Robert A. Heinlein Essay - Robert A. Heinlein Short Fiction Analysis

Robert A. Heinlein Short Fiction Analysis

With few exceptions, Robert A. Heinlein’s best-known stories are from his “Future History” series, conceived in 1939-1941 as taking place in a consistent fictional universe over the next two to seven centuries. Ordered by fictional chronology in one 1967 volume, that series is less consistent in detail than in general outlines, leading up to and taking place in “The First Human Civilization,” an ideal social arrangement allowing maximum liberty for the responsible individual. This ideal of human progress, not without setbacks, is also evident in tales and novels not explicitly set against the “Future History” setting, variations of which have formed the backgrounds of many subsequent writers’ works as well.

As a storyteller, Heinlein seems less concerned with perfect craftsmanship than with what the story can point to; overt didacticism was a feature in his fiction long before the novels of his later career, in which it became a problem. What is the use, Heinlein seems to ask, of thinking about the future except as an arena for testing various strategies for living? Heinlein characters learn mostly from themselves, however, or older versions of themselves, in a deterministic cycle that leads to social progress and individual solipsism, or to the belief that nothing outside oneself really exists. Heinlein was a craftsman, however, whose plots are generally adequate and sometimes brilliant, whose style is authoritative and concise at best, whose concern with process did not blind him to human goals, and whose command of futuristic details was often overpowering.

“—We Also Walk Dogs”

The best-crafted story from Heinlein’s early, most influential period, “—We Also Walk Dogs,” does not strictly fit the parameters of the “Future History.” It does, however, illustrate the underlying theme of progress, by means of roughly equal parts of scientific and social innovation, fueled by the desire for personal gain, enabled by the freedom to pursue it. Begun for the purpose of walking dogs for a fee, General Services, Inc., the story’s “corporate hero,” has grown into a multimillion-dollar “credit” business with tens of thousands of employees near the turn of the twenty-first century. A “typical” job is shown at the start, when a wealthy dowager asks the company to help her greet her party guests by “stereo vision,” while they speed her by interurban rocket to the side of her injured son. Doing this relatively simple service for her, they revel in their organizational abilities and overcharge her for her spoiled incompetence.

The sideshow she causes is only a prologue to the story’s central action, which requires the company to do what is practically impossible. For an interplanetary conclave on Earth, the government wants all the aliens to be provided with approximations of their homeworld environments. The major problem is nullifying gravitation, which requires a new field theory and the practical harnessing of it within ninety days. Locating the one man, O’Neil, who could possibly do it is simple; convincing him to do so is not. Independent and reclusive, he can be bought only by an exquisite china bowl, the “Flower of Forgetfulness,” the priceless property of the British Museum.

The ease with which the General Services team manipulates people to buy O’Neil off is mirrored by the ease with which he devises an antigravity effect, both accomplishments resulting from proper organization and application of resources. The story does not stop there, however; with an eye on the profitability of the “O’Neil effect” in “space navigation, colonization, recreation,” General Services maneuvers both the naïve inventor and the slow-acting government into an “independent” corporation with Earth as its sole customer and O’Neil as figurehead. The physicist’s reluctance finally is overcome when the General Services team request “visiting rights” to the bowl now in his possession.

The pieces dovetail perfectly; the craftsmanship is fine; and the manner of telling and the social attitudes conveyed are vintage Heinlein. The future setting is indicated not only by the existence of planetary governments, intelligent aliens, and powerful “service” occupations but also by abbreviated references to futuristic technology. Some of it is today outmoded (“voders,” or wire-spooled vocal recorders), routine (punch-carded data banks), or environmentally unsound...

(The entire section is 1831 words.)