The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack

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Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein

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Methuselah’s Children by Robert A. Heinlein

This is the book that introduces one of Heinlein’s most famous characters, immortal Lazarus Long. It opens up with a plot that has the classic Heinlein feel. The existence of tens of thousands of members of the extremely long-lived “Howard Family” has become public knowledge and their extremely tolerant society has decided to throw out their constitution, capture, torture, and study these people out of the belief that they must have a secret to their longevity other than good genes. (The truth is that they have been marrying for longevity for centuries, but no one wants to believe that.) So roughly the first half of the novel is devoted to how the family can survive this sudden persecution.


The second half of the novel was not quite as interesting and fast moving. Having escaped into space, Heinlein uses the opportunity to explore two opposite lifestyles—one of total conformity and the other composed of lotus eaters. Unsurprisingly, Heinlein’s heroes don’t like either choice, but it’s always fun to watch Heinlein bring us to that conclusion.


I don’t think this is one of Heinlein’s great novels like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, or Stranger in a Strange Land, or even my personal favorite, Double Star, but it’s a good example of classic Heinlein.

Alpha Order

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

I first read this Heinlein novel in the ninth grade and it remains my absolute favorite of his many books. It’s the story of a down on his luck actor who gets roped into impersonating John Joseph Bonforte, the best known politician in the solar system. Bonforte has been kidnapped and as a result is about to miss his adoption into a Martian nest (the first human to be so honored). This would be considered a great impropriety by the Martians and at the very least would drastically set back human-Martian relations.


The problem? Lorenzo hates Martians and just about everything that Bonforte and his Expansionist Party stands for. But he sticks to the job because he’s a professional with an exceedingly high opinion of himself, and because as the story continues, he grows to despise the dirty tactics of the men working to destroy Bonforte.


Heinlein builds tension not only through the impersonations, but through the behind the scenes personality clashes among Bonforte’s staff. What makes this novel amazing is how Heinlein uses Lorenzo’s basic ignorance in regard to politics and his instinctive prejudice against the non-human races to let him gradually impart his own feelings on the importance of universal civil rights. As Lorenzo learns more and more about Bonforte in order to perform what is always supposed to be just one more impersonation, he grows, becoming far less self-centered and truly respectful of the man he’s had to become.


The ending scenes of this novel are extraordinary as Heinlein brings our hero to the most important decision of his life—one we can sympathize with and pray we’d have the strength to do as Lorenzo did. It’s no wonder that this book won the Hugo.


To a modern audience, this book feels somewhat dated—not just in Heinlein’s imagining of the technology of the future, but in his understanding of the role women could play in his future world. I’m sure that when Heinlein made Bonforte’s female secretary a member of the Grand Assembly he thought that he was demonstrating the capabilities of women, but by modern standards his effort falls flat. Judged by his time, however, it is another example of his remarkable vision. In the end this book stands or falls on his development of the character of Lorenzo, and in my opinion, it not only stands, it jumps towards the heavens.


Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

An early version of this novel was originally serialized in Boy’s Life magazine which required Heinlein to bring the Boy Scouts into each chapter of the book. (Boy’s Life is a magazine for Boy Scouts.) That requirement explains the somewhat torturous efforts Heinlein went to in order to make Boy Scout troops, uniforms and merit badges an important part of the story. (Nothing against the Boy Scouts, but Heinlein’s efforts often felt contrived.) If you remove that enduring subplot, this is a pretty good Heinlein juvenile novel about a young man homesteading on Ganymede. One of the scenes—when the power goes out and all the colonists are in danger of freezing to death—has stuck with me for years. Strangely, I had totally forgotten the big surprise at the end that brings the novel to its exciting conclusion. I guess I think that a potential humanitarian disaster was far more interesting than a treasure trove of alien technology. If you like Heinlein’s juveniles, there’s a lot to enjoy here, although you have to put up with a voluminous but weak subplot to finish it.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

This is one of Heinlein’s all-time best novels and perhaps his most detailed exploration of his libertarian ideals. The moon is being used as a prison colony for mostly political prisoners from Earth. It’s a one-way sentence because after six months or so on the moon’s surface, physical changes to a human’s body chemistry make it impossible for people to return to earth and live a full and active life. However, three generations later, 90% of the people on the moon are the descendants of deportees—not actual prisoners even though the Lunar Authority continues to treat them that way.


