Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Quote of the day

Psmith is the only thing in my literary career which was handed to me on a plate with watercress round it, thus enabling me to avoid the blood, sweat and tears inseparable from an author's life.
P G Wodehouse

Star Trek flowchart

What I have always suspected about Star Trek script writers.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Quote of the day

I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit.
P G Wodehouse

Review: Cold War

"Cold War" by Henry Kuttner Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949

I saw the 2002 version of Tuck Everleasting the other day and I realised after all these years that I was wrong.  Though I'd always believed I'd read the book by Natalie Babbit that it was based on, I really hadn't.   That's because I was confusing Miss Babbit's story of immortal country folk in rural America with the Hogben series of short stories by the science fiction writer Henry Kuttner.

It was a bit of a let down because where I found Tuck Everlasting a slow and predictable teen romance that came across like the Twilight series without the sparkly emo vampires, barely suppressed eroticism, and phenomenally bad writing, the Hogben stories have a charmingly comic sense of wonder about them that is very rare in fantasy writing.

Published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1947 and 1949, the Hogben series isn't very well known today.  They follow the adventures of the Hogben family, who are immortal, super-intelligent mutants who possess all manner of psychic powers including telepathy and telekinesis.  Having settled in the United States sometime after the Great Fire of London, the Hogbens live in Appalachia.  They pass themselves off as hillbillies because they're tired of dealing with the slow-witted human race, but often have trouble keeping a low profile because Maw fixes a broken water mill by tinkering together an atomic reactor and son Sauk (who is a mere 400  years old) makes sour milk by putting it in a time machine he made one morning out of bits of wire.

"Cold War" focuses on Uncle Lem Hogben, who helped out a local woman of more than passing ugliness by giving her the power to defend herself against local bullies with her mind.  Unfortunately, the woman in question found a man named Pugh, who was even uglier than her, whom she married and before she passed away they had a son who looked more like a gorilla than his father did.  Worse, the young boy inherited her mother's powers to an incredible degree and could cause pain or death at will. Realising the power that the son has, and that no woman would ever marry the brute, the father Pugh blackmails Uncle Lem into making sure that his lineage "never dies out" or he'll have his son reek destruction wherever they go.  Since Hogbens are forbidden to take a life, Sauk and Uncle Lem are faced with dilemma of either letting the pair run amok, or accede to their demands and watch them conquer the human race.

Needless to say, Uncle Lem comes up with a solution that allows the Pugh line to never die out and even to conquer the human race, but in a way that has a wonderful twist of natural justice to it.

The Hogben series isn't the most successful of Kuttner's work.  Kuttner himself admitted that the stories were an experiment in dialect story telling and mixing comedy hillbilly stories with science fiction has only limited mileage before it descends into farce or sentimentality, but Kuttner scores a win with his invention of an eccentric family of supermen who take their powers as a matter of course and handle their incredible adventures as matter of factly (or otherwise) as one of their neighbours would getting a cow unstuck from a bog. 

Recently reprinted in the Kuttner anthology Detour to Otherness, the Hogbens are a family well worth a reintroduction.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Quote of the day

I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don't know what I did before that. Just loafed I suppose.
P. G. Wodehouse

Genre writing

It's Thanksgiving week, so let's relax with this flowchart to make your genre fiction writing easier.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving 
The Quill & The Keyboard.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Quote of the day

It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.
W. H. Auden

Why punctuation matters

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Quote of the day

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
Benjamin Franklin

Character in its place

Characters are, of course, vital to any story.  If it weren't for them, there wouldn't be anyone for things to happen to. Characters provide the story with depth.  They give meaning and motivation to the plot.  They provide the reader with someone to identify with and root for as well as an emotional hook to spur things along. 

However, characters are not the be all and end all of a story.  They are not a substitute for a plot.  A good story may include character exposition and revelation.  They may even go so far as to feature a character sketch.  But stories that turn out to be entirely character sketches invariably are static, unengaging, and lacking in anything like resolution.  In point of fact, they just sit there doing nothing.

