BOOK REVIEW: “The Past Through Tomorrow, Volume 1” by Robert Heinlein (1967, 1977)

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I’ve been on kind of a Heinlein kick lately.

Once upon a time, Robert Heinlein was my hero. I cut my eye teeth on his “Future History” series, which had a huge, huge, huge influence on me as an adolescent, I read his novels, I read his screeds, he was pretty much the epitome of what I wanted to be when I was an arrogant, know-it-all, condescending jerk of a kid: an arrogant, know-it-all adult.

His “Future History,” for those not in the know, is a series of interrelated short stories and novellas and the occasional honest-to-gosh novel that all take place in the same fictional timeline, starting in the mid-1950s and culminating around the 43rd century (Though to be fair it kind of went off the rails after the 36th century). Most of this was compiled in a book called “The Past Through Tomorrow” in 1967 (The same year I, myself, was compiled), and as it happens, said omnibus was actually my first introduction to the guy. Perhaps because it was first, perhaps because it was grandest in scope, the Future History has always been the thing that appealed to me most about ol ‘Bob, and even when I got furious at his later stuff (Easy to do, and entirely justified) and swore him off completely, I still maintained a fondness for “The Past Through Tomorrow.” That said: a few years after my first wave of Heinleinophilia, I discovered Niven, who’s “Known Space” is - let’s just be honest here - much better. Then I discovered Varley “Eight Worlds,“ which is pretty freakin’ schway, but which you absolutely positively shouldn’t read if you’re a Christian. Then I started writing my own stuff. Bottom line: As much as I venerated “The Past Through Tomorrow,” I really haven’t re-read it in its entirety in 25 years or more, and I probably haven’t revisited it at all in more than 20. As with most fond childhood memories, I had some trepidation about seeing how it held up. I mean, this wasn’t like “Man From Atlantis,” you know? This actually meant something to me once upon a time.

PLAY BY PLAY

“Life Line” (1939) - Heinlein’s first ever story, and first ever sale: A short, very well written tale of a man who discovers a way to predict the exact moment a person will die.

“The Roads Must Roll” (1940) - In the future, cars are outmoded, and people travel around on conveyor belts large enough to have buildings on them. It’s not as stupid as it sounds. Or possibly it is as stupid as it sounds, but Bob manages to make it seem otherwise. Anyway: Good story about an attempted worker’s revolution, albeit a bit overlong and with pacing issues.

“Blowups Happen” (1940, revised 1946) - All of America’s nuclear power comes from “The Big Bomb,” a huge reactor in the southwest desert. The story mostly concerns the stresses the job places on the crew, who know if they screw up half the continent will die. It becomes increasingly apparent that the reactor *will* go blooey eventually, it’s just a matter of time, so the rest of the story is a race against time to find a way to move the whole thing off into space. Pretty bland, overlong, and utterly uncoupling.

“The Man Who Sold The Moon” (1949) - Concerns the first expedition to the moon - around 1978 - as set up by wheeler/dealer DD Harriman. It’s not so much about the trip itself as it is about the moving and shaking and wheeling and dealing he does to get it off the ground. Way too long, with far too little payoff. Worst of all: it’s simply not very interesting nor imaginative.

“Delilah And The Space Rigger” (1949) - The first space station is under construction, and the crew is all men. A woman comes up. Hilarity ensues. Actually, this is the first really solid story in the collection, the pacing is great, it’s funny, and it does a kind of jujitsu thing in the end where it turns its own obvious sexism against itself to make a point.

“Space Jockey” (1947) - An astronaut pilot attempts to rescue a space liner full of passengers from certain death while dealing with marital problems.

“Requiem” (1940) - The return and subsequent exit of DD Harriman. Very maudlin, but at the same time it’s the first of his stories to make any kind of emotional impact.

“The Long Watch” (1949) - A military coup attempts to take over the world, but one man - a nuclear weapons officer - places himself in harms way to keep that from happening. Suffers from a somewhat offstage ending, but it’s a good solid story, if perhaps a little gung-ho by modern standards.