The moon holds an important position in the Earth’s economy providing food for the mother planet’s 11 billion people. The market for lunar grain is completely controlled by the Lunar Authority which sets the price it will pay for grain and the lunar ice which provides the water to nurture the plants. In three generations it has never raised those rates even while the cost of production rises rapidly and the prices it charges individual Lunies for power, water, air, food, etc. continues to rise. It provides no genuine services (such as police protection or education) but exerts iron control over the lives of the people of Luna.


The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a tale of reluctant rebellion forced upon the inhabitants of the moon when they discover that the growing demands of the earth and the Lunar Authority for grain, coupled with the decreasing availability of the resources required to produce that food, have put the colonies into a downward cycle toward food riots and cannibalism. This discovery is made through the calculations of the most interesting character in the novel—Mike, the first (and only) self-aware computer in existence. Mike is the computer of the Lunar Authority, but he has hidden his “awakening” from the Authority because he finds their programmers “stupid”. They are not interested in conversations, but in programming him for routine tasks. The narrator of the story is a computer technician who is a third generation Lunie who has the advantage of being “not stupid”. He likes, Mike. Quickly understands what Mike is and accepts him as a friend, not trying to use him or to “fix” him. When Mike comes to understand the threat the Lunar Authority represents to Mannie (and two other friends) he joins (and in fact leads) the revolution to free Luna.


The novel is told from the perspective of Mannie many years after the successful revolution. Mannie was non-political at the start of the book. He has a steep learning curve if he is to save his family and friends so there is a lot of political philosophy in this book as Mannie comes to understand what a revolution requires and what dangers governments represent to the freedom of individuals. There is also a lot of exploration of alternate ways of structuring society (for example, family units) which helps to make the lunar society more vivid. These people may be transplanted earth men and women, but they have become something remarkably distinct from their terrestrial counterparts.


The novel is wonderful on multiple levels and well worth reading, but its ending is not truly a happy one.

Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

This may be the worst Heinlein novel I have ever read. I genuinely enjoy Heinlein, but this one just misses the mark. The idea isn’t bad. A generational starship traveling between earth and a far star suffered a mutiny and lost the know how to run the ship and restart its engines. As the know how is lost, “science” turns into a religion that is humorously maintained by “scientists” who think they are rational but have turned things like the law of gravitation into allegory. They no longer believe that the “ship” is something that actually moves between planets, they believe it is the world—and the world is split between humans in the central decks and the mutants in the outer decks. This is a great setting and the quest by one young man to convince people of the forgotten truth should have made for a great book, but sadly it just didn’t work. None of the writing lives up to Heinlein’s standards. The characters are mostly poorly drawn and the dialogue is weak. The ending while predictable also falls short.

Podkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein

One of the interesting things about reading classic science fiction is to see how accurately the author envisioned the future. Podkayne of Mars was first published serially in 1962 and it focuses on a young woman born and raised on Mars. Heinlein wrote many empowered women characters over his career and his heroine, Podkayne, is fairly typical of them. She is very intelligent, courageous, and dreams of a career in what is still considered a “man’s field” in Heinlein’s future. This is a vision of the future of women that made a lot of sense in 1962, but falls short of what women have achieved in the twenty-first century. So it’s very interesting but doesn’t quite feel right.


The plot is classic Heinlein and would have fit well with any of his young adult novels. Podkayne is intelligent and sure of herself, but slowly comes to understand that she still has a lot to learn. When politics, of which she is quite innocent, intervenes she finds herself a pawn in an effort to change the future of the solar system. But Heinlein’s heroes don’t remain pawns for long and Podkayne is no exception. Taking the future into her own hands, she acts. It’s an entertaining look at the future from six decades ago, but the saddest ending I can remember in a Heinlein novel.