Unfortunately, character studies as a substitute for plot have become very popular of late; if not with the audience, then certainly with writers.  This is particularly true in the field of television drama.  Writers particularly like them because they don't require stories that must hold together through carefully plotted logic.  It's so much easier to indulge in emotional word pictures.  The series Mad Men, which I enjoy, by the way, has almost no plot at all.  Every episode is nothing more than the examination of this character or that and anything that resembles a plot is really just a tease to get the viewers to tune in next week.  If this weren't the case, then the threatened revelation of a secret past, a doomed romance, or a collapsing firm might not be so conveniently forgotten until needed again, as is the standard practice at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

It also happens on too many series to mention.  Lost, Doctor Who, V, The Walking Dead, and so on and on all make plot take a backseat to  character–and in the case of The Walking Dead, acting to emoting. 

But that is a topic more suited to a theatre blog. 

To put it simply, character is vital to a story, but it is not the most important.  If character is used in service of the plot, it is a tremendous asset.  But when plot is made subservient to character, the results are dire.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Quote of the day

A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
Thomas Mann

Review: The Festival

"The Festival"  (Weird Tales 5, No. 1 (January 1925)) was one of H P Lovecraft's earliest of the Cthulhu Mythos short stories and the first to mention the town of Arkham, Massachusetts.  It's a very short story that recounts the testimony of an unnamed narrator who returns at "Yuletide" to his ancestral town of Kingsport, Massachusetts"ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten."  There he stops at the home of an ancient, mute relative and while he waits there the narrator browses through a series of books that he finds there that turn out to be part of the reading list of the Mythos: Marvells of Science, the terrible Saducismus Triumphatus, the shocking Daemonolatreia, and worst of all, the unmentionable Necronomicon.  Then the narrator, the old relative and a mysterious old woman don cloaks and head for the town church where a strange, silent procession is heading inside.  Instead of sitting in the pews, the congregation go into the crypts, then into a tunnel beneath the crypts, and finally to a gigantic catacomb that stretches for miles and a huge chamber with a grotesque altar. There a ghastly ceremony takes place. Then,

Out of the Tartarean leagues through which that oily river rolled uncanny, unheard, and unsuspected, there flopped rhythmically a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things that no sound eye could ever wholly grasp, or sound brain ever wholly remember. They were not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor vampire bats, nor decomposed human beings; but something I cannot and must not recall. They flopped limply along, half with their webbed feet and half with their membraneous wings; and as they reached the throng of celebrants the cowled figures seized and mounted them, and rode off one by one along the reaches of that unlighted river, into pits and galleries of panic where poison springs feed frightful and undiscoverable cataracts.
 When invited to  follow the example of the others by his relative, the narrator refuses out of horror.  As the relative tries to control one of the mounts "the suddenness of his motion dislodged the waxen mask from what should have been his head."

In terror, the narrator plunges into a subterranean river and narrowly escapes with his life and sanity.  While recovering in hospital, he studies the Necromonicon and discovers an answer to the mystery that is of no comfort whatsoever.

"The Festival" is a short work that demonstrates that the purpose of a short story is to deal with one "gag" and then get out.  Lovecraft was inspired to write the piece after a visit to Kingsport, which at that time was notable for its antique architecture that was for Lovecraft the totality of "all the past of New England–all the past of Old England–all the past of Anglo-Saxondom and the Western World".  He combined the atmosphere that he found there with his recent reading of Margaret Murray's The Witch Cult in Western Europe a work of poorly researched pseudo history about how witchcraft is the survival of pre-Christian pagan religions into modern times.  Archaeologists used to pass it around for a good laugh, but it was highly influential and was one of the rickety cornerstones of the modern Wicca fads.  The idea of an ancient town as the centre for the worship of some antedeluvian religion was one that Lovecraft felt would be a good vehicle for him to emulate Arthur Machen's The Novel of the Black Seal, which he greatly admired.

In the end, Lovecraft largely succeeded with a hair-raising tale that makes Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" look like a church picnic. 

Friday, 19 November 2010

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Quote of the day

Human intellect is incurably abstract.
C S Lewis

The character of character

We're always to that what a story needs as vivid, well-rounded characters that live and breathe and seem to have a life off the written page.  Without this, we are told, the story will be flat and uninteresting and whet the appetitie as effectively as a five-dollar pizza placed before a man with a sour stomach.

 And yet, this is not always the case.  Sometimes you want a character to be underdeveloped.  It might be better for him to be a cardboard cutout instead of a real person.

