Pass the slide rule: Robert Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones

The British title for The Rolling Stones (1952) is Space Family Stone, and as that’s what it says on the cover that’s what I’ve always called it. Since there was a rock band (founded sometime after 1952) called “The Rolling Stones” it seems like a better title—but only superficially. This is a book about a family with the surname “Stone” who go to space. Space Family Stone is a riff on Swiss Family Robinson that strongly implies somebody hasn’t thought about it enough. “Space family” rather than “Swiss family” is fine as designating a family with a nationality, but “Robinson” isn’t the name of the Swiss family in the way “Stone” is the name of the space family, “Robinson” is what happens to them—they are shipwrecked on a desert island in the style of Robinson Crusoe. So Heinlein’s original title has been overtaken by events of the Twentieth Century and the alternate title never meant very much anyway.

This wouldn’t matter much except that it’s emblematic of what has happened to the book. More than any other of Heinlein’s juveniles it feels outdated, set like concrete in a future that never happened because other things happened instead. Here we have family size atomic spaceships you can fix with a wrench, colonies throughout the solar system, sliderules, radio drama as major form of entertainment, no measles vaccine, and traditional early twentieth century American family life. Instead we got Mick Jagger, feminism, and the internet, and for once I’m not saying “where is my moon colony!”

I picked up this book to re-read because Nancy Lebowitz said it was a book without violence. She’s absolutely right. There isn’t any. This is a book with lots of engineering, family squabbles, and sightseeing. Conflict is mainly provided by the late-teenage genius boy-twins Castor and Pollux coming into conflict with their father or human society or the universe. There are no villains, and most of what we have here is family dynamics. I’m not sure who the book is aimed at—unlike most of Heinlein’s juveniles where the POV is firmly the teenage male hero, here we spend a lot of time being asked to sympathise with Roger Stone, father to a family all of whom are brighter than he is. But there really is no violence ever at all anywhere, and this is a notable achievement.

When I was a teenager and I read my way alphabetically through pretty much the complete works of Heinlein, I could tell that he had good books and better ones. The low end of my preferences were this, Rocketship Galileo (post), Podkayne of Mars and Have Space Suit Will Travel (post). I mean, Heinlein had written a shelf load of books before 1977, and you couldn’t expect all of them to be Double Star, though you could keep hoping. Looking at it now, I divide the books into juveniles and adult novels, but the way they were all published in identical covers by NEL didn’t encourage me to do that then. Now weirdly, this future was already obsolete by 1977. Calculators had been invented, just about. But I didn’t notice that. I just took a sliderule for granted as a futuristic whatnot. It’s more obsolete now, but I don’t think that’s what’s wrong with it.

This is a book about a family taking a trip, and it stands and falls on its family dynamics and the descriptions of the cool places they go. (I suddenly want to compare and contrast with Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins!)

The Stone family at first sight look like a perfect suburban 1950s family, only on the moon. There’s a mother and father, a grandmother, a nearly grown girl, two teenage boys and a much younger addition. Meade, the daughter and firstborn child, bears her grandmother’s maiden name. The twins are Castor and Pollux, and as they are born 20 minutes apart they address each other as Grandpa and Junior. (I find them completely indistinguishable — if they were one character with a habit of talking to themselves I couldn’t tell.) The little kid is Lowell, or “Buster.” The father, Roger, has been mayor of Luna City.

When you look more closely, they’re more interesting.

Edith, the mother, is an MD and who wins family arguments by not arguing and by manipulating with feminine wiles. I like that she’s a doctor and cures an epidemic, I like that she insists that she is in practice when her husband insists that she isn’t. I don’t like her husband insisting she isn’t. I loathe the manipulation. Also, why does she cook? On the moon, they’re dialing for food from a central kitchen. In space, Edith cooks with help from Meade and Hazel—not the boys, never the boys. Pah.

This time through, it occurred to me to wonder how and when Edith gets paid for being a doctor. I have always lived in places where doctors are paid for by the state since health is considered to be a basic right, so until now I had always assumed (without ever thinking about it) that Edith was drawing a paycheck from the governments of the juristictions they passed through—Luna on the moon, Mars for the epidemic, and from “One Price” in the asteroids. But actually, considering the US and everything—were her patients paying her per call? And did she charge different amounts depending on what was wrong with them, like Lydgate in Middlemarch? Or was she treating them for free? Heinlein never says, and considering the attention the book pays to the twins’ attempts to make some money, you’d think he would. She could have made a fortune in the asteroids where there were no other doctors and she had a monopoly on healthcare—I wonder if she did? I mean there are ways in which it might be possible to argue that it wouldn’t even be immoral. Ick.

Hazel, the grandmother, was a single mother raising her son on Earth before they emigrated to the moon. This doesn’t fit with the retrofitting done to put Hazel in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but as it’s explicitly stated here that Roger was born on Earth, I’m going with this. Hazel is far and away the most interesting character in the book. She was involved in the Lunar Revolution and is a founding mother of the modern Luna state. She’s had several careers—she gave up a career in engineering because of hitting a glass ceiling and started dealing blackjack to support her family. She has been Lunar chess champion. She’s presently supporting the whole family by writing a popular SF radio serial. (And if Heinlein loses points for having radio serials still popular, he gains them for mentioning science fiction in an SF novel. The Galactic Overlord series is fun.)

