. On the internet—Oh, lord. Don’t get me started. Yeah, these are the guys who have raised being unpopular to an art form. One of my dearest friends is a Dzur. He sometimes refers to himself as Captain Social Suicide. Need I say more?

So, yeah, anyway. Those guys. They’re annoying as hell, but in stories they’re kinda fun.

This article is originally from the November 2007 Tor newsletter. Sign up for the Tor newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

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Throwback Thursdays: Why the Future Never Gets the SF Right

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In the January 2012 Tor Newsletter, author Michael Flynn examined the problem of science and technology in far-future sci-fi. He decided, in his own words, “to put a banana in the tailpipe of the engine of progress,” in order to make the world he created more recognizable to those of us here in the present. He explains how the world of his Spiral Arm series works in this blast from the past. Be sure to check back in every other week for more!

In the Lion's Mouth by Michael FlynnBy Michael Flynn

The problem with near-future science fiction is that the fiction is over-taken by events. My novel Firestar, recently re-issued by Tor, concerns the near “future” of 1999-2010 and the hot scoop is that things didn’t work out that way. Some of it, sure, including, alas, the predicted recession. But Serbia is no longer the Bad Boy of the Balkans (nor are the Balkans the Place to Keep an Eye On) and we don’t have regularly-scheduled ballistic transport or single-stage to orbit or… However, anyone who thinks the main basic function of SF is to commit journalism on the future will be perennially disappointed.

The problem with far-future science fiction, like the Spiral Arm series (In the Lion’s Mouth, Jan 2012) is different. We can no more imagine the world of seven thousand years to come than Sumerian peasants could imagine Manhattan. But we need to keep it intelligible. What we imagine of the far future is no more likely to be accurate than Sumerian tales of crossing the sky in flaming chariots. Rockets, maybe; but not flaming chariots.

Yet “the accelerating pace of change” is such a cliché that we might ask, “What if it isn’t? After all, for most of human history, change has been minimal. Our Sumerian peasant would find life among the today’s Marsh Arabs full of wonders—iron tools!—but not incomprehensible.

So to keep the Spiral Arm intelligible to modern “Sumerians,” I decided to put a banana in the tailpipe of the engine of progress. There is precedent.

Science and technology need not go hand in hand. China achieved a high technology without developing natural science. And scattered individuals in ancient Hellas and medieval Islam pursued a personal interest in natural philosophy without applying it to “base mechanics.” Only in the Latin West did a passion for technological innovation develop alongside an institutionalized interest in investigating Nature.

The Scientific Revolution combined them. No more was Nature to be studied simply to grasp and appreciate its Beauty. Its purpose would henceforth be to invent Useful Stuff and extend man’s Dominion over Nature. Science, in short, changed from Art Appreciation to Engineering.

Nothing like this happened in China, thought Joseph Needham, because the Chinese lacked a concept of the universe as a created artifact, and therefore had no expectation of a rational order waiting to be discovered. Other historians have linked the stillbirths of science to a persistent belief in the Great Year and “eternal returns.” The ancients—Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Aztecs, Mayans, Hindus, et al.—extrapolated from the cycles of the sun, the seasons, the heavens to an endlessly repeating universe, destroyed and reborn whenever the planets returned to some “original” configuration.

But this belief proved fatal to science. If an eternal and uncreated universe repeats itself endlessly, then whatever can happen has happened, again and again, and the natural laws we discover are only transient configurations of particles eternally in motion. Wait a while. They’ll change.

This is the outlook I superimposed on Spiral Arm society. Scientific progress stopped long ago. Techs apply “the Wisdom of the Ancients” by rote, recite the prayers (formulas) to be followed, but have lost all sense that these things are ordered by deeper principles.

Can it happen? The endless universe has been making a comeback courtesy of Hegel and his disciples: Schelling, Engels, Nietzsche, et al. Even scientists imagine multiverses and endlessly repeated Big Bangs. And—OMG!!!—the Mayan Long Count is ending!!!!

This article is originally from the January 2012 Tor newsletter. Sign up for the Tor newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

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Throwback Thursdays: A Look Back at My Weird, Cool Life

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In December of 2011, Rudy Rucker’s autobiography Nested Scrolls was published. In it, Rucker revealed his true-life adventures as a mathematician, transrealist author, punk rocker, and computer hacker. In this essay, from the Tor Newsletter, Rucker shared some important moments from his past, and explained how he decided to structure his autobiography. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back in every other week for more!

