Friday, May 20, 2011

6 x H

6 x H
By Robert A. Heinlein

I think I know who Robert A. Heinlein is. I'm onto him. He wasn't who he said he was. Oh, I'm sure he believed he was who he said he was, but I think he was something a little more. Something a little more culturally relevant. Something more literary that he ever acheived during his own life. Something intangible. More on this in a few paragraphs.

Originally published under the name The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, 6 x H is a little book of six short stories by legendary science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein (a man best known nowadays for having written Starship Troopers but back in the day he was considered to be one of the three best sci-fi writers in the world along with Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury although that meant virtually nothing outside the realm of sci-fi, of course). The centerpiece of the book is a novella also named The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag which was originally published in Unknown Worlds Magazine in October 1942 under the pen name of John Riverside (don't ever accuse me of not bringing the facts!). The other five stories are considerably shorter and, on the whole, great deal better.

The stories in this collection are an eclectic mix. They run from abysmal (Our Fair City and They) to excellent (-And He Built a Crooked House- and The Man Who Traveled in Elephants) to the absolutely sublime (-All You Zombies-). -All You Zombies- is one of those rare sci-fi stories that has you guessing right until the end and even when the story is revealed you feel the need to go back and read it again to make sure all the pieces are in place (they are). It will find a place among my favorite short stories of all time.

But don't assume I'm an expert on this subject.

It has only been in recent years that I have discovered old science fiction as a genre. It probably started a few years back when I finally discovered Kurt Vonnegut (my introduction was via Breakfast of Champions and I have subsequently read everything he has ever written except God Bless You Mr. Rosewater) I then revisited Ray Bradbury's excellent collection of short stories The Illustrated Man, a book I was forced to read in high school English and enjoyed a lot more as an adult. This lead me to Fahrenheit 451 and then a glut of Asimov, Jeff Noon, Arthur C. Clarke, as well as Ken Grimwood (Replay is still my favorite sci-fi book of all time).

I can't profess that I am a sci-fi aficionado, but I suppose I have read more than your average reader. I read Heinlein's short novel Methuselah's Children last year and while it didn't blow me away, it was good enough to merit a second book. Heinlein is a master of hanging on, in my opinion. while 6 x H wasn't the best thing I will read this year, it was certainly good enough for me to read one more. But something about the stories really rubbed me the wrong way.

The problem I have with old science fiction stems from my first reading of Breakfast of Champions and Vonnegut's recurring character of Kilgore Trout. Trout is a widely published writer of science fiction but he is only published in pornographic magazines. Trout himself doesn't even know how many stories he has written, and yet there are readers who obsess over his writing.

I got a Kilgore Trout vibe while reading Heinlein's stories and it occurred to me that Kurt Vonnegut may have modeled the eponymous Kilgore Trout after Heinlein. Heinlein was nothing if he was not prolific. Certainly, Heinlein's stories have an absurd quality that matches Trout's. And clearly Heinlein's stories were published in some fairly dubious publications. Heinlein was writing at least a full decade before Vonnegut put pen to paper and while I don't dismiss that idea that Kilgore Trout is a composite of all science fiction writers of the era if you follow Heinlein and Trout's career trajectory from Breakfast of Champions through Timequake you find that while never cracking the mainstream literary world, Heinlein, like Trout, gained a modicum of respect at the end of his career.

Which then begs the question: Is Robert A. Heinlein the real Kilgore Trout? If so, how much of Kurt Vonnegut's career is owed to the career of Robert A. Heinlein? It's an idea that niggled its way into my head while reading but hasn't had time enough to ferment. More on this as I continue to read.


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