Retro Review: The Door Into Summer

20 May

“Back” is for emergencies; the future is better than the past. Despite the crepehangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better. With hands…with tools…with horse sense and science and engineering.

Most of these long-haired belittlers can’t drive a nail nor use a slide rule. I’d like to invite them into Dr. Twitchell’s cage and ship them back to the twelfth century—then let them enjoy it.

The Door into Summer

The Door Into Summer is one of those books that would be good, although not great, if it wasn’t badly let down by a single plot element. What makes this particularly annoying, at least to me, is that the element in question, which I will discuss below, is completely unnecessary to the plot. Heinlein could have left it out and the plot, insofar as there is a plot, would not have suffered at all.

Daniel Boone Davis is an engineer and inventor who went into business with his partner, Miles Gentry and his fiancée, secretary Belle Darkin, to produce a number of automated devices to assist with housework and a number of other tedious chores. Unluckily for him, Belle is a consummate manipulator and she deceives Dan into surrendering enough of his stock to give her and Miles a chance to take control of the company. Shocked and dismayed, Dan (and Pete, his tomcat) goes on a drinking binge and, midway through a drunken night, decides to go into suspended animation – cold sleep – so he can wake up in a better time. He thinks he’s all set once arrangements have been made to take Pete with him.

Once he sobers up, however, Dan tries to fight back, starting by giving his stock to Ricky, Miles’s stepdaughter (who has had a precocious crush on Dan for years) and then going to confront Miles and Belle. Unfortunately for Dan, Belle gets the drop on him and he finds himself committed to cold sleep anyway. The next thing he knows, it’s the year 2000 and everything is different. Dan, a skilled engineer and genius in his time, is barely even qualified to run a garbage disposal system. He eventually discovers, in a desperate bid to trace Miles, Belle and Ricky, that Miles is long-dead (probably killed by Belle), that Ricky has vanished and that Belle has become a washed-up hag. The scheme to make money off Dan’s invention failed, as the prototype went missing the same night Dan was committed to cold sleep. But Dan sees signs of its existence everywhere.

Eventually, he discovers – to his bemusement – that the person who developed the prototype was called ‘DB Davis.’ Him, in other words. A friend of Dan’s points him towards a time travel machine, developed by a lone unsung genius. The inventor cannot promise if Dan will go forwards or backwards, but Dan puts the pieces together and reasons that he will go back … because he’s already gone back. He goes back in time to 1970, patents his machine (ahead of his past self) and steals the original prototype once his past self has been taken off to cold sleep. He then meets Ricky, gives her his stock and suggests she goes into cold sleep herself once she’s twenty, allowing them to meet as adults. Ricky asks if he will marry her if she does and Dan says yes.

He goes back into cold sleep (again) and greets Ricky when she emerges from cold sleep, marries her … and they live happily ever after, using technology to improve the human condition.

I found this book a little boring when I read it as a child, at least partly because it wasn’t the ‘person goes back in time to meddle’ plotline. I preferred books like The Guns of the South or Axis of Time to The Door into Summer or Lest Darkness Fall, I preferred books that featured a certain degree of action and adventure. It was never on my reread list. As an adult, I can both appreciate the cleverness of the time loop – and what Heinlein got right and wrong about the future – and cringe at the inappropriateness, if not creepiness, of the romance.

Dan himself is very much the idealised engineer, produced years before Dilbert. He’s a very straightforward man, searching constantly for engineering solutions to problems; he’s a firm believer, like Heinlein himself, in better living through technology. He has a somewhat stereotypical view of women’s work – which wouldn’t have been uncommon in Heinlein’s era – but he redeems himself through an awareness that housekeeping is real work. Indeed, his dream is to free women from a lifetime of repetitive drudgery. He calls it – and not without reason – the Second Emancipation Proclamation. One may regard this as mildly sexist, but it was revolutionary for its time.

But Dan is also unwary, in the sense he assumes that everyone is a decent person. He doesn’t realise that Miles is dissatisfied, nor that Belle isn’t what she seems; he acknowledges, ruefully, that they should have asked a few more questions when someone with her apparent qualifications came to work for their small company. He also ignores quite a few signs that married life is not going to be comfortable, starting with both Pete and Ricky showing complete apathy to Belle. I can’t help wondering if Heinlein got conned at some point and he turned it into a story.

There’s less that can be said about the other characters. Miles, like Dan, allows himself to be seduced and manipulated by Belle. He’s a weak man and a poor stepfather. (I wonder if Heinlein had a bad experience with stepparents too, as Starman Jones and To Sail Beyond the Sunset also include poor stepparents, while both The Door into Summer and Citizen of the Galaxy feature stepdaughters turning on their stepfathers.) We really don’t see enough of Ricky to get a real sense of her as a person, which weakens the character quite badly. And Pete is a cat. Heinlein’s love for cats is on full display within this tome.

Heinlein’s presentation of future technology is both interesting and completely wrong. He did not, for example, predict either the computer or the microcircuit. His version of 2000, therefore, is very much the past’s tomorrow, the story of a world where you can navigate a spaceship by slide rule and fix a balky space drive with a wrench. It follows a linear progression from Heinlein’s era, but takes no account of game-changing technologies that were in their infancy when Heinlein put pen to paper. And yet, in some ways, the advanced technologies of the alternate future have had less effect on society than ours. Dan openly admits that there is a long way to go.

But this is all part and parcel of the better living through technology attitude. Dan is openly scornful of those who try to retard technological development – see the quote above – and he’s right. Technology has made life better for millions of people. Heinlein may have got a lot of details wrong, but he was right about that. Our problems can be solved by technology – and the problems created by the technology can be solved by more technology. The future is bright and full of promise.

I’m actually reminded of the time when Emma Watson, who was being interviewed about her role in the remake of Beauty and the Beast, asked what Belle did all day. And the answer would be cooking, cleaning, sewing and all the other tasks that women had to do in the days before dishwashers, microwaves, vacuum cleaners and mass-produced clothing. Belle would have been expected to keep house for her widowed father, not dance and sing around the village every day. Her world is one so alien to ours that we don’t comprehend just how much work she would have had to do every day. Technology liberates!

That said, there is an aspect to the plot that cannot be overlooked. And it is one that is not easy to discuss.

It isn’t uncommon for a growing child, of either gender, to have a precocious crush on someone older. Dan does not do anything to encourage Ricky’s crush on him before he takes the cold sleep; he assumes, perhaps correctly, that Ricky will grow out of it well before she reaches adulthood. However, after taking the cold sleep, Dan develops a certain degree of obsession with Ricky which comes across as more than a little creepy. On one hand, Ricky may be the only person from his past still alive (or at least the only one he has any interest in seeing again); on the other, the Ricky in his mind is still a child. He did not, at that point, meet the adult Ricky. And then, when he goes back in time, he makes arrangements for the grown-up Ricky to follow him into the future, where they can get married. But she is the one to ask him to marry her.

There’s nothing illegal here, as far as I can tell. They’re both adults when they get married; it struck me, the second time I read the book, that there is nothing keeping Ricky from thinking better of the arrangement as she grows older and eventually backing out altogether. It isn’t as if she doesn’t have plenty of time for second thoughts. And yet, I find it creepy. It lets the book down, to the point where I find myself thinking less of Dan. And Heinlein, because there is no need for the subplot. It might have worked better, perhaps, if they’d met again in the future without prearranging everything.

But apart from that, The Door into Summer is a remarkably ingenious book. The time travel aspect, and how it leads to a stable time loop, works very well. Dan may come across as slightly condescending – sexist, by our standards – but he genuinely realises that women have a hard time of it and wants to help them. (Personally, I’d like one of his machines. It would be better than a vacuum cleaner.) And yet, it has not aged well. The technological development is poor, by our standards, and then there is the creepy romance.

There are times when it is easy to forget that Heinlein came from a very different age, with different standards. He wrote books that were, by the standards of his time, fantastically progressive and liberal. But The Door into Summer is one of the books that makes it impossible to forget.

4 Responses to “Retro Review: The Door Into Summer”

  1. George Phillies May 20, 2018 at 10:17 pm #

    Robot cleaners
    See irobot.com. Robot Vacuum. Robot mop. Robot pool cleaner, Robot gutter cleaner. Attempt at robot outside window cleaner.

    And there are now competitors.

  2. MishaBurnett May 20, 2018 at 11:22 pm #

    I listened to this one on audible recently, and I agree with you regarding the romantic subplot with Rickie. It was disturbing to me and I couldn’t see that it added anything to the story.

  3. PhilippeO May 22, 2018 at 6:32 am #

    Is it creepy during Heinlein times ? In Japanese anime, this plot still survive sometime, famously in Penguin Drop. there are several viewpoints that it still apparently normal in part of America, in 60-70s for 30s adult to marry teens. So young man with pre-puberty girls crush (as long as uncomsumated) is apparently acceptable.

    • PhilippeO May 22, 2018 at 6:35 am #

      Usagi Drop sorry not Penguin Drop

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