Rewriting Heinlein

I’m still sick, but I’m feeling much better today.  I’m still vomiting, but it’s more ideas than yesterday’s ham sandwich.

I want to start off this entry with an excerpt from an author’s note Robert Buettner wrote at the end of his second novel Orphan’s Destiny:

So, why the Orphanage books, a fast, darkly funny, retold tales of a young man-become-soldier amid interplanetary war?  Because Starship Troopers and The Forever War marvelously embraced the zeitgeist in which each was written, but each suffers for it in a post-9/11 world.  Starship Troopers glorified a neo-facist future where only soldiers earn voting rights and we flog criminals publicly.  Dialogue often echoes ’50s TV.  Women pilot Heinlein’s starships, but they are perfumed and mystical, like aproned ’50s moms flying Frigidaires.  Vietnam-vet Haldeman expressly rewrote Heinlein and scorned Starship‘s Cold War jingoism.  Haldeman embraced the ’60s’ “emerging truths.”  The war is our fault.  All officers and politicians are sadistic fools.  Soldiers get pot rations and bunk co-ed, rotating sex partners nightly.

I bring this up because I told a friend of mine earlier today that I thought rewriting Starship Troopers for the online novel was a futile idea.  This is because Heinlein wrote in a different era of science fiction than the one we live in today.

When I was in college, the history of science fiction could be broken down into three periods.  The first ran from 1863 to 1919 and focused on the themes of industrialization, colonialism, and the closing American frontier.  The second period ran from 1919 to 1945.  This was the age of the pulp magazine.  This was the age of Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction (known today as Analog Science Fiction and Fact).  Then you had the third period from 1945 to the present day.  I like to call this the Sexy Period, the complex age of dystopia and nuclear holocaust.  You had The Day After and The Children of Men.  You had The Terminator and The Matrix.  Science Fiction writers weren’t as optimistic as their predecessors.

But now we’re living in a fourth era of science fiction, a post-9/11 era.  This is when you’ve got terrorism from afar and surveillance states from within.  To transplant Heinlein to today doesn’t work anymore than it would for him to take H.G. Wells into the 1950s because they lived in two completely different times.  So a straight rewrite of Starship Troopers simply cannot work.

And yet I wouldn’t disregard the possibility of a rewrite altogether.  Speaking of Wells, The War of the Worlds gets reinterpreted again and again from the 1930s and Orson Welles to the 1953 film by Bryan Haskin to the 2005 film by Steven Spielberg.

My point is this: when you’re doing a rewrite – whether it’s Starship Troopers or The War of the Worlds or goddamn Jane Austen – don’t try fitting the mold exactly.  It’ll never work.  Instead, look at your source material as ask what‘s there about it that you like, and more importantly, what’s there you’d change.  Ultimately, I think that’s the best a rewrite can hope for, mixing your own sensibilities with an established concept.

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