I was recently rereading John Mortimer's short story "Rumpole and the Married Lady" when I was struck by how well the character of the young boy trapped in his parents' divorce case worked.  He isn't memorable.  In fact, he's nearly a complete cipher and we learn very little about him beyond a fondness for toy soldiers and doughnuts.  In any writing class you'd expect such a rice-paper thin sketch to be rejected.

And yet, he worked beautifully because of the part he was supposed to play in the story.  We weren't supposed to be interested in him.  He was supposed to be the McGuffin in his parents' conflict.  He was supposed to be a minor irritant to Horace Rumpole as he interviewed the mother about her divorce.  His job was to be overlooked and dismissed–until we learn that he is, in reality, the most important character upon which everything else revolves.  Had he been written according to prescription, we'd have taken too much notice of him and the revelation would have been spoiled.

Another example is an Agatha Christie play that I once did when in my more larcenous days I was employed as a professional actor.  I'd been cast as a butler and had this been any other character I'd have developed all sorts of quirks, traits, and even a history to flesh him out.  But on reading the script, I realised that the butler was meant to be a stock character played as a stock character.  His job was to be simple enough that the audience could impose their own assumptions and suspicions upon him.  And so, a stock character I played him as.

Then there was the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, where the stars Judd Law and Gwyneth Paltrow were critcised for being two dimensional. Considering that the plot of the movie was about two people who are dragged through a world where wonder upon wonder is heaped upon them, I contend that the problem was that they weren't two dimensional enough.  The film didn't work because the audience was distracted from the wonders, which were the real stars of the movie.  Indeed, in many pulp science fiction stories that are now so roundly condemned, many were written with this firmly in mind.  Where spectacle or plot are king, characters often need to be taken down a peg to avoid overwhelming the story.

None of this is an excuse for not doing your homework and properly developing a character, but it does show that fiction is not character study and too much emphasis on character can actually weaken a story rather than strengthen it.  Look at the current incarnation of Doctor Who where so much attention is spent on character that no one can remember the plots at all–even when the show is on the air.  Keep in mind that characterisation is only one part of the story and it must be balanced out against the needs of plot.  The key is to find the balance and the balance depends on what sort of a story you are telling.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Quote of the day

Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterward.
Robert A Heinlein

Today's lesson

Monday, 15 November 2010

Quote of the Day

Every writer I know has trouble writing.
Joseph Heller

Liberating limitations

We tend to see limits as that which merely reduces our ability to accomplish something.  We reason that if we don't have the right tools or the right access, then we can't do as good a job as we'd like.  If only we had the resources or the manpower, we could move mountains.  Without them, we can't even shift the molehills.

And yet, for a writer, limitations can turn out to be misunderstood opportunities.  They can be an obstacle to be overcome, a challenge to be met.  A limitation may not so much hinder as provide structure to a project and act as a focus for your creative energies that wouldn't be there is you had unlimited resources.  It may not seem like it at the time, but limitations can be the spark that leads to true originality.

In television, there is what are called "bottle episodes".  When a series is ordered, the producer is given a set amount of money to spend for the entire run of episodes for that season.  Usually, the producer sets out his budget so that most of the money is spent on the first episodes of the series and last ones.  Consequently, the ones in the middle have to make do with what's left over.  A bottle episode is what happens when the money runs out.  The producer is obligated to deliver so many episodes, but there's hardly any money left in the kitty.  So, the writers have to come up with a way to get around this "bottleneck" by coming up with a script that is incredibly cheap--preferably one without guest stars and special effects that is filmed on an already existing set. 

You'd think that such episodes would be the worst of the lot.  Without all the bells and whistles of a normal show, how can they possibly do an adequate job?  And yet, bottle episodes tend to be the best of the series because the writers have to push their creativity to the limits.  They can't rely on gimmicks; they have to fall back on the basics of plot, character, and dialogue to move the story along--and it must keep moving or it will die like a shark in a jar.  If you look at shows like Star Trek, Doctor Who, Porridge, One Foot in the Grave, or Community, it is the bottle episodes of the main characters trapped in a lift, or in the Tardis Control Room, or waiting for a bus that show what the writers and actors are really capable of.