Nested Scrolls by Rudy Rucker

By Rudy Rucker

The thing I like about a novel is that it’s not a list of dates and events. Not like an encyclopedia entry. A novel is all about characterization and description and conversation, about action and vignettes. I decided to structure my autobiography, Nested Scrolls, like that.

This is a picture of me in my senior year at college. At that time I had the idea that Army-issue-style transparent glasses frames were cool. My roommate and I were writing things on the walls.

rukcer-1986

Plot? Well, a real life doesn’t have a plot that’s as clear as a novel’s.  But, as a writer, I can think about my life’s structure, about the story arc. And I’d like to know what it was all about. In writing my autobiography, I came up with a few ideas.

The picture below shows me with a “magic door” in Big Sur, California in 2008. I depict this a portal to a parallel world in my novel, Mathematicians in Love.

rucker-2008

You might say that I searched for ultimate reality, and I found contentment in creativity. I tried to scale the heights of science, and I found my calling in mathematics and in science fiction. You don’t have to break the bank of the Absolute. Learning your craft can be enough.

This picture shows me as the singer of the Dead Pigs punk rock band in Lynchburg, Virginia, 1982. This was a time when I was still drinking and smoking pot. But eventually I found a way to stop. Once you’re in your forties, Jack Kerouac and Edgar Allen Poe aren’t good role models. They died in their forties.

rucker-1982-deadpigs

Here I am with my daughter Georgia in 1973. In some ways I like children better than grown-ups. Their minds are more open, less encumbered. As a youth, I was a loner. But then I found love and became a family man. I’ve spent a lot of time with my wife and our three children over the years. And now we have grandchildren. New saplings coming up as the old trees tumble down.

rucker-1973-truckin

Here I am selling prints at the Westercon in Pasadena, 2010. I’ve taken up painting as a hobby. It’s a lot harder, at least for me, to sell a print or a painting than a story or a book! I’ve had a number of careers. Initially I was a math professor—math always came easy for me. Nothing to memorize! Then I took up writing, really that’s my core career. But, even with thirty-odd books out, writing doesn’t pay very much.

rucker-2010-pasadena

So I spent the last twenty years working as a computer science professor in Silicon Valley. Riding the wave. It was a blast. And eventually I even got good at teaching, mutating from a rebel to a somewhat helpful professor.

Whatever I did, I never stopped seeing the world in my own special way, and I never stopped looking for new ways to share my thoughts.

This article is originally from the December 2011 Tor newsletter. Sign up for the Tor newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

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Throwback Thursdays: Ian C. Esslemont on Collaboration

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

The world of the Malazan Empire is beloved by many, many fans—for good reason. The world, co-created by Ian C. Esslemont and Steven Erikson, has been well developed over the course of many books and multiple series. Now, with the publication of Assail, a new Malazan novel, we thought we’d dive into our archives and share a piece that Esslemont wrote in May of 2011. In it, he explains how his long-time collaboration with Erikson works. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back every other Thursday for more!

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In a recent interview I commented that Steven Erikson and I have often been approached by people expressing surprise, even disbelief, at our long-standing collaboration in a co-created world (The Malazan Empire). These comments always come as a surprise to us because in retrospect the process seemed an entirely natural one. It simply unfolded organically—we worked the world out together, bouncing ideas off each other and laughing an awful lot in the process.

In many ways writing is actually a profoundly lonely and isolating undertaking. For me it was a privilege and a pleasure to have someone to share the material with. And I benefited enormously. I hope Steve did so, too. And I’m sure the product, the stories themselves, benefited as well. The give and take, the topping of ideas and undermining of each other’s characters’ goals, all added an extra layer of complexity and—dare I say realism—to so many threads. So many times one of us picked up what the other had added only to turn it completely inside out, or reverse it entirely, all to the surprise and enjoyment of both. I remember one particular immortal exchange between us (one that has yet to see print) wherein I explained that the paranoid Kellanved, then owner of a bar named Smiley’s, was spying and listening in on his employees by drilling holes in the floor of his office over the bar. Later, Steve had Dancer come upstairs, see Kellanved with his ear pressed to a hole and his bum in the air, and promptly kick him across the room. We threw that scene at each other across a table in Victoria, B.C.

