Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Rolling Stones by Robert Heinlein

My copy - I paid double cover price!
As a child, I always thought it odd that one of the most famous rock bands, the most famous music magazine, and the most famous song by the musician sophisticated people were supposed to like, were all variants on "Rolling Stone."  I also didn't understand the cliche "A rolling stone gathers no moss."  Is moss good or bad?  The world was a mystifying place when I was a kid.

Like everybody, I love the Heinlein juveniles.  I read Robert Heinlein's The Rolling Stones when I was a child, and for the last year or so have wanted to reread it, but for some reason I never saw it in a library or used bookstore.  Finally I discovered it at a store in Mankato, Minnesota, where I paid $3.50 for a Ballantine 1978 paperback; it was by far the most expensive of the fifteen paperbacks I bought that day.  (Philip Jose Farmer's The Green Odyssey was runner up at $2.50; all the others were less than 2 bucks.) 

The Stones, who live on the moon, are a family of geniuses.  The grandmother, Hazel, is an engineer who was among the first moon colonists and helped write the lunar constitution.  The father, Roger, is an engineer who served as mayor and now writes a TV show.*  The mother, Edith, is a doctor and a sculptor.  The fifteen-year-old twin boys, Castor and Pollux, got rich designing a valve and the four year old son, Lowell, is a chess master and some kind of psychic.  (There's also a teenaged daughter, Meade, who feels a little underwritten and seems like a mere mortal; I'm afraid she is just there to fulfill the plot's need for another person to look after the baby while everybody else is on adventures.)

A British edition
The twins' plan to engage in interplanetary trade evolves into a pleasure cruise for the entire family when Roger decides to buy a rocket ship to serve as the family's private space yacht.  Then it is off to Mars and then the asteroid belt.  The Stones don't get involved in any wars, revolutions, or violent crimes--in fact, some of the episodes in the book are more reminiscent of a TV sit-com than a traditional adventure novel, revolving as they do around the twins' get-rich-quick schemes and little Lowell's precocity.  One of these capers appears to be the inspiration for the famous Tribbles episode of Star Trek, written by Heinlein fan David Gerrold.

On the more serious side, Edith risks her own life curing a plague, and Hazel and Lowell get lost in the asteroid belt while low on oxygen due to the twins' negligence.  (You could say that the overarching plot of the book is the maturation of the twins, their education not only in math but in the need to act responsibly.)

This book has tons of science, or perhaps I should say, math and engineering.  There's lots of talk about orbits, reaction mass, parabolas, etc.  In some ways the book is a love letter to mathematics.  ("...the complex logics of matrix algebra, frozen in beautiful arrays...the wild and wonderful field equations that make Man king of the universe....")   The science stuff all seems pretty realistic; there's no hyperspace or artificial gravity, for example, so the trip from Luna to Mars takes like six months, and is carefully timed to coincide with an optimum point in the planets' orbits. 

Heinlein gets flak for the anti-feminist sentiments in Podkayne of Mars, in which the title character expresses a fascination with babies and the wise mentor character opines that a woman's true responsibility is raising children, so it is interesting to see a more feminist-friendly point of view in The Rolling Stones.  Not only are Hazel and Edith talented professionals, self-sacrificing heroes, and mouthpieces for some of Heinlein's social/political beliefs (Hazel is a strong supporter of the right to bear arms): Hazel complains about the sexism in the workplace that slowed down her career and threatens Meade's.

Besides the right to bear arms, Heinlein includes some of his other hobbyhorses in the book.  A naval officer himself, Heinlein, stresses the importance of always obeying the captain of the ship.  We also can detect Heinlein's admiration for rugged individualists and business people; the twins and their grandmother are avid and unashamed pursuers of the almighty dollar.

Spoilerific back cover of my copy
One of the interesting things about The Rolling Stones is the TV scripts* which Roger, and then Hazel (in fact all the family members play a role in shaping the scripts), write.  Their show is an adventure serial, and it seems to be a sort of foil for The Rolling Stones itself.  Whereas The Rolling Stones is based on real science, stars an upper-middle class family, and is full of life lessons about the importance of knowledge and ethical behavior, the TV serial is a frivolous and ridiculous piece of low common denominator entertainment for children, full of invincible heroes, despicable villains, and incredible cliffhangers.  Roger himself seems to hate the serial, and looks forward to killing off the hero in the final episode.  In some of his other books, perhaps most prominently in the lamentable Number of the Beast, Heinlein engages in literary criticism and writes homages to his favorite SF writers; it is hard not to see the SF story within The Rolling Stones as a spoof of some of the pulp adventures which appeared at the same time, perhaps even the same magazines, as Heinlein's own stories in the 1930s and 1940s.  Whether this is a loving spoof or a condemnatory one, I am not sure.

A few days ago I suggested that, to enjoy the work of R. A. Lafferty, Barry N. Malzberg and A. E. Van Vogt, you can't judge their work by the standards appropriate for more conventional SF.  I think the Heinlein juveniles fit comfortably in the nominal category of "conventional SF," and I think if we judge The Rolling Stones by those standards, the novel achieves a high score.  There are likable characters, an escapist but believable plot, lots of realistic science, interesting aliens, and speculations on what life will be like in the future.  The book is a "juvenile," but it doesn't talk down to the reader; you are expected to know who Dante, Homer, George Eliot and Sir Walter Scott are, to know what happened in 1861, and to know what "Carcassone" signifies.  (I confess to failing the test; I had no idea what Carcassone was all about until I looked it up on Wikipedia.)

A good example of classic (and family-friendly) SF by a skilled writer. 

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*I think this 1978 edition I just read is revised; I swear on Cthulhu's grave that when I read The Rolling Stones as a kid Roger and Hazel were writing a radio serial.

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