Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

Friday, 29 September 2017

Robert J. Sawyer is a Canadian SF writer who has won the Nebula, Hugo Award and John W. Campbell Awards. This week he was awarded an Aurora for the best and most compelling Canadian science fiction of the decade.

We’ve been friends for many years and a few years ago I was able to host him at my favourite independent bookshop, Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green, North London.

 

RJS: To me, Heinlein’s juveniles -- despite science obviously having overtaken the solar system they portray -- are more readable today (that is, largely less problematic from political or gender-issue perspectives) than are his adult novels. What’s your take, Farah?

FJM: I think there are three clear issues here: the first is readability generally. Heinlein’s prose in most of his juveniles is a model of clarity and engagement. He says things directly, even in first person he shows people acting rather than thinking, musing, and when he does have political points to make, he just makes them. Some credit must be given to his editor Alice Dalgleish for this. Critics tend to take note of Heinlein’s arguments with her, but in my opinion, editors, like spouses, are precisely the people you should have critical arguments with because they stop us making fools of ourselves (and for those wondering about her edits to Red Planet I’ve been through them carefully and Heinlein was trying to pull a fast one when he claims she was being prudish: the scene she cut is very clearly a wet dream). It’s when Heinlein leaves Dalgleish that the sentimentality of the short story prose begins to creep into his longer work and not everyone can take that at length. The juveniles are spare and focused. The adult books are quite different, often wildly experimental. I think Heinlein as an experimental stylist is often ignored but it’s something he very much wanted to be: he admired James Branch Cabell among others. The snag is, he really wasn’t all that good at it, so you can end up with novels such as The Number of the Beast (for which I have acquired some affection for other reasons) which are experimental novels told in 1940s cinematic style but hallucinatory in content. The result is a Carry on… movie on LSD.

The second issue is the politics more generally: one of the things I argue in the book is that a surprising number of Heinlein’s heroes are either sidekicks who don’t realize they are sidekicks, or are positioned as cogs or pawns in the game. This means that in the juveniles they are exactly what Heinlein theorized in his non-fiction work; ordinary people affected by the future. It’s very, very successful and it’s what I hope Heinlein is most remembered for. He forgets this for too many of the late era books, but one of the pleasantest surprises for me is how much he returns to it in To Sail Beyond the Sunset. And finally, the gender issue. The earliest of the juveniles are boy only. This is less off putting than you might imagine as certainly when I was a kid, except in the girls’ boarding school books, “girls” books were very domestic and both sex books tended to relegate girls to domestic tasks (in the UK the most vivid example was The Famous Five: Ann spends much of her time cooking and cleaning, and George desperately wants to be a boy which, though a very sensible choice for a girl in the 1950s didn’t stand up much for girls). Better therefore to just identify with the boy and that’s much easier when it’s just boys. It isn’t really until Starman Jones that we get a really good female character: Ellie is an heiress and when she and Max Jones get stranded on an alien planet there is a hint they will romance, but first she is much better at chess than he is, and then they are rescued and she goes back to her old life, and I liked that, because even though it’s to a marriage it still means Heinlein has broken the rescued princess narrative. Ellie is a person, not a prize. Then in Star Beast, Betty just gets more interesting the further on you go because even though she is constrained by the limits of her day (it’s 1954) it’s pretty clear that it is Betty who is hired to be the politician at the end, not John Thomas.

But when Heinlein first turns to writing for adults he is writing for a very different market. Beyond this Horizon (1948) is full of rom-com “fun” violence and it does not translate well to the page. Similarly, in Stranger in a Strange Land the combination of Heinlein’s sentimentality and the sex-romance-discourses on love I think come over as (apologies, I can’t think of a better word) rather “icky”, and it’s in this novel that we have gang rape described by the victim as lots of fun. I discuss that one at length, because one problem with romance of the period (and I write romance) is that “good girls have to be forced” to permit them to discover legitimately the enjoyment of sex, so Heinlein is really just extending on that, but I doubt most modern readers would see it that way. Friday too is problematic, but I’ll discuss that below. But we have a very early statement in Heinlein’s own diaries about the importance of consent; so he returns to this, and to many of the sex scenes in his earlier books in his last book To Sail Beyond the Sunset with definitions of rape so strict as to cheer many a feminist (ie me).