After those early years the material lay fallow for quite a while. Yet the dream of writing never went entirely away for either of us. In the end it was Steve’s stubborn determination (and extraordinary talent!) that dragged it through to its eventual realization. Then, even though time had intervened, it was the natural thing to simply pick up the material once again knowing full well what had to be done. And since then, for me, it has all been a matter of attempting to do justice to what we begun. All I hope to do is give fullest depth and emotional truth to what we created.

This article is originally from the May 2011 Tor/Forge Newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

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Throwback Thursdays: The Bar Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

Back in June of 2009, the first book in author Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse series, The Sword-Edged Blonde, published. To celebrate the start of this fun and exciting series, Alex explained in the July Newsletter that his priorities, in writing a fantasy novel, are a little…flipped from most authors’. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back every other Thursday for more!

Placeholder of  -32By Alex Bledsoe

A man walks into a bar.

If this happens in a science fiction or fantasy novel, the author has his job cut out for him. Not only does he have to describe the bar physically, but also its patrons. They might include aliens, ogres, trolls or elves, all of which can have any number of permutations. Then the drinks have to be laid out, and the money system enumerated. When all that’s done, the author might have enough imagination left to finally describe the man who walked in.

I’m unusual as a fantasy or science fiction reader, in that the details of made-up societies, worlds and cultures hold far less interest for me than the people (I include non-humans in that term) who inhabit them. I remember listening in wonder to another well-regarded fantasy author describe the elaborate monetary system he’d designed, and for which so far he’d had no use. It’s something I could never do.

When I wrote The Sword-Edged Blonde, I wanted to pare it down to the things I, as a reader, cared most about: namely, the people. Anything that distracted from them, and from the reader’s emotional commitment to them, I either left out or minimized. For example, many fantasy characters have names that, if not literally unpronounceable, at least challenge the tongue; I named my hero Eddie LaCrosse. Eddie’s office is, in fact, above a bar, one that is no different in feel and atmosphere from any you might walk into today. Eddie uses swords that, like modern guns, have make and model names, and the people speak in rhythms, patterns and tones that don’t try to sound “otherworldly.” There’s no time spent digressing into societal details that don’t apply to the immediate situation; this is not to belittle authors who do that sort of thing well, it’s just something I neither crave as a reader or excel at as a writer.

I did invent one term. Eddie is essentially a private investigator functioning in an Iron Age world. In our world, PI’s are known by various, vaguely derogatory terms: shamus, dick, peeper, etc. I decided that Eddie’s reality needed a similar term, and came up with “sword jockey.” To me it rings with the same thinly-veiled contempt as “gumshoe” or “snooper.”

The Sword-Edged Blonde (and its upcoming sequel, Burn Me Deadly) have been called high-fantasy stories written as if they were Forties pulp detective novels. That’s exactly my intent, but it’s not just an ironic stylistic choice; rather, it’s a sincere attempt to let readers connect with the characters by letting as few things as possible get in the way.

So the man (or woman) who walks into a bar in Eddie’s world could, hopefully, be you. And you’d be right at home there.

This article is originally from the July 2009 Tor/Forge Newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

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Throwback Thursdays: “Magic Calls to Magic”

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

Back in November of 2010, author A.M. Dellamonica explained the rules of magic in the world she created for her story “Nevada” and novel Indigo Springs. She brings the same skills to the world-building in her latest novel, Child of a Hidden Sea. We hope you enjoy her advice in this blast from the past, and be sure to check back every other Thursday for more!