It isn't just budget limitations that can work for the writer rather than against.  I have no doubt that Shakespeare's best work came about because he had to deal with Burbidge's mammoth ego or the fact that you can't get entire armies on a tiny stage.   I have long argued that the collapse of Hollywood's old production codes are the biggest blow to good film and television plays since the invention of method acting.  When you can't use graphic violence or explicit sex, then you have to fall back on decent writing.

Take the example of the Roger Corman film The Masque of the Red Death  (1964).  I came across it on the Satellite feed recently and I was astonished to find that it had a G rating (U certificate in the civilised world).  That put it on the same level as Bambi.  One of the most frightening and disturbing bits of cinema I'd ever seen and it was rated as innocuous as fluffy bunnies?  Strange but true.  that's because the ratings board was looking for sex, gore, and profanity, but in 1964 Corman couldn't be explicit, so writers Charles Beaumont and R Wright Campbell had to make the horror and degradation come out of images they could provoke in the minds of the audience through dialogue,plot, and character.  The result was a powerful script and a brilliant vehicle for Vincent Price.

Today, the writers would probably fall back on the Mitchell and Webb approach of writing down "They have sex" fifteen times and fill in the gaps.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Quote of the day

Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.
Jessamyn West quotes

The naming of names

The great Frederik Pohl on how to choose character names.

The Writing of Fantasy

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Quote of the day

A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit.
Richard Bach

Starting the plot

One of the problems of beginning work on a story is that it is so easy to get bogged down in details. Who is this character?  What happens here?  How do I get between this scene and that?  What sort of atmosphere should I go for?  It's very easy to feel as though the whole thing is too complicated a mess to get control of before the firt key is ever struck.

The answer to this is to remember that when you start a story you don't begin with characters or moods or scenes or any of that.  You begin with the plot and that is very simple and direct.

At its most basic, a plot is just a matter of stating what it is that you want your protagonist to achieve, what stands in his way, and what the end of your story is–and not necessarily in that order.  Many a classic story has been written backwards.  In 1945, John Nanovic called this the "Triple-O Way", which stood for Objective, Obstacles, and Outcome.  Nonovic claimed that all you need to so is figure out what the protagonist wants (Objective), why he can't get it (Obstacle), and who it all turns out (Outcome).  Once you have those, everything else is mere elaboration. 

I'm not sure if this is the best way to approach a story, but it certainly is one of the most effective.  I hate to think of how many ideas I've had that seem really great, but I could never find the right way to express them.  The reason was that there was no dramatic reason why what I had to say was worth saying, so I would spend months or even years trying to pound square ideas into round plots.  The answer is that I had the process backwards.  Sure, the purpose of the work was to get my message across, but I needed the framework to put the message in .  That framework was the plot and until I'd settled on that, the message would never fit anywhere comfortably.  This is particularly true where the story was something very structured like a farce or a murder mystery. 

The key is to keep it simple, keep it focused, and and figure out what stands between hero and home.

Once those three are sorted out, the rest will follow.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Quote of the day

Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.
Robert E. Howard

The Haunter of the Ring by Robert E Howard

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Quote of the day

The future is already here – it's just not very evenly distributed. 
William Gibson

Review: Colossus

If you've ever had a bad day of lost files, crashes,  and dropped Internet connections and began to suspect that your computer was plotting against you, consider yourself lucky.  Things could be worse–a lot worse.  Nowadays there's a lot of talk in tech circles about the Singularity; the point where the curve of technological development becomes so steep that it is literally hyperbolic.  This is the point where computers develop not just human intelligence, but superhuman intelligence, technology for man is reduced to a spectator sport, and all we can do is look on as our silicon offspring inherit the Earth.

Amazingly, many advocates of the Singularity regard this as a good thing and imagine a time of peace, plenty, and lots of new gadgets raining down in an never ending downpour of novelty as our robotic overlords look after our every need.   But there is another point of view as expressed in the 1966 novel Colossus by D F Jones, which presents the reader with modern technological man's worst nightmare:  the machines taking over the world and regarding man as little more than a nuisance to be tolerated–for the moment.

The plot of Colossus is relatively simple.  The United States at the turn of the 21st century tries to end the Cold War by building an impregnable supercomputer called Colossus that is given absolute control of the American nuclear arsenal–the idea being that the machine's infallible judgment will provide the country with a perfect defence  while reassuring the Soviets that America is incapable of aggression.