RJS: Of course, we all know that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a take on the American Revolution. I read it decades ago, and loved it, but haven’t read it since. How does it stand up today in the face of Trump’s America- first doctrine?


FJM: A very tricky one: I think the entirety of the American revolution is in part about “America first” in ways Americans tend to forget. There is an excellent podcast on this by the ex-MP and active historian Michael Portillo in a series called, The Things We Forgot to Remember. Some of the early unrest was about an unwillingness to pay for the defence of the border that the colonists were deliberately unsettling. But more positively it was also the very legitimate grievance that waiting months for decisions made in Britain on the basis of very poor information just isn’t a good way to run a country (or countries as they were separate polities at the time). I don’t honestly think that has anything to do with what Heinlein or the Founding Fathers had in mind. All of them wanted to ensure the survival of the continent, but Heinlein believed in engagement in world government at least until 1956 and Double Star, and loathed fake patriotism.

One of the writers Heinlein most admired was Kipling and although people remember Kipling as a jingoist that’s rather unfair. In Stalky & Co patriotism is about the love of one’s country expressed in one’s love of its people. This is what Heinlein strives to write in Starship Troopers (it comes over more strongly in the original magazine publication which lacks the officer training), and in Glory Road and in his wonderful essay “This I Believe” (1952) and even in his book How to be a Politician which was miserably hijacked by the reprint title Take Back Your Government. The book is actually about block level political engagement and about why you might want to go into politics.

Does The Moon is a Harsh Mistress stand up? In the end it might. I realize I may anger some people with this, but currently President Trump is looking a lot more like the isolated governor than he does like the government. He sits in his office as trusted officials resign and the GOP fail to get anything through, and shrugs, but he doesn’t seem to realize that the levers of government are eroding around him, and that politics on both sides have moved to the streets. It’s a very worrying time. And if you want to know how to run a cell structure, there is still some pretty good advice in that book but remember: the system they end up with is not the one that the revolutionaries planned, because revolutions are like that.


RJS: I go back and forth on whether Friday is an enormously feminist novel or an enormously sexist one. What’s your view?
 

FJM: For me it’s a very feminist novel. It’s a hard novel to read because it doesn’t begin that way: Friday is initially presented as your standard Mata Hari, who enjoys using her body to get secrets. The rape scene is traumatic because she appears to enjoy it but a close reading makes it clearer that this is a survival strategy (and it’s interesting Heinlein revisits a rather unpleasant proverb he uses straight in an early story, “Let their Be Light” and here makes it clear that one cannot actually enjoy real coercion). But as the novel opens out the narrative trajectory emerges as a story of someone who has been badly abused, whose self esteem is non-existent and who bit by bit learns to question the narratives and treatment she has accepted. A turning point is when she gets chucked out of her family but, crucially, links this to other behaviour in the family and realizes that the way she is treated is linked to other prejudices and institutionalized structures. A second key moment is when she discovers another person also “passing”: I think Heinlein may have read Nella Larsen’s novella, Passing or at least knew people who were doing so or had talked to him about it, because the outcome is heartrending. Then later, Friday, who has used sex the way chimpanzees smile, to deflect violence, is confronted with that fact about herself and she begins to rethink who she is and who she wants to be. The ending of the novel where she settles down to family and children is, I think, what has gained the novel a bad rap, but in my book I talk about how this is Heinlein’s longing and one which structures all the later novels. In Heinlein world, adulthood for both men and women is family creation, and Heinlein families are defined by containing both babies and kittens.

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