Saturday, December 23, 2006

Something Itzkoff This Way Comes

(Before we start, here's the link back to earlier Itzkoff posts -- Stalking the Wild Itzkoff, Part Two, which links part to Part One, which in turn links to all of Itzkoff's reviews, and all of my posts about same. Hm. If I keep posting at this rate, I may need to create an Itzkoff-dex.)

Tomorrow's New York Times Book Review (which subscribers to the newspaper get with the Saturday edition) has another "Across the Universe" column from Dave Itzkoff. As usual, he gets a full page (page 12), and, as is becoming his norm, he uses that to review one book. This time, it's John Scalzi's The Android's Dream. Actually, Itzkoff doesn't get to Android until nearly the end of the essay, since he starts off talking about Heinlein, then gives a thumbnail sketch of Scalzi's career to date. If this was done well, it might be useful to the supposed purpose of "Across the Universe" -- introducing modern SF to an audience that doesn't read it -- but, well, this is Dave Itzkoff we're talking about here.

So let's start with the quotes. Itzkoff opens elliptically:
When an emerging science-fiction writer's work earns him comparisons to Robert A. Heinlein, should he take them as a compliment? Don't misunderstand me: I have no reason to doubt that the old master's classic novels "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" are still as good as I remember them (and if they aren't, please don't tell me). But Heinlein's military sci-fi, particularly the book that practically invented the genre, "Starship Troopers," has not aged well, to put it mildly.
We'll start small and work our way up:
  • The Book Review has not yet discovered italics, so I'm replicating their style here. It's a small but telling point about their view of the world and of change.
  • John Scalzi's name does not appear until the fourth paragraph of a review of his book. I haven't noticed that the Times typically reviews Zadie Smith's books via an extended explication of the works of Alice Hoffman, so this must be either an Itzkoff tic or an attempt at a crib sheet.
  • "Heinlein's military sci-fi?" Quick -- name a military SF novel by Heinlein that isn't named Starship Troopers.
  • Now, I'm well-known as a defender of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls -- I consider it a typical late-Heinlein, borderline-boring, self-indulgent adventure story with a great ending, which means I like it a lot better than most people -- but even I wouldn't call it one of Heinlein's classic novels. For Itzkoff to drag it out that like implies...well, that it's one of the two Heinlein novels that he actually read. (And, given that Itzkoff is thirty, that makes sense -- Cat was Heinlein's new novel in 1985, when Itzkoff was about ten, and in his prime reading-SF-indiscriminately years.) This is worrying, but not news; whenever Itzkoff talks about classics, he sounds like someone who hasn't studied for the big test and is desperately trying to wing it on charm.
After that, Itzkoff's essay spends two paragraphs describing Starship Troopers and three more running through Scalzi's first novel, Old Man's War. (The main connection is that many reviewers called Old Man Heinleinian, which of course it is. Itzkoff seems to think Old Man was Heinleinian because it was a military SF novel, though, which was not the parallel most of us saw.) Itzkoff finally gets to Scalzi's second novel, The Ghost Brigades, and a direct Heinlein comparison:
...but what I can't completely overlook is an unusual swipe it [The Ghost Brigades] takes at Heinlein himself. During their training, Dirac and his company are made to read "Starship Troopers," which they collectively decide "had some good action scenes but required too much unpacking of philosophical ideas." Heinlein may have cultivated a philosophy that now seems distasteful bordering on appalling,
Itzkoff's account of Starship Troopers called it fascist, for all of the wrong old reasons...
but it is unfair to criticize him for simply having a philosophy.
Did you catch that? I had to read it twice to be sure. Itzkoff thinks the characters in Ghost Brigades disliked Starship Troopers because of a hidden philosophical agenda. I won't say that Itzkoff has never read Starship Troopers and is coasting on memories of the movie (though I'm certainly thinking that), but he's utterly misread one of the most obviously didactic, and intensely philosophical, books in all of SF. (His thumbnail description of the plot, earlier in the review: Johhny Rico "is instructed through a series of deep space combat missions that war is not only unavoidable, it is vital, and even noble." That may be what he learns, but it's not the main way he learns it. Oh, and that's a comma splice, too.)