Then something goes wrong.

No, the Soviets don't shout "Yippee!  Dinnertime!", gobble up the rest of the world and then subject Fortress America to an economic blockade that leaves Washington with the choice of surrender or starve.    That's because for some insane reason the Soviets already have a duplicate of Colossus with exactly the same programming.  Needless to say, the two computers get in contact with one another over the objections of their creators, form a single entity, and use their nuclear warheads to enslave mankind.

If you've seen the film version, Colossus, the Forbin Project, you've already had a very good synopsis of the basic plot, which centers on the character of Dr Charles Forbin, the creator of Colossus, who becomes the machine's prisoner, ambassador to the human race, and most dangerous enemy.  From the very first page, Forbin has doubts about his brainchild and suspects that there is more to it than a highly sophisticated defence system.  His emotional journey is that of a brilliant, driven, isolated man who is so frightened by the Frankenstein's monster he's let loose and frustrated by his inability to get the President of the United States to see the danger for himself that Forbin is on the verge of a breakdown.  Jones handles the pace of the story very well; never letting the action flag for a second and weaving dialogue and description into a seamless whole that carry the plot along in a way that builds tension on top of tension as Forbin and the President battle for position as most powerful man on Earth.  So dense is the action that the reader often forgets that the entire story takes place over only three days and that situations unravel in a matter of minutes.

Less science fiction novel than techno-thriller, Colossus is a tale of professional people under extreme pressure as they see not only their machines but their very institutions suddenly subverted and turned against them.  Forbin himself is a very interesting character, much more nuanced and insightful than his cinematic counterpart, and it is ironic that the pretense of his assistant Cleo Markham being his mistress as a way to allow Forbin to pass messages to the resistance actually sparks the romance between them that Forbin was unwilling to initiate himself before the crisis. 

One interesting fact that came out years after the book's publication was that D F Jones was one of the team at Bletchley Park that worked on breaking the German Enigma codes during the war and as part of the effort built the world's first modern computer named, ironically, Colossus.

How Jones got that title past the censors while the existence of the original machine was still a top secret is an... I shall refrain from using the word.

Monday, 8 November 2010

A book in a month: Day 8

Word count: 2632

Spent the day catching up on all the business stuff that I had to let slide while I was ill.

I'm going to have to rethink this whole exercise.

Quote of the day

I believe that political correctness can be a form of linguistic fascism, and it sends shivers down the spine of my generation who went to war against fascism.
P. D. James

P D James interview

Sunday, 7 November 2010

A book in a month: Day 7

Word count: 2632

Feeling better, but that's only speaking relatively.

I wonder of Tolstoy had days like this.

What's He Doing In There?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

A book in a month: Day 6

Word count: 2632

No change from yesterday.  It's 19:30 local time and I've recovered just enough to make this entry and I am obviously in no state to do any serious writing unless it's a chapter that involves a stream of consciousness account of fighting a fever and the irony of having a thrown-out back and diarrhea at the same time.

Where's my notebook.


Friday, 5 November 2010

A book in a month

Word count: 2632

This is a turn up.  I've thrown my back out, I'm running a fever, and it took me ten minutes to write this sentence on my netbook while lying flat out.

Mourners are requested not to send flowers.

Quote of the day

Grammar is the logic of speech, even as logic is the grammar of reason.  
Richard C. Trench

The King's English

Thursday, 4 November 2010

A book in a month: Day 4

Word count: 2632

Another dismal day.  That's because a) my cold is now full-blown and b) I had to slog my way through a scene I have no intention of keeping in the second draught.  The next scene is more promising, but it was one I had to work on outlining before I sailed straight into it.

Quote of the day

The dark dangerous forest is still there, my friends. Beyond the space of the astronauts and the astronomers, beyond the dark, tangled regions of Freudian and Jungian psychiatry, beyond the dubious psi-realms of Dr. Rhine, beyond the areas policed by the commissars and priests and motivations-research men, far, far beyond the mad, beat, half-hysterical laughter... the utterly unknown still is and the eerie and ghostly lurk, as much wrapped in mystery as ever.
Fritz Leiber

Michael Moorcock interview

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

A book in a month: Day 3

Word Count: 2309

Good grief, it's even worse than yesterday.  Much too low a word count, though I hope to get a little more time later this evening.

