More questions than answers: Robert A. Heinlein’s The Stone Pillow

When you read a book that’s been so tremendously influential on the whole genre of SF and inspired a whole subgenre of its own, it’s hard to see it clearly. It’s hard to see what it was that seemed so wonderful when it was new that fans rushed to give it the Hugo and pros the Nebula. Even when I first read it in the early eighties it knocked me over, but I have to recapture my inner twelve-year-old to really appreciate The Stone Pillow now.

If The Stone Pillow were a new book today, I’d call it derivative. But the reason for that is the tremendous influence it has had. Is there a word for a book that was genre-changing and is historically important but which has been left behind by changing times? I don’t know.

Before The Stone Pillow, nobody had written about a world where the stars go out. Oh it’s a familiar conceit now, it’s been done by Robert Charles Wilson, (Spin), Robert Reed (Beyond the Veil of Stars), Greg Egan (Quarantine), Joanna Russ (Edge and the Border), Margaret Atwood (Exceed His Grasp) and even Arthur C. Clarke (The Nine Billion Names of God). That isn’t the only way the book has been influential—it introduced Heinlein’s theme of older aliens and younger women, so prevalent in the genre today. It was the first introduction of aliens with an agenda and affected SF from Ken MacLeod to Battlestar Galactica. It prefigured the first-person kickass female protagonist in Friday. It was also, astonishingly, so late, the first story in which all the women went away.

Did the genre really need the introduction of robotic sex-kittens?

As always with Heinlein, when I’m actually reading it, I get caught up in the story and I don’t care about the flaws. OK, Desdi likes to be wolf-whistled at, I guess some women do. OK, her nipples go “spung,” maybe mine are defective, they’ve never made any noise at all. The future world without stars is well-drawn—and in so few words, too! Heinlein’s really astonishing skill at sketching detailed backgrounds with a few brief strokes was never better. I like the aliens, well, I mostly like the aliens. If I have issues with the Crazy Greys it’s in their motivation sneaking around that way. My problem is with Desdi. When I was twelve this went right past me. But now I have to ask, why does she go with them at the end? And why do all the other women and femmbots? What’s so wrong with Earth? Why is the epilogue from the point of view of the men left behind (with no stars!) and not with Desdi and the others aboard the spaceship? And why did the ship change from a saucer to a teapot? I remain perplexed.

And I appreciate that it’s influential, but why are all those books the same story? I mean at the end of Spin men as well as women leave the planet, and at the end of Beyond the Veil of Stars they leave the planet as mind vampires and I suppose you can call Beyond His Grasp and Edge and Border feminist reimaginings and Quarantine a geek reimagining, but in my opinion only Clarke had the courage to do something really different with this story.

I mean, it’s undeniably influential. And I guess it’s a good book. It’s certainly still a thought-provoking read. But I’m not sure it’s quite as good as everyone thought it was back in 1940.

Photograph copyright © 1976-2003 Julian D. Landa

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