I grew up a part of the baby boomer generation of young geeks that discovered science fiction around what the famous quote (attributed to one Peter Graham, later publicized and re-quoted by many, many others) said is the best age: “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” For me and many others it was around that age that I was voraciously devouring a host of science fiction and fantasy writers, including Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Andre Norton, just to name a few. I loved each of the authors whose works I discovered during my pre-teen reading years, and it would probably be hard to say who my favorite is now that I’m older and looking back at those books through the eyes of nostalgia. Had I been asked back then however, I’m pretty sure that I would have said that my favorite writer was Robert A. Heinlein. By age twelve I had read most of his short stories and some of his juveniles, and had loved everything I read. My particular favorite novels were Citizen of the Galaxy and The Door into Summer. Later I would read Stranger in a Strange Land and be captivated by that tour de force, but in the early days of my Heinlein reading, my favorite works of his were his short stories set in his FUTURE HISTORY series. I’ve mentioned in a review of Asimov’s FOUNDATION series that I’m a fan of those authors who project their works against a background of future events and trends, with detailed connections between stories and characters presented as “Future History.”
According to most of what I’ve read, Heinlein was one of the first science fiction authors to do this and to market his stories as part of a future history series. Much like Asimov, Heinlein’s first stories were published by Editor John W. Campbell, Jr. in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in the early 1940’s, along with Heinlein’s detailed chart showing where each story fit into his grand future scheme.
By the late 1940’s, Heinlein had begun to move on from the Pulp magazines such as Astounding and into the more prestigious “Slick” magazines (so named because of the better texture and glossiness of their paper, as opposed to the “Pulps”) such as The Saturday Evening Post and Town and Country magazines. Most of the stories in the collection The Green Hills of Earth (published 1951) come from this period of Heinlein’s work, and all are part of the FUTURE HISTORY series. This collection was one of my favorites in my salad days, and a recent re-reading did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. The collection contains ten stories, two of which were published in 1941 and the rest of which were published between 1947 and 1949. While a couple of them come across as period pieces, most still read well to the modern eye.
The first story, “Delilah and the Space Rigger,” probably grates the most on the modern reader’s sensibilities, dealing as it does with a woman fighting sexual discrimination on a space station, especially when she is confronted by the attitudes of a sexist bull-headed leader of the construction crew. However, Heinlein was ahead of his time in dealing with such an issue, and in his prediction that the future would contain conflict as women strove for equality. Since it seems that battle is still ongoing in certain areas of society, perhaps this first story isn’t that dated after all.
The second story, “Space Jockey” is a competent telling of a day in the life of a space pilot who works the shuttle between the earth and the moon, and his having to deal with the stresses of the job, both those imposed on him by ignorant VIP’s and by the fact that his job’s irregular hours may be destroying his marriage. I enjoyed this story.
The third story, “The Long Watch” is about a young soldier’s response to an attempted coup to take over the Earth’s government by the commander of his nuclear weapon storage moon base. The young man pretends to go along with plotters, but actually attempts to circumvent their plan. This story was probably more compelling to me back when I originally read it, but it’s still a solid story that tells us a little about how Heinlein viewed a citizen’s responsibility to the “greater good.”
“Gentlemen, Be Seated” is a brief story that’s conclusion is basically a pun or play on the words of the title. It was only OK, in my opinion. Not one of my favorites.
“The Black Pits of Luna” is about a space Boy Scout who takes a trip with his family to the moon. It’s kind of a forerunner to Heinlein’s later juvenile novels, with its teenage intrepid hero who succeeds in rescuing his younger brother when the adults around him are unable to. The character of the mother is so helpless as to be a caricature and stereotype, and is a major weakness of the story.
The sixth story, “It’s Great to Be Back” is to my mind perhaps the best of the lot. It’s about a working couple who decide they no longer wish to live in the Moon Colony. Lunar residents refer to themselves as living “in” the moon, as the colony is completely underground. When the former moon colonists return to Earth, they discover that maybe the grass isn’t greener, so to speak. This is definitely one of the more interesting stories in the collection and in the series, both in the ideas it puts forth and in the plot and characterizations. I enjoyed it as much in 2013 as I did in 1967.
The seventh story “__ We Also Walk Dogs” is one of Heinlein’s earliest efforts, and it didn’t seem to flow as well as some of his later stories. Still, it’s an interesting piece, and like many of his works, it offers insight into his political and philosophical views. In this case, a private firm can do almost anything needed of any buyers, be they individuals, governments or other businesses. While the premise is interesting, I thought it was wrapped up a little too easily. Still, like most of Heinlein’s work before he became too preachy, it’s a fun story.
“Ordeal in Space” is one of my favorites from the collection, because its protagonist deals with a couple of things I can relate to in my own life — a fear of heights and a rescue of a cat. Well written, and an enjoyable, believable story.
The collection takes its title from the ninth story, “The Green Hills of Earth” about a spaceman minstrel who wanders the solar system singing and writing space age folk songs when he isn’t working as a repair man on various space ships. Heinlein borrowed the title — and the song of the same name featured in the story — from a 1930’s story by C.L. Moore. Rhysling, the tragic protagonist, is one of the FUTURE HISTORY series’ more memorable characters and both he and his songs are alluded to in some of the other stories in the series. When I was younger, “The Green Hills of Earth” was my favorite story in the collection, and while it’s since been supplanted for that honor by the aforementioned “It’s Great to Be Back,” it’s still a good story.
The final story is in some ways the least satisfying. “Logic of Empire” starts out with an interesting premise — a couple of well-to-do men are shanghaied into virtual slavery on the planet Venus. The story ends fairly abruptly for my taste, and I’d have preferred to see it stretched out into a longer story or even a novel, or failing that, a sequel, but it’s still a pivotal story in the series, mentioning as it does, the character of Nehemiah Scudder. Scudder will be a major off-screen character in the series, as he establishes a religious theocratic dictatorship and ushers in a new puritan age and anti-scientific era in the events following this story. Heinlein never wrote the FUTURE HISTORY stories starring this character’s rise to power, partly due to contractual constraints after he began writing his juveniles and also because he said he detested the character too much. Still, the ending of “Logic of Empire” made me want to go ahead and read the next stories that occur chronologically in the series in the book Revolt in 2100.
All in all, I found The Green Hills of Earth a still enjoyable sojourn into Heinlein’s early work. I recommend it.