Robert Heinlein: Time for the stars

‘Okay, just slip this on for size, don’t mind the pattern: Tom, my boy, brace yourself – we’re mind readers.’

How to make Time for the Stars

Take several classic ingredients for a golden-era science fiction novel: interstellar travel, strong male military role models, sibling rivalry and bonds, relativistic effects and the twin paradox, telepathy, and (of course) alien planets inhabited by evil tentacled monsters. Add one young and unlikely protagonist. Arrange to form a conversationally-narrated, page-turning story. Serve with an arc of self-realisation in a coming-of-age hero tale. Garnish with as much cover imagery of the tentacled aliens as you can possibly manage.

How to consume Time for the Stars

Wait until you need a book that will engage and entertain you without requiring much emotional engagement at all. Run a bath. Read the book from start to end. Put down. Note with pleasure that it’s caused a few hours to slip by painlessly. Commence natural process of forgetting.

What not to do afterwards

We’ve already established you chose this book for its straightforwardness and escapism. Keep things straightforward and escapist. There are a few aspects of the book, in other words, about which you shouldn’t think too hard.

Perhaps you chose this book because you wanted to get away from current affairs (say, all that crap in the news about right-wing politics in the US election cycle, and Romney pledging to shut down public broadcasting stations, and libertarianism flaring up in the UK, and the new lord mayor of Newcastle NSW dismantling the council from the inside and shopping its functions off to private business and so forth).

In that case, it’s good you didn’t realise Heinlein was a libertarian who used several of his books to espouse his small-government, maximum-personal-freedom themes. If you had known you might have dwelled a while on the nature and function of the Long Range Foundation (LRF), the organisation introduced right there in Chapter One. It’s a non-profit corporation that exists to spend money on long-term, hugely expensive, socially desirable projects “that no government or other organisation would touch” – like interstellar travel. Conveniently, these over-the-horizon ethically-based boondoggles turn out to be hugely profitable, but because profit isn’t in this NGO’s charter, all this money has to be funnelled into other longer-term and even more outrageous projects. The LRF, in Heinlein’s world, has to be a private organisation (because governments restrict personal freedom) but it’s a benevolent non-profit private organisation (because in Heinlein’s ideal world individuals are always mindful of their obligations to other people and the common future).

Huh? So where did the LRF float the capital from in the first place? Which private investors wanted to give hundreds of billions of dollars to an organisation they knew they’d never recoup from? And if these super-Bill-Gates individuals did in fact exist, is it in fact ethical for a few individuals to dictate where humanity as a whole should head? Shouldn’t humanity as a whole have a say in these vitally important things – perhaps in a novel process where each person would automatically own a stake in the LRF that’s making all these decisions on their behalf? The people could, say, have a right to give input into the leadership and aims of the organisation (lets call this process ‘voting’) and maybe even if everyone contributed just a small amount this organisation could indeed raise the huge capital required for these projects (lets call these contributions ‘taxes’) and then all the goods and benefits – both financial and social – would flow directly back to the stakeholders (lets call them ‘citizens’) who could hold the leadership accountable in the case (the highly improbable case, of course – nearly unthinkable that this could happen) that the one or two individuals in charge of the LRF and its galaxy-sized bank accounts decide to maybe not act as one-hundred percent ethically as they should?

Or maybe you read this book because you wanted to escape to a futuristic utopia of enlightenment and equality. Note, then, how many strong female characters there are in the story! Sure, the protagonist isn’t male, and nor are any of his close confidants, or advisors, or mentors, or role models, or indeed anyone he has a complex relationship with, but look – heaps of the telepaths are female! Also the Chief Ecologist is a woman and has a doctorate. (Ignore the fact that she was introduced as ‘a sweet old girl with the sort of lap babies like to sit on’; this could well just be a neutral statement of fact. Also ignore the fact everyone calls her ‘Mrs O’Toole’ not ‘Dr O’Toole’ because her husband is also on the ship. Also ignore the way it’s revealed a few pages later that the role of the Chief Ecologist seems to be, astoundingly, running a kind of laundry that washes linen and paper for reissue to the crew.) Also, the best mathematician on the ship, Janet Meers, is a woman – that’s very progressive.

