Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Three Stories of the Fantastic by Robert Heinlein

I recently acquired a copy of 6xH, a Pyramid paperback from 1974 collecting Robert Heinlein stories from the 1940s and '50s.  This thing has a hilarious cover; is this what we call "trippy?"

6xH is a retitled edition of the collection The Unpleasant Profession of Johnathan Hoag, and seems to have been designed to appeal to the counterculture market.  Besides the hallucinogenic cover illustration (that guy is on his way to fight Adam West, right?) there is the ad copy on the first page, an attempt at offbeat humor. 

My favorite Heinlein works are those more or less realistic stories with space ships, space colonies, and often aliens, things like Time for the Stars or "The Menace from Earth" or Have Space Suit Will Travel. The big award-winning novels about government, Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, basically fit in that category.  I find less appealing his wacky fantasies, in which any crazy shit can happen, like Glory Road or Number of the Beast.  The cover illustration of 6xH, and brief bio of Heinlein on the back of the first page that promises what the people at Pyramid call "masterful stories of the fantastic," led me to believe the stories in this volume would lean towards that "wacky" category.  Early this week I prepared myself for maximum wackiness and read three such fantastic tales, "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants," "They," and "'--And He Built a Crooked House--.'"

"The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" (1957)

This one is a little on the sappy side, a celebration of marital bliss and of the American people.  It reminded me a little of a Ray Bradbury story, or one of the more sentimental episodes of The Twilight Zone.

John Watts is a short fat old man, a retired travelling salesman.  He enjoyed being a salesman, because he had a large territory, and he liked travelling around, seeing the country and its kind people, natural wonders and fine cities, and he got to attend a multitude of state fairs and world's fairs.  His wife Martha traveled with him, and they shared their love of the USA and all kinds of silly private jokes. When John retired he and his wife continued to travel all over the country, and, because travelling on a mission was more fun than travelling as tourists, they pretended to be elephant salesmen scouting out prospective clients.

Martha is now dead, and John is riding the bus alone to a huge All-American Exposition.  The bus has a little crash, but John is (we are led to believe) OK.  At the fair he indulges in many reminiscences of Martha, and sees all his favorite sorts of exhibits and acts, including performers who haven't worked in ages but have come out of retirement for this biggest of all fairs.  By the end of the story it is clear that John has died and this spectacular fair, with its representatives from every corner of the land he loved, is his heaven.  In the final lines John is reunited with Martha with whom he will share eternity.

A silly sentimental piece of work, but good for what it is; Heinlein has a good writing style, the story isn't too long, and it is well-structured.  In my last blog post I talked about Brian Aldiss's "FOAM," a story in which Aldiss seemed to be complaining that his home country of England had gone to hell and Europe was now populated by fat selfish jerk offs.  "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" is the exact opposite of "FOAM," Heinlein celebrating his country and the love of two decent people for each other.

"The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" first appeared in an October issue of Saturn Science Fiction and Fantasy, which has a pretty hilarious cover of its own.  I am now going to think of this illustration every time I see a story in the news about California's latest budget crisis or wild fire or whatever.

"They" (1941)

This is an archetypal story of its kind, well-written but sort of obvious.  Maybe back in 1941 the ending was a surprise to many people?

A guy is in a mental hospital because he thinks the entire world is a facade designed to deceive him about the true nature of reality.  He can't believe in the apparent need to labor every day for sustenance, life's evident pointlessness, the alleged inevitability of death, and the obvious falsities of religion--there must be some greater truth behind all this, A truth that an elaborate campaign of trickery is keeping from him.  He is sure that the logic and reason he has been taught all his life are a scam, and that reality is only revealed in his half-forgotten dreams and by his deepest feelings.  This reality? That he is the center of the universe and immortal!  He begins to plot his escape from the institution....

If this was a mainstream story it would be an effective portrait of a solipsistic paranoid, and a reminder of our own inability to accept death, our doubts about the meaning of life, and the illogical nature of religion.  But this is a SF story, so on the last two pages we learn that the main character is, in fact, correct: the entire world is just a big set, and almost all the people in it props designed to deceive this guy.

Somebody like Van Vogt might have used this story as the first chapter of a novel about a transcendent entity, or the last man on Earth, escaping his captors, growing into his god-like powers and then outwitting his foes and becoming master of the universe.  As the story stands, we have no idea if the main character's escape is successful, why exactly the aliens are deceiving him, or the true nature of the universe, just vague references to a "Treaty" and fears of "assimilation" that are meant to provide that "sense of wonder," the feeling that the universe is more vast and mysterious than we can even imagine.

"'--And He Built a Crooked House--'"  (1941)

Quintus Teal lives in California and is an architect with radical new ideas.  He thinks Frank Lloyd Wright is a piker!  He explains some elements of fourth-dimensional geometry to his friend Homer Bailey, hen-pecked husband of Martha.  Martha is a native of Iowa who regrets leaving the Middle West for earthquake-prone California.

The square is a two dimensional shape; two squares connected form the cube, a three dimensional shape.  Even Homer Bailey and I can understand that!  But then Teal explains to his buddy that if you have access to a fourth spatial dimension you can connect two cubes together to form a tesseract.  Homer Bailey and I are lost!  A house built in the shape of a tesseract would be very efficient, Teal assures us dummies, providing eight times the living space of a three dimensional house that occupied an equal amount of ground space.

All this talk of tesseracts inspires Teal to build a house in the form of an "unfolded" tesseract.  He tricks Bailey into paying for the house, and builds it in short order.  Teal and the Baileys enter the house, only to discover it has been "folded" by one of those California earthquakes!  Genius architect, hen-pecked husband, and Iowa-born ball-and-chain are all trapped in the house, in a universe with four spatial dimensions!

The trio have various adventures trying to escape the confines of the house and get back to Los Angeles.  Perhaps most memorably, they look through a window into another room of the house and can see themselves from behind.  (This kind of thing happened on The Land of the Lost TV show and it blew my mind when I was a kid. That episode, "Hurricane," was written by SF writers David Gerrold and Larry Niven, both of whom were, I believe, very familiar with Heinlein's body of work.) 

"'--And He Built a Crooked House--'" is probably the best of the three stories; not quite as obvious as the others, and more fun, the characters being sort of amusing.


So, three solid, entertaining stories, not nearly as crazy as I had feared they might be. (I still prefer Heinlein's rocket ships and space colonies, though.)


There are five pages of ads at the end of my copy of 6xH.  Some of them are what we would expect, like the ad for space opera scribe and Heinlein influence E. E. Smith's Lensmen and Skylark series.  But then there are some ads I was quite surprised to see. However, if we theorize that this edition of The Unpleasant Profession of Johnathan Hoag was marketed to hippies who would think of Heinlein as "the Stranger in a Strange Land guy" before thinking of Starship Troopers or Space Cadet, ads for vegetarian cookbooks and dream interpretation books make sense.

There's a title few would think of publishing today: How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead.  I wonder what Student Travel In America has to say about hitchhiking.  It is interesting to see two books on how to manage your time advertized; they should have included page counts so we could choose the one which would take less time to read.

It is news to me that Peter Max, the psychedelic artist, had a cookbook!

Here are some odd bedfellows: romance novels, an account of the Nazi takeover of Germany, and an environmentalist book.  Something for each member of the family, I guess.

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