Wed
Aug 11 2010 11:47am

“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.

21 comments
CMPalmer
1. CMPalmer
My favorite Heinlein "prediction" is in the first few pages of one of the juveniles (I'm drawing a blank on which one) where the main character is riding his horse through the desert and his phone rings. It is someone giving him a message that he needs to get home and prepare to leave Earth.

The funny thing about the scene is that when I re-read this book a few years ago, I was one or two pages past the scene when I realized that the phone ringing while on the horse was a "gee whiz futuristic moment" when the book was published in the 1940s (or so) - whereas I just pictured a guy on his horse talking on a cell phone.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
CMPalmer: The thing I like about that is not only did Heinlein predict the cell phone, but a few pages later he predicted teenage kids packing it in their luggage so their moms couldn't get hold of them. That's what I mean about predicting the kind of things people will do!
David Betz
3. RDBetz
@CMPalmer: I think that was Between Planets.
David Betz
4. RDBetz
Oops, double post.
CMPalmer
5. Brian2
Elmore Leonard did something somewhat similar to "Requiem" / "The Man Who Sold the Moon" in his story "Tenkiller" and the novels he wrote years later about Carl Webster. "Tenkiller" is about Ben Webster, Carl's grandson, who grew up with Carl, and remembers him somewhat poorly as someone who told unbelievable stories and who was so strictly religious that it inhibited Ben for years. We hear a lot about Carl's life and his death. But when Leonard wrote about Carl himself, years later, it was a Carl younger than Ben, known at one point as "The Hot Kid," who really did have wild adventures and who was anything but puritanical. Ben himself is a stuntman and former rodeo star, but his life is much less interesting than Carl's, though he never finds that out. And it's Ben's viewpoint we get first.
Hypatia James
6. hypatiajames
Jo,
Your fifth paragraph about how Heinlein made it so "of course" is the whole reason I love Heinlein, and always will, but I never had the reason straight in my head. So thanks!
CMPalmer
7. Doug M.
"it reads as a huge pile of facts with no inferences and is very respectful to its subject."

In Patterson's defense (N.B., I don't know him personally at all), he had to work with and through the Heinlein Estate. There are plenty of people around who can discuss how that would have influenced his work.

But 'no inferences': yes, exactly. In a comment on the last post, Carlos pointed out that (1) there's a good chance Heinlein may have had a venereal infection, and (2) this may have affected his fertility -- he seems to have had the bug for years, and that's one known side effect.

Did Heinlein know that, or at least suspect it? Carlos points to a couple of passages that hint he might have. It's speculation, but it's grounded speculation.

Here's another: we know Heinlein had strong opinions about art in general, and sculpture in particular. (See, e.g., the discussion of Rodin in _Stranger_.) Presumably his time as an artist and artist's model influenced him here; do we know how? (Do any of his works survive?) Greenwich Village in the 1920s would already be a step or two beyond Rodin, I would think -- so did Heinlein stand out there, or did he later have a conservative reaction to the (perceived) follies of youth?

Anyway. Even if it's just a big pile of facts, the book does sound v. interesting; looking forward.


Doug M.
CMPalmer
8. Rush-That-Speaks
I read them 'Requiem' first, actually, when I was a kid. 'Requiem' hit me at the age of eight or nine as stunningly as it does today, whereas 'The Man Who Sold The Moon' was not something I could even get through at that time; too much adult politicking and economics and things I just did not understand. When I went back to 'The Man Who Sold The Moon' at twelve or so I initially got through it because of emotional spillover from 'Requiem', and kept rereading it until I understood it; it was my gateway into a whole world of political and economically concerned fiction and my first inkling that that could be interesting instead of just being a set of things adults talked about over my head. (The adults in my family assumed flat-out that a kid could not and should not be interested in politics, and were therefore so boring and cryptic about it that I wasn't.)

This post fascinates me because it really hadn't occurred to me that of course people could read them in the other order.
CMPalmer
9. DavidA
Jo's description of how Heinlein's future worlds, even when wildly "wrong" when compared with events as they actually developed, evoke that "of course" reaction is spot on.

I am male, but I began reading Heinlein at age 8 in the 1960s, and I am convinced that Brooks McNye, and all her sisters in the Heinlein canon, imprinted on me at an early age that "of course" women can do whatever men can do, and that they should do and be whatever they want. There is residual sexism in his work, because he couldn't divorce himself entirely from his time, but that value shines through.
CMPalmer
10. JohnnyYen
Heinlein also killed off his heroes Joe and Gail in Gulf

... and Eunice, Johann and Johann's right hand guy, name misremembered, in I Will Fear No Evil, more or less
Nancy Lebovitz
11. NancyLebovitz
You're absolutely right about the plausibility of the details in Heinlein.

It didn't surprise me to find out reading your post that "Requiem" was written first-- it's a much simpler story.