One of the advantages of this book in a month exercise is that there isn't the time to go back and do any rewriting.  It's a good thing because I've come to hate what I've written and I want to completely change the setting and the characters to make it more dramatic and faster paced.  Now it feels like a thick block of exposition that I have to get through before the story really gets started.  In normal circumstances, I'd be back to square one, but now I haven't the luxury, so I just make a note of how I want to revise it and carry on.

Quote of the day

From my close observation of writers... they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.
Isaac Asimov

Galaxy Magazine, September 1958

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Quote of the day

Conscience is what makes a boy tell his mother before his sister does.
Evan Esar

A book in a month: Day 2

Word Count: 1935

Here it is day 2 and I'm already hitting a speed bump.  I'm coming on for a cold on a day when I'm faced with multiple distractions, there's an election on, and the dogs are aware that a) it's a nice day and b) I haven't taken them to the dog park in two weeks. 

In the end, I had to flee to the public library for an hour's peace so I could bang out a mere 500 words.

Great.  That's an extra thousand words I have to spread across the next 28 days.  The important thing is that I didn't just blow off the entire day, so 30 percent success.

Quote of the day

Everybody hates me because I'm so universally liked.
Peter de Vries

Harlan Ellison interview

Monday, 1 November 2010

A book in a month: Day 1

Today's word count: 1410.

Starting a new novel on a Monday is never easy.  Mondays are when the work week starts and there are always a thousand and one distractions.  Worse, the first installment always takes more time than usual because I'm starting fresh and I have to establish the voice and ground rules for the characters.  That means every hour stretches into two, with less time remaining for other work.  But getting started is the important thing.  After all, the novel that is never started is the one that is never finished.

Quote of the day

Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth.
Rex Stout

Review: Starship Troopers

Robert A Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) is in some ways a very easy or a very hard novel to review, depending on how you approach it.  On the one hand, it is an incredibly simple story.  Juan Rico, fresh out of high school, joins the army of the future, goes to boot camp, gets promoted, goes to officer training school, and gets promoted to the rank of Lieutenant.  The end.  

Okay, but what about the plot?  The human drama?  The characters?  The conflict?  Sorry, but that is the plot.  As to the rest, there isn't any.  There is no drama, the main character never grows and we learn nothing about him, the other characters are all the same character with different names and ranks, and there is no conflict.  As Alexi Panshin says in his analysis of the book:
Starship Troopers is in no way an account of human problems or character development.  There is no sustained human conflict.  The story is the account of the making of a soldier–or, rather, a marine–and nothing more.  The narrator goes in as a boot and emerges a lieutenant, and that is all.
Unlike Heinlein's earlier novels, Starship Troopers is a very hard read.  Nothing at all happens, but that nothing is stuffed with various incidents and minutiae about military life that fill up the pages like bran.  You could chop out whole sections of the book, add in linking text, and no one would ever know the difference.  It is, in Panshin's words, a recruiting film script.  There is no plot, no characters, but there is a lot of extolling the glorious life of being a soldier and the excitement of war.   

Curiously, for such a thin book, Starship Troopers is one of Heinlein's most influential and controversial.   And it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot.  It has to do with the background material.  In other words, this is a book that for over half a century has had critics arguing about the costumes and backdrop rather than the play.

First off, there is the power armour; a battle suit that is essentially a walking tank that gives a man the strength of Hercules.  It's a neat little invention and one that has influenced science fiction up to the present day, but it's relevance to the plot?  Nil.  It's interesting, but it plays no more part in plot or character development than a pair of boots.  This can't be due to lack of imagination when you consider that his previous book, Have Spacesuit–Will Travel involved a teenager developing such a close relationship with the motor car spacesuit that he was restoring that it started talking to him.

Then there's the background of the story.  Starship Troopers is set in a future where only those who have completed two years of "federal service" are given the vote.  In the case of Juan Rico, this means joining the army.  This has had fans arguing for decades about whether or not this suffrage by service made Heinlein a Fascist, which is blatant nonsense if you look at how Fascism actually operates.  It's actually closer to the Ancient Greek system, though Heinlein claimed that he got the idea from the Swiss.  One suspects that had Heinlein set the story in peaceful, modern-day Switzerland instead of an outer space war against super-intelligent bugs, his pontificating would have elicited giggles rather than criticism.  

