Review: Expanded Universe

5 Jun

“Each copy is guaranteed – or double your money back – to be printed on genuine paper of enough pages to hold the covers apart.”

Heinlein’s Introduction

Expanded Universe, published in 1980, is an odd collection of miscellaneous short stories, non-fiction articles and commentary written by Heinlein himself. It is an expansion of The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, but well-worth reading in its own right. And yet, given that it collects a number of stories that weren’t published too often, it is also a guide to Heinlein’s earlier and more limited works. There are insights here, but also reminders that Heinlein took time to develop into the Grandmaster of Science-Fiction we admire.

Some of the stories can be dismissed fairly quickly. Cliff and the Calories, for example, features a girl who is trying to diet in hopes of impressing her boyfriend. It’s sloppy, sentimental and very unlike Heinlein. They Do It With Mirrors is a murder mystery with a curious resolution (and Heinlein himself notes that crime does not pay – enough – to convince him to keep writing whodunit stories.) No Bands Playing, No Flags Flying takes an unsentimental look at bravery; A Bathroom of Her Own is a political story of dirty tricks and naivety, perhaps based on Heinlein’s own experience, with a surprising twist at the end. Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon and Searchlight are both stories of adventures on the lunar surface, the former reminding me – again – why I didn’t like being a Boy Scout. But it does have a scoutmaster who actually remembers he isn’t one of the boys.

Other stories take a look at how technology can change the world – and wonder, in a curiously pessimistic way, if we will survive our own technology. Blowups Happen suggests that there will always be disasters, no matter how many precautions we take; Heinlein, in his reflection, points out that nuclear disasters have never been as bad as the naysayers claim, a sharp response to the hysterics of anti-nuclear activists. Solution Unsatisfactory, by contrast, speculates on what might happen when the United States develops an ultimate weapon; radioactive dust, dropped from the skies. It is a curious story, one that was outdated even when written; indeed, in many ways, it illustrates the limitations of Heinlein’s thinking at the time. It’s worth studying in more detail.

The story is focused around Clyde Manning, a retired US Army officer who became a congressman after being forced to retire for heart problems. (Panshin suggests, in his detailed analysis of the story, is that there was more than a little wish-fulfilment in this.) Manning is hand-picked to run a project intended to produce new weapons for the military, a project that eventually leads to KO Dust. Dropped from the skies, the dust can exterminate a city’s population within hours. Manning, believing that this changes the world, insists that the dust be used to force Germany to surrender and establish American hegemony over the entire world … in self-defence. The alternative, he insists, is a cycle of destruction that will end with civilisation reduced to barbarism.

But each shift in the balance of power – a war, the foundation of an international authority to control the world – puts Manning closer and closer to absolute power. And, when it ends, Manning is the de facto world dictator. Did he aim for power all along? Or did he merely take advantage of each and every opportunity to enhance his position? And what happens when his dicey heart kills him? Panshin suggests that there is a whiff of sulphur around Manning and he isn’t wrong. Manning, in most of Heinlein’s stories, would be the villain. Is he the villain here? Even if he is nothing more than a well-intentioned extremist, doing what he believes has to be done, he’s laying the groundwork for tyranny or global war. It is a disturbing story, although it glosses over points where someone really should have said ‘no’ to Manning.

Life-Line, pretty much the first story Heinlein wrote (or at least the first one he sold), is both different in tone to his later stories and yet, in many ways, a clear sign of Heinlein’s approach to such issues. He postulates a new piece of technology – in this case, a device that lets you predict your date of death – and then asks himself what impact it would have on the world. In this case, the losers are insurance companies. As one of them moans: “It gets worse every day. We’ve paid off thirteen big policies this week; all of them taken out since Pinero started operations.”

They do try to stop the inventor, first by taking him to court in hopes of getting an injunction placed on his activities. The inventor, however, pours scorn on this suggestion:

It is true that the [insurance firm] has lost business through my activities, but that is the natural result of my discovery, which has made their policies as obsolete as the bow and arrow. If an injunction is granted on that ground, I shall set up a coal-oil-lamp factory, and then ask for an injunction against the Edison and General Electric companies to forbid them to manufacture incandescent bulbs.”

And the judge agrees:

There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute nor common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.”

The inventor is one of Heinlein’s most personable characters, alternatively lambasting the hidebound scientists in universities while praising the press (who talk like stereotypical reporters from that era) and daring the insurance men to stop him. He is both a good guy and a bad guy, in some ways; he has a point, but he’s also something of a jerk. His reluctance to explain how his device functions works against him, although he’s quite correct to argue that he can prove that it works through correctly predicting dozens of death dates. And his refusal to share means that the secret of the device dies with him (it’s revealed at the end that he predicted his own death.)