Placeholder of  -2By Alyx Dellamonica

The above line, from my story “Nevada,” formed one of the first rules I set out for the universe where Indigo Springs takes place. I had decided I was going to write about my grandparents’ home in Yerington, Nevada, an ordinary ranch house centered in a fenced-in patch of desert just outside town. The place has always been special to me. We moved a lot when I was young, but Yerington was always there. Going to Nevada meant being spoiled by my grandmother, of course, but their home also had a lot of physical objects that I was fond of–a cookie tin full of sun-melted crayons, my mother’s old stuffed bunny, Grandma’s polished rocks, and the possibility of finding a painstakingly hand-chipped arrowhead under every tumbleweed. I made all these childhood treasures explicitly magical when I turned them into the chantments that do so much good and harm in Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

Indigo Springs picks up on the groundwork laid in “Nevada” and the chantment stories that followed.  As I wrote these first stories, something that was immediately obvious was that if such objects of power were real, there would be people whose primary desire would be to own or control them. This conclusion led me to create the century-old chantment thief in “Nevada,” the corrupt music teacher in “The Riverboy”. . .  and when it came to writing Indigo Springs, it gave rise to the beautiful, fickle, and manipulative Sahara Knax.

I also had to figure out who was making the mystical objects. Sahara’s opposite number is her best friend, Astrid Lethewood. Astrid not only owns a number of chantments but in time discovers she has the ability to make new ones. She is less interested in having or wielding power–she’s responsible for the magic, and it’s a terrible load. She wants to do the right thing but is afraid of having her life consumed in the process. Having inherited the magic and being overwhelmed by it, she is vulnerable to this charming friend who’s offering to take care of everything. In her weakest moments, Astrid is that little piece of all of us who hopes someone else will combat climate change, speak out against poverty or oppression–who gives in to those moments of weakness when we don’t want to look beyond our day to day concerns and try to own the world a little.

Indigo Springs is a love triangle and the third person in the mix is Jacks Glade, who tries to mediate between Sahara and Astrid. Jacks is an active, take-charge guy–he rescues people from burning buildings, tells people the truth instead of guessing what they want to hear. . .  and he’s madly in love with Astrid. It’s these three people who come to be caretakers of the mystical well.

The thing about magic in Indigo Springs is that it is an immensely powerful force–one capable of creating amazingly beautiful things and doing great good, but only when wielded with good intentions. In a sense, the magic has an agenda of its own.

This article is originally from the November 2010 Tor/Forge Newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

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Throwback Thursdays: Space Cadets and Starship Troopers: The Eagle Has Landed

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In 2010, we published the first of a two volume biography of one of the giants of science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein. At that time, we had an idea: why not ask our authors about their favorite Heinlein novels? Tor editor Stacy Hill was our shepherd for this series, and updates us on our journey. Now that Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 2 has come out, we’re revisiting that series. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back in every other week for more!

Robert A. Heinlein, Vol. 1 by William H. Patterson

From Tor editor Stacy Hill: Regular readers of Tor’s newsletter and our blog know that Tor has recently published an all-new biography of Robert A. Heinlein. Written with the blessing of Heinlein’s late widow, Virginia, the work was many years in the making and contains a wealth of interesting information, including never-before-published excerpts from Heinlein’s correspondence. Even if you thought you knew everything there was to know about the man, I can promise you there are surprises to be found within these pages.

So, in celebration of the man and his works, we asked a number of sf writers to tell us which Heinlein novel is their favorite, and why. We were lucky enough to get a host of great authors, including:

David Brin
David Drake
David G. Hartwell
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Rudy Rucker
Joan Slonczewski
Charles Stross
Michael Swanwick
Vernor Vinge

What’s Your Favorite Robert A. Heinlein Novel, Joan Slonczewski?

Have Space Suit—Will Travel was one of the more important books I read as a child. It starts with a bright teenager obsessed with getting to the moon, like I was. To get there, the teen has to win a space suit and get kidnapped by aliens, and escape with the help of two females—a child genius and an advanced alien—both clearly brighter than he is. Back then, bright females were scarce in any fiction.

In Have Space Suit, Heinlein’s ability to hook the reader draws us through a remarkable introduction in which an entire space suit is described at length. We keep turning pages through the teen’s course selection for senior year, as he takes up Spanish, Latin, calculus, and biochemistry—all of which later help him escape the aliens and worse. The book feels deceptively simple; its opening line consists of seven words of one syllable. Yet Heinlein weaves in concepts of mindboggling depth, from gas exchange in a space suit to linguistic development in the Roman Empire. Through it all, the humor is fresh and obvious to any reader. The Roman soldier even cracks a queer joke—imagine getting that past the juvenile censors in 1958.

