Thursday, March 7, 2024

In Expanded Universe, Robert A. Heinlein is at his best when focused on sci-fi

Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is my 10th favorite novel (as of 2014) and possibly my favorite sci-fi novel. I haven’t actually read much else by him, although his novels The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers are high on my list. In the sci-fi genre especially, short stories are a great way to go because the premise is often the best thing about them, and that premise can sometimes ware thin over the course of a novel. Heinlein’s stories are surprisingly not presented in a lot of different ways. The Past Through Tomorrow is supposed to be a good collection. The only one I could find readily available online is Expanded Universe, available for free on the Hoopla library app. It includes short stories, essays, and novelettes.

Here are my summaries and reviews of only the five short stories from the collection:

"Life-Line" (1939): One Dr. Hugo Pinero gets invited by an associated insurance salesman to present information at the Academy of Science. Amidst jeers, he announces that he has discovered how to tell exactly how long each person will live. He proposes to a disbelieving group that he can figure out which one in the room will die soonest. He is forcibly removed, but several journalists f9low him and he invites them to come see his apparatus. He gets all the birth dates correct for the reporters. Then one named Luke asks him to predict a death. The doctor does the experiment but doesn’t want to say the results. Once it’s finally coaxed out of him, he reports Luke will die before tomorrow! A sign falls on him on Broadway while he’s headed back to the office to file his story. The story gets big and before we know it, Dr. Pinero is appearing in court, standing accused of being a common fortune teller by a life-insurance company that doesn’t like what he might do to its business. He convinces the court to let h8m carry out his experiments on a group from the Academy and the judge accepts. Back at his office, Pinero accepts a young couple planning to start a family and hoping to make the right decision. After testing them, he says his machine appears to not be working properly and detains them when they say they need to hurry to their next appointment. Eventually he can’t detain them any longer and he witnesses them getting run over by a speeding police car out his window. The Academy prepares to open the envelopes when they get news that Pinero has been murdered in his home and his machine destroyed at his office. They remember Pinero’s own envelope in in the batch, they open it, and it tells the exact correct time of his death. The Academy members then throw all their envelopes into a burning wastebasket, with the last words spoken being a concern that the tabletop has burned a bit. This is a fascinating take on the battle between powerful corporate interests and the unwanted truths that the scientific method can offer. 5 out of 5 stars.

"Successful Operation" (1940): This is an odd, very short story about a leader of the Nazis needing an operation. Nobody could perform it successfully other than a Dr. Lans. He and his family are imprisoned in the leader’s concentration camp. The doctor barters a deal of freedom and payment for doing the procedure. The leader finally agrees. The transplant patient is a young man from the camp. He thinks he will be awarded freedom somehow but ends up be8ng sent back to the camp. The doctor and his family survive. So too does the Nazi. But one of the stipulations is that the operation take place outside of the country. The doctor’s family is placed in a luxury hotel. Then several people of the unnamed country enter and kill the Nazi. I like the sentiment, but it is a pretty minor story, albeit clever. 4 out of 5 stars.

"Searchlight" (1962): This is another minor and very short piece “Blind Betsy, child genius of the piano,” getting lost in her ship while doing a USO tour of the Moon. The lunar command will do anything to find her, knowing it doesn’t have much time, so it turns a laser beam into sounds so Betsy can pinpoint which note she hears as they scan it over her location. She is discovered and rescued at the end, in this story Heinlein wrote to appear alongside a Hoffman Electronics ad in Scientific American and other magazines of the time. 3 out of 5 stars.

"A Bathroom of Her Own" (1980): This is more politics than the regular Heinlein sci fi. The war has ended and there’s a significant housing shortage. A woman decides to run for the local council because she’s sick of sharing one bathroom with a large house of family. A man running against her discovers she’s a real threat - even though she’s a one-issue candidate - because she’s backed by the local machine. The man is losing but the woman has been disillusioned, realizing she really is backed by the corrupt machine. The man decides he’s going to drop out and help her run for office without the machine. She wins and he becomes her field secretary. She gets married and moves out of the full house into one with two bathrooms. They unavoidably are the new machine in town. It may be accurate as to how politics works, and it may be correctly cynical on the topic, but the story isn’t very exciting. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

"On the Slopes of Vesuvius" (1980): This is a tidy little tale about a few scientists who walk into a bar in Manhattan. It is somewhat predictable but still left my jaw dropped at the end. [Spoiler alert] The men start talking about the atom bomb and it's revealed that one of them works on the bomb. Even though many years have passed since the Cold War began in earnest, it's still an issue, and these men tell the bartender that the bomb is very easy for any number of actors to launch, if they so choose. He sort of nervously laughs them off, as they talk about how easy New York City is as a target, but then leaves the bar suddenly and takes a train out of the city. He begins to think about how his ill cat needs to be fed and other everyday tasks that he needs to perform back at home and exits the train to head back, thinking that he has acted irrationally. As he starts to head back, a mushroom cloud blasts upward from where NYC used to be. 4 out of 5 stars.

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