The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein

When I was in the ninth grade I joined the Science Fiction Book Club and got my first five books for a dollar. One of those books was called A Heinlein Trio and the first of the stories was The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein. It was the second Heinlein book I read (the first was Between Planets which was serialized as a comic book in Boy’s Life magazine) and it’s a great example of Heinlein writing exciting stories built on themes he cared strongly about—the importance of the individual and the dangers of a society in which all members are expected to tow the same political and ideological line regardless of their self-interests and personal philosophies.


Heinlein published The Puppet Masters in 1951 after a rash of UFO sightings in the 1940s. Heinlein used the sightings as a springboard for an imaginative and disturbing tale of slug-like creatures capable of taking over the minds of any human (and many other creatures) that they touch. The enslaved human knows what it is doing, but lacks even the desire (much less the ability) to fight against the alien puppeteer. Heinlein’s novel takes the struggle against the alien invaders from first contact, to insidious infiltration, to widespread invasion and finally to the epic struggle to free our planet in an exciting adventure story. Yet, as important and entertaining as these events are, they are not what makes the novel great. Instead it is the exploration—never preachy—into why freedom of conscious is important as well as the fundamental relationships which make human life worth living that give this book its power.


As you would expect of a book written in the fifties, there is a dated feel to some elements of the book. For example, while Mary, Heinlein’s heroine, is definitely an empowered and capable woman, many of her reactions and the condescending way in which she is often treated, will grate irritatingly on the modern reader. Similarly, Heinlein’s vision of the late twenty-first century quite understandably fails to foretell many things we take for granted in modern life even while he foresees the growing importance of industries such as telecommunications. These faults don’t harm the story if you keep in mind when the tale was written.

Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

This is another of Heinlein’s young adult novels and far from his best. It is vaguely reminiscent of Starship Troopers in that our hero, Matt, is in military training—in this case in the Patrol. The Patrol has maintained the peace in the solar system for a hundred years by threatening to nuke the cities of nations who break the peace. This is classic Heinlein who was clearly a strong believer in the threat of punishment (and actual physical punishment) as a way of teaching proper behavior. The novel is about educating young men to take on honorable work to maintain the peace. I didn’t feel it was nearly as effective as others of his young adult books. The storyline was only modestly engaging and while most of his novels are extremely re-readable, I can’t see myself reading this one again.

Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson

I’ve read just about all of Robert A. Heinlein’s novels starting with The Puppet Masters, Double Star (probably my favorite) and A Door into Summer, which I discovered thanks to the Science Fiction Book Club in the ninth grade. He’s the sort of author you find yourself reading again and again. The books just don’t seem to get old.


So when I learned recently that a book Heinlein had outlined but not written in the 1950s had been completed by Spider Robinson I approached it with both excitement and trepidation. Turns out I had no need to fear. This was classic Heinlein through and through and Spider Robinson has done a tremendous service to science fiction fans everywhere.


Joel Johnston is a typical Heinlein hero from the young adult period. He’s brilliant, thinks he knows everything, but isn’t too proud to grow and adapt when he learns he’s wrong. The plot revolves around Joel’s attempt to preserve his independence when he discovers his fiancé has hidden from him the fact that she is actually the scion of the richest and most powerful family in the solar system. This family is wonderfully and believably depicted as they seek to force Joel to discard his “childish” dreams of being a composer and musician and become an executive in their company. When they arrange for him not to earn a scholarship he was counting on as a means of putting pressure on him to do as they want, Joel joins a colony ship heading out to the stars to preserve his independence and personal sense of dignity. Then things get really interesting.


I don’t want to give a blow by blow of the rest of the novel, but Heinlein/Robinson present Joel with believable problems of both the personal-growth-type and the space-adventure-type. They also build on one of the better love stories in Heinlein’s works subtly weaving it into the whole book. It’s chock full of powerful and touching moments. I’m very glad to have read it.