From the protagonist’s teenage viewpoint, Earth-bound adults appear distant and preoccupied. The only ones who seem to be having fun are scientists. That, too, seemed familiar to me as the child of a physicist who worked on a Hal-like IBM 360. In the sixties, science was the stagecoach, the mule train heading toward the future’s ever-receding frontier. Have Space Suit was the kind of book that did that, a fictional journey driven by science.

Heinlein’s aliens are completely fantastic, yet somehow as real as a neighbor next door. Even the most advanced creatures are fallible, making mistakes that might doom an entire race. Yet the story begins and ends in small-town Ohio, near the home of the Wright brothers, and near where we raised our two sons. Today, this area still feels about the same. Any day now I expect to see those two alien space ships racing in.

This article is originally from the October 2010 Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

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Throwback Thursdays: Space Cadets and Starship Troopers: The Voyage Continues

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In 2010, we published the first of a two volume biography of one of the giants of science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein. At that time, we had an idea: why not ask our authors about their favorite Heinlein novels? Tor editor Stacy Hill was our shepherd for this series, and updates us on our journey.

Robert A. Heinlein, Vol. 1 by William H. Patterson

From Tor editor Stacy Hill: In August, Tor will be releasing an all-new biography of a singular figure in the history of the genre: Robert A. Heinlein. This will be the first-ever authorized biography, and it’s a fascinating look at a famously private man.

As our own little celebration of Heinlein and his works, we thought it would be fun to find out just how much of an impact Heinlein’s stories and novels had on a number of our—and your—favorite sf writers. We asked them a simple question—what’s your favorite Heinlein novel?

We’ve been posting their answers once a week as we head toward publication of the biography and so far we’ve heard from David Brin, David Drake, David G. Hartwell, and L.E. Modesitt, Jr. Additionally, we’ve been picked up by Tor.com and Boing Boing, and Cory Doctorow has been posting notes on the biography. In the coming weeks, you’ll see contributions from Michael Swanwick, Charles Stross, and many more.

Thanks to all of you who have jumped in to tell us about your favorites: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, Stranger In a Strange Land, and JOB are just some of the novels discussed in the comments so far. What other Heinlein novels do you all love?

What’s Your Favorite Robert A. Heinlein Novel, L.E. Modesitt, Jr.?

I’m certain, that, if asked, more than a few readers will list Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as one of their favorite novels… and more than a few others will denounce it vigorously as a fascist military dystopia, no matter how the semi-libertarian Heinlein portrayed “our” future society. I’m one of those who happens to like it, because, after having been a military pilot and having served as a political staffer in Washington, D.C., Heinlein’s insights into both the military and into what supports workable government and what does not seem to me, at least, to be validated by what I’ve observed in politics and government over the past several decades. At its core, Starship Troopers examines what is required for effective and responsible government. For Heinlein, those who govern must pay a price for that privilege, and since he believes in broad-based governance, that means that every member of the electorate must pay through a term of military service. He doesn’t require military service, and no one is forced to serve, but if you don’t serve, you can’t vote, and you cannot be elected to public office. Interestingly enough, Heinlein does not suggest that this future society is optimal – only that it will work.

What is often ignored by those who criticize Starship Troopers is the fact that Heinlein was literally only fictionalizing the predictions of earlier scholars and politicians, such as deTocqueville and MacCauley, who predicted that any democracy would eventually fail because too great a proportion of the electorate would vote themselves greater and greater benefits without having paid for them in one way or another. Yet few criticize those who first made those points, which may also demonstrate why fiction is often more powerful than either scholarship or rhetoric directly from politicians.

What I also find amusing is that, in a sense, the military draft in place at the time that Heinlein wrote the book was in fact considered a price of “freedom” during World War II and immediately thereafter. In the Vietnam era that followed, however, the wide-spread use of educational deferments placed that price disproportionately on the less-advantaged males in American society, one of the factors leading to the abolition of the draft, in turn effectively repudiating any idea that citizens owed any moral debt to society, which was, of course, Heinlein’s point in his fictionalization of a future collapse of American government.

