Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Past Through Tomorrow

The Past Through Tomorrow
By Robert Heinlein

Warning: this essay contains spoilers.

In my bookcase sits an old beloved book by Robert Heinlein. The title is, The Past Through Tomorrow. I never tire of reading this book because it contains most of the short stories that Robert Heinlein wrote in his early years as a writer. This book is a stunning example of his vision of the future, and after years of considering this work, I realized that he was the Jules Verne of his era. Just as Verne correctly prophesied many of the inventions that would become standard features of the twentieth century, so Heinlein’s stories contain predictions of the Age of Technology. But these predictions while mind expanding are still secondary to the insights he had about the way that humans would respond to those technological changes.

When you compare, The Past Through Tomorrow, to Brave New World, another book which contains predictions of the future, you quickly see the difference in the depth of the characters. Instead of the one dimensional characters of BNW who are victims of their technology, Heinlein’s characters see technology as important but still secondary to the values they cherish.

In The Roads Must Roll (1940), the conflict between labor and management is central; the concept of the people mover is almost incidental, and yet almost every international airport now contains these devices. In Blowups Happen (1940), the psychology of the stressed out worker is more important than the concept of a nuclear power plant. In Searchlight (1962) a laser carries a series of musical notes so that a blind girl, trapped on the moon, can tell her rescuers where she is. As the story comes to a close, we marvel at the idea of the laser, but we cheer much louder for the bravery of the little girl and the ingenuity of her rescuers.

If you have read this book, and if you like science fiction, I am sure that you have seen references to Heinlein, both blatant and subtle, in other works of science fiction, due to the impression that he made on his readers who became authors. We cannot help including these references.

I was lucky enough to discover his books in 1966, not too long before this book collected his stories. I was fourteen at the time. Heinlein’s stories helped me develop a non-religious moral philosophy in an age of moral ambiguity. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys discovering the history of science fiction or who wishes to read stories that are uplifting without being moralistic.

It is hard to designate a favorite character, but perhaps it is Holly Jones, a fifteen year old girl who lives on the moon and who is in love with a young man named Jeff (although she would deny this). In, The Menace From Earth, Holly is confronted with the unpleasant fact that Jeff is infatuated with a beautiful female tourist from Earth. In the story, Holly discovers that “the facts of life” are all about her. And, oh by the way, the story contains a description of a room where artificial wings that work in the low gravity of the moon, are used to fly.

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