Friday, July 31, 2009

Book Review: The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein

Whatever the truth about this world, I like it. I've found my Door into Summer and I would not time-travel again for fear of getting off at the wrong station. Maybe my son will, but if he does I will urge him to go forward, not back. "Back" is for emergencies; the future is better than the past. Desite the crapehangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better. With hands... with tools... with horse sense and science and engineeringing.
---Robert Heinlein, Door into Summer

On the main character's wife's pregnancy: [she's] getting fat, too, but for a temporary happier reason. It has just made her more beatufiul and her sweet eternal Yea! is unchanged, but it isn't comfortable for her. I'm working on gadgets to make things easier. It just isn't very convenient to be a woman; something out to be done.

I actually meant to review The Forever War by Joe Haldeman today, but I grabbed the wrong book leaving the house, so... here's Heinlein!

I spent a lot of time reading in my teenage years (understatement), and while most of that was fantasy fare, there was a bit of science fiction in the mix as well. The three authors that had the biggest impact on me were (in alphabetical order) Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. If you had to choose three representatives for the genre, you could do a lot worse. Adams taught me that any form of writing can benefit from humor, and led me, in a roundabout British manner, to Terry Pratchett (for the record, neither writer is better than the other. They are both amazing). Asimov is quite possibly the most prolific science fiction writer in the history of the form, and there's a reason why his Laws of Robotics and psychohistory are now ingrained scifi tropes.

And then there's Heinlein. The quickest way of describing Heinlein is to take Asimov's prolific inventedness, add some Hemmingway concepts on individualism and masculinity, and throw in some sex. Given the relative conservatism of science fiction in the 50s to 70s, Heinlein's influence in opening the genre to the exploration of gender norms and social conventions can't be overemphasized (in my opinion, anyway). Heinlein's writing generally comes in two forms: the early work he did for juvenile boys, and the later, more adult work. If you want the most popular example of his writing, you should probably check out Starship Troopers; if you want the best, you should probably check out Stranger in a Strange Land. My knowledge of Heinlein's works is far less extensive than my familiarity with Adams and Asimov, so every now and then, I return to one of his books. At the moment, that means The Door into Summer.

The Door into Summer falls somewhere in the middle of Heinlein's books. It's definitely past the boy-scout straight-laced books like Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, but it's still a far cry from the Church of the Divine Orgasm in Job: a Divine Comedy. The plot of the book in a nutshell: Daniel Boone Davis, intrepid inventor, is swindled out of his company by his best friend and his fiancee, who are in cahoots. (If you have the opportunity to use the word 'cahoots,' it behooves you to do so. Same with 'behoove.') Bereft of any attachment to the current world but his cat, (which, it should be mentioned, is the near future, 1970, still 13 years away at the time of the book's original publication, in 1957) he contemplates placing himself and said cat into cryogenic freezing until the year 2000. Cryogenic freezing is, of course, widely available technology in 1970. He eventually decides against it, and sets out to reclaim the girl still around that makes his existence meaningful (not the fiancee, another one), and confront his transgressors. The latter act goes poorly, and they trick him into getting himself frozen anyway (sans cat, who narrowly escapes the villainous pair), and he wakes up in the year 2000.

Then things get weird.

One of the problems with reading serious science fiction set in the near future is that how you read it changes fundamentally as it transitions from "near future" to "never-gonna-happen past." Of course, this holds broadly for any work read out of its original context, but in science fiction, it completely changes the game. To speak more specifically about the book at hand, Heinlein has always been pretty good at creating logical futures and inventions (albeit futures and inventions skewing towards his own set of political beliefs, which I'll get to later.). For example, Daniel's inventions are all based around making simple tasks easier--mostly things he relates to, like housekeeping and engineering. His first invention, Hired Girl, drives itself over surfaces and continually picks up dirt, based on the already designed "electric turtles." And if that sounds a little familiar, yes, Heinlein did invent the roomba half a century early. Some of the social problems of the future (lab-grown meat, widespread subsidy practices, massive overpopulation) are exaggerated, but essentially accurate. Generally, by focusing on social changes over political changes, Heinlein manages to get it mostly right--except for the internet, but to be fair, no one in science fiction really predicted the internet until William Gibson's Neuromancer, and that was so influential it practically shaped the internet rather than predicted it.

