Reading Heinlein: Life-Line, Let There Be Light, The Roads Must Roll

The Future History series, much like the Narnia series, presents a problem of reading order. Relatively early, Heinlein sketched out the outline of the history in which these stories take place, and then he jumped about between time periods, so for example Requiem, the story of the death of a man who wanted all his life to go to the moon, but who didn’t manage until the day of his death, was written in 1940 — nine years before The Man Who Sold The Moon, the story that tells you why he never got to go to the moon before that.

So the question is whether to read them by publication order or by story-chronological order. I’m choosing the latter, partly because that’s how the stories are presented in The Past Through Tomorrow, but also in part because the versions of the stories in that book are often slightly different from their original publications — usually just a couple of minor infelicities fixed, and occasionally an extra line thrown in to tie them together, but still enough to make “publication date” a slightly misleading term.

However, the stories I’ll be writing about today are, while not presented in precise chronological order, still all from the very beginning of Heinlein’s career, and so they let us gain a reasonable picture of what Heinlein’s earliest work was like.

And the concerns here are definitely those of the late-30s progressive — a hatred of cartels and conspiracies, whether they be huge companies using their monopoly power to stifle innovation, or the Mafia influence that was making itself felt in both government and the unions at the time.

Life-Line, the first Future History story, is also Heinlein’s first fiction to be published (he’d previously written a novel, For Us, The Living, designed to popularise the ideas of Upton Sinclair, but it remained unpublished until nearly seventy years later). It’s also one of the marker points people use to signal the start of “the Golden Age of Science Fiction”, and it’s easy to see why. Life-Line has faults — its characters come in three easy-to-write flavours: The Expositor, who handily goes around giving infodumps in language that no human has ever used, The Humorous Journalist And/Or Heavy, who does the same but has flashes of dialect like “say, Doc” or “What is all this flubdubbery?”, and The Nondescript Supporting Character, who has no characteristics at all except for the ability to move the plot forward.

But despite this, Life-Line is a genuinely excellent story. The basic premise (a man invents a machine that can tell people the date of their death) is a fairly decent SF one that’s still getting variants told today (the Machine of Death stories do something similar, though not identical). What makes it different is firstly that while Heinlein works out some of the human and philosophical consequences of the machine, he also looks at political and social ones — the insurance companies being put out of business, and their likely reaction to it.

More importantly, there’s a real flair to the actual writing — something that was very rare in the pulp magazines of the day. Having Pinero killed off because of his invention is the obvious right thing to do in the story (so of course Heinlein does it). Choosing not to show the killing, but to cut from him eating his last meal to the scientists examining his predictions, and having them set fire to the predictions so they won’t know the dates of their own deaths, is slightly cleverer, but still merely the sign of a competent writer.

But the ending as written is absolutely masterly:

He accepted it and dumped the litter on the rug. He placed the tin basket on the table before him. He tore half a dozen envelopes across, set a match to them, and dropped them in the basket. Then he started tearing a double handful at a time, and fed the fire steadily. The smoke made him cough, and tears ran out of his smarting eyes. Someone got up and opened a window. When Baird was through, he pushed the basket away from him, looked down and spoke.

“I’m afraid I’ve ruined this table top.”

That’s a genuinely great ending. For a first published story, it really is quite shockingly good.

Let There Be Light, on the other hand, seems like an early attempt to write Life-Line, and a much less good one. The very broad outlines of the story are the same — inventor comes up with society-changing new invention (in this case dirt-cheap solar energy), but people working for a cartel of big companies send gangsters after him because they don’t want their monopoly broken.

But in every way this basic outline is dealt with less well here. The invention doesn’t lend itself to particularly interesting vignettes in the way the death-machine does, and really this hardly counts as an SF story at all, because the story is mostly concerned with the process of inventing the energy source, not with its effect.

In fact, I’ll go further — it barely qualifies as a story, since the plot is simply resolved by our hero making the details of his investigation public and then telling the gangsters “no need to kill me, it won’t help”.

What the story’s actually attempting to do is be a screwball romantic comedy, but the sexual politics of the story are utterly horrible. Some still try to claim Heinlein for feminism, but just look at this story — two people, both with doctorates in their respective sciences, get together to work on a problem. The woman is stunningly good-looking, has the original idea to work together, and comes up with every good idea involved in the invention. She also makes the coffee, does the cooking, and gets sexually harassed by her male colleague, who is ugly, boorish, doesn’t think of even the most obvious ideas without her suggesting them to him, and who gets all the credit and gets called a genius. And at the end of the story he physically drags her, protesting, into the court-house to get married, at no notice, when she’s asking him to let go of her and saying she won’t marry him. But it’s played as a joke, because “As they entered the building, she was still dragging her feet — but not too hard.”

There’s honestly nothing good to say about this story. The one good idea in it — the stuff about cartels wrecking innovation — Heinlein did much better in Life-Line, and the rest of it is just crap.

The Roads Must Roll is an odd one, because while it’s clearly meant as an attack on a very thinly-veiled version of the Teamsters’ Union (which was very influenced by two groups Heinlein despised, Communists and the Mafia, at the time), it reads now as a parody of Atlas Shrugged, but written a good seventeen years before Rand’s “masterpiece”.

Seriously — the plot is that there is a futuristic means of transport which relies on technically-skilled specialists to run. One of these people has convinced himself that they should be the ones to run the world, because society can’t function without them and therefore they’re the most important people in the world. He gathers a cadre of like-minded technically-skilled people around him, and then sabotages the workings of the transport system while broadcasting to the world about how the sheeple need to be ruled by the technicians who are the real workers.

The difference is, Heinlein’s “Galt” is the villain, and loses at the end, because all the sensible characters realise what a stupid and evil plan it is…

It’s odd, given how Heinlein and Rand are so often compared, and how similar their philosophies would later be (while Heinlein started his writing life as a socialist, by the mid 70s he was saying “Ayn Rand is a bloody socialist next to me”), that Heinlein would so eerily prefigure her most famous work, and completely destroy the foundations of it, but we’ll see as we go along that just because Heinlein can see a political position is stupid at one point in his life doesn’t mean he won’t take it later — or sometimes even in the same book…

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