“Gentlemen, Be Seated” (1948) - A short adventure/comedy about three guys trapped in a caved in tunnel on the moon, with the air leaking out. The title gives away the punch line, but it’s still a fun little romp anyway.

“The Black Pits of Luna” (1948) - While visiting the moon with his family, a young Boy Scout’s kid brother gets lost on the surface, and he has to use all of his wits to find the kid before he dies. Nice postwar “Boys adventure tale” stuff.

“It’s Great To Be Back!” (1947) - a married couple who’ve been working on the moon for several years are overjoyed when they finally get the opportunity to return to earth, only to find they’ve glamorized some things in their memories while they were gone.

OBSERVATIONS

A couple weeks back I read and reviewed “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” Which I really didn’t like at all. Loved it as a teen, couldn’t stand it now. The writing was stiff, didactic, preachy, and lacked characterization, the story didn’t flow very well, there was a lot of creepy group sex stuff, it just didn’t work for me anymore. Coming off of that, and plowing directly into “The Past Through Tomorrow,” I really, honestly was anticipating the worst. Yeah, “Lifeline” is a pretty good story, but it’s also by definition a fluke. How many authors sell their first thing? And win a contest in the doing? His subsequent stories - “The Roads Must Roll,” “Blowups Happen,” and “The Man Who Sold The Moon,” are all way too long, flaccidly told, and sort of randomly plotted. “Roads” is the best of these, mostly in that involves some action, albeit rather perfunctorily described. The other two are uniformly terrible and boring. In the case of “Moon,” we can add ‘irritation’ to the mix. The entire story rises and falls based on the likeability of the protagonist, and while we’re obviously *intended* to like DD Harriman, he is more or less instantly a pain in the neck. He’s a wheeler-dealer type, like something out of a Horatio Alger story on speed, always looking for an angle, always on the make. We know what he wants, and we watch him go after it for nearly 100 pages, but we never really know who he is, or why. It’s the weakest story in the collection. “Blowups Happen” is merely boring, but “Moon” kept daring me to just skip ahead.

The bottom line being that I had little faith in Heinlein holding my interest at age 44 in the same way he did at 15.

Then, suddenly, he kind of found himself: “Delilah and the Space Rigger” is a great, tight, fun, funny little story with a crunchy moral point. “Space Jockey” is an adventure that never quite gets adventurous enough for its own good, but the man’s own continually changing moods about his marriage totally sell it. “Requiem” revisits Harriman, and we learn more about him in 17 pages than we did in the entire “Moon” novella. “The Long Watch” is a good “One man saves the world” story, even though it really doesn’t fit the continuity of Future History (For that matter, “Lifeline” really doesn’t fit, either, but that’s a discussion for another day). The final three stories in the collection are all very good.

Basically, at some point after 1941, Heinlein learned the difference between simply saying stuff and telling stories. His earlier stuff - with exceptions - is pretty weak, but as he progresses his talent improves quite a bit, and its’ sort of fun to watch once you realize it’s happening. Of course “The Man Who Sold The Moon” is an obvious reversal, but I’m willing to cut some slack and simply say he was better at short fiction than longer form stuff. He learned scope. His stories stopped being about revolutions and power plants, and became about people, more or less. His short stories don’t exactly sing and dance, but they’re waaaaaaaaaaay the heck better than stuff Asimov and Clarke and DeCamp were cranking out in this period. All four of these authors tend towards an engineering viewpoint, and they tend to view people and societies as just more machines to be screwed with, but Heinlein could actually write. Eventually. For a while.

If we compare Heinlein to other SF authors of the time, he’s pretty great. If we compare him to other authors, period, he’s got some obvious drawbacks. Firstly, Characterization is pretty weak. He’s a Mary Jane writer, all of his characters are either him, or straw men who oppose him, or just nitwits there to set up complications. He’s got a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude which is problematic if you’re trying to make people think rather than telling them what to think. Some of his outlooks are woefully provincial. He’s got a weird obsession with dudes wearing leotards. His longer fiction just doesn’t work. But in the shorter stories, there’s an energy and enthusiasm that is really hard to dislike.