So think about all this stuff, which shows just how pro-female Heinlein is. In fact he’s so pro-female that there’s other stuff too. There’s the time Lucille LaVonne wins ‘Miss Solar System’ (because she is such a super woman she is also really hot!) and gets a write-up in the ship newsletter. There’s the way the protagonist is able to gallantly let go of his feelings for his former sweetheart, after relativistic effects mean she’s aged much faster than him (‘I decided that she was probably getting fat and sloppy and very, very domestic – she never could resist that second chocolate eclair.’) There’s the way the female crew members are allowed to be part of exploration parties just like the men are (but only after it’s been proven completely safe – by the ‘fourth rotation [when] by then they were even letting women go ashore.’) And then there’s this exchange, in which mutinous crew are discussing whether the two telepaths on board, Tom (the narrator) and Mei-Ling, can force the ship to turn back to earth by refusing to communicate (‘link’) with their telepathic partners back home:

‘How about Mei-Ling?’

Chet shook his head. ‘Mei-Ling isn’t going to “think-talk” for him.’

His wife said, ‘Now, Chet, I haven’t said so.’

He looked at her fondly. ‘Don’t be super-stupid, my lovely darling. You know that there is no chance at all that you will be any use to him after peak. If our brave Captain Urqhardt hasn’t got that through his head now, he will … even if I have to explain to him in words of one syllable.’

‘But I might stay linked.’

‘Oh, no, you won’t … or I’ll bash your pretty head in. Our kids are going to grow up on Earth.”

She looked soberly at him and patted his hand. […] I became quite sure that Mei-Ling would not link again after peak – not after her husband had argued with her for a while. What Chet wanted was more important to her than what the Captain wanted, or any abstract duty to a Foundation back on Earth.

That’s a lovely picture of domesticity. You should try not to think too much about that either.

But if you did accidentally think about it, you might think this: would a reviewer in 2012 be out of place if they tried to hold a book from 1956 accountable to modern social norms? Yes, probably. You might say that it wasn’t perfect, and Heinlein was trying to head in the right direction by giving women scientific skill and important occupations, but just continually was tripped up by the products of his own socialisation (e.g. at the end of the book, the main character and his brother still only consider male lines of succession in their businesses, etc). And you’d be mostly right, I think.

But what’s most interesting to me is this: science fiction, which is so often about imagined futures, is often examined in terms of how accurate its predictions about the future turn out to be. Much is written about various hiccups and failings in these predictions, like Asimov’s supercomputers, which are city-sized monoliths made of vacuum tubes – or indeed Heinlein’s ship in Time for the Stars, which is still run using mental arithmetic with no mention of computers. But the most consistent failings are also the least often noticed or written about – and these are the social predictions. Particularly equality of women or other minorities. And if even Heinlein, a libertarian who believed in individual rights over most other things, could get that so wrong – while proposing that societal good should be best done by organisations run by just a few all-wise private individuals (like him, presumably) – then where does that leave our confidence in his philosophies?

Man proposes that the ideal world would be run by powerful, wise individuals like him. Man simultaneously demonstrates own failure to comprehend a world outside his narrow, socialised prejudices. The ingredients for either a light, escapist science fiction adventure suitable for reading in the bath – or an important message about the unintended side-effects of removing power from government under the auspices of ‘liberty’. Or both. You decide.

This book was partly read on the couch. But mostly in the bath.

This book was read partly on the couch. But mostly in the bath.

Special bonus features

Read the whole book in PDF online for free.

Time for the Stars on Wikipedia; Goodreads; Amazon.co.uk

Reviews: Tor.com; SFsite; Readventurer

Tor.com’s bloggers discuss many interesting Heinlein issues inc. gender and diversity

Locus magazine’s recent new take on Heinlein’s career as SF idealist/satirist

Heinlein’s political biography on Libertarianism.com

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