Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

“Out far, and onward yet!” Heinlein’s future history stories of the thirties and forties

The most amazing thing in William H. Patterson’s biography of Robert A. Heinlein was learning that Heinlein wrote “Requiem” before he wrote “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” This astonished me so much that I actually pulled out my battered old copy of The Past Through Tomorrow (1977, my copy, 1977) to check that “Requiem” was the story I thought it was, even though I knew perfectly well that it was. The information had been in plain sight on the copyright page all the time, too, “Requiem”, 1939, “The Man Who Sold the Moon”, 1949. But The Past Through Tomorrow collects the stories in internal chronological order, not publication order, with a chart in the beginning of Heinlein’s future history, with “Lifeline” at the beginning and Methusalah’s Children at the end. I’d always read them in that order and never thought about it. It must have been really different for someone reading them as they were published.

“The Man Who Sold the Moon” (1949) is a story about a private enterprise first flight to the moon in the 1970s. And “Requiem” (1939) is a direct sequel to “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” it’s about the death of the main character of the “earlier” story. I’d always seen it as a postscript. Seen without “The Man Who Sold the Moon” though, it’s quite a different story. It’s everybody’s story, every SF reader’s anyway, it’s one of the great truths Heinlein got hold of. We want to go to the moon. No, we really really do. We don’t want to go there for science, or to make money (though we’ll happily pretend that’s why), we just really want to go, ourselves, personally, to the moon. And if it kills us to get there, then at least we’d be dead on the moon, so that would be okay. That’s the message of “Requiem”.

Patterson thinks this yearning came from Heinlein’s unfulfilled desire to become a Naval pilot. (His eyes weren’t good enough.) Maybe so. But:

I believed. I read Verne and Wells and Smith and I believed we could do it—that we would do it. I set my heart on being one of the men to walk on the surface of the Moon, to see her other side, and to look back on the face of the Earth, hanging in the sky.

I think Heinlein wrote about wanting to go to the moon so well because he wanted to go to the moon. He was born in 1907 and grew up in the years where technology seemed to be just about to do anything.

A number of Heinlein’s early stories have the main character die, but it’s usually dying to save the day—Rhysling, in “The Green Hills of Earth,” dies to save the ship onto which he has talked his way, Dahlquist, in “The Long Watch,” dies to save Earth from a fascist technocratic takeover. Harriman in “Requiem” dies on the moon because that’s what he’s always wanted. It always makes me tear up, because it’s written in that particularly masculine style of sentimentality that always gets me. I thought it did that because I knew Harriman, but re-reading it now knowing he wrote it first, I think it does it because Harriman here is every-fan. He’s every boy who thought there was more romance in Thrilling Wonder Stories than in Dumas. And he’s every girl who felt that too—when I was reading The Past Through Tomorrow in 1977 I was old enough to have noticed that I was invisible to a lot of writers, but I never felt I was invisible to Heinlein. Gloria Brooks McNye meant more to me than I can say—and goodness knows what the readers of 1949 made of her.

It wasn’t just longing for space. In these early stories, Heinlein wrote about the future as if he’d been there. He wrote the most absurd things—the rolling roads of “The Roads Must Roll” and the mathematics of psychology in “Blowups Happen,” but he wrote them with a kind of authority and authenticity that made them seem real. It’s partly the way he drops the details in and writes about it as if it’s routine: “The rockets roared on time; Jake went back to sleep” (“Space Jockey”). Of course he did. Lazarus Long wears a kilt because there’s a fashion for wearing kilts—because that’s the kind of thing that happens. People say they live “in the Moon,” only a groundhog would say “on the Moon.” Of course they do, and of course people from Earth are groundhogs. There’s an inevitability to Heinlein’s futures, however inherently implausible they are, and however much the real future has overtaken them. It’s the inevitability of having people do the kind of things people do, and the kind of thing anyone would do, in the new circumstances. There was more to him than that, but this was Heinlein’s genius—making you read along, making up the world in your head, and saying “Of course.”

This first volume of the biography is largely Heinlein making himself up from a standing start, growing into himself. It’s a terrible biography as a biography—biography is a genre, and this one is written the way mainstream writers who don’t read SF write SF. It would have been a perfectly reasonable biography a hundred years ago, as it reads as a huge pile of facts with no inferences and is very respectful to its subject. It isn’t how biography is written these days, when biographers ask the hard questions, even if they don’t have answers. Anyone who has read Julie Phillips’s biography of James Tiptree Jr. will be able to appreciate the difference. But it’s quite an interesting pile of information about that subtle and nuanced man Heinlein, and his complex and changing views.

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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