Pondering on the stuff Robert A Heinlein invented

I’ve been reading Between Planets, one of Robert A Heinlein’s first ‘juveniles’ – the dozen YA novels he wrote from the late 1940s.

XE atomic rocket motor - exactly as Heinlein envisaged - being assembled for cold (non-fissionable) test firing at Jackass Flats, Nevada, 1967. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
XE atomic rocket motor – exactly as Heinlein envisaged – being assembled for cold (non-fissionable) test firing at Jackass Flats, Nevada, 1967. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s one of the few I didn’t catch up with as a kid.

The thing is that, as a writer, Heinlein was up there with any other general American author of his period – I’d put him alongside Hemingway in many respects. He never got the wider recognition his material deserved, I suspect, because when he was writing it, science fiction was a fringe genre.

How good was he? Well, he specialised in real, three-dimensional characters living in a real and thoroughly believable future universe. One in which all the physics were our real-world ones – with a couple of twists. His ‘torch’ ships, for instance, utilised the E = MC2 mass-to-energy equation to explain their drives. In fact, matter can’t just be turned directly into energy.

In Heinlein’s universe, it could – hence the ‘torch’ ship that could run a constant-boost trajectory to Pluto in a few weeks, or (one way) to the nearest stars. But everything else our friend Dr Einstein invented worked as stated.

Mix that with some really believable characters, and Heinlein was on to a winner. And a lot of what he came up with became the basis of some of today’s SF and some of our modern tech. For instance:

– ‘Stargate’ – Tunnel  In The Sky (1955)

– Trek’s Starfleet, cellphones, Tom Corbett – Space Cadet (1948)

– cellphones, Between Planets (1951)

– Trek’s ‘medical bed’ – Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958)

– aerobraking into orbit, nuclear-thermal motors – Space Cadet (1948)

– Moon Nazis (as in ‘Iron Sky’) – Space Ship Galileo (1947)

– modern waterbeds – Beyond This Horizon (1942/1948)

– teleoperators – ‘Waldo’ (1942 short story)

All of which bears thinking about. How much influence can one author have? To judge from Heinlein’s influence – especially on the SF of today – quite a lot.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015