This suggests a project-- look at Heinlein's work in the order it was written and look for more ambition in regards to complexity, and possibly loss of ability to handle it late in his life. (I think that _Job_ was one of his more successful late novels, and it was pretty straightforward, _The Cat Who Walked through Walls_ seemed like a mess.)

It's interesting to look at vocation in Heinlein-- I think relatively few of his characters had something they felt compelled to do for the love of it, as compared to having what they liked to do and primary goals of living well in their current circumstances. There are more Woodrow Wilson Smiths than Andrew Jackson Libbys.

Also, "The Man Who Sold the Moon" and "Requiem" have some thematic overlap with "Citizen of the Galaxy", except that Thorby won't be able to do hands-on agentry against slavery at the end of his life. And I'm surprised to find out that I'm tearing up at the idea.
John Adams
12. JohnArkansawyer
@JohnnyYen: Those break down nicely into Jo's two categories. Joe and Gail were saving the world; Johann, Eunice, and Jake* were leaving the world.

*Eunice and Jake if you believe the book is straightforward in its presentation of what happens. I'm not sure if it is or not.
John Adams
13. JohnArkansawyer
@NancyLebovitz:

Thorby won't be able to do hands-on agentry against slavery at the end of his life. And I'm surprised to find out that I'm tearing up at the idea.


But what a wonderful story it would be: Thorby Rudbek, bankrupted by the machinations of Weems' clone, maddened by the death of his wife, back on Jubbulpore, reactivating the remnants of Baslim's network to strike one fierce blow at the heart of the slaver empire.

Does that help?
CMPalmer
14. Matt Doyle
@13

At least for me, My God Yes. My own biggest complaint about Heinlein (okay, here I am being frivolous and untruthful - but only just) is that Citizen of the Galaxy doesn't have a sequel.

However, no need to fridge his wife. A husband-wife team would be much more interesting. :-D
John Adams
15. JohnArkansawyer
I kinda hate sequels, but I'm all for finishing stories, and this strikes me as a satisfactory ending to Thorby's story.

I'm not fond of the idea of killing Leda* off, but Thorby has to have some motivation for his middle-aged break with duty. Even broke, he's still got value to X Corps, which does not want someone so knowledgeable about the status of the anti-slavery fight in danger of capture, even on a suicide mission.

I figure give Thorby twenty or so good happy years before the action starts.

*Leda is one of my favorite Heinlein women.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
I think the end of the book strongly implies that the way to stop slavery isn't out there one slaver at a time but from the top, on Earth, right at that desk where Thorby isn't having any fun.

This is one of the reasons why I don't think of Citizen of the Galaxy as a juvenile. This is a very adult ending.
John Adams
17. JohnArkansawyer
Absolutely true, Jo, for someone in the position Thorby finds himself in--held down by unwanted, tainted yet irresponsible to destroy, wealth. Thus Weems' clone must bankrupt him or find some other way to release Thorby from that restriction to make this work.
Clark Myers
18. ClarkEMyers
the end of the book strongly implies that the way to stop slavery isn't out there one slaver at a time but from the top, on Earth, right at that desk where Thorby isn't having any fun.


As has often been said - I first read it in Adolf Galland's The First and the Last - The way to kill hornets isn't swatting them one at a time A rephrasing perhaps of the notion that (juniors) study tactics; Generals study logistics and Thorby isn't in Fire Control anymore.

I don't think of Citizen of the Galaxy as a juvenile. This is a very adult ending.


Yup the picture of big business is more like Pinero's opposition in Lifeline from Mr. Heinlein's unabashedly progressive days and the women are not subject to the typical Heinlein woman knock. I don't know that any YA reader was impressed by the Margaret Mead knock off but maybe.
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
Clark: The other way around. When I discovered Margaret Mead long after I'd already read CoG a million times, I recognised that she was just like Margaret the frakki.
John Adams
22. JohnArkansawyer
Matt Doyle @ 14: You're right. Better to have Leda kidnapped and cloned, and have the clone betray Thorby. By the time Leda escapes and gets word to him, he's already committed to a suicide mission, and she picks up where he left off with X Corps.
Michael Dolbear
23. miketor
2. Jo replying to CMPalmer: The thing I like about that is not only did Heinlein predict the cell phone, but a few pages later he predicted teenage kids packing it in their luggage so their moms couldn't get hold of them ==

Whether the wireless phone described in Space Cadet - copyright (1949) - was a cellphone depends whether you today are speaking British or American, ie to a Brit it's a mobile phone and a cellphone means the use of a particular technology which was patented in 1979.

In fact RAH was describing a pocket version of the vehicle installed mobile phones that AT&T had working in St Louis (and later other cities) from 1946.

I did a longer version of this post last week but the inclusion of references got it flagged as Spam.

Mike D

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