Rereading Early Heinlein, part 2

Heinlein burst upon the SF scene in 1939, the same year Asimov did, but much more forcefully. He published 28 stories, including four long enough to require serialization over multiple magazine issues, from 1939 to 1942, of which all but five were published in John W. Campbell’s Astounding and Unkown magazines (the former science fiction, the latter fantasy). Of the four serialized long stories, three were later published as individual books: Sixth Column, Methuselah’s Children, and Beyond This Horizon. The first serial, “If This Goes On–“, was published in the early ’50s collection Revolt in 2100, taking about 2/3 of the book.

Heinlein went into service in World War II, and didn’t publish again until 1947, when he cracked Saturday Evening Post, a general interest magazine that paid much higher rates for short stories than the genre magazines [a bit like how The New Yorker pays a lot more than Asimov’s, these days], and in the same year began publishing ‘juvenile’ (what we would today called young adult) novels for Scribner’s, beginning with Rocket Ship Galileo in 1947 and running one per year for over a decade up until Starship Troopers, rejected by Scribner’s and published instead by Putnam in 1959.

It’s the earlier work that I’m addressing here. In the early ’50s, a fan press, Shasta, published three hardcover books collecting many of Heinlein’s early SF stories, including a “Future History” chart that had been published by Campbell in a 1941 issue of Astounding: The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950), The Green Hills of Earth (1951), and Revolt in 2011 (1953). Many of Heinlein’s earlier works from ’39-’42 obviously fit into this framework, and the later Saturday Evening Post stories, that ended up mostly in the second book, might have been retrospective attempts to fill in gaps in that history. (I haven’t researched Heinlein sufficiently to know if he planned it that way all along, or…)

For now, I’m discussing the second and third books of that trio. I’d remembered the stories in The Green Hills of Earth as being sorta incidental, slice-of-life incidents for a general audience, in contrast to the dramatic speculations of the other stories (“The Roads Must Roll”, “Universe”, etc.). But as I reread them these past few weeks, I gained a new respect for them, for several in particular.

Heinlein’s “Future History” became a template for the timeline of mankind’s expansion into space, relatively short-term compared to the timeline of Asimov’s future history, the one that Donald A. Wollheim captured in his nonfiction book (discussed here) — compared to that one, Heinlein’s is contained in the first of those eight items.

A key feature of Heinlein’s future history, though, was that exploration of the solar system, building settlements on the moon and other planets, was rudely interrupted by a conservative/religious rebellion on Earth — in the United States — that took decades, nearly a century to overcome.

The stories in The Green Hills of Earth are roughly arranged around the settlement of space stations above Earth, establishing colonies on the Moon, and then the other planets. The first story, “Delilah and the Space-Rigger”, concerns the head of construction on a space station who is alarmed when a new radio tech assigned from Earth turns out to be — a woman! (There’s a reference to a “Fair Employment Commission”; this story was published in 1949.) The construction head goes to great lengths to marginalize and finally dismiss her, fearing that her presence will distract the men of the station, before he realizes, on the contrary, her presence has quite an opposite effect… and he changes his mind, dramatically. The story exhibits both retrograde sexual politics, and a relatively enlightened insight into how human relations actually work.

The best story in the book might be “Space Jockey” (published 1947), which follows a spaceship pilot on the Earth to Luna run, as he is summoned on an emergency call [the same way an airline pilot today might get a call to make a flight when no other pilot is available], to the disappointment of his patient wife; they were about to leave for a show. The story explains in clear technical detail the mechanics of the trip: why it takes three ships to get from Earth to Moon (one to get into Earth orbit, a second for the transit, a third for the descent to Luna — in contrast to the naive notion, fueled by Hollywood movies even in that era, that a single rocket would achieve the entire journey by taking off and landing at both ends); how the pilot navigates the ship by aligning it to three bright stars; what happens if the transit ship goes off course [an unruly kid in the cockpit hits the wrong button!] and the pilot has to recalculate their ‘groove’, with the threat of having to dump cargo in order not to miss the lunar target.

It’s very clear and matter-of-factual, in a direct, elegant way that presages the Earth-orbit to Luna scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which illustrated, without spelling anything out in dialogue, the matter of fact precision that goes into such a trip.

— And, the story also explores the internal narrative of the tension between the pilot and his wife. During his trip, the pilot imagines several letters he would write to his impatient wife, alternately defending his line of work and why she must put up with his schedule, with some deference about how maybe their differences won’t support a continued relationship. (This debate might seem a tad dated, since it assumes the wife could not possibly have any job of her own.) And then the technical arc of the story resolves as the emotional one does, once the pilot finally calls his wife when he has landed on Luna.

