It has been an age since I have read Heinlein, in fact I think that the last one was Starman Jones (1953) and I borrowed it from my high school library way back in the 1980’s. Considering I read so many Arthur C Clarke and Asimov novels in my early years I have no idea why Heinlein was mostly ignored; after all he was considered to be in the same league, a triad known as the “big three” of science fiction writers. Heinlein gets another chance at this point because I thought he would be a great antidote to the grimness of The Watch Tower. The Menace from Earth is a collection of short stories from the 1940’s and 1950’s. Considering many current science fiction writers feel that technology has taken humanity well into the realm of science fiction (and they are right), reading old science fiction is an interesting exercise in terms of how ideas, attitudes and themes are either prescient or dated.
The first story, The Year of the Jackpot, is all about mathematics, probability curves and the very fate of humanity. A character with the memorable name of Potiphar Breen notices that a number of strange occurrences are clustering and could mean bad news for humanity. It’s an interesting premise that is well executed, but what is of most significance is that it includes the first use of the word geek, which is used to describe a dead Russian scientist. Also it opens with a beautiful woman undressing on a city street who is, of course, rescued by the unusually named protagonist.
By his Bootstraps is recognized as one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time and that is a fair assumption considering it is a perfect distillation of the chicken or the egg time paradox. It’s brilliantly written and also features nubile scantily clad slave women thirty thousand years in the future who are totally willing to be subservient. Columbus is a four page joke at the expense of humankind’s shortsightedness. There are no scantily clad women in this one, even though it is typical science fiction magazine fodder. The Menace from Earth has a perfect science fiction title, but it turns out to be tale about a teenager’s romantic problems with her love interest who is attracted to a gorgeous woman from Earth. The fact that they all go flying with wings on their backs in a giant underground cavern on the Moon isn’t really enough to hide the fact that it is basically a stock standard teenage love story.
Things get better with Sky Lift, which tells the story of pilots on a mercy dash to the Proserpina space station out near Pluto in their extremely fast torch ships. This is quality hard science fiction told in a compelling way and you’ll never think about G-force in the same way again, or at least I won’t. There are no scantily clad women in this one either, although the main protagonist thinks about them for a while. Goldfish Bowl features two scientist who are investigating two giant pillars of water in the Pacific that seem to be connected to abductions of humans by mysterious balls of energy. This story is well executed, intelligent and though provoking, all without featuring beautiful women, although there are some naked men.
Project Nightmare is, like The Year of the Jackpot, set in the context of cold war tensions that could escalate given the right conditions. Heinlein places a number of characters with psychic powers in just such a situation with chilling results. Stories like this would have been quite frightening in the 1950’s, despite their fantastic elements. The final story, Water is for Washing, would have appealed in a macabre way to people living on America’s west coast, but ultimately it’s hard to define it as a science fiction story. Is a tale of survival during a natural disaster science fiction? Not by todays definitions perhaps.
The Menace from Earth is an interesting collection of short stories, some dated, but with others that still impress. They are all well written and Heinlein certainly knows how write a satisfying ending. He also knows how to take a story forward at the right moment and stimulate the reader’s urge to know what comes next and how it will end. One of the criticisms leveled at Heinlein is his apparent sexism, in particular during his later period. If you view these early stories from that position then yes, you can argue that the manner in which women are portrayed in these stories is problematic. Did the female character in The Year of the Jackpot really need to undress on a crowded street? Of all the things Bob Wilson could have encountered thirty thousand years into the future in By his Bootstraps, did it have to be scantily clad slave women? Perhaps not, but Heinlein would have certainly known his market in the late 1940’s and 1950’s - teenage boys.