The Identical Twin Paradox: Robert A. Heinlein’s Time For the Stars

Time For the Stars was first published in 1956. It was one of Heinlein’s Juveniles—a series of books he wrote in the fifties with young heroes in the near future. The book is slightly dated—less so than some of the others that have more noticeable computers in them—but not really all that much. The story is an exploration of the Twin Paradox—a thought experiment that explains how relativity works. If you had identical twins, and one of them accelerated away from Earth and the other stayed home, so much more time would pass on Earth than in the spaceship that the Earth twin would be a hundred years old when the space twin came home, only a few years later. Heinlein took this concept and made it a real story with characters—and he made the twin thing relevant by using twin telepathy (which works faster than light…) as a means of communicating between Earth and ship.

Heinlein was absolutely amazing at evoking world and character. Time For the Stars is one of his few first person books. It always amazes me how fast he can hook me. I’ve read this book probably more than thirty times, I know everything that happens in it, and yet when I pick it up I get sucked right in:

According to their biographies, Destiny’s favoured children usually had their lives planned out from scratch. Napoleon was figuring out how to rule France when he was a barefoot boy in Corsica, Alexander the Great much the same, and Einstein was muttering equations in his cradle.

Maybe so. Me, I just muddled along.

I think this kind of thing where there’s an authoritative voice telling you things directly either grabs you or it doesn’t—see also Scalzi’s Old Man’s War—and I’ve always been completely sucked in by it. I’ll admit this was a comfort re-read when I wasn’t feeling well, and you know what? It comforted me and made me feel better, and I can’t see why there’s a problem with that.

No plot spoilers!

It’s revealed, in minor asides about growing up, that Earth is ridiculously over-populated, with five billion people. There’s a heavy tax on having more than three children, and our hero, Tom (and his twin brother, Pat) are unlicensed and their parents have to pay fines every year for having excess children. This is a future that didn’t happen and isn’t going to, and it’s interesting to consider why not. Lots of science fiction writers were very worried about over-population—but Heinlein gives a figure here and it’s a billion less than today’s population. I think Heinlein was assuming here that the Earth’s resources would be fairly and equally divided to each of those five billion people by irritating bureaucrats—in which case we probably all would be tightening our belts and living in small apartments, instead of some of us living comfortably and others in the Third World. The overpopulation is what causes the nearly-as-fast-as-light starships to be sent out to discover Earthlike planets where the excess population can be shipped. (I’m sure I’ve seen figures suggesting that this wouldn’t work.) The attitude is very much the colonization of the US seen as space—any dangerous animals, diseases, and inferior aliens had better watch out for mankind, and as for mankind, the evolutionary pressure will be a good thing.

If Time For the Stars had been written now, it would have been a different book in almost every way. It wouldn’t have had that exploitative attitude to the galaxy. Earth would be dying because of global warming and pollution, not simple over-population. The book would be four or five times longer, with much more angst. The focus would be on relationships, not on adventure. The section on Earth before Tom leaves would be about the same length, but everything else would be much longer. The actual adventures on other planets would take up a lot more space—Inferno wouldn’t be left out. There would be more sex, and it would be treated in a very different way. The telepathy thing would also be treated entirely differently. The Long Range Foundation who send the ships out would be evil, or at least duplicitous. The odd incestuous relationship between Tom and his great-great-niece Vicky would be more explicitly sexualised at long distance and contain more angst. There would be far more description—there’s almost no description here except as is incidental to character. I’d read it, but I probably wouldn’t keep coming back to it.

Tom and Pat are identical twins, and communicate telepathically, though they don’t at first realise that they do. Tom is sent on the mission, Pat stays at home and marries the girl they both love. They both thought they wanted to go, but maybe subconsciously neither of them wanted to go. Tom has been bullied by Pat all his life—and psychologically and personally the book is a coming of age story about how Tom gets free of Pat. It is therefore a bit of a copout to have telepathy work with people who are not twins, and to have it work between Tom and Pat’s daughter Molly, and later her daughter Kathleen and her daughter Vicky, and especially having it stop working between Tom and Pat. Thinking about what would have to be different to make this a modern book, I could actually see an improvement if the telepathy had continued between Tom and Pat as they grew further apart and more and more different. Having Tom communicate with cute nieces instead is a kind of cop-out.

I like it being the length it is and having the balance it does. Tom’s a slightly surly everyboy, and that’s just fine with me. I like the casual sprinkling of details about the world. I’m delighted every time I get to the line—in the last chapter—that implies that all the women have been wearing hats all through the book because that’s just common politeness. I love that kind of reversal—you find out all the women were wearing hats all the time because Tom’s shocked at seeing women with their heads bare-naked like an animal, and suddenly the earlier mentions of hats form a very different pattern. Heinlein always did that kind of thing beautifully.

There are any number of reasons, some fashion, some politics, some attitudinal, some stylistic, why you wouldn’t get this book written today. But there it is in print, more than fifty years after publication, and it’s still deeply readable and I’m still very fond of it.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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