Heinlein's Future History

Bick

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I recently read through Heinlein’s Future History stories, collected in the book The Past Through Tomorrow. This is a big old tome, and collects 21 stories from short stories through to full novels. I thought it might be worth commenting very briefly on each one, as others may want to dip into the series. I think the publishing history and Heinlein’s idea to provide an overarching storyline for our future is quite interesting. I also thought it might be nice to have somewhere to discuss these stories and their larger story arc in one place

Life-Line (1939) – 20 pp short story
I enjoyed this, but it’s not essential for the timeline. More of interest as a very early Heinlein; first published in Astounding.

The Roads Must Roll (1940) – 38 pp novelette
This is a bit of a classic, and tells of a future union action that turns to violence. I’ve never been as fond of it as some anthologists, but it reads well. Heinlein on good form.

Blowups Happen (1940) – 48 pp novelette
This is strangely anachronistic, as very old stories can be if they take a stab at hard SF, as we now know atomic power doesn’t work quite the way Heinlein worried about, but it’s a well told story.

The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950) – 92 pp novella
Quote a long story, and a very good one. It’s many things: a good SF yarn, a study of a great but flawed genius, the use and misuse of money, greed and bullying, and the inevitability of ‘progress’.

Delilah and the Space-Rigger (1949) – 14 pp short story
This one is a bit, ‘meh’. It’s actually trying to rebut misogyny, but it’s so steeped in the sexism of the time, it hardly works these days. Not the best here.

Space Jockey (1947) – 18 pp short story
I had to look this up to try and remember it! Oh, yes it’s about a space pilot who ends up moving base to the moon. Kind of average, for Heinlein.

Requiem (1940) – 18 pp short story
This returns us to Harriman, the man who sold the moon, at the end of his life. It’s terrific; full of pathos and genuinely moving. Heinlein can really write.

The Long Watch (1949) – 14 pp short story
This is a nice story – and yet another where Heinlein is worrying about atomic power and atomic bombs. Nicely done and memorable.

Gentlemen, Be Seated (1948) – 10 pp short story
This is rather short, but it’s great! A moon disaster story.

The Black Pits of Luna (1948) – 14 pp short story
This is a juvenile, and it does read like one – the heroic protagonist is a young lad who needs to rescue his annoying sister. It’s okay, but not the best here.

"It's Great to Be Back!" (1947) – 18 pp short story
This is another classic that’s found in many anthologies. It is very good. The grass isn’t always greener, and appreciate what you have, etc.

"—We Also Walk Dogs" (1941) – 24 pp novelette
I really liked this, it works very well, and while the central SF idea (artificial gravity) is a bit silly, Heinlein casualty drops mobile phones into the plot – in 1941! The man was a genius.

Searchlight (1962) – 5 pp short story
Too short to be much. Okay; another moon rescue story.

Ordeal in Space (1948) – 27 pp short story
Okay; a man confronts his vertigo, gained in spce, with the aid of a cat. Quite nicely done. And I like stories with cats.

The Green Hills of Earth (1947) – 12 pp short story
A very well told story of the flawed man who authored the titular song. Art recreates the artist in its form, however accurate that may be.

Logic of Empire (1941) – 48 pp novella
Slavery and rebellion on Venus – which sounds odd these days, but Heinlein’s Future History is written in an old-school solar system. Rather good actually. I liked how the protagonist signed up for slavery when drunk!

The Menace from Earth (1957) – 26 pp novelette
This story is a strange one in a way – it’s nice enough, but almost seems like someone else wrote it. It’s not especially typical of Heinlein (it’s a bit of a romance). Not essential to the Future History plotting.

"If This Goes On —" (1940) – 136 pp novel
This really does read like a self-contained novel, albeit quite a short one. Its Heinlein’s imagining of how the US might turn into a far right Christian dictatorship, and the rebellion against it. The characters are good, and it’s well told. I’m surprised it’s not been published more prominently other than in these collections.

Coventry (1940) – 48 pp novella
I really liked this story – one of my favourites from the collection about a man literally being sent to ‘Coventry’ for thinking independently, while not appreciating how good he’s got it in his modern world.

Misfit (1939) – 22pp novelette
This is a short little piece, written before most of the other stories, but set later. It tells of a misfit genius who helps move an asteroid to create a space station.

Methusalah’s Children (1958) – 175 pp novel
This novel caps the collection. I’ve not actually read it yet, so will comment on it in due course – I plan to read it shortly. It marks the first appearance of Lazarus Long, the protagonist of Time Enough for Love, which also links the Future History with Heinlein’s later World as Myth novels.
 

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And this is how Heinlein's Future history links to other novels, especially his World as Myth books:



I plan to work through a fair bit of this, pretty much in the order suggested. It was because I wanted to read Time Enough for Love, that I ended up reading The Past Through Tomorrow, in fact, as I realised i should read Methusalah's Children first, and then I backed up further until I ended up with the Future History stories from 1939 onwards. I guess these in total make up the majority (though not all) of his output, outside of his Scribner's Juveniles.
 
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tinkerdan

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I've read all of these in some incarnation way back before Heinlein decided to circle all the wagons and hitch them together no matter how much they don't quite all fit together; so it's no surprise they don't seem essential to the history itself.

I always viewed The Past Through Tomorrow as a means of getting new readers to read old stories by the master.

However they do come closer to fitting the timeline of a universe than the Expanded Universe two volume that was concocted for similar reasons and contains material written under different author names that don't fit anywhere in that timeline. I did enjoy the Expanded Universe because it brought me things I had never read before.

