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Robert A. Heinlein - Tunnel in the Sky

Robert A. Heinlein – Tunnel in the Sky

The writer who instilled my love of science fiction is the incomparable Robert A. Heinlein. As a child of the fifties, I was voracious reader in a time of Tom Swift, Hardy Boys, Boy’s Life magazine, and comic books like Strange Adventures, Tales from the Crypt, and Archie (where Betty and Veronica wore scandalous cheerleader outfits and bikinis).

But Heinlein took me to the stars.

In today’s YA fiction, stories lean heavily on contemporary, paranormal, fantasy and dystopian settings, many with heavy servings of romance that fit comfortably with RWA rules.  I visited the various “top ten links” to see what list mavens claimed were the last two years top YA reads.  You’ll be hard pressed to find a true sci-fi title on the list in recent years, (These Broken Stars is on my TBR stack; looks promising).

A recent book review Lee Sandlin of the WSJ, took a close look at William H. Patterson’s biography of Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better.  Few people realize Heinlein specifically targeted the fifties youth market with his 12 Juveniles books marketed to school libraries. The one that endeared me to the genre was Tunnel in the Sky, a story that introduced me to the Malthusian Concept and portals to other worlds.

Sandlin goes on to explain that sense of conviction is what separated Heinlein from cheap pulp novels dominating the genre.

Heinlein’s worlds … feel like real places, weathered and inhabited. He achieved this effect through a careful accumulation of details.”

Simply stated, Heinlein’s characters were not Flash Gordon action figures, rather real human beings in otherworldly settings judiciously planted in bits so as not to data dump. When I read some of the last decade’s Hugo and Nebula winners, stories were rich with exotic new worlds and settings, but had a tendency to be long-winded with details that left me sleepy.  World building is a science unto itself, surgically incising details without dragging the story, an art form difficult to master without practice.

His Hugo winners: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, remain jewels of the genre.  The juvenile series is likely dated, because of strict 1950s standards, which according Sandlin’s article,

“… appropriate teenage reading: no sex, no explicit violence, no religious or political controversy and always a happy ending.”

Sandlin reminds me of why Heinlein resonated with me as a kid. “The heroes were typically boys, with a strong supporting cast of intelligent, self-reliant girls.”  Heinlein took a kid’s comic book mentality and introduced me to well written words with compelling characters.  Science rode in the back seat of a story driven by real people.

To me, Heinlein is a pioneer of YA adventures.  Even with the fifties sterilized format, Heinlein’s formula is still relevant. We need more of it.

Who is your favorite science fiction author?