After all that, he finally talks about The Android's Dream, and doesn't like it all that much. But, by that point, Itzkoff has blown any credibility he might have had, so why bother to listen to him?

He ends with "a half-century later, some petulant, know-nothing critic will dismiss his [Scalzi's] ideas as dangerous and obsolete, then Scalzi truly will have earned his place alongside Heinlein in the canon of military science fiction -- and not a moment too soon."

Again, Heinlein's place in "the canon of military science fiction" is primarily as the author of one novel (and his help fixing Niven & Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye, the true ur-MilSF text). Scalzi has already written two. Itzkoff is, at best, confused. And I need to take my kids to see a movie, so I'm outta here.

7 comments:

James Nicoll said...

"Quick -- name a military SF novel by Heinlein that isn't named Starship Troopers."

Space Cadet? The Patrol uses nukes to spank people, which seems at least military-ish.

Carlos said...

Let's not forget The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Setting aside the ominous parallels to the Revolutionary War (right down to a Lafayette figure), it seems to be the primary source of that ridiculous "dropping things from orbit" trope found in so much military SF.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Neither Space Cadet nor Harsh Mistress is really a MilSF novel in any modern sense of the term -- and they certainly weren't seen as such at the time (unlike, say, Gordy Dickson's early "Dorsai" books, which were contemporaneous with Harsh Mistress and clearly MilSF).

There's a clear enough distinction between "military SF novel" and "novel that modern Military SF stole some ideas from," I think.

Space Cadet is much more about diplomacy, and there's no regular-Army equivalent in Harsh Mistress (which is also much more a political novel -- and, honestly, Starship Troopers fits as comfortably into that niche as into MilSF, itself).

Carlos said...

Mm. I think you're being too restrictive in your classification. Modern MilSF is very Clausewitzian. In fact, I'd say the hallmark of modern MilSF is its eagerness to include the immediately political within its purview.

To me it seems pretty far removed from Dickson's Dorsai stuff, which had that whole weird mystic eugenic systemic aftertaste, like so much other Campbell era SF.

(To use an example of a MilSF author who doesn't obsessively search for their name on the Internet, can you see David Weber's books if his authorial intent was to unite the cultures of -- I'm blanking here -- Beheadmenow and Welfarequeenia into one superior Destiny of Humanity (with treecats)? The current stuff has a very different feel.)

Anyway. Because of the political emphasis of current MilSF, I would put Harsh Mistress into the MilSF subgenre, even if the actual fighting takes up maybe a quarter of the book, and the narrator is a peripheral, irregular soldier.

(Also, if you follow the online discussions, you'll see that many people certainly read TMiaHM as military science fiction. I believe James, who may be even more tired of Lunar catapult yadda than I am, once did the calculations to show the tsunami produced in the London estuary by a Lunar projectile would be a few inches, tops.)

Anonymous said...

There are actually several RAH military novels, if youj count the juvies. Space Cadet, rocket Ship Galileo has a military flavor;there are military aspects in Time for the Stars.

b. lynch black said...

thank you for taking that bone-head Itzkoff to task. i have hated his so-called "reviews" since the very first one. glad to see i have backup in this matter. when i was a kid, i read "Have Spacesuit Will Travel" which started me off reading s/f. then i read a *lot* of heinlein about 15 years ago, most of it in order. i found "Starship Troopers" interesting and full of ideas which were, at least, discussable if not always practicable. however, when i got up in the later canon, i started getting furious at Heinlein and one day, taking dorothy parker's advice, i stood up and hurled "The Number of the Beast" right across the room.

i have read all the Scalzi books mentioned in the article, and none of them were throwing material. matter-of-fact, i actually hugged "Android's Dream", laughed and stored it next to my dvd copy of "The 39 Steps" because the tone was so similar.

every reviewer is entitled to his view and opinion -- that's the point of reviewer's, after all -- but they should at least make a coherent and cogent case for their opinions.

thanks again.

Lodger said...

Why would we limit the question to novels?RAH may not have written many Mil-SF novels, but he certainly wrote a whole lot of mil-SF in the form of short stories, from what I remember of _Expanded Universe_.

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