Other stories in the book are relatively incidental. “The Long Watch” (1949) involves an attempted coup by a Lunar officer to take control of Earth (where matters are “too important to be left in control of politicians”) with nuclear bombs stored on Luna, and a hero, later venerated, who takes it upon himself to foil his plan. “Gentlemen, Be Seated” involves a lunar quake that seals a journalist and two others in an underground tunnel with an air leak, which is patched by one of them literally pulling down his pants and using his bare butt to plug the leak, until help arrives. “The Black Pits of Luna” involves a family taking a tour on Luna, with a young kid who goes missing; this plot point echoes the unruly kid in “Space Jockey”. “Ordeal in Space” involves a crewman suffering acrophobia as a result of a repair effort outside a spinning ship (i.e., spinning for the effect of artificial gravity inside) — and frankly, the incident in which he’s on the outside of that spinning ship, in which every way is down and he struggles to hold on for hours — is as harrowing as any spaceship emergency I can recall — is resolved by his having to rescue a cat on a balcony. And “The Green Hills of Earth”, iconic for its depiction of the blind poet Rhysling (an award for SF/F poetry is named after this character) and his sacrifice to repair an irradiated ship, even as he composes his iconic song, struck me most of all for the notion that, in those heady days of space travel throughout the solar system — half the ships that went out never came back.

Three others however are striking. “It’s Great to Be Back” concerns a couple living in Luna City who decide to return to Earth, tired of the insularity of Luna, missing the sky and open air. They return to Earth and check in to a New York City hotel, and are struck by the increased gravity, how cold the outside air is, how the old friends they meet harbor so many misconceptions about life “on” the Moon (they say “in” the Moon). And it’s dirty! They settle into a country home, where the toilet clogs and can’t be fixed until spring. They want to go home! Coincidentally on my part, this story reminds me of a couple by Shirley Jackson, whom I read some of a few months ago (one described here), but especially in this case “The Summer People”, in which rifts between city folks and country folks appear. The title of this Heinlein story, of course, becomes applied twice.

“We Also Walk Dogs” is an early, 1941, story, somewhat shoe-horned into the Future History template. It concerns General Services, a high-end establishment that does anything — short of murder — for a price, and in all confidentiality. The character focal is Grace Cormet, a senior receptionist at General Services; after a couple example episodes, the story focuses on her handling of a visit from a government official whose request is to help the government host a delegation of the other intelligent races in the solar system, here on Earth. (This is the first time, in the ‘future history’, that we’ve heard about other intelligent races in the solar system.) She concludes that the task is relatively easy except for the gravity part — delegates from lower-gravity planets might not tolerate the gravity of Earth — and suggests that the government contact a brilliant physicist though uncooperative recluse, a Dr. Krathwohl, for help. His requirement for services is a rare, exquisite, Chinese bowl called the “Flower of Forgetfulness”. [A Wikipedia search on this name leads you to the entry for this story: —We Also Walk Dogs.]

The final, longest story in The Green Hills of Earth is “Logic of Empire”, the most overt political story in the book. In the opening, two friends, Sam Houston Jones and Humphrey Wingate, argue over dinner about whether the system of ‘contractual servitude’ on Venus is equivalent to slavery. (The premise here, that Venus is inhabitable and has an indigenous species, follows from the previous story.) On the second page of this story, Wingate wakes up on a ship that he gathers is headed for Venus, without remembering how he got there. Has he been ‘shanghaied’? He ends up, sold into servitude, on a plantation on Venus, where he does grudge work alongside native amphibians. He eventually escapes and makes it back to Earth, where he tries to tell his story, and finds that no one cares. Here is where Heinlein expresses political conclusions. His would-be publisher says,

I would say that you have fallen into the commonest fallacy of all in dealing with social and economic subjects – the ‘devil theory’ … You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity. Colonial slavery is nothing new; it is the inevitable result of imperial expansion…

And when he reunites with his old friend:

I’ve been wondering how long it would take you to get your eyes opened. What is your case? It’s nothing new; it happened in the Old South, it happened again in California, in Mexico, in Australia, in South Africa. Why? Because in any expanding free-enterprise economy which does not have a money system designed to fit its requirements, the use of mother-country capital to develop the colony inevitably results in subsistence-level wages at home and slave labor in the colonies. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer…

Next time: “If This Goes On.”

This entry was posted in Heinlein, science fiction. Bookmark the permalink.