We get some weird views on marriage. Five of the stories feature marriages, and four of these take a pretty negative view of the wives. The final one - “It’s Great To Be Back!” - takes a more positive view, but even so the wife is kind of a jerk. Kids are, by and large, pains in the neck in the stories, and frequently dangerous ones as well, excepting in “The Black Pits of Luna,” which is told from the point of view of a kid, and is one of the best stories in the bunch. Heinlein never had - nor apparently wanted - kids, and he was repeatedly divorced - he was on wives three and four during the time most of these stories were written - so probably we’re seeing some aspects of his personal life in there. It comes across a bit misogynistic. He, himself, wasn’t misogynistic, but it comes across that way on the page.

One thing that rather bugged me is that there’s a sense of the story moving forward, then artificially moving backwards in order to serve some narrative need. For instance, in “Let There Be Light” (Which is another long, early, weak novella mercifully excluded from this anthology) we’re told that solar panels will destroy a monopoly on power and make life a utopia. In “The Roads Must Roll,” we’re told that the “Road Cities” (Largely solar powered) are the best way to live. In “Blowups Happen,” we’re told that Solar Power isn’t enough, and we need Nuclear Power. That story ends with the creation of a space station to provide power for the entire country, without which the country can’t function. In “The Man who Sold the Moon,” the space station and the power plant are gone, and the country’s doing just fine, thank you very much. Oh, yes, and “Road Cities” are on the way out for no adequately explained reason.

Why does he do this? Well, basically because he tended to end stories in such a way as to assume a golden future was on the horizon. Alas, ’Golden Futures’ make some stories too interesting, so he feels the need to dial it back. Eventually he realized this, and stopped including ‘happily ever after’ endings. This, too, is a ‘scope’ thing, as I mentioned above. Thus, in addition to the fundamental problems I’ve already mentioned in his early long stories, there’s an annoying stop/start/stop/start feeling to ‘em.

There’s some continuity problems as well. As said, “The Long Watch” really doesn’t belong in this book. “Lifeline” only barely does (Because of one line of dialog in Volume 2 of this collection, a retcon if ever there was one.) Some major things are introduced in a big way, then abandoned. For instance, “Blowups” features a LOT of yammering about something called “The Calculus of Statements” which is like a mathematical language for saying exactly what you mean in conversation. This is presented as the biggest thing since the discovery of the mouth, but it’s completely absent in subsequent stories.

So: bottom line: I had misgivings, the book takes the devil’s own time to get going, and there’s some sub-standard material in the first half, but the second half of the book is everything I remembered and liked.

And yet…and yet…and yet…there’s something I find ever so slightly offputting about it. I can’t put my finger on it, just some element of didactic ‘only I am right, everyone else is an idiot’ stuff. I can’t *point* to an example and say ‘there it is’, but it’s in the candor, it’s woven into the fiber, it’s locked in the very air the stories breathe. I think perhaps it was this very arrogance that appealed to me as a kid, to be honest, though now, being a bit older and wiser (I’m older than Bob was when he wrote most of these stories), I just find that kind of tedious.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

I think so. There’s a lot of duty/honor stuff in there, though the ‘country’ aspects are curiously missing. Heinlein was still in his screaming liberal phase when he wrote much of this book (He ran for office in California as a communist in the 30s), but none of that really comes across in these stories.

WARNING: WARNING: WARNING: WARNING: WARNING: WARNING: WARNING: WARNING:

Much as I like this book - well, the second half, anyway - I have to caution about it being a kind of a Heinleinian “Gateway Drug.” After this, you’ll move on to his 1950s novels, and from that you’ll move on to his 1960s novels, which are increasingly sordid and preachy. Then come his 70s/80s novels which are, without reservation, horrible and obsessed with incest (He’s in favor of it) and other kinds of deviance. The man was an angry, anti-Christian swinger, and an increasingly creepy one as he got older.

Tread carefully.

COMING UP:

I’d like to review “The Past Through Tomorrow, Volume II” but it appears to be out of print, and I’m having trouble finding a copy.

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