The Summer of Robert A. Heinlein: The Door into Summer
On the heels of last summer's exploration of some of Arthur C. Clarke's greatest hits, this summer we're moving on to another of the Big Three: Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is probably the most challenging of the three, with his brand of science-fiction unafraid to get political, satirical, and offensive. Though he studies and respects the underlying science, he is not as concerned with the details the way Clarke is, nor does he often deal with the high-flung future fantasy of Asimov. His brand of science-fiction is grittier, focused more on hard-boiled characters, wicked dialogue, and provocation. He deserves his reputation as one of science-fiction's most talented literary figures, with a bibliography that includes some of the most influential novels of the Twentieth Century (sci-fi or otherwise), and though I couldn't possibly cover all of his great writings in a single summer, I do hope to cover some of the highlights of his career, from his juvenile pulp fiction early works to the somber political meditations of his later years. I intend to reveal over the course of the season exactly what it is that makes Heinlein required reading for anybody interested in science-fiction's golden age.
So it's about a cat lady, a giant birth control pill container, and a bonsai tree
When I set out to do this Summer of Heinlein, the first book I put on the list after Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers was The Door into Summer, because I knew I had to get at least one time travel story into the rotation. It also came highly recommended by people who've read a bunch of his work. I'm particularly nitpicky about time travel, even though I love it, so I was both excited and nervous going into this one.
That said, knowing it was about time travel before reading it spoiled things a bit, as the story doesn't reveal the full extent of its premise until it starts ramping up towards the climax. For most of the book, it seems the only time traveling being done involves people cryogenically freezing themselves and waking up in the future. This is cool (pun intended), and I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't been waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for the rest of the time travel shenanigans to be revealed.
The Door into Summer is about an engineer named Daniel who is scammed out of his company by Miles, the man he thought was his best friend, and Belle, the woman he thought was madly in love with him. Embittered and ruined, he decides to "take the long sleep" and wake up in the year 2000, at which time he'll be legally able to work as an engineer again. He changes his mind, but is once again tricked by Belle, who uses a mind-controlling drug to convince him to sign over everything he has left and go through with the cryogenic process. When Daniel wakes at the Turn of the Century, he's able to make a reasonable living and finds that life in the future is pretty great.
Not 2000 AD!
It is at this point that hints about more time travel start to appear. Daniel discovers inventions that feel like they were ripped right out of his mind that were invented years earlier by a man with his exact name. He visits Belle to discover that her plans were somehow thwarted and that she's been driven to the brink of madness by the decades. Then, eventually, he learns of a man who might just hold the secret to traveling not only forward, but backwards through time, and that's when Daniel's mind begins exploding with possibilities.
Let me get one thing straight right away: I love this book. It's not quite my favorite of the novels I'm covering this summer--I haven't gotten to that one yet--but it's a very close second, and not just because it deals with time travel. This is a story that is perfectly harmonious with the strangths of Robert Heinlein in the early-to-middle years of his career. His main character--Daniel--thinks and behaves like an engineer, and I have no doubt his way of processing the world is very similar to Heinlein's. He is also snarky and charming in a complete mess kind of way, and the adventure he finds himself on is full of wild ideas and crazy sci-fi possibilities.
It also gets time travel right, deciding on very clear rules about the mechanics of time travel that are never broken. Heinlein uses what would later be the Kip Thorne model. Put simply, it's the idea that paradoxes are impossible, that future events dictate the present as surely as past events do. I admit I have a soft spot for this configuration of time travel, and I prefer it over the multiple timelines or many worlds hypotheses that plague the subgenre. Still, even stories that try to stick with the Kip Thorne model tend to veer from it, make little mistakes, or hint at temporal changes the way a cheesy horror movie can't help but hint that the teenager-stalking serial killer somehow survived. The Door into Summer doesn't do this, even doubling down on the rules established in the novel's final pages with the meditation on "one line of ink."
I really dig these Doubleday covers
Heinlein isn't content to just stick to perfectly realized time travel, though. As previously mentioned, he also deals with cryonics--a popular sci-fi staple--and mind-control drugs (which, if I'm honest, aren't discussed enough). According to rumor, early drafts also involved aliens, Mars, and all kinds of other craziness, but even without them, it's clear Heinlein is having fun exploring as many ideas as he can in what turns out to be one of his tightest, most breezy novels.
There's also some awesome futurism, where Heinlein once again predicts with startling accuracy an invention that exists today (in this case, the Roomba). Daniel's stock-in-trade is automated machines designed to help around the house, and the first such invention described in the novel is a small, round robot that charges itself at a base and works entirely on its own at scheduled intervals to vacuum carpets and clean floors. It's so close to the real thing, it's scary. There's also some pretty good predictions about the year 2000, a few of which are close to the mark.
But once again, we need to discuss Heinlein and his treatment of women. On one hand, this novel is more sexually progressive than most of Heinlein's early works. He makes the case that the fifties-model housewife has a much harder and more demanding life than a privileged man living in a patriarchical society, and Daniel describes his job as doing his best to alleviate that injustice. On top of that, the first half's main villain, Belle, despite being an awful human being you are supposed to loathe, is one of Heinlein's most complex and most well-written female characters to date.
You knew Japan would like this one
On the other hand, one of Daniel's primary motivations is his sexual, romantic love for an eleven year old girl he helped raise as a surrogate uncle. That's so messed up, I don't even know where to begin. This girl, Ricky, has a few good character moments, like the tearful goodbye to Dan at Girl Scout Camp when he tells her his plan to meet her in the future, when she's older, to marry her. However, the fact that Ricky never loses her childish idealism (or realizes that Dan courting an eleven year old is just creepy) makes the eventual consummation of her relationship with Dan feel unearned and disturbingly inappropriate.
But the best character in the book is someone I haven't mentioned yet: Pete, a semi-intelligent cat. I would read a dozen books about Pete, and I'm not even lying. Heinlein understands cats, and he understands cat people. In the ultimate analysis, my love for this book stems not from the perfect use of time travel, not from the tigher narrative or the well-drawn characters, not from the science-fiction playfulness or nifty futurism, not from Heinlein's maturation as a writer or political thinker, but from Pete. I want Pete to be real, so I can have him in my house, curled up next to me and purring in his sleep.
-e. magill 7/11/2019
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: