The Menace from Earth – 3/5 Stars –
Like a lot of science fiction writers, Robert Heinlein just wrote and published tons of stories. Some of them are good and some of them are not, and a lot of them were published with pseudonyms. This collection was edited and revised and republished in the 1990s in order to keep those Heinlein monies going. The collection is a mixed bag, and generally have the the opposite problem of the novels. The novels are often way weirder than a logline of them suggest, and sometimes this is great and sometimes not. These stories generally are just a conceit briefly explored and sometimes are a little better than that.
“The Year of the Jackpot” (1952) — A character using actuarial tables compiled from his job as a risk successor has determined that a given year would be the year in which several terrible tragedies/atrocities would occur based on a sense of things being “due”. He’s right of course and this story explores just how right and how terrible the fallout (pun) is.
“By His Bootstraps” (1941) – A very short short story about a graduate student completing his thesis in a theoretical scientific field.
“Columbus Was a Dope” (1947) – A short story like a lot of sci fi short stories where in lieu of exploring a topic via the narrative a concept is discussed by characters, usually with a twist. In this case, two guys at a bar are discussing the social or moral value of space travel ala an analogy to Columbus.
“The Menace from Earth” (1957) – An ironically named story about a woman going on a trip to a far flung destination, but as a tourist and doing touristy stuff.
“Sky Lift” (1953) – This is probably the best story story in the mix, wherein a space captain is conscripted to take a shipment of donated blood to Pluto’s colony on a rush job because of a horrible pandemic potentially killing off 300 colonists. The danger comes in the form of the timetable for the spread of the disease. If they arrive in 9 days everyone could survive, but the deathtoll goes up in factors from there. The pilots must fly at multiple Gs for several days and this has not been tested on humans.
“Goldfish Bowl” (1942) – Two scientist find water “columns” in the ocean, and slowly understand they are the architecture of a different form of life that they cannot conceive. The resulting conversation makes analogies to fish in a fishbowl only getting the barest glimpses of humanity.
“Project Nightmare” (1953) – A Cold War story about the use of telekinetic powers.
“Water Is for Washing” (1947) – A what-if story about a giant earthquake hitting California. It’s interesting mostly because this story is 75 years old, but it’s a perennial topic.
Assignment in Eternity – 3/5 Stars
This is a collection of novellas, so unlike the short story collections each feels a little more rounded and full. Much closer to his novels than the other collections.
“Gulf” (written and published in 1949 in Astounding Science Fiction, October–November 1949). — The gulf in the title of this story refers to the gulf between humans and a race of super humans that emerge when our protagonist begins to get recruited by a shadowy organization that reveals itself as a group of super humans. Lest you come away with the notion that these are super heroes, this gets dispelled by the fact that while they are very different and enhanced from regular humans, they’re not exactly superman or anything like that. What do they do with their powers? Kill bad people of course.
“Elsewhen”, (written in 1939 and first published in 1941 in Astounding Science Fiction of September 1941 as – “Elsewhere” by Caleb Saunders)
The second novella here involves a research psychologist and a group of grad students stumbling upon being able to access alternate dimensions of their lives. The researcher offers the students a chance to go to these other realities and “fix” mistakes they’ve made before and see what happens. When the students start to return, while only two hours have passed in objective time, their subjective times have varied wildly, leading to a number of different experiences.
“Lost Legacy” (written in 1939 but first published in 1941 in Super Science Stories, November 1941 as “Lost Legion” by Lyle Monroe)
This third novella deals with a grad student in science, a surgeon, and an undergrad who discover that humans might have hidden mental depths that could allow for various telekinetic and telepathic (and heck, maybe flying) abilities if unlocked. And of course they unlock. They also realize that is not a progressive but actually kind of atavistic move as previous groups and individuals had unlocked it and tried to tell others. This means that somewhere out there there might be others like them.
“Jerry Was a Man” (written in 1946 and published in 1947 in Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1947 as “Jerry Is a Man”)
A classic trope in classic Heinlein fashion. An intelligent ape begins to question its own existence and goes to trial to argue for its right to sovereignty. The shifts for Heinlein involve how we get the ape — intergalactic genetic engineering — and how it gets argued, through human emotion.
For Us, the Living – 3/5 Stars
Another early Heinlein novel, this involving a man from our century being sent forward in time to 2086 and discovering a very different United States he’s coming to. Some of the big differences in the new United States is a universal basic income, not called this of course, and given Heinlein’s conservative/libertarian bent it actually works fairly well here. It means that people who want beyond the UBI work toward it, that agriculture and population are more in balance, that technology has grown precipitously etc. The biggest change, and this is where the rub is for Heinlein’s fellow is that male-female relations are dramatically more casual. It’s funny of course because it’s basically how things are now, but without the strict underlying architecture of heteronormativity. To Heinlein’s credit, this doesn’t become some horrible dystopia, he’s a hack in a way, but not that way, but that it doesn’t work of course for his guy. It’s kind in this way a more lighthearted take on Brave New World.
Between Planets – 4/5 Stars
One funny thing about older books, but especially American science fiction books is when the character names are so straight-laced American, but also when they accidentally use a name that became famous or mildly famous later on. So our main character here is Don Harvey, the same name as a not super famous character actor.
Like other of Heinlein’s space cadet books, this book involves a young man caught in an extraordinary situation. His mom is from Venus and his dad is from Earth, and it just so happens that Earth is about to invade Venus and they’ll all be caught between. Luckily for Don, Mars is neutral territory and so he’s mean to go to Mars to wait out the war. Unluckily for Don, he’s kept off that ship and becomes a kind of displaced person, a term we don’t really us much any more, but we see happening in the current news this March of 2022. Now stuck on Venus with no clear political identity Don looks for allies and looks out for enemies. He also realizes that even though he didn’t want to, he’s going to have to take a side soon.
This book has a very solid premise and pretty good follow-through on the story. Among the Heinlein juvenile books, it’s one of the more effective ones because he mostly keeps his ridiculous behaviors in check on this one. This would also make a pretty good series, with updated writing, for tv I think.
Farmer in the Sky – 4/5 Stars
Unfortunately for me, about halfway through this novel I began singing the title to the Steven Sondheim song “Giants in the Sky” and I was stuck doing that for the rest. The novel is a type for Heinlein–take an idea from American history and see what happens when you put it in space. Here, we have homesteaders shipping off to Ganymede, only to find that when they land, the promised open landscapes, the abundant space and resources, and the promise of a new life are much more limited and locked than suggested. This presents an issue for the new colonists to be sure, but it’s also not the fault of the long-timers on Ganymede who can only work with what they have. So our protagonist, a teenage boy who has recently travelled with his father and step mom and step sister, has to decide what he’s going to make of this new land. Will he ship back to Earth and maybe pick up the life he’d become accustomed to in space aboard the ship? Will he stay and make a go at it? One thing’s for certain, he’s going to keep being a boy scout. Yeah, for some reason, he recreates his boy scout troop in space and this presents a waiting conflict on Ganymede since they already got a boy scout troop.
One thing that still cracks me up about Heinlein’s books is how much he still thinks people will be smoking when they get to the future.
Red Planet – 2/5 Stars
This novel begins pretty slowly compared to some other Heinlein books I’ve read recently. We meet our protagonist a teen boy on Mars and his companion, a Martian creature, whose intelligence becomes a running question for most of the book. The creature is not the main species of Mars, who are giants that move and talk much slower than humans, but have a kind of spiritual depth to them.
He gets shipped off to a boarding school where the new commandant quickly takes a disliking to him. So while this is a space world book, it’s also a boarding school book.