Thursday, November 27, 2014

"Free Men," "Blowups Happen" and "Searchlight" by Robert Heinlein

I think of Heinlein as an optimistic writer,
so the skull, to me, seems an
odd choice for the cover image
The subtitle on the cover of my 1972 Ace copy of The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein reads "The Greatest Stories by the Most Honored Writer in Science Fiction."  I like Robert Heinlein, so if these are his greatest stories, I should love them, right?  Let's hope so!

"Free Men" (1966)

"Free Men" is billed as "a powerful novelette of the future, here published for the first time."

Morgan is what we might nowadays call "a prepper!"  He has been stockpiling supplies in an abandoned mine, so when foreigners nuke Washington and Detroit (I guess in '66 it was still considered worthy of a nuke) and conquer North America with their half tracks and vortex guns, Morgan naturally becomes a leader of the guerrilla resistance; the mine is their HQ.  When a member of the resistance wants to retire and return to normal collaborationist society two of Morgan's subordinates chase him into town and kill him with a knife, but then the enemy catches up with them.

When the surviving member of the pair returns to the mine he finds an enemy helicopter has pinned his comrades down and that Morgan is mortally wounded.  A new leader must be chosen, to carry on the resistance to the invader.

This is a decent story, though it lacks the resolution or twist ending we generally see in a story; it feels like a brief episode in a longer drama.  Heinlein seems to be using the story as a way to address some of his common themes, like freedom and the importance of decisive and selfless leadership and reliably loyal subordinates to a ship or a revolution or any other dangerous enterprise.  Because Heinlein doesn't let on who has conquered the United States (and explicitly indicates it was not the Soviet Union or Great Britain) the story has some of the abstract quality of a fable; it is not about the specific 1966 concerns like the Cold War or Communism, but timeless issues faced by people throughout history who find themselves under the heel of an invader or in some other crisis.

I like "Free Men," but as I have said elsewhere, I prefer Heinlein's stories that focus more on characters and speculations on life in the future in space and other planets.

"Blowups Happen" (1940)

"Blowups Happen" first appeared in the same issue of Astounding as the first installment of A. E. Van Vogt's Slan.

Our story revolves around the Earth's single nuclear power plant, in a time period before man has achieved space flight.  As Heinlein tells it, an atomic reactor is so unstable that top-class engineers and technicians have to monitor all the dials and handle all the levers at all times or everything could go boom.  Nobody is sure if this hypothetical boom would destroy all of Arizona, all of North America, or all of humanity.

The terrible responsibility of preventing the explosion puts tremendous stress on the boffins, so the plant has a squad of psychologists who watch the engineers as carefully as the techs watch the reactor, and these headshrinkers have unilateral power to suspend any tech at any time.  As the story opens Dr. Silard orders the relief of atomic engineer Harper, largely because Harper's bridge game has been suffering, a sure sign of unhealthy psychological changes!  Over the course of the story several engineers "crack up" or, as it is sometimes phrased, "blow up."

This is a story about science, and Heinlein lets us have it with both slide rules, unleashing upon us dissertations on how a nuclear reactor works ("The tortured beryllium yielded up neutrons, which shot out in all directions through the uranium mass") and on the physiological sources of psychological stress ("Situational psychosis results from adrenalin exhaustion.")  While one bunch of characters struggles to develop a nuclear reaction that can power a spaceship, another tries to figure out the origin of all those craters on the moon. 

Trigger Warning: This
back cover contains gender stereotypes
related to housework!
On the very same day that the world's best psychiatrist, Dr. Lentz, declares that a psychological crack up at the controls and subsequent reactor explosion are inevitable, the U. S. Navy's best mathematician, Captain Harrington, unveils his theory that an advanced civilization once lived on the moon and all those craters are the result of the planet-wrecking explosion of an ancient lunar nuclear reactor!  Both of them insist that the atomic reactor in Arizona must be shut down or civilization is doomed!  But shutting down the reactor will ruin the economy and everybody's political career!  Luckily, a day later, Harper, who was reassigned to the research department after being let go from the watch team, solves everybody's problem: he has discovered a nuclear fuel that will allow the reactor to be operated from a safe distance, on an orbiting space station.   

The reverent attitude towards science displayed in "Blowups Happen" reminded me a little of Van Vogt's idea of Nexialism from Voyage of the Space Beagle (Lentz is knowledgeable in several scientific disciplines, and claims all of them, because they all rely on symbols, are really about the same topic) and Isaac Asimov's psychohistory from the Foundation books (Lentz uses an equation that includes symbols representing social, psychological and economic factors to predict future history and the wisest possible course for mankind to follow.)  Science is the solution to all our problems!  We also get the spectacle of scientists manipulating the public, from the man-on-the-street to politicians and successful business executives--for their own good, of course!

(In "Blowups Happen" we see the same skepticism about democracy and humanity as a whole, and the same glorification of a committed, intelligent and educated elite, that we saw in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, written like 25 years later.)

I sometimes don't like these science-heavy stories, and stories in which scientists get to lord it over the rest of us, but Heinlein constructs the story very neatly, the pacing and length are just right, all the psychology stuff adds a human dimension, and the stuff about the moon was interesting and took me by surprise, so I quite enjoyed "Blowups Happen."  Bravo for our man RAH.

"Searchlight" (1962)

When I read the collection The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt I learned about the short short SF stories printed in 1962 issues of Scientific American as part of ads for Hoffman Electronics.  "Searchlight" is the story Heinlein wrote for one of the ads; it takes up only five pages of my copy of Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein.

A little girl, a blind piano prodigy, has been on the moon on a USO tour, but on her way back her shuttle crashes nobody knows where.  How to rescue her before her six hours of oxygen run out?  The rescue team uses a laser to transmit a tone to the surface of the moon; they split the moon into 88 sectors, and each sector gets a different note.  The kid can identify the note, and so narrow down the area where the search party must look to one 88th of the moon's visible surface.  I don't quite understand the technical aspects of how they do this and why they do it (can't they just transmit a recording of a voice saying a number from 1 to 88 to each sector?) but I don't know anything about lasers or radio or wavelengths or any of that, so I'll take Heinlein's word for it that this makes sense.

Entertaining enough. 


"Blowups Happen" is a classic of the type of story it is, so I think its inclusion in a collection of Heinlein's "Greatest Stories" is fitting.  But "Free Men" and "Searchlight," while good, are not as good as a bunch of Heinlein stories I can think of right off the top of my head--"Menace from Earth," "And He Built a Crooked House," "--We Also Walk Dogs," and "Black Pits of Luna" come to mind at once.  So far this is a good collection, but not really a "Greatest Hits" or "Best of," as the cover text of my edition implies.

In the near future I'll read the other two fiction pieces in The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, "Life-Line" and "Solution Unsatisfactory," both of which are pretty famous.  Maybe they will be as good as "Blowups Happen."

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