One of my favourite writers has always been Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988).
His first short story, ‘Life-Line’, was published in 1939 and remains one of the most haunting tales I have read. Right there, Heinlein demonstrated his knack of driving to the heart of his subject with real characters – living, dimensional human beings. His techniques ran to the core of fiction writing. He had that same sparse, utilitarian style that made Hemingway great. He knew that omission is as powerful a tool for a writer as inclusion. And his stories were always about people – irrespective of the gee-whizz tech they lived around.
All this was displayed in his ‘juveniles’, a dozen books written mainly in the 1950s, for teenagers. Time For The Stars was about relativistic star travel, but it was really about sibling rivalries. Tunnel In The Sky was about adolescent group behaviour when isolated from society – his take on Lord Of The Flies, which he reversed. To Heinlein, civilisation was more than a veneer. Have Spacesuit – Will Travel – a riff on 1950s teen culture, googly-eyed aliens and UFO’s – was really about a teenager learning to cope with the failure of his boyhood dreams; to grow up and leave home.
By any measure, Heinlein was one of the top American writers of the age. Period. His work, as literature, stands alongside Hemingway.
Much of his edge came from the way he mixed the human ‘real’ with sci-fi settings that were believable extensions of the mid-century ‘now’, into a plausible future. This was no coincidence. Heinlein was an engineer. He worked on pressure suits during the Second World War – which came out in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. He invented the modern waterbed, describing it to the point where he got the patent. He invented the concept of the telemanipulator - the ‘Waldo’, used in laboratories. Here’s some other stuff he anticipated – both real and SF trope:
- Atomic rockets. In 1947, Heinlein envisaged using atomic reactors (‘piles’) to heat reaction mass (hydrogen) and drive interplanetary spaceships. Way more efficient than a chemical rocket. Ten years later, the AEC and NASA began working on it for real.
- The ultimate weapon. Your matter-to-energy ‘torch drive’ delivers zetawatts of energy. Who needs nuclear weapons? Heinlein pointed it out as a throw-away line in Time For The Stars (1956).
- Cellphones. The society of Space Cadet (1948) used ‘em – another throw-away detail but one that nailed the modern trend.
- Medical beds. One featured in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958), a decade before Trek.
- Maglev trains. Starman Jones (1953) portrayed supersonic trains suspended via ring-magnets. (Don’t get caught by the shock wave.)
- Star Gate. Guess who invented the idea. Heinlein’s Tunnel In The Sky (1955) pivoted around one of them failing.
The science – extensions of the possible into a ‘not yet invented, but it will be’ , worked hand-in-glove with realistic characters. The result was a suspension of disbelief. And that tells us how to do it, today.
The only down side, for me, was Heinlein’s contrived ‘American frontier’ analog. Mars, especially in Space Family Stone/The Rolling Stones (1952) was Dodge City. In Tunnel In The Sky his heroes used Conestoga wagons to explore exoplanets. In Farmer In The Sky (1953), the characters travelled on the ‘torch ship’ Mayflower to the new world, Ganymede. The parallel was exact even down to the symbolisms and choices of food. Earth was starving and the colonists had ‘good and plenty’, including (inevitably) corn, corn-bread, ham, turkey, squash, potatoes, butter, cream and apple pie.
When he wanted to create a different society, he did – witness Starman Jones, where employment revolved around medieval-style guilds. But that novel still had Nova Terra, a caricature of the American frontier dream. Why did Heinlein do it? Nostalgia? A vision of colonial society as freer, tougher – a place for hard life and hard characters. Part of his perception of ‘real’, and one of the ways he made his writing ‘real’. But for me it wasn’t different enough. The past is a foreign land; so is the future. The human condition renders some behaviours similar across time, but history never repeats to this level of detail.
I’m sure Heinlein knew that too. He had other reasons for portraying an idealised American frontier dream in space.
What do you figure?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012