Review: Time for the Stars

16 Jun

Review Time for the Stars

Now two things stick out like a sore thumb: the first is that you don’t like your brother."

I started to protest but he brushed it aside. “Let me talk.

“Why are you sure that I am wrong? Answer: because you have been told from birth that you love him. Siblings always `love’ each other; that is a foundation of our civilization like Mom’s apple pie. People usually believe anything that they are told early and often. Probably a good thing they believe this one, because brothers and sisters often have more opportunity and more reason to hate each other than anyone else.”

If you need proof of Robert Heinlein’s prowess as a wordsmith, you don’t really need to look further than my reaction to Time for the Stars. The blurb on the back made it sound boring – and my childhood self refused to pick the book up and read it – but when I finally did read it, I was impressed. There’s little of the action I like in this book, for all the wonder of telepathy and advanced technology, but the story is still captivating enough that I read it in one sitting and enjoyed it enough to overlook the handful of regressive (and problematic) aspects.

In an overpopulated future, Pat and Tom (the narrator) are twins – but they’re not identical. Pat is very much the dominant twin, to the point that everyone realises that he’s in charge … even without him doing very much. The twins were surprise babies, something that shaped their early life as their father – a man who hates paying court to the taxman – vigorously resists the need to pay extra taxes for his final children. Anyway, as Pat and Tom enter their late teens, they are recruited by the Long Range Foundation and taught how to use their telepathic talents for actual communication. Eventually, the LRF reveals the real purpose of the tests; they’re sending out a fleet of starships and they need the telepaths to maintain communications between the ships and Earth itself. Unfortunately, there’s a catch. One twin of each pair has to remain behind on Earth. But which one gets to go?

To Tom’s dull resentment, Pat steals that slot for himself with a minimum of effort … until he has a skiing accident that puts Tom in the slot instead. Tom is rushed to the ship before it can launch and hastily prepared for departure, while Pat remains behind and marries the girl they both liked. The ship departs and, in the space of a few months (for them; years pass on Earth) they explore a number of worlds, encountering dangers ranging from deadly alien diseases to intelligent (and hostile) aliens. Tom loses touch with Pat, but – fortunately – is able to establish a link with his descendents. Finally, after an exhausting trip, the crew are on the verge of mutiny … when they are picked up by an FTL ship from Earth. They are taken home, where they discover they’re yesterday’s news. Pat (now a very old man) tells Tom that he expects Tom to take over the family business (on the grounds that Tom is the only male heir left). Tom, who has grown into a man since being separated from his twin, tells him no … and marries one of Pat’s descendents, whom he has been in touch with since birth. And they both resolve to head back to the stars …

Heinlein does a very good job of showing us the relationship between Pat and Tom, through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. The relationship between them is oddly co-dependent, even though it’s clear – as one character points out later in the book – that Tom simply doesn’t like his brother very much. The real joke is that Pat genuinely didn’t want to go on the trip and his subconscious desire to escape provided the accident that put Tom in the slot (and Tom didn’t really want to go either.) Indeed, the story is more about Tom learning to stand up for himself – first against an unfortunate roommate, then against Pat himself – rather than naked adventure. This should be boring stuff, particularly given the situation, but Heinlein makes it work.

The book also draws a line between the settled, the people who want to stay at home (even though it is increasingly overpopulated), and the pioneers who want to explore and settle brave new worlds. Pat makes fun of a pair of girls who are horrified at the concept of interstellar exploration, although – in hindsight – it is clear that Pat isn’t keen on the idea either. And yet, even the explorers have their problems. It’s clear that the reason many people signed up for the trip is to explore, which is why so many telepaths (and others) resent the suggestion they should remain on the ship when they find a new world. People didn’t sign up to be communicators, they signed up to see new worlds with their own eyes. This clashes with the military discipline invoked by the ship’s captain, which is – quite reasonably – the only way to run a ship under such circumstances. But not all of the crew are trained military officers and men.