Hazel’s great. She doesn’t manipulate, Hazel straight out says things. She insists on her right to carry a gun at all times, though she has cough-drops in it instead of bullets. She is the one who always wants to go further on and further out—she’s had to pass up opportunities before. She gets stuck with looking after the kids, first Roger and now her grandchildren, especially Buster, with whom she plays chess endlessly. But she’s plausibly an able woman in an explicitly sexist world and irritated with it rather than bent on getting her own way behind people’s backs. She’s one of the most plausible of Heinlein’s women. She complains that there is prejudice against hiring women—much like in the US in the fifties. After she tutors Meade in astrogation she says she could get a job as an astrogator except that the lines wouldn’t hire a woman. I feel like I’m hearing the authentic voice of female engineers Heinlein worked with during WWII here—but it makes me like the universe a lot less.

I hate the way Meade and the boys have had different educational expectations, and how they want the boys to go to a good college and they want Meade to find a husband. The book starts with the twins wanting to go into business with the money they made inventing a valve, while their father wants them to go to school on Earth. Meade is older than they are, and she isn’t in school on Earth. Meade also doesn’t get characterised or a character arc—she can sing, and she can’t cook, and that’s about it. She accepts bribes to babysit, and she doesn’t have her junior license though the twins—younger—do. She is interested in dating, and she thinks there will be scientists at Titan who she can make “less dedicated.” I really dislike societies that bring girls up with these lowered expectations.

Oh, there are some male characters too. I already said I can’t tell the twins apart. They’re very smart and very foolish, their intellectual and engineering abilities are way ahead of their social and emotional abilities. They are less characters than a force of nature. The same goes for Buster, Lowell, the baby who is there to be a baby, to want a pet, to be in danger—from spacesickness, and from being lost among the asteroids. He’s intelligent, he plays chess, he may be reading Hazel’s mind. He’s just scenery.

I think we’re supposed to like and sympathise with Roger as he tries to control his brilliant but wayward family—but he’s a sexist who thinks he has the right to run everything because he’s male. He’s not the oldest, he’s not the main breadwinner—there’s absolutely no reason why he should be in charge rather than one of the other adults—and indeed no reason why anybody has to be in charge except when you’re talking about making fast decisions in the ship. In The Number of the Beast Heinlein gets very interested in this idea of who should be captain of a ship, and has the characters take turns. I wonder if he wanted to revisit what he’d done with this here.

My problem with Roger is that I feel that the text likes him and thinks I will understand his burdens, while in fact I see his privileges where the text doesn’t. I don’t think Heinlein was sexist—indeed, as Farah Mendlesohn said, Heinlein was trying desperately hard to imagine women’s liberation, he just had trouble imagining what it would be like. Very few people writing in 1952 would have made the grandmother an engineer or the mother a doctor. But Roger is consistently selfish and entitled.

So that’s the family, and the dynamic is that the twins want to do things, Hazel wants to do things, Roger has to be coaxed or won over, and Meade and Edith manipulate to get their own way. Oh, and Buster isn’t old enough to count.

The book begins when the boys want to go out exploring and making money instead of going to college. What happens is that the whole family takes off in their spaceship The Rolling Stone for a trip to Mars, the asteroid belt, and beyond. The plot is “look at the scenery,” so let’s look at it. Heinlein clearly put a lot of thought into the physics and economics. I’m sure the planetary ballistics are all correct, and I’m sure he really worked them out with a sliderule and wished he had the ballistic computer the characters have that is dumber than my camera. There’s a long sequence talking about how ridiculous automobiles are (my favourite line “Despite the name ‘automobile’ these vehicles had no auto-control circuits”) and how efficient spaceships are. It’s all flim flam but I’m sure it’s science, or it was science at the time.

What I like is the economy of Mars geared up to gull tourists in the brief window the tourists will all be there because of the ballistics. I like the bicycle export that nearly works. I like the flat cats. I like the asteroids being the remnants of an exploded planety and full of “high grade” that makes it worth mining—I believe that this was a reasonable theory at the time and has since been disproven along with Bode’s Law. But I think this may have been the place I first encountered it. As a solar system to take a tour around, Heinlein was using up-to-date science and showing societies based on historical US examples—Luna like the early US, Mars full of red-tape and protectionism, and the asteroids as the frontier.

Of course, as always even when I don’t like Heinlein I do like him. He writes these long explanations of things that are irresistibly readable. It’s partly that confidential tone of “we know better.” It’s partly the addictive quality of his sentences. And he definitely does brilliantly here at having a whole novel with no violence.

But really, The Rolling Stones leaves me feeling I can’t get no satisfaction. What use is my moon colony if all I’m allowed to do is cook and deal blackjack and not practice my profession?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. 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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