Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Non-Random Book, Non-Random Passage #2

For the last twenty plus years, Kim Stanley Robinson has been my favorite writer. Prior to that, it was either Robert A. Heinlein or Mark Twain. I already hit Twain in the random series, so I'll pick a Heinlein passage to take me back to the those heady high-school days when reasonably bright (I'll be haughty here and put myself in that category) kids' brains are soaking up knowledge like sponges, awash in destabilizing hormones, and still, for having ten or more years of schooling, remarkably empty.

Heinlein is like crack for teen geeks with a sci-fi bent. All that machismo, science, solipsism, and wacky libertarianism: Danger, Will Robinson! I shudder to think some of the stuff I thought back then, but I still treasure these old books, and there are lots of them. The juveniles, the classics, and even the ones near the end where (To Sail Beyond the Sunset, I'm looking at you) things were just getting plain weird.

Since Starship Troopers is first Heinlein that leaps to mind, I've got go with Major Reid and Johnny Rico in History and Moral Philosopy class.
"Are a thousand unreleased prisoners sufficient reason to start or resume a war? Bear in mind that millions of innocent people may die, almost certainly will die, if war is started or resumed."

I didn't hesitate. "Yes, sir! More than enough reason."

"'More than enough.' Very well, is one prisoner unreleased by the enemy, enough reason to start or resume a war?"

I hesitated. I knew the M.I. answer -- but I didn't think that was the one he wanted. He said sharply, "Come, come, Mister! We have an upper limit of one thousand; I invited you to consider a lower limit of one. But you can't pay a promissory note which reads 'somewhere between one and one thousand pounds' -- and starting a war is much more serious than paying a trifle of money. Wouldn't it be criminal to endanger a country -- two countries, in fact -- to save one man? Especially as he may not deserve it? Or may die in the meantime? Thousands of people get killed every day in accidents ... so why hesitate over one man? Answer! Answer yes, or answer no -- you're holding up the class."

He got my goat. I gave him the cap trooper's answer. "Yes, sir!"

"'Yes' what?"

"It doesn't matter if it's a thousand -- or just one, sir. You fight."

"Aha! The number of prisoners is irrelevant. Good. Now prove your answer."

I was stuck. I knew it was the right answer. But I didn't know why. He kept hounding me. "Speak up, Mr. Rico. This is an exact science. You have made a mathematical statement; you must give proof. Someone may claim that you have asserted, by analogy, that one potato is worth the same price, no more, no less, as a thousand potatoes. No?"

"No, sir!"

"Why not? Prove it."

"Men are not potatoes."
What I still enjoy in Heinlein is captured here.  What I outgrew is as well.  He's very directly challenging his reader to tackle questions of ethics and morality.  And he's strident about it.  All those italics and exclamation points, I didn't add those.  I don't mind that so much, sure it's a bit florid but I think that's a great approach to go after a young reader.  Pose the questions, demand an answer, then demand a justification.  The problem is he's sloppy.  Where he has Reid say they've established an "upper limit" of one thousand, no, that's not what they did at all.  That's saying up to one thousand prisoners are enough to go to war over, more than that is not sufficient reason.  I know what he was trying to say but you can't have a character say they're being held to mathematical standards of proof and morality is an exact science and be so careless with your words.  The whole situation is the kind of overwrought there's-a-terrorist-who-knows-where-the-bomb-is-do-you-torture-him-for-the-information scenario.  Obviously, a nation should not just forget about a P.O.W. still behind enemy lines.  But, neither do we need to suppose that immediately after the last signature is on the armistice document, the presence of P.O.W.s behind enemy lines means lobbing a nuke or immediately picking the rifles back up.  (Demand their safety, work out the logistics of their return, explain the consequences of failure to comply or discuss in good faith, then act accordingly.)  At heart, Reid and Rico are right, you risk more than one life to gain the release of a prisoner -- if need be -- because saying, "Well, it's just one prisoner, screw him," would clearly be wrong.  Just like torture is wrong.   The problem is Heinlein's bluster obscures the real process of how you reason through a dilemma like the one discussed.

I'm glad I read Heinlein when I was young, I'm not sure I could stomach him now if I hadn't.  I'm glad because even though the prose and ideology are dodgier than I realized as a teen, the lesson that it's important to get to the right answer, that you arrive at it by reasoning, that there is a science to answering the hard questions (no appeals to mumbo-jumbo and mystical bullshit) -- as long as a kid comes away with that, that kid's going in the right direction.  I hope my kids read this stuff when they get older.  I also hope they don't stop with Heinlein.

And, I never did outgrow Twain.
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