It’s also clear that the stresses of interstellar travel gradually wore the crew down until, after an encounter with hostile aliens, they are on the verge of mutiny. Heinlein neatly demonstrates how this puts the captain in an untenable position, where he can neither give in without fatally undermining his authority nor continue the voyage without risking outright mutiny. In some ways, Heinlein cheats at this point. Tom and his fellow crewmen do not cross the line because an FTL ship arrives to pick them up and provide (nearly) instant passage back to Earth. For a juvenile book, it has some pretty dark sections.

On a wider scale, Heinlein crafts a world where overpopulation is a serious threat – to the point that, if you have more than two children, you have to pay a head tax – and the LRF is trying to push the borders of human knowledge. Indeed, the description of the LRF’s charter is quite amusing:

The charter goes on with a lot of lawyers’ fog but the way the directors have interpreted it has been to spend money only on things that no government and no other corporation would touch. It wasn’t enough for a proposed project to be interesting to science or socially desirable; it also had to be so horribly expensive that no one else would touch it and the prospective results had to lie so far in the future that it could not be justified to taxpayers or shareholders.”

Time for the Stars also has some wry moments of humour, even in the darkest sections. At one point, Tom notes that good intentions really should be considered capital crimes; at another, Tom’s attempt to court a female telepath is spoilt by her sister, who remained on Earth but keeps looking over her sister’s shoulders. (The fact that this isn’t too different to the relationship between Pat and Tom is ignored by Tom.)

But the book also does have its regressive moments. The de facto leader of the telepaths, up until his near-death on an alien world, is ‘Uncle’ Alfred, a sixty-plus year old black man. He’s described as being practically a saint, the kind of person who “had the saintliness that old people get when they don’t turn sour and self-centred instead.” It passed me by on my first read, because no one makes an issue of his skin beyond the simple physical description, but ‘uncle’ isn’t always a compliment when addressed to a black man. (Where I grew up, ‘uncle’ was what we called elderly people who were family friends, even if they weren’t relatives, so I wouldn’t automatically see it as an insult.) Furthermore, Uncle Alfred (to be fair, he tells Tom to call him Uncle Alfred) is a very manipulative character, neatly manipulating the captain into giving him what he wants without ever crossing the line into outright insubordination. (He also gives a speech on the importance of obeying lawful orders, which reads a little awkwardly these days.) But this is a trait shown by Tom’s Uncle Steve too, who offers some good advice on the limits of arguing with one’s superiors:

Being a staff rating, I’ve served with a lot of high brass. When you are right and a general is wrong, there is only one way to get him to change his mind. You shut up and don’t argue. You let the facts speak for themselves and give him time to figure out a logical reason for reversing himself.”

Oddly, Uncle Alfred is not paired with a twin – he doesn’t have a twin – but with his six-year-old niece. (He took the LRF’s money to ensure that his niece would have a decent childhood.) In some ways, this undermines the central issue of the story – although it hints that the telepaths can build rapports with non-family before it becomes front and centre – and suggests that, eventually, we will all become telepaths. Perhaps twins just find it easier to breakthrough into real telepathy.

A secondary issue, perhaps more irritating, is a certain kind of sexism. Neither Pat nor Tom have much respect for their mother, who is – to be fair – a whiny woman-child when her babies are at risk. Pat manipulates her so well that its clear why her children don’t respect her. Later, Pat declares that he doesn’t have any heirs … and what he means is male heirs, as he had daughters. (To be fair, he means he wants the family name to continue … and it won’t, as – in those days – a married woman would take her husband’s name.) And there is something disturbing about Tom marrying his grandniece, although the romance is so poorly developed that it’s not as noticeable as it was in The Door into Summer. It seems to come right out of left field. To be fair, thanks to time dilation, Tom isn’t that much older than her.