The other basic point underlying Starship Troopers is the idea that, like it or not, force in some form determines whether societies survive, and that any society that fails to understand that is doomed to fail. Heinlein was not, in fact, glorifying force, at least not as I read the book, but looking back through history and pointing out that such was the pattern human societies had exhibited from time immemorial. In presenting a biologically and socially very different culture in the “Bugs,” he was essentially postulating that any intelligent species would be both aggressive and territorial… and interestingly enough, I’ve recently read several scholarly articles suggesting the same thing, although the scholarly types use the term “predatory.” To me, that’s aggressive and territorial.

In the end, in Starship Troopers, Heinlein offers, if through a glass darkly, a fairly accurate picture of human faults, foibles, and virtues…and that may well be why some don’t like the book… and why I do.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. can be found online at https://www.lemodesittjr.com

This article is originally from the August 2010 Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox twice a month!

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Throwback Thursdays: Space Cadets and Starship Troopers

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In 2010, we published the first of a two volume biography of one of the giants of science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein. At that time, we had an idea: why not ask our authors about their favorite Heinlein novels? Tor editor Stacy Hill was our shepherd for this series, and introduces us to our first guest: science fiction author and futurist David Brin.

Robert A. Heinlein, Vol. 1 by William H. Patterson

From Tor editor Stacy Hill: Sometimes, a topic comes along that’s just too big for one article.

In August, Tor will be releasing an all-new, first-ever authorized biography of a towering figure in the history of the genre: Robert A. Heinlein.

So, as our own little celebration of the man and his works, we thought it would be fun to find out just how much of an impact Heinlein’s stories and novels had on a number of our—and your—favorite sf writers. We asked them a simple question—what’s your favorite Heinlein novel?

We’ll be posting their answers once a week as we build toward publication of the biography, and I hope all of you will jump in and let us know if you have any favorites, too.

But enough about us.

What’s Your Favorite Heinlein Novel, David Brin?

Heinlein and Beyond This Horizon

RAH was a question-asker.

I consider Robert Heinlein’s most fascinating novel to be his prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. (A prescriptive utopia is where an author “prescribes” what he or she believes a better civilization would look like.) While Heinlein did opine, extensively, about society in many books, from Starship Troopers to Glory Road, it is in Beyond This Horizon (BTH) that you’ll find him clearly stating This Is The Way Things Ought To Be. And it turns out to be a fascinating, surprisingly nuanced view of our potential future.

Like most Heinlein novels, Beyond This Horizon divides pretty evenly into two parts and it is only the second half that I hold in high regard. Heinlein wrote the first half at behest of the famed editor of Astounding Magazine, John W. Campbell, who was then holding forth on one of his favorite themes…that “an armed society is a polite society.”

In pushing this strange notion, Campbell was behaving very much like his arch-nemesis, Karl Marx. A few anecdotes and a good just-so story outweigh a hundred historical counter-examples. But no matter. Heinlein did as good a job of conveying Campbell’s idea in fiction as anybody could. So much so that the first half of Beyond This Horizon has been cited by state legislators in both Texas and Florida, proposing that all citizens to go around armed! Naturally, this leads (paradoxically) to a wild shoot-em-up, in the first half of Beyond This Horizon…which RAH suddenly veers away from at the midway point.

This division between halves is typical of Heinlein novels and it makes reading them an interesting, multi-phase experience. Generally, RAH was a master at starting his tales–in fact, I recommend that all neo writers study carefully the first few pages of any Heinlein tale, for his spectacularly effective scene-setting and establishment of point-of-view. (The opening scene of The Star Beast is the best example of show-don’t-tell that anyone can find.) Alas, most of his novels reach a vigorous climax, concluding part one…and then peter out disappointingly in the last half, amid a morass of garrulous talk.

But this is where Beyond This Horizon reverses all expectations. Sure, part one is action and part two is talk, as usual…only in this case, the action is silly and the talk is terrific! In fact, this is where Robert Heinlein displays how broad his intellectual reach can take us.

Here we see the clearest ever expression of his political philosophy, which is demonstrably neither “fascist” nor anywhere near as conservative as some simpleminded critics might have us think. Indeed, his famed libertarianism had limits, moderated and enriched by compassion, pragmatism and a profound faith that human beings can improve themselves, gradually, by their own diligence and goodwill.

