Sunday, 4 October 2015

Short Story Sunday 02: Robert A. Heinlein Edition

Here we are with the second installment of Short Story Sunday. Is it too early to write a special post? Nah! This time around we’re focusing on Robert A. Heinlein. Like Joe Haldeman in our first post, I’ve been aware of Heinlein and his work for several years now and I’ve even bought one of his book (Starship Troopers) but I haven’t read it yet. It’s pretty shameful, I know. What’s less shameful is that I’ve started to read some of his short stories and he’s known for writing good short length sci-fi stories. I can attest to that, it’s true. I’ve only sampled a small handful of them so far but I’ve enjoyed every single one of them in one way or another. Let’s dive in.

“The Long Watch” by Robert A. Heinlein
Read in New Destinies Volume VI/Winter 1988 (1988), edited by Jim Baen
Originally published as “Rebellion on the Moon” in American Legion Magazine (1949), I could not find the name of the magazine’s editor

After realizing that his superior officer is planning a coup d’état, Lieutenant Dahlquist sets out to delay Colonel Towers’ overthrow of the Earth government long enough for reinforcements to arrive. As commander of a lunar base, Towers plans on using nuclear weapons located on the base to intimidate the Earth government. Dahlquist, who specializes in nuclear weapons, finds himself in a position to be able to prevent Towers’ plan. He locks himself up in the bomb bunker and so begins his long watch.

This is a quick story and the pacing makes for a very exciting read. Heinlein uses Dahlquist character to show an example of heroism that is a little uncommon. He tries to prevent the coup d’état using his knowledge of nuclear weapons and his selfless desire to prevent the beginnings of a nuclear war. This is an intelligent man taking drastic actions to stand up against evil in uniform. Near the end he, more than anyone else on the lunar base, is aware of the price he will have to pay in order to protect the population of Earth.

Ranking: 4 stars
This is a simple story but it speaks to our potential futures and how simple it can be for people in power to want to use that power to their advantage. This story’s got a couple interesting messages hidden within and the whole thing is told with surprising energy and brevity. A pretty good start for my introduction to Heinlein

“The Notebooks of Lazarus Long” by Robert A. Heinlein
Read in New Destinies Volume VI/Winter 1988 (1988), edited by Jim Baen
Originally published in Time Enough for Love (1973) by Robert A. Heinlein

This isn’t a true short story as I understand it. “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long” originally appeared in one of Heinlein’s later novels, Time Enough for Love, which tells the story of various periods in the life of Lazarus Long. What was eventually collected as “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long” was included in the novel as short intervals between other chapters. It helped to separate some of the sections from each other. I haven’t read the book but as one of my earliest samples of Heinlein’s work it made for a really interesting read. 

As the title suggests, these are notes that Long has written down. They’re unorganized and pretty disjointed. For the most part, they’re written from the point of view of someone imparting great wisdom on his selected audience (whoever that might be).  As the longest living man in all of human history, Long likely has a lot of wisdom to pass around and dammit it all if Heinlein isn’t convincing with the notes he wrote. Some of these are real gems while others are hilarious and some are simply odd or make no sense. If you’ve ever read a few quotes by Heinlein, chances are it came from this. Here are a few samples:

“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of – but dot it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”

“In handling a stinging insect, move very slowly”

“Sovereign ingredient for a happy marriage: Pay cash or do without. Interest charges not only eat up a household budget; awareness of debt eats up domestic felicity.”

“Rub her feet.”

“By the data to date, there is only one animal in the Galaxy dangerous to man – man himself. So he must supply his own indispensable competition. He has no enemy to help him.”

Ranking: 3 stars
I can’t shake the feeling that I would get more out of this if I had read it as part of Time Enough for Love. I say this because I think that knowing the character of Lazarus Long probably puts some of these notes in a particular context. While I found the notes to be highly entertaining, I gave it 3 stars because it was disjointed.

“Rah, Rah, R. A. H.!” by Spider Robinson
Read in New Destinies Volume VI/Winter 1988 (1988), edited by Jim Baen
Originally published in Destinies (Summer 1980), edited by Jim Baen

All of the stories I’m reviewing this week are taken from New Destinies VI which focuses on Heinlein’s life and his work as a way of commemorating the science fiction master shortly after his death in 1988. In his introduction to this essay Jim Baen explains, “Rah, Rah, R. A. H.!” was reprinted in this volume because Heinlein liked Robinson’s essay. That’s right, this isn’t a short story, but as something that is related to Heinlein, sci-fi, and is of short length, I think it fits with the subject of this post.

Robinson wrote this after his reaction to Expanded Universe and in reaction to the popularity of criticising Heinlein during the 80s. The result is a sincere appreciation for the man’s work as well as a methodical rebuttal of the main criticisms targeted at Heinlein. Along the way Robinson convincingly demonstrate just why Heinlein is stilled talked about in reverential tones today.

Ranking: 4 stars
This served as a pretty great primer for the man and the writer. It’s thorough and well-articulated, giving newcomers and existing fans plenty to enjoy. If you haven’t read any Heinlein before reading this essay I can guarantee it will make you want to buy a few books in order to familiarize yourself with Heinlein’s body of work.

“The Man Who Traveled in Elephants” by Robert A. Heinlein
Read in New Destinies Volume VI/Winter 1988 (1988), edited by Jim Baen
Originally published as “The Elephant Circuit” in Saturn Magazine (October 1957), I could not find the name of the magazine’s editor

The story is about a widower who is attending the biggest fair he’s ever been too. He’s there alone and spends a lot of time reminiscing about his life with his wife, Martha. They spent most of their time travelling the country. It started because of his job as a travelling salesman and when came time for him to retire they continued travelling under the pretence of scouting the country in preparation for selling elephants. These two people never needed more out of life than to travel together and discover the wonders that their country had to offer. While attending the fair, the old man makes a few odd and magical encounters.

According to Jim Baen’s introduction to this story in New Destinies VI, this is Heinlein’s favourite short story that he wrote. I admit I would have a more difficult time understanding why if I hadn’t just read “Rah, Rah, R. A. H.!” just a couple days before. As it turns out Heinlein was a great patriot and this story can be understood to be about America. It could also be about love, living the simple life, true knowledge lies in experiences, and many, many other things. It’s the kind of story that begs to be analyzed while making sure to remain forever a mystery. I was surprised to find it New Destinies because of the astronaut on the cover. I had assumed all the stories within would be science fiction. I don’t mind, but I was caught off guard for a couple of pages.

Ranking: 3 stars
While I can understand why Heinlein liked it so much, I’d be surprised to discover it’s the best short story he ever wrote. If nothing else, it proves that he’s a skilled writer even when telling a non-sci-fi story.

Next Sunday, we continue to explore the best science fiction stories of 2010 with Year’s Best SF 16.

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