In which archaic sexism and racism provide unwelcome distraction from dubious physics

Time for the Stars — Robert A. Heinlein

Time-For-The-Stars

1956’s Time for the Stars feels like a regression for Heinlein, a book that if I did not know when it was published I would have said was one of the earlier juveniles. It’s also oddly downbeat, in that the protagonist’s most significant contribution to the world is something he could have done at home, something that makes his other efforts almost pointless.

Pat and Tom are twins and while Tom sees the relationship as one of equals, to everyone else it is obvious Pat is the one who calls the shots. Much to their own surprise, the twins learn that they share a telepathic bond, something that makes them candidates to take part in the Long Range Foundation’s interstellar exploration program. There are some catches…

The first is that only one twin can go; the other has to stay on Earth to provide Earth with their end of the two-cans-on-a-telepathic-string communications system. The second is that while one of the advantages of telepathy is that it circumvents the speed of light limitation, this is in no way true of the star-ships; should the explorers return to Earth, they will find far more time has passed for the Earth than for the ship. The third and most important catch is the real advantage telepathy offers is a way to get information back to Earth even though the ships themselves are almost certain to be lost out in the stars.

Although it seems like Pat has grabbed the plum position of doomed interstellar explorer for himself, an … accident sidelines Pat and it is Tom who is assigned to serve as one of the Lewis and Clarke’s telepathic communications staff. Pat is forced to stay at home in a life of pampered luxury, married to the girl both Tom and Pat wanted.

Aside from the unexplained loss of Lewis and Clark’s sister shipVasco de Gama1, the expedition begins positively enough. The very first system targeted, Tau Ceti, proves to have an Earth-like world right in the habitable zone; Constance, as the planet is named by its discoverer, even has a complex ecosystem much like Earth’s. Although one crewman gets himself et by the local apex predator, the dangers seems to be nothing humans have not handled in the past.

That’s about the last positive moment in the mission. It turns out Constance’s complex ecosystems include microorganisms that will happily infect humans and many of the crew are lost. Time dilation alienates the crew from their old nations on Earth and the telepairs themselves often find themselves permanently losing synchronization with each other due to the passage of time. Subsequent worlds prove more inhospitable than Constance and the seeming friendly world orbiting Beta Ceti turns out to have hostile, well-organized native. The loss of a considerable fraction of the crew, including one dear to Tom, at the manipulators of the natives leaves the survivors bