Monday, December 1, 2014

"Life-Line" and "Solution Unsatisfactory" by Robert Heinlein

A 1966 edition 
Today I finished the fiction in my 1972 Ace printing of The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. The subtitle of my copy is "The Greatest Stories by the Most Honored Writer in Science Fiction;" let's see if "Life-Line" and "Solution Unsatisfactory" qualify as some of RAH's "greatest."

"Life-Line" (1939)

This is Heinlein's first published story; it appeared in Astounding.  We often hear that the Golden Age of Science Fiction began in 1939, and this story, along with A. E.Van Vogt's "Black Destroyer" and Isaac Asimov's first published stories, are sometimes touted as markers for the beginning of this period of SF history.  It is actually easy to see why readers would feel this way; "Life-Line" is a well-written, and adult, story that is about how society and individual people respond to a major scientific breakthrough.  "Life-Line" is also a good example of what Heinlein is all about: we see in this, his first SF story, such common RAH themes as the dynamic superior individual embattled by the boring hidebound masses; the sympathetic and sensitive businessman; and the skepticism of government which has made Heinlein the archetypal libertarian SF writer.

Doctor Pinero has invented a machine that can predict when you will die, even if your death will be the result of some freak accident.  Heinlein succeeds in making this invention, which is far more fantastic and incredible than the rockets, ray guns and robots which fill up so much science fiction, seem almost plausible.  Academics, whom Heinlein portrays as a sterile, sclerotic elite, assert that such an invention is impossible.  When evidence begins to accumulate that Pinero's apparatus truly works, life insurance companies, whom Heinlein depicts as corrupt rent-seekers, try to use government regulation to put an end to his business, and, when the government does not comply, turn to murder.

I read "Life-Line" in my teens and have always remembered one striking scene, in which Pinero learns that a young couple will be killed the very day on which they have come to be assessed by his machine.  Like the story as a whole, this scene is brief but powerful, provoking in the reader both human emotion and thought about the ramifications of new types of knowledge.

Like a lot of people, I enjoy SF adventures full of violence, terror, and sex.  But SF can be more than that, and "Life-Line" is a good example of SF that is about people and society as well as science, is economical (25 pages in this edition), and emotionally and intellectually affecting.

Top notch, deserving of the "greatest" label.

"Solution Unsatisfactory" (1941)

Written over half a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, "Solution Unsatisfactory" is a sort of alternate history or speculative prediction of the course of World War II, the development of nuclear weapons, and the post-WWII conflict between the US and USSR.  Under the pseudonym "Anson MacDonald," the story was published in the same issue of Astounding as Heinlein's "Universe."

While the British Empire battles the Axis powers in Europe and Africa, the US develops an atomic weapon against which there is no defense.  Instead of predicting a super bomb, Heinlein's story posits the use of a radioactive dust which kills all life it touches and renders wide swathes of territory totally uninhabitable.  The US tries to pressure the Germans to make peace with the British, but when they refuse the US provides some of the dust to the RAF and it is used to exterminate all life in Berlin, ending the war.

Knowing that development of the dust is within reach of many nations, including tyrannies like the Soviet Union, the US tries to use its temporary monopoly on the dust to become dictator of the world,  outlawing war and demanding that all aircraft be turned over to the US.  The Soviets, it turns out, completed development of the dust shortly after the destruction of Berlin, and a dust war between the US and USSR erupts that sees many cities, including New York, exterminated.  After four days the Americans win the war and set up a system of world domination.  When the US public, President and Congress object to this system, the Army overthrows the President, Congress and the Constitution and installs a dictator who rules the world.

The story is told as a first-person narrative by the assistant to Clyde Manning, the Army officer and politician who manages the nuclear weapon project and masterminds the coup that makes him dictator of the world.  The story is an apologia for Manning; sure, Manning, as the driving force behind developing the super weapon and current global dictator is hated the world over, but our narrator assures us that all his moves were absolutely necessary to protect the human race from extinction. Manning is portrayed as having all the attributes of an ideal leader; he is self-sacrificing, skilled at selecting and managing subordinates, thoughtful or decisive when appropriate.    

I think of Heinlein as a basically optimistic writer, but this story is pretty pessimistic in its assumptions that atomic weapons will threaten the extinction of the human race, render America's traditions of individual rights and representative government defunct, and usher in a world dictatorship.  Still, the story is characteristic Heinlein, taking ideas we have seen again and again to their limits, like the importance of a ship having a single captain who is obeyed unquestioningly, and of the justice of one superior person (or an elite of superior people) lording it over lesser men who cling to outmoded traditions.    Maybe I need to rethink my view of Heinlein as an optimist?

This is a good story, but it is a little too much like a history book to have the human appeal of a story like "Life-Line" or "Menace from Earth" or "--We Also Walk Dogs." In fact, "Solution Unsatisfactory" reminds me of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress; both are somewhat pessimistic works about ideas in which character takes a back seat, both purportedly the narrative of a participant in a societal upheaval.  To be fair, Heinlein does include some decent human interest stuff in "Solution Unsatisfactory," most prominently Estelle Karst, a female scientist who is essential to the development of the dust.  Karst got into the nuclear research business to develop medical uses for radioactivity, and when she realizes that her work has led to a super weapon that has massacred millions of people in Germany, she commits suicide.  But we spend most of our time with Manning and the narrator.

I'm on the fence over whether this story belongs among Heinlein's "greatest."  It is certainly interesting seeing somebody extrapolate how the world would react to the development of a nuclear weapon and make predictions about the course of the Second World War and the Cold War from the vantage point of early 1941.  It doesn't necessarily feel like one of Heinlein's best to me, but I wouldn't be surprised if other Heinlein fans put it in the top five or ten of their own favorites.


The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein is a good selection of early Heinlein stories, definitely worth the time of an SF fan.  I think this would actually be a good collection for people who have never read Heinlein but are curious as to what Heinlein is all about, because none of the stories is bad, and none suffer from the problems of Heinlein's later novels, which can be too long, too chatty, and/or devolve into plotlessness.


My Ace edition of The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein has five pages of advertising in the back, but none of them are for science fiction books.  Two are for collections of puzzles (and doodle analysis!)

A page is given over to John Macklin, of whom I have never heard.  Apparently he is a guy who relates "true" stories about psychic phenomena.

Hans Holzer, another guy I never heard of, also has a page to himself.  Holzer seems to have been on the haunted house and ghost beat, and to have talked to great Americans who have passed to the other side, like Thomas Jefferson and Elvis Presley.  Maybe I'm crazy, but to me Holzer looks a little like the guy on Rising Damp and in those Kubrick movies, Leonard Rossiter.

These pages are pretty light on the advertising text (these products sell themselves, I guess) and the final page of the book is the sparest of all, headed by the single word "OCCULT."  Like the Holzer and Macklin books, these volumes appear to be "true" accounts of weird events.  Charles Fort is of course famous, and the Ace edition of Book of the Damned includes a preface by fabled SF editor Donald Wollheim.  (This preface actually qualifies as a piece of SF in its own right, and you will have little trouble finding it if you google around a little.)   The others I never heard of.  Lefebure seems to specialize in sexy witches (and if you could, why wouldn't you?)

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