Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Man Who Sold the Moon (1939-1950)

This collection of stories by Robert Heinlein practically amounts to Exhibit 1 in his Future History cycle of stories and novels. The earliest stories were written in 1939 and 1940, and later revised after World War II with updated information about atomic power and weapons. The stories establish new technologies such as solar power, mass transit innovations, and developments in rocketry and imagine how they transform society. One result of Heinlein's ingenious road system, for example, is population gathering along roadways rather than clustering in urban concentrations. I mean, I'm not sure that works for me, but it's one way to move the pieces of the future around. In fact, Heinlein's "hard" science fiction technology is often a matter of bluster and sciency jargon. He's actually equally concerned with how technical advances and social pressures interact specifically in the context of hustling big business American style. Heinlein is all but an unreconstructed capitalist, railing in his midcentury way against taxes and regulation. You can almost smell the cigar smoke. The long title story, more technically a novella, whatever, focuses on the machinations of one D.D. Harriman, industrialist tycoon, to send a man in a rocket to the moon. It's as much about getting deals done in a can-do capitalist system as about the technology or developing it. I thought it was interesting that, in about 1950, Heinlein projected a privately funded scheme reaching the moon in 1978. Sometimes it seems like SF guesses for the future are way too optimistic (jet packs and/or personalized copters, say), but this one turned out to be late by nine years. I've read a bit of Heinlein over the years and always find him instantly engaging. He has a rollicking kind of tone reminiscent of Frank Capra movies, buoyed on pure confidence. The attitude is that anything at all is possible if you're smart and try hard enough. It's tempting to roll your eyes at this sort of pep talk (and it can get tiresome) but then you remember things about Heinlein. He imagined remote manipulator technology, for example, before it was ever invented—in fact, his 1942 story "Waldo" (not in this collection) is what inspired development of it in 1945. So there's something to his fast-talking showmanship too. This is a reasonable place to start with him.

In case it's not at the library.

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