Heinlein’s Children

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The following op-ed piece, written by Loyd Case, appeared on ExtremeTech this morning. For all you Heinlein fans out there, this is a must read!


Heinlein’s Children


Isaac Asimov reportedly once said, “Everyone has a golden age, and that age is 12.”

But this isn’t about Asimov.

When I was twelve, I lived on an army base in Bamberg, (then West) Germany. My dad was a motor pool sergeant back then, tending to the health of the self-propelled artillery of the 1st. Bn., 75th artillery. Being the sort of dreamy, nerdy kid I was, I spent most of my time either at the post movie theater or the library. I still have fond memories of hours spent in that library. It was there I discovered many volumes of Charles Addams cartoons, mostly reprinted from the New Yorker, which probably warped my sense of humor more than any other experience growing up.

But I digress. Perhaps the most absorbing discovery was the science fiction section. Bamberg wasn’t a particularly large base, but the library had a healthy SF section. In the two years I was there, I spent the summers reading the books in that section, methodically working my way from Asimov to Zelazny. During that time, there was only one set of books I read through more than once, all by one author: Robert Heinlein.

The books I most liked, however, were those volumes described today as being from his middle period and his “juveniles.” Though those latter works may have been written for a younger audience, they were anything but juvenile.

For example, I remember a passage from Space Cadet, in which the hero, Matt Dodson, has to take a test. The test consists of operating a machine and making it do some specific task. Matt reads the instructions, then reads them again, and is baffled. All around him, other cadets are poking and prodding at the machine, with lights flashing and various other effects occurring. He takes it to the test proctor and informs him that something is wrong, because you can’t do what the instructions say you can do. The proctor takes the directions from young Matt and tells him he’s done.

It was an early lesson in RTFM.

In the same book, Matt learns that you have to adjust your thinking when faced with the mores of another culture—if they “eat peas with a knife”, then so do you, when you’re in their home.

Then there was The Rolling Stones, about an eccentric, space-faring family that jets around the solar system. One of the passages that still sticks in my mind is the wonder the twins have at the thought of people actually driving their own cars. After all, automatic driving is faster and safer. In an era of traffic jams and air pollution, where only a few cars have rudimentary adaptive cruise control, I wonder sometimes why we still drive our own cars.

Another book that leaves me wistful is Farmer in the Sky about a project to terraform and settle Ganymede, the largest moon of Jupiter. That wasn’t one of Heinlein’s best efforts, but I still feel a little twinge, and wonder why aren’t we trying to terraform Ganymede today?

The book that informed the person I became, perhaps more than any other, was Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy. This work begins with the story of a young slave named Thorby, who is rescued by Baslim, who turns out to be more than he seems. After a series of harrowing adventures, Thorby discovers his heritage as a member of a wealthy, powerful family, and how his upbringing and adventures shape his perception of how wealth and power should be wielded.

As I grew older, I kept reading Heinlein, but I never became particularly fond of his later period. Starship Troopers is probably the last of his works I recall fondly. Even that classic that many of my friends seem to worship,The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, didn’t really do much for me. Neither did Stranger in a Strange Land, which made Heinlein something of a household word.

Maybe by the time I actually read those, as the quote from Asimov suggested, I’d already outgrown my own golden age. Or perhaps Heinlein and I just moved along separate paths. That doesn’t matter, because what I did read when I was twelve and thirteen inspired me to learn more about science, technology—and to write. There’s certainly no more I could ask from a wondrous heap of work I discovered in an army base library in 1968.

Oh, if you’re at all interested in Heinlein, next year is the centennial of his birth. There’s even a celebration in his home town of Kansas City, Missouri, aptly named the Heinlein Centennial. I’m not sure it’s my cup of tea, but if you’re at all interested in Heinlein’s work, or just want to hang around like-minded people, it’s worth going. If you do, tell Tim Kyger I said hello.

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