Heinlein goes on about his political system at great length in the book, which gives his critics loads of ammunition, but both Heinlein's political philosophy and his critics' objections are maddening because of one thing that is overlooked:  What relevance does this have to the plot?  Nil.  Rico joins the army in order to get the vote, but it's a McGuffin.  As far as the plot is concerned, it might as well be a GI scholarship or an excuse to leave home.  

Part of the reason may be that Heinlein's attitude toward citizenship and military service are offensive even to those who are pro-military.  His ideas are often simplistic and clumsy and, worse, he tends to support them with straw arguments of the most facile kind such as in this exchange between a high-school student and her History and Moral Philosophy teacher, Mr. Dubois:
One girl told him bluntly: “My mother says that violence never solves anything."

Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly.  “I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that.  Why doesn’t your mother tell them so? Or why don’t you?”

They had tangled before—since you couldn’t flunk the course, it wasn’t necessary to keep Mr. Dubois buttered up. She said shrilly, “You’re making fun of me! Everybody knows that Carthage was destroyed!”
“You seem unaware of it,” he said grimly. "Since you do know it, wouldn’t you say that violence settled their destinies rather thoroughly? However, I was not making fun of you personally; I was heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea—a practice I always follow. Anyone who clings to the historically untrue—and thoroughly immoral—doctrine that ‘violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.  Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.”
Bear in mind that all of this is based on "a scientifically verifiable theory of morals.”  

 The condescension of Heinlein speaking through his mouthpiece Dubois is palpable. When Heinlein gets into cracker-barrel philosopher mode it’s hard to stop him.  Never mind that a student who had “tangled before” with such a sophist would never throw him such a soft ball.  Heinlein has an opinion to pontificate on and story logic be damned. Small wonder that Panshin referred to Heinlein as:
(A) man standing in a pulpit delivering sermons against an enemy that no one but he can see clearly.
The main problem with Starship Troopers is that it is, in the end, nothing more than a Utopia novel where Heinlein gets to layout his vision of an ideal military and its place in society–at the top, naturally.  Never mind that military juntas (even one of veterans) make for bad soldiers as well as bad governments.  In Starship Troopers we are seeing Heinlein's self-confessed nostalgia for the Naval career that he loved dearly, but was forced to abandon at an early age due to illness.  A product of Annapolis, Heinlein was a firm believer in the academy system and was certain that a rigorous regime of selection, Prussian-style training, elimination, and lots of mathematics would produce near-perfect, incorruptible graduates.  In Heinlein's world, there is no such thing as gaming the system or compromises–never mind the fact that such a regime may have inherent contradictions or require infallible administrators. Lean on them enough and everything will work out fine.

Naturally, the product of this system are pure soldiers of the kill-people-and-break-things variety.  All they do is prepare to fight and fight.  In Heinlein's world, they do nothing else.  It isn't just they have nothing to do with support, logistics, and all the thousand other jobs that are needed to keep a fighting man active on the front; they don't even have to handle duties that were already well-established when Heinlein was writing, such as acting as an occupation force, executing counter-terrorism operations, providing security, peacekeeping operations, border patrols, disaster relief, and so on and so forth.  In Heinlein's world, soldiers never do anything as unglamourous as hanging around the streets of Belfast or lining up kids for vaccinations.

In all, this does a disservice for the military and for those of us who support it.  War is a harsh, grim business.  It is bloody, dirty, terrifying, and chaotic.  It is one of the few professions that require young men to unleash violence and destruction while trying to remain civilised in a situation where civilisation is no longer in control.  It is a life of sacrifice where those under arms look barbarism in the face so that their families back home don't have to.   It's one thing to give a proper portrayal that honours that sacrifice, but its another to indulge in cheap glorification as Heinlein does to the point of commending soldiering as a prerequisite to citizenship on the grounds that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch".

Really, Mr Heinlein, such grammar from an Annapolis man.

With that sort of logic, one is a step away from Terry Pratchett's political system of Ankh-Morpork, which is "One Man, One Vote," where the Patrician Lord Vetinari is the Man, and he has the Vote.