Despite its crudeness, in places, Life-Line touches on matters that have considerable modern-day relevance. Each technological development leads to winners and losers – Amazon has displaced many traditional publishers, while Uber has threatened taxi companies – and its natural for the losers to try to turn back the clock. But they can’t turn it back. Companies – and governments – that fail to adapt go the way of the dinosaur. Heinlein does not touch on other matters – if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do? – but he doesn’t have to in order to make his point. Change happens. Adapt or die.

The Happy Days Ahead is a curious mixture of fiction and non-fiction, the story of story that starts with the idea ‘what would I do if I ran the government?’ It may well be the precursor to stories like Executive Orders or The General’s President, where someone from outside government is appointed to fix the mess caused by the professional politicians. In this case, a presidential candidate appoints a dark horse candidate as VP, which puts her in the Oval Office when the president dies in a drunken accident. Yes, her: Heinlein not only presented a female president, he presented a black female president. She promptly ignores suggestions she should resign and starts improving the country. As is always the case in this sort of story, the suggestions work perfectly and the country thrives. And many of her suggestions are very good ones.

The non-fiction articles are of considerable interest, although many of them are quite dated now. “Pravda” Means “Truth” and Inside Intourist discuss Russia and the communist threat to the west, outlining how communists bend the truth to their will as well as detailing the dangers (particularly to your wallet) in travelling behind the Iron Curtain. Some of the truths are still with us today, most notably the fact that communists will not only try to keep people ignorant, but repeat lies time and time again until they sink in beyond all possibility of doubt:

“We were waiting in the Kiev airport, May 14. The weather was foul, planes were late and some 30 foreigners were in the Intourist waiting room. One of them asked where we were going and my wife answered that we were flying to Vilno.

“Vilno? Where is that? My wife answered that it was the capital of Lithuania, one of the formerly independent Baltic republics which the USSR took over 20 years ago—a simple historic truth, as indisputable as the fact of the Invasion of Normandy or the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“But the truth is not pravda.

“A young Intourist guide present understood English, and she immediately interrupted my wife, flatly contradicted her and asserted that Lithuania had always been part of the Soviet Union.”

I’ve never been to Russia, but from what I’ve heard Heinlein understated the case. Spies everywhere; a tourist was not (is not?) supposed to go anywhere without a government minder. The USSR was a prison camp above ground and a mass grave below. And yet, there are people who hold it up as a great dream. It was a nightmare.

The remaining pieces of non-fiction touch on this to a greater or lesser degree. Heinlein’s call to arms – and nuclear testing – that eventually lead to Starship Troopers is overdramatic to my ears, but Heinlein wasn’t actually wrong. The Soviet Union was inherently untrustworthy, lying to its own people as well as to foreigners who wanted to believe the pretty lies. And yes, there was a reason to want nuclear testing stopped that benefited the USSR; they were behind at the time and knew it, although the US didn’t know it. Later, Heinlein discusses the importance of patriotism, the spin-offs of the space program (which has paid for itself a thousand times over) and the future within our grasp. It can be ours if we reach out and take it.

Overall, Expanded Universe is something of a mixed bag, but the stories within its pages are well worth a read. And Heinlein’s commentary is often amusing, often droll … and an insight into a man who’d had a remarkable career.

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4 Responses to “Review: Expanded Universe”

  1. Matt Harris June 6, 2018 at 3:59 pm #

    I would love to see the Plain English Amendment enacted. Unfortunately, no text for it was given, so I am thinking Mr. Heinlein never got the wording right.

  2. sam57l0 June 7, 2018 at 11:44 pm #

    I recall reading the Ginny learned Russian before this trip.

  3. David June 8, 2018 at 3:52 pm #

    I had a 4 month computer mainframe support gig in Moscow in 1979/80 I think; Brezhnev times. And yes, you were watched all the time, but we could go anywhere in the Moscow ring road- of course our car had special plates so it was obvious were were (exploitable) foreigners. I was not allowed to communicate directly much with the people I was supporting, even workshops full of fluent English speaking technicians had to endure translation from my English to Russian through a NON_TECHNICAL translator. It was a crazy gig, culminating in being offered a job in Moscow, which I regretfully declined

  4. David Graf June 12, 2018 at 4:50 pm #

    Heinlein was one of those people that even at his most boring is more interesting than most everyone else.

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