Anyway, to finish up on plot, as he explores the year 2000, Daniel gradually realizes that many people he never met seem to remember seeing him before, and he really regrets not being able to personally attend to a few loose strings in the past. Then, through a very eye-rolling plot twist, he finds a professor working on time travel... In an interesting twist, the exact mechanics of time travel here are somewhat different: to send something into the future, you must send an equal mass into the past the same number of years. The catch is that you can't tell before hand which mass will go into the past and which into the future. Figuring that he'll win either way, Daniel sets the machine for 30 years, and lets 'er rip. Since I've spoiled everything else, I won't spoil what happens next. I will say that the cat makes it to safety.

Joking aside, the cat--and the subject of cat lovers in general--may very well be a deciding factor in whether you want to read the book. There's a few such factors. First, there's the political beliefs. As you may have guessed from the name of the protagonist, Daniel Boone Davis, Heinlein is very much a believer in rugged individualism, and that theme is front and center here, as Daniel is basically a made-man brought low by the nefarious scheming of a conniving lawyer and a black widow/femme fatale type. A nudist colony also features heavily, as Heinlein has always been big on pushing against body taboos. The nudity I can live with; notions of masculinity stating that a REAL man works for no one but himself is a little harder to swallow in contemporary society. Heinlein's individualism borders really, really close to libertarianism, although for real libertarian sci-fi, you really need to check out L. Niel Smith's "Probability Broach." (And we will!)

The other, related issue is the book's approach to feminism, something that comes up again and again in Heinlein's stuff. Here's a simple example, when Daniel explains his rationale for inventing primarily household appliances: "I had rarely met a housewife who did not have a touch of slaveholder in her; they seemed to think there really ought to be strapping peasant girls grateful for a chance to scrub floors fourteen horus a day and eat table scraps at wages a plumber's helper would scorn." There's a sentence just begging for postcolonial AND feminist approaches. To be fair, remember that this book is, above all else, the product of its time, the 50s. Additionally, one should also keep in mind that the opinions of a character are not necessarily the same as a book's overall message. But let's look at the three main female characters in the novel. First, there's Belle, the treacherous fiancee. Also, the only one of the main women who works for a living. Somewhat less than a positive role model. Then there's Jenny, the female half of the nudist couple. She has a big heart, but... At one point in the novel, Daniel offers to tell her husband John about his time traveller roots, and asks if they should wake up Jenny to tell her too. John responds that Jenny is an "uncomplicated" person, and he'll tell her if he thinks it necessary. Again, a somewhat problematic interpretation. Then there's Frederica, or Ricky, the stepdaughter of the lawyer, and the only one besides the cat to immediately sense Belle is bad news. Before departing into the future, Daniel promises to marry her. At this time, he is in his late twenties. She's eleven. eleven. ELEVEN. Even allowing for the fact that Daniel tells her she can change her mind when she, uh, grows up, he's still seriously considering her as a sexual partner at this point. And she's eleven.
There's challenging sexual mores, and there's... well, there's this. I've read a Heinlein short story where the main character, through time travel and gender surgery, accidently serves as his/her own mother, father, and midwife, but the eleven year old love interest was a bit much.

To end on a less problematic note, let's look at the cat. The involvement of the cat in the text is not at all a trivial inclusion, and its use is emblematic of Heinlein's writing. Daniel's first hint that Belle is not a good person is that his cat doesn't like her, and while I may not go that far, I will say that anyone who thinks throwing stones at cats is a good pasttime is not included in my definition of Good People. In terms of plot, the cat demonstrates the themes of individualism and Danny's own defiant nature: the book opens with this rebel among men sneaking the cat into a bar to get it some ginger-ale. Even the story's title comes from the cat: in the winter, it insists Danny opens every door to the house when it wants outside, because it's certain that summer has to lie behind one of them. And that's Heinlein: the man who insists on opening the doors. Heinlein's admiration for cats is definitely worth perusal, given the writing regarding animals and technology currently going on in digital media circles.

So, to sum up: Heinlein. Writes great dialogue, makes fascinating predictions of the future, believes in challenging preconceptions and exploring controversy. And he may think cats are smarter than women. But don't quote me on that.

And if you thought Heinlein was fun, wait'll we get to Haldeman. Hint: orgy.

EDIT: Incidentally, does anyone have any idea what a crapehanger is?
Later Days.

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