I still enjoy reading these and there really is no anachronism from age if you look at classic work as a reflection of the times--its a sort of distorted mirror of those times. Most fiction suffers this to some extent and much of the fiction today is doomed to the same problem-benefit in that it will be held up as a mirror to how we lived and viewed things in our time. It's really difficult to escape this no matter how clever we think we are.
 

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I read Methuselah’s Children. I enjoyed it a good deal. The second section of it is rather jarring in plot and style perhaps compared to what has gone before in the Future History but it comes together by the end, and overall I’d say I enjoyed it. There are better stories in his Future History (The Man Who Sold the Moon; Coventry; Green Hills of Earth), but there’s a lot to enjoy here. And I’m a sucker for longevity/immortality tales.

I’m now cracking open Orphans of the Sky. I mention it here, as it’s pretty much a continuation of the same huge story arc, and is set in the same fictional universe. Characters and events from the Future History are referenced. It’s in two parts ‘Universe’ and ‘Common Sense’. The former was originally written as part of the Future History and was omitted in the collected volume, presumably only because it was joined to the later second novella in a fix-up. I’ll comment on the book in due course.
 

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Nice post.
Heinlein can really write.
Interesting tense. Not wrong, but interesting. A lot of people use the present tense naturally without consideration when speaking of dead writers. I actually think this is quite defensible & not just from a psychological POV. But I do hold the unfashionable belief of mind/body duality. Combine that with Dawkins' original concept of "memes" before image board culture stole the word, and you can see where I'm coming from. There is a bit of literal truth in a writer's immortality.

about a man literally being sent to ‘Coventry’ for thinking independently,
No, I'm pretty sure he was sent for battery. It's a significant distinction because this is probably RAH's most philosophical story. It's not so much about the grass being greener as the nature of crime and punishment. He sets up 3 alternative viewpoints and balances them nicely so that he is not beating you over the head with advocacy for one of them, but giving all 3 a fair shake - and thus inviting the so inclined reader to serious moral thought.
 

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No, I'm pretty sure he was sent for battery. It's a significant distinction because this is probably RAH's most philosophical story.
Well, yes, of course literally his crime was that he bashed someone, but an important aspect to his crime was his independent thought. I was reminded of Camus’ Stranger funnily enough.

The use of the present tense is just a figure of speech I consciously used - no need to over think it.
 

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Orphans of the Sky follows on after Methusalah’s Children. It’s set on the other starship than the one used by Lazarus and the family, and follows its trip. The first generational ship story published, I believe, it’s a lot of fun. Recommended.
 

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Perhaps I should clarify this:
It's not so much about the grass being greener as the nature of crime and punishment. He sets up 3 alternative viewpoints and balances them nicely so that he is not beating you over the head with advocacy for one of them, but giving all 3 a fair shake - and thus inviting the so inclined reader to serious moral thought.
I think RAH did have a preference and he did hope the reader would adopt the same, even if he abstained from beating them with it. And, counter both to convention and the more common Heinlein story line, that preference was not the stance of the protagonist, but of the "oppressive" society that exiled him. I revisit the matter because I think this is possibly Heinlein's single most profound story and it is very relevant to some of the dangerous shoals our culture is presently in danger of foundering on. I will not elaborate on that as I'm treading close to the ban on hot political topics. (Which, BTW, is why I only drop in occasionally these days - those are the very topics that I perceive a moral responsibility to discuss as much as possible - so I discuss them elsewhere.)

I can only think of 2 other stories in SF where the reversal of a cliche is so integral to what the author was attempting. And this is far more subtle than the others.
 
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"Orphans of the Sky follows on after Methusalah’s Children. It’s set on the other starship than the one used by Lazarus and the family, and follows its trip. The first generational ship story published, I believe,"

Variable Star is in the same sequence.
 

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It seems in the 1940s a lot of science fiction writers were working on some form of future history i.e. developing timelines similar to the one shown in the chart above. That activity ground to a halt once Isaac Asimov published his Foundation series with its psychohistory based on mathematical theory and what could go wrong with it e.g. the Mule. Did the Foundation series kill off future history science fiction except those stories giving a political message?
 

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Did the Foundation series kill off future history science fiction except those stories giving a political message?
Not sure about that. Foundation publication started in 1942. Heinlein’s future history was largely written between 1939 and 1957. Several of Heinlein’s classic stories were from 1947 - after Asimov’s Foundation stories were established.
 

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The Foundation series short stories were published in Astounding Magazine as follows:

May 1942: Foundation / The Encyclopaedia (Foundation)
June 1942: Bridle and Saddle / The Mayors (Foundation)
August 1944: The Big and the Little / The Merchant Princes (Foundation)
October 1944: The Wedge / The Traders (Foundation)
April 1945: Dead Hand / The General (Foundation and Empire)
December 1945: The Mule (Foundation and Empire)
January 1948: Now You See It– / Search by the Mule (Second Foundation)
November 1949 to January 1950 in 3 parts: –And Now You Don’t / Search by the Foundation (Second Foundation)

This was before the first novel, Foundation, was published in 1951. It should be noted that the first novel does not go into at what can go wrong with psychohistory.
 

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The first "novel" is those first four stories plus a prequel written for the book. The Foundation series' Mule, at Campbell's insistence, showed what would happen if the psychohistorical premise were given but something that hadn't been accounted for occurred, but this doesn't effect future histories in general. And Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League/Terran Empire series and Dickson's Dorsai and even Cherryh's Union/Alliance all came out well after Asimov and Heinlein had established theirs and future histories are still produced today.
 

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Also, Niven's Known Space stories, and Schmitz' Federation of the Hub stories.
 
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