The book also touches on the effects of battling government bureaucracy, although it isn’t clear if we’re meant to applaud or roll our eyes. Pat and Tom’s father is too stubborn to take the easy way out (by trading birthrights with another family, for example) and he keeps fighting, even though it’s clear that it’s pointless:

Dad was stubborn. He could have paid the annual head tax on us supernumeraries, applied for a seven-person flat, and relaxed to the inevitable. Then he could have asked for reclassification. Instead be claimed exemption for us twins each year, always ended by paying our head tax with his check stamped "Paid under Protest!" and we seven lived in a five-person flat. “

But this wasn’t all bad:

Dad used to talk about the intangible benefits of being poor—learning to stand on your own feet, building character, and all that. By the time I was old enough to understand I was old enough to wish they weren’t so intangible, but, thinking back, maybe he had a point.”

It’s clear that Time for the Stars had a greater impact on the science-fantasy field than science-fiction. Anne McCaffrey’s famous The Tower and the Hive series clearly draws on ideas Heinlein put forward in Time for the Stars, from telepaths serving as starship communicators to intergenerational marriages. (In Damia, Alfa Lyon marries the titular character, who he helped raise from birth. There’s at least twenty years between them even though both characters are of legal age.) Heinlein, however, dives much more into the science of interstellar travel, something McCaffrey chose to overlook. But then, her Talents are much more flexible than Heinlein’s telepaths.

Time for the Stars is not the best of the juveniles, nor is it the worst. It’s a little more idea-based than I would have expected, from a juvenile, but the story is developed enough that it doesn’t matter. Overall, despite some regressive moments, it is well worth a read.

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7 Responses to “Review: Time for the Stars”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard June 16, 2018 at 10:41 pm #

    Grumble Grumble

    Pat & Tom are identical twins (it is clearly mentioned that they are).

    The problem is that Pat is the more dominant of the two.

    Note, it is my understanding that it is common for one of a pair of identical twins to be more dominant than the other twin.

    Still a good review.

  2. William Ameling June 16, 2018 at 10:55 pm #

    Actually she (the one he marries at the end of the book) was his great grand niece, she was the 3rd in the sequence of female decendants of his brother that he linked to, in order to communicate). They were identical twins, I remember when then they were first tested, one of the researchers made a comment that they were perfect mirror twins even to being one left handed and the other right handed (I think she called them something like cardio dextra or something similar). I seem to remember that the identicals (twins, triplets, etc) were a lot more likely to be telepathic than non identicals. They even had sets to communicate sideways amongst the 12 ships, 4 sets of triplets and 4 sets of twins to link the triplets, who did not have be young like all of the ones communicating back to Earth.

    Also did you notice that the ship that they traveled on was essentially the same ship design and technology used (converting matter into pure energy), as the ship in “Farmer in the Sky”, although it launched from the ocean rather from Earth orbit.

  3. William Ameling June 16, 2018 at 10:56 pm #

    It looks like Paul and I were writing our responses at the same time!

  4. needanothertimmy June 20, 2018 at 5:44 pm #

    Couple of things I had noticed about the “boy’s books” that RAH had written.

    Perhaps most obvious in this one, was the step by step story building, from adventure to adventure to adventure, and then…. then… when sufficient words has been written the story would wrap up in just a few pages. Oh, yeah, didn’t we tell you, we now have instant FTL travel?

    It also seems that in many of the stories, the lead male, ends up getting the girl almost magically, for example: Door into Summer, Time for the Stars, and Citizen of the Galaxy.

    The instant commitment to marriage continued on into The Number of the Beast.

  5. Christine Robertson June 21, 2018 at 10:26 am #

    This is not a comment on the review, I can’t find any other way to contact you. Please, please, please let me run an editing pass on your books. I’m pretty good at picking up spelling and grammar, and noting the odd inconsistency. I enjoy your books a lot, but my red-pen fingers just itch fiercely quite frequently. I’ll happily run through one of your already-published works to show you what I mean if you wish.

    Regards,
    –Chris Robertson, of who you have never heard 🙂

  6. Christine Robertson June 21, 2018 at 10:29 am #

    er, “0f whom” — saild I could edit. Didn’t say I could type well 🙂

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