More Heinlein! Not planned. It just so happened that this paperback was on the New Books shelf at the library, so I snatched it up. (In fact, it’s a double feature, with Orphans of the Sky as the second book. This edition has an afterword, two introductions to The Man Who Sold the Moon, as well as a preface from Heinlein. It is saturated. If you like Heinlein, buy this edition.)
The more I read Heinlein, the more the experience becomes a reaction to how his writing is so old, but not quite old enough….
We could get into a rousing late-night discussion about the “first” science fiction stories. I’m all for crediting Mary Shelley with the first SF novel, though I‘m aware there are numerous earlier claimants to the looser “story” title. Few would dispute, however, that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are two names who loom large when we discuss the earliest science fiction novelists—or is it science fantasy? Hard to say….
Still, no one reading Verne or Wells really expects the books to feel scientifically accurate. They were writing adventure novels with a fantastic science component, inspired by the cutting edge scientific discoveries of their time, but not necessarily bound by any need to be accurate.
Heinlein is closer to us in time, close enough, indeed, that he feels like he should be all properly scientific. So when his works deviate from science or historical fact because science and history have outpaced them … well, that feels weird. Because of his competency with technobabble, I had to keep reminding myself that Heinlein is writing this in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s … well before satellites, let alone the low Earth orbit or moon landings.
What Heinlein has in common with Wells and Verne, however, is definitely his role as a monumental inspiration for future scientists and explorers. This is the paradoxical ourobouros that is science fiction: writers describe these technologies and places that don’t yet or can’t exist … young people read their stories … and then they grow up, inspired to become scientists and explorers and create or find those things. Reading the stories in this anthology in that light, then, I can totally see why so many people cite Heinlein as their favourite science-fiction author. The fervour for technological process displayed by Douglas, or Martin, or Gaines, or Harriman, is infectious. Despite the note of careful cynicism running throughout these stories, Heinlein cannot avoid communicating an boundless enthusiasm for humanity’s apparently limitless ability to surmount obstacles and strive to reach the stars.
Reading Heinlein at this age and in this time also allows me to contrast it with more recent science fiction and see how the genre has changed. In both style and subject, science fiction in Heinlein’s day was markedly different from science fiction now.
In his introduction to The Man Who Sold the Moon, John W. Campbell, Jr. makes much the same point, only contrasting Heinlein’s writing with earlier works. His voice comes across as folksy while he says this, talking about how “Bob Heinlein … sent in a yarn,” and that just sounds cute to me. But he soon gets serious and literary and contrasts Heinlein with, yes, Wells:
But Wells’ method was to spend two chapters or so describing…. In the leisurely ’90s and early twentieth century, that was permissible. The reader accepted it. Long descriptive passages were common.… Today, the reader won’t stand for pages of description of what the author thinks the character is like; let the character act, and show his character.
He then goes on to use the word dilly, and I just want to bring him home and show him off to everyone like some kind of cantankerous grandfather figure.
Anyway, Campbell was, of course, right: Heinlein’s prose tends to be lean. It is at its most dense when he gets carried away describing technology—like I said earlier, I think Heinlein is an unapologetic technobabbler, but I’m fine with that. As far as people, though, in his descriptions of them and their actions Heinlein becomes positively stingy. Much of these stories consists of dialogue with very little description. This actually seems to be coming back into vogue … and I’m struck, also, by how much it resembles a lot of young adult novels. Maybe that’s one reason we never had a massive YA presence before World War II: much of “adult” literature was taking on the snappy YA-like pacing such that it could be read by children and adults alike. Certainly, I can see Heinlein’s stories at home in the hands of a fourteen- or a fifty-year-old….
But I digress. Heinlein is the Aaron Sorkin of science fiction here (in more ways than one—see depiction of women, below). He has mastered the literary walk’n’talk.
As far as subject goes, well: atomic power. It is a significant motif in most of the stories in this collection. “Blowups Happen” doubts that we could harness atomic power safely (and while Heinlein was not entirely right on this point, he also wasn’t entirely wrong), whereas “The Man Who Sold the Moon” and “Requiem” allow that maybe we could produce some usable fuel from these unstable monstrosities of reactors. In general, though, the book provides great insight into how an author who lived through World War II and saw humanity enter the Atomic Age (which he dubbed the Power Age) envisioned the rest of the century unfolding.
I had a much longer paragraph about the subject matter of science fiction today, but I realized it was getting untenable. I wanted to talk about it, however, so I spun it off into a separate blog post.
Anyway, unlike some people I can’t really tell a personal story about “my Heinlein.” I read him as something of historical interest: he informs my reading of the rest of science fiction, and provides insight into the zeitgeist of his time. I totally understand why a lot of people were inspired by him if they read his stories growing up, though. I suspect not a lot of those people were women, though.
What strikes me about The Man Who Sold the Moon is that, unlike The Moon is a Harsh Mistress of twenty years later, women aren’t merely objectified in these stories: they are practically erased. There are a few women characters in the stories, but they are secretaries or wives, minimized and put in their place. All the characters of action are men; it is inconceivable, indeed, that there could be a woman person of business—all that stuff is manly! The only notable exception is Dr. Mary Lou Martin from “Let There Be Light.” However, she is a biologist (life sciences being “acceptable” for a woman because it doesn’t require her to do math, since math is hard). And she is objectified to a nauseating degree.
Look, apologists will point out that Heinlein is “of his time,” and harsher critics will then trot out the fact that Heinlein had some ideas about sex and sexuality that were weird for his time … and that’s just not the point here. I’m reading this from a historical perspective, and so what I’m seeing is how important it is to have that diverse representation in a story. Because it’s true that Heinlein’s stories are of a calibre great enough to inspire people to become scientists and engineers … but how well could they motivate women to go into STEM if all these brilliant people are men?
I’m pleased to say we’ve come a long way since Heinlein wrote these stories in that regard—we regularly depict women as scientists, at least. Also, I saw a great discussion on Twitter the other day about how Gillian Anderson inspired a generation of women to enter STEM with her portrayal of Scully. (And I think Amanda Tapping deserves an honourable mention for her stellar portrayal of Captain/Major/Colonel Samantha Carter, the scientist/warrior of Stargate SG-1.)
Also, I am a dude talking about the portrayal of women in SF, so let me just say that I’m aware I’m not saying anything new here. I’m just trying to use my privilege to amplify what I’ve heard many women say. Because while things have improved, there is still a tendency to fridge women and to objectify or marginalize women, even when they are in scientific roles.
But I digress. As I tend to do, and as I’ve done in this review quite a bit, because I don’t actually have much to say about this book. This is a solid collection of stories. I don’t think it’s a matter of recommending or panning Heinlein: I would say that you should read at least one Heinlein story, just because he is unarguably a juggernaut in the field of science fiction. Whether you continue on the journey is entirely up to you. I’ll probably keep reading Heinlein, leisurely over the years, just to continue getting a good perspective on how science fiction has changed over the past century. After all, Campbell was right: these are some good yarns.