I was amazed by many other aspects of this wonderful book-within-a-book, especially by Heinlein’s startlingly simple suggestion for how to deal with the moral quandaries of genetic engineering — what’s now called the “Heinlein Solution” — to allow couples to select which sperm and ova they want to combine into a child, but to forbid actually altering the natural human genome. Thus, the resulting child, while “best” in many ways (free of any disease genes, etc), will still be one that the couple might have had naturally. Gradual human improvement, without any of the outrageously hubristic meddling that wise people rightfully fear. It is a proposal so insightful that biologists 40 years later are only now starting to discuss what may turn out to be Heinlein’s principal source of fame, centuries from now.

When it comes to politics, his future society is, naturally, a descendant of the America Heinlein loved. But it has evolved in two directions at once. Anything having to do with human creativity, ambition or enterprise is wildly competitive and nearly unregulated. But where it comes to human needs, the situation is wholly socialistic. One character even says, in a shocked tone of voice: “Naturally food is free! What kind of people do you take us for?”

None of this fits into the dogma of Ayn Rand, whose followers have taken over the libertarian movement. If Robert Heinlein was a libertarian, it was clearly of a more subtle kind, less historically or anthropologically naive, more compassionate… and more interesting

But here’s the crux. For the most part, with Robert Heinlein, you felt he wasn’t so much lecturing or preaching as offering to argue with you! His books let you fume and mutter and debate with this bright, cantankerous, truly American soul, long after his body expired. And this joy in argument–in posing and chewing over thought experiments–is the very soul of what it means to be a writer or reader of science fiction.

This article is originally from the July 2010 Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox twice a month!

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Throwback Thursdays: Security Literacy: Teaching Kids to Think Critically About Security

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother was first published in April 2008. Since then, it’s garnered attention, awards, and legions of fans. The much anticipated follow-up, Homeland published in February of 2013, and is now available in trade paperback. To celebrate the return of Marcus Yallow, we looked back into our archives and found this piece from April 2008, when Cory Doctorow spoke about teaching kids about online security. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back every other Thursday for more!

Little Brother by Cory DoctorowBy Cory Doctorow

How do kids figure out which search-engine results to trust? What happens to their Facebook disclosures? How can they tell whether a camera, ID check, or rule is making them safer or less safe? In the absence of the right critical literacy tools, they’ll never know how to read a Wikipedia article so that they can tell if it’s credible. They’ll never know how to keep from ruining their adulthood with the videos they post as a teenager, and they’ll never know when the government is making them safer or less safe.

Little Brother tells the story of young people who bootstrap their own security literacy because the adults around them fail to do so. I think that’s a depressingly realistic storyline, unfortunately. Security is hard to get right, and doubly so when it involves unfamiliar threats and countermeasures — can you tell at a glance whether the new high-tech lock in the window of your bike shop will work? (Here’s a clue: the best-selling lock brand for two decades was recently shown to be breakable with a disposable Bic pen in 10 seconds flat.)

Kids need critical tools and they need to sharpen those critical tools through debate and discussion, and that’s where Little Brother comes in. I don’t expect anyone to agree with everything I say — and I certainly hope that kids question every word in Little Brother and figure out how they feel about this stuff for themselves.

We live in an age where critical discussion of security is *literally* illegal. You can’t turn to the TSA officer who’s just taken away your water bottle and say, “I don’t believe that you can bomb a plane with water.” Mentioning the word “bomb” in front of a TSA agent is not allowed.

The difference between freedom and totalitarianism comes down to this: do our machines serve us, or control us? We live in the technological age that puts all other technological ages to shame. We are literally covered in technology, it rides in our pockets, pressed to our skin, in our ears, sometimes even implanted in our bodies. If these devices treat us as masters, then there is no limit to what we can achieve. But if they treat us as suspects, then we are doomed, for the jailers have us in a grip that is tighter than any authoritarian fantasy of the Inquisition.

It’s my sincere hope that this book will spark vigorous discussions kid/adult about security, liberty, privacy, and free speech — about the values that ennoble us as human beings and give us the dignity to do honor to our species. Thank you for sharing it with the young people in your life — and for being a guide at a time when we need guides more than ever.

Little Brother (Tor Teen; 978-0-7653-2311-8, $10.99), by Cory Doctorow, published in April 2010. Visit Cory online at craphound.com or boingboing.net.

This article is originally from the May 2008 Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox twice a month!

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