Review The Green Hills of Earth/The Menace from Earth

30 May

Robert Heinlein’s short stories have always been something of a hit-or-miss affair. Some of his shorts have been very good, either exciting or thought-provoking, but others have been quite weak. The short story is an art that few writers can master – I’m honestly not very good at writing shorts – as one must either write within a developed universe (which Heinlein did, to some extent) or get across a great deal of information in a very small amount of words.

Heinlein’s shorts were originally written for magazine publication – it was the glory days of the old science-fiction magazines – and were later compiled into books. This set of short stories were placed in two collections – The Green Hills of Earth and The Menace from Earth – which were later republished, by Baen Books, as a single volume. The majority of them fit into Heinlein’s Future History – which will be discussed later – but there are aspects of the stories that probably required editing to make them wholly part of the shared universe. There is also a considerable amount of values dissonance.

I do not intent to look at each of the stories in great detail – only a handful demand that sort of attention – but it’s interesting to note the common themes. Most of them revolve around the sort of men (and women) who become pioneers, the people who put their lives on the line, time and time again, to explore new territories, boldly go where no man has gone before, and cope with disasters. Space Jockey, Gentlemen Be Seated, The Black Pits of Luna, It’s Great to Be Back, Ordeal in Space, The Green Hills of Earth, Sky Lift and Water is for Washing are all focused on such heroes, many of whom are seemingly normal people until they find themselves being tested by circumstance. It’s Great to Be Back, for example, features a couple who spent years on the moon and hated every moment of it, only to discover – when they returned to Earth – that they no longer liked it. They promptly returned to the moon, where they were happy. In a similar vein, The Black Pits of Luna features a teenage boy who goes on a lunar walk with his little brother, who gets lost. After finding him, the boy determines to return to the moon as soon as possible. The story works very well, at least in part, because Heinlein captures the teenage male voice so well. Anyone who’s ever been on a family trip as the elder son will sympathise.

I was desperate. “Look, Dad,” I said, keeping my voice low, “if I go back to Earth without once having put on a spacesuit and set foot on the surface, you’ll just have to find another school to send me to. I won’t go back to Lawrenceville; I’d be the joke of the whole place.”

The Long Watch, by contrast, is a prequel of sorts to Space Cadet, the story of a young officer who sacrifices his life to avert a military coup. It’s a strong tale of heroism, which Heinlein milks for all the sentimentality he can. Arguably, he overdoes it.

Several of the other stories represent attempts to peer into other genres. We Also Walk Dogs features a concierge service that can be hired to do almost anything (as long as its legal) trying to put the pieces together to accomplish a near-impossible task. The Year of the Jackpot focuses on statistical odds, with the characters calculating that bouts of periodic insanity are all too common. It has an uncomfortable resonance today. By His Bootstraps is a neat time-travelling story, quite like The Door into Summer, where a man gets press-ganged by a dictator and, eventually, becomes the dictator (and has to press-gang his former self). The time loop is neat, even though the future is quite depressing. Project Nightmare features military telepaths struggling to avert a Russian nuclear attack; Goldfish Bowl has a team of researchers stumbling across far more advanced (unseen and incomprehensible) aliens, who see humans as pets. It does not, I should note, have a proper ending. It is a creepy little story that seems out of place.

Columbus Was a Dope is a good example of how a short story can make its point. Two men debate the value of Christopher Columbus’s voyage across the ocean, concluding, in the end, that it was sheer foolishness. But they’re having the argument on the moon. Heinlein neatly shows us, as the men depart, that they’re actually wrong. Where would they be without men like Columbus and Armstrong?

Logic of Empire is longer, but it makes the same general point. Two men make a bet that conditions on Venus (still presented as a habitable world) are not akin to slavery. Unwisely, they take ship to Venus to find out … and get enslaved. The POV character rapidly comes to realise that the vast majority of men on Venus are enslaved and, when he gets home, he discovers to his horror that people on Earth don’t want to know. One can argue that the distance between Earth and Venus makes it impossible to care, but there is a more salient point. Slavery is, and always has been, part of the human condition.

It’s not a point that is discussed often these days. It’s easy to forget that blacks weren’t the only slaves in America, although the other slaves were not always called slaves. Nor is it easy to realise, as Heinlein points out, that slavery sprang from conditions that made it economic. The idea that black slaves were inferior was invented as a later justification for keeping them enslaved. It wasn’t the reason for enslaving them. As one of Heinlein’s characters points out:

You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity. Colonial slavery is nothing new; it is the inevitable result of imperial expansion, the automatic result of an antiquated financial structure.” [SNIP] “You think bankers are scoundrels. They are not. Nor are company officials, nor patrons, nor the governing classes back on earth. Men are constrained by necessity and build up rationalizations to account for their acts. It is not even cupidity. Slavery is economically unsound, non-productive, but men drift into it whenever the circumstances compel it.”

The last two stories appear very different, at least on the surface. And yet, in many ways, they share similar themes.

Delilah and the Space-Rigger may be the first science-fiction story featuring a woman trying to break into a male-only field. Tiny, the Chief Construction Engineer of Space Station One, is shocked to discover that his latest communications officer is a woman. His first response is absolute horror, a belief that her presence will distract the men … and a number of attempts to get rid of her. (Interestingly, Heinlein makes it clear that Tiny wasn’t entirely wrong.) Gloria – on the other hand – is equally determined to stay. A battle of wits and stubbornness ensures, which ends with Tiny reluctantly conceding that Gloria has won her place.

It reads oddly today, in many ways. Gloria is competent at her job, a point that is made subtly clear when Tiny tells her that one of the techs is a good man … and she agrees, noting that she trained him. But, at the same time, she is neither a kick-ass heroine nor a bitch who will not accept even an unconditional surrender. Gloria is smart enough to make it clear that she wants to be one of the boys and that she will act like one of the boys (she went by ‘G’ on her paperwork to hide her all-too-revealing first name) … and she will seek no special privileges for herself. She earns respect, rather than demanding it; indeed, perhaps more importantly, she is smart enough to allow Tiny room to retreat. It’s better to allow someone to come to the right conclusion than force it down their throats, even if (particularly if) the conclusion is right. People resent such treatment and, if you have to have a working relationship with them, it can come back to bite you.

Indeed, Heinlein neatly illustrates the problem with ‘lean in’ advice. The good side is that it ensures that the women gets noticed, which makes it harder for her to be exploited; the bad side is that it’s hard to tell, particularly if you haven’t practiced, where to stop. The blunt truth is that men do not instinctively understand women and vice versa. Most men know, at a subconscious level, techniques for minimising the apparent threats they pose to other men; they understand, all too well, that most men who think they are being challenged will react badly. A demand for something – anything – will generate pushback, where a more reasonable request may not. It is impossible to learn such skills from books – you have to practice – and it is very easy to mess up. Girls who were tomboys as kids tend to get much further in male-dominated spheres.

Heinlein also demonstrates the problem with the modern-day demand that men call out other men for bad (read sexist) behaviour. A secure man, like the narrator of the story, can point out when someone is being an asshole, but an insecure man – a teenager, for example – cannot without risking serious consequences.

She does her work okay. You give her orders you wouldn’t give to one of the men—and that a man wouldn’t take.”

As oddly as it reads in places, Delilah and the Space-Rigger is far better at getting the idea across than more modern works. And, to Heinlein’s readers, it would have been revolutionary.

In some ways, The Menace from Earth is very different from Delilah and the Space-Rigger; in others, it has quite a bit in common. Holly Jones may actually be Heinlein’s most successful attempt at portraying a teenage girl; indeed, she is superior to Poddy of Podkayne of Mars, who came later. Holly is both a very typical girl and one with great – and plausible – dreams of becoming a spaceship designer. Living on the moon, Holly works as a guide when she’s not in school … a good life, until trouble intrudes in the form of an actress from Earth who captivates Holly’s boyfriend. Holly is non-too-pleased about this until she is forced to risk her life to save the actress from her own stupidity, an act that reveals that her boyfriend genuinely loves her.

It’s perhaps the strongest story in the book, both in background and foreground. Luna City is astonishingly detailed for such a short story, with both familiar and alien elements. And Holly herself is a living breathing person. The actress, on her way back to Earth (like some of the other people in the story collection), takes the time to reassure Holly that her boyfriend loves her … and remind her not to rub salt in the wounds of his mistakes. Like the previous story, giving someone room to retreat is a very good idea. Just because someone made an ass of himself is no excuse for making matters worse.

Overall, most of the stories in this collection showcase precisely why Heinlein became popular in the first place. The combination of sweeping visions of the future with real-life people, true to his era, works in a way many other stories do not. Indeed, the people are the core of the stories, something which is true of most of Heinlein’s works. As Delilah and the Space-Rigger put it:

Sure, we had trouble building Space Station One—but the trouble was people.”

6 Responses to “Review The Green Hills of Earth/The Menace from Earth”

  1. daniel May 30, 2018 at 11:45 pm #

    Ive always loved “We Also Walk Dogs” something in it just rally reasonates

  2. William Ameling May 31, 2018 at 12:00 am #

    If you pay close attention, the main character of the Long Watch is one of the names that Space Cadet uses as one of it’s Icons. It is one of the names (I think that it was at least 4 names) that during EVERY roll call, someone else answers for, from the beginning of the Book until it’s very end. (At least that is what I remember noticing about the two stories).

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 31, 2018 at 12:05 am #

      IIRC the events of “The Long Watch” are mentioned in Space Cadet.

  3. William Ameling May 31, 2018 at 2:34 am #

    But how few of us remember reading those books and stories, much less what actually happened in those stories.

  4. Charles Harris May 31, 2018 at 8:28 pm #

    > blacks weren’t the only slaves in America,

    The grandfather of a family friend was an escaped slave who served as a drummer boy in the Union Army and wrote a book about it. Yes, he was white.

  5. William Ameling June 1, 2018 at 6:43 am #

    The middle Atlantic Colonies had a lot of indentured servants back in the 1600s and into the 1700s. The New England Colonies generally did not allow indentured servants as well as slaves. In fact they usually did not allow ships to unload indentured servants. A good book to read is “The Cousins’ Wars” which covers how the English Civil War (1640s and Cromwell) lead to the American Revolution lead to the American Civil War with a lot information about the colonial policies, emigration, politics, etc of England, later Great Britain, tied into the development of the American Colonies and then the United States in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s. It is a very interesting book. There were many forms of forced labor, not just slavery of African Blacks, but of native Americans, as well as the poor and unwanted populations in what became Great Britain and the other European Powers of the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s. There was also the struggle between the old rural Royalist economy/social order versus the educated middle classes ( who were partly Puritan and other religious dissenters) in England and then the American Colonies/USA.

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