Wed
Apr 1 2009 9:30am

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

12 comments
Paul Howard
1. DrakBibliophile
I'd wonder what you're talking about if I didn't know today is April 1st.
Richard Fife
2. R.Fife
this is exactly the kind of edgy, new-age review I have come to expect from tördötcöm. Keep it cöming!

Oh, and my nipples go "spung". Freaks my coworkers out on cold days.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
R. Fife: That last line made me laugh out loud.
Mary Frances
4. Mary Frances
Oh, for--it's been a rough week.

I'd forgotten what day it was.

I was a third of the way through this extremely puzzling review before I figured out what you were up to.

Well done, Jo!
Clark Myers
5. ClarkEMyers
"It was also, astonishingly, so late, the first story in which all the women went away."

I wonder how much credit to give Philip Wylie for The Disappearance (1951) with its quantum split - the all male dystopia and the female empowerment is derivative but the quantum split does allow doing both in the same book.

Maybe it was just a weak year and travel was hard enough to keep down Hugo voting?
Mary Frances
6. MiltonP
Odd, very odd. Heinlein promised that "The Stone Pillow" would never be written, but was a permanent lacuna in his continuity. I guess all writers have an off day now and then, and this is his.

--Milton
Avram Grumer
7. avram
But what were they thinking, casting Lucille Ball in the movie adaptation?
David Goldfarb
8. David_Goldfarb
One nitpick: while you're correct that The Stone Pillow won the Prix Victor Hugo, it didn't win a Nebula -- it couldn't, the Nebulas weren't started yet. What it actually won was one of the "Retro-Nebulas" that the SFWW established to honor works from before the Nebulas started. In fact it won the very first Best Novel Retro-Nebula, given in 1980 for works from 1940.
Mary Frances
9. Mike Schilling
It's unusual, though, for Henlein to do anything as obvious as name an attractive woman Desdi DeRata. I think it came from all the time he was spending with Asimov at the RAF research center.
Mary Frances
10. Blake Ellis
Actually, William Hope Hodgson's "The Night Land", written in 1912, describes a world where the sun has gone out, and if I remember correctly, the skies in general are black.
Not to be a snooty, correct-y jerk.
Nicholas Alcock
11. NullNix
I find myself engaging in reverse authorship, trying to reverse-engineer the plot of a nonexistent novel from a single intentionally confusing review.

I suppose the story behind _Gulf_ was a contributory factor here, right?

(And my understanding is that spunging is an optional add-on feature. Complain to your parents' DNA. :) )
Mary Frances
12. JohnnyYen
"Did the genre really need the introduction of robotic sex-kittens?"

To be honest, Jo, a lot of us think it did.

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