Incredibly readable: Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer

The Door Into Summer is one of the most readable books in the world. Whatever that elusive “I Want To Read It” thing is, this book oozes it. Is it because Dan, the first-person engineer narrator, keeps up such a cheery rattle it just carries you along? Is it because the future is such a sunny one, though wrong in every detail? Is it the joy of watching Heinlein’s worldbuilding and neat time travel dovetailing? I think it’s the combination of all of these things and the sheer force of storytelling. Heinlein’s prose isn’t beautiful like Le Guin’s, but it’s always crisp and descriptive and somehow confidential. He draws you inside the world—it’s as if he lifts a corner and invites you and you’re thrilled to slip through.

The Door Into Summer is short, but it isn’t a juvenile; it was written for the adult market and has an adult protagonist, and that makes it unusual. When Heinlein was at his peak, he mostly wrote short stories for adults and novels for kids. There’s only really this, and Double Star (which gets my vote for his best novel) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, before you get to his late period novels. This was written in 1957 and it’s set in 1970 and 2000. You’ll notice that those dates when it’s set were in the future when the book was written and they’re in the past now. 1970 was in the past even when I first read the book in 1978. As predictions go, I’d say this scores a straight zero. None of the things predicted happened, with two exceptions—LA getting rid of smog, and the word “kink” developing a dirty meaning. The failed predictions show up more than usual because it’s such a near future, and Earth, and because our narrator, Daniel Boone Davis, is an engineer and a designer of robots. There’s a lot of talk about robot design and it’s all charmingly wrong. But what the book is about is time travel, with neat paradox resolution. It also features a creepy love story that didn’t seem so creepy to me when I was a teenager.

But none of this matters, none of this is why you want to read this book if you haven’t or read it again if you have—you want to read it because it’s got a wonderful voice and because reading it is an immensely satisfying experience. It starts like this:

One winter shortly before the Six Weeks War, my tomcat, Petronius the Arbiter, and I lived in an old farmhouse in Connecticut. I doubt if it is there any longer, as it was near the edge of the blast area of the Manhattan near-miss, and those old frame buildings burn like tissue paper. Even if it is still standing it wouldn’t be a desirable rental because of the fall-out, but we liked it then, Pete and I. The lack of plumbing made the rent low and what had been the dining-room had a good north light for my drafting board. The drawback was that the place had eleven doors to the outside.

If that doesn’t make you want want to read the next paragraph, go and find something else to read.

From here on, the general assumption you’ve read the book or don’t mind mild spoilers, but I’ll try to avoid the kind of spoilers that make things less fun.

Dan’s thirty years old in 1970, and he’s a robot designer who has been swindled out of control of his robot-designing company by his ex-best friend and his ex-fiancee, so he goes on a bender and decides to take the “long sleep”, When the Sleeper Wakes kind of hibernation for thirty years, taking his cat with him. (Dan has read that book, and not just when the insurance companies started giving out free copies.) Then he sobers up and decides it’s running away and he won’t do it, only to be forced into it by the same evil ex-fiancee. When he wakes in 2000 he’s indigent—the insurance company went bust—but gets by and learns to like the place. Then he discovers there is time travel, and goes back to 1970 to sort out the unfinished business he had there, rescue his cat and then head back to the future.

This is a future that never happened. It’s also very cheerful, despite the limited nuclear war sometime in the sixties which the US won. But it’s not the future Heinlein usually wrote about—it isn’t the future of the juveniles with colonized planets and a dystopic Earth, nor the Howard Families future with overcrowding and longevity, nor is it in the Past Through Tomorrow “Future History”. There’s mention of shuttles to the moon, but this book isn’t gung ho space colonies, this is Earth, and an Earth, and a US, doing very well for itself. Progress is real. Things are getting better. And the robots Dan invents are household robots aimed at making daily life better. I do think this is appealing, and I do think it’s more unusual in 2010 than it was in 1957. This is a very bouncy future.

But we have had that time now, and it does get everything wrong. There wasn’t any Six Week War and limited nuclear exchange. Denver never became capital of the U.S. And on the smaller things—this is Dan, back in 1970 complaining about the things he’s got used to in 2000 that haven’t been invented yet:

I wish that those precious esthetes who sneer at progress and prattle about the superior virtues of the past could have been with me—dishes that let food get chilled, shirts that had to be laundered, bathroom mirrors that steamed up when you needed them, runny noses, dirt underfoot and dirt in your lungs.

Yes, well, 2010 and where’s my… but they are still going to the public library to look things up on paper and using typewriters and cloth diapers. Cloth diapers put on a baby by a robot worked by vaccuum tubes and transistors is an image that sums up the kind of ways SF gets things wrong even better than a flying car.

The robots are precisely and specifically wrong. All the things Heinlein assumes will be easy turn out to be almost impossible, and all the things he thinks will be impossible turn out to be easy. Computer memory— not a problem. Robots that could wash dishes or change a baby? Oh dear. We sort of have robots that wash dishes—what else are dishwashers?—but they’re not doing it standing over the sink, and putting the dishes away in the cupboard is impossible. The drafting robot would have been lovely in 1957, now I can’t help thinking that I have better drafting programs included for free in my operating system just in case I happen to need one. There’s enough detail about Dan designing robots and seeing things where a robot would help to be notably and charmingly wrong. Transistors! Tubes! Heinlein sometimes managed to handwave computers in a way that let you fill in your concept (Citizen of the Galaxy) but there’s just way too much detail here. You can roll your eyes at it, but it doesn’t stop the story working. It makes it almost like steampunk, yay clunky 1950s robots. (And it isn’t totally wrong. The original Hired Girl is basically a Roomba.) Anyway, wouldn’t it be nice to have the family robot that does all the household cleaning and stuff and costs the same as a car?

Far more of an obstacle to enjoying the book is the creepy romance. When I was a teenager I entirely missed the fact that it was creepy. Dan’s ex-best friend Miles has a stepdaughter called Ricky, who is eleven in 1970. Dan’s been her pseudo-uncle for years, since she was a small child. While back in 1970, Dan at thirty-one, so he’s twenty years older than she is, visits her at camp. He has privileged information, some of which he hasn’t shared with the reader. He tells this eleven year old girl that when she’s twenty-one she should put herself into cold sleep until 2000, whereupon he will only be ten years older than her (having cold slept again himself) and he’ll marry her. When I was fourteen I was fine with this, and it took me a long time to actually think about it. Imagine an eleven year old girl and a thirty year old uncle she has a crush on. Now imagine living through the next ten years as that girl growing up, never seeing him, knowing he’s waiting for you to be twenty-one, knowing you’re then going to marry him after a twenty year sleep. Imagine being twenty-one and lying down to cold sleep and giving them the instruction only to wake you if he shows up. It’s not beyond what people do, but it’s creepy and twisted and I can’t believe I ever thought it was sort of romantic or that Heinlein in 1957 bought into this “made for each other” stuff so much as to be comfortable with writing this. It was a different world. And it’s a very small part of a fast-moving book. And we see it from Dan’s self-centred point of view, so imagining how Tiptree might have written Ricky growing up is always an option. But it’s still sick.

This is a short fast and deeply enjoyable read. If I read it for the first time now, I think I’d still get caught up in the readability. I might have been more squicked by the romance if I didn’t already know it was coming. It’s hard to detach nostalgia for previous reads from present enjoyment, but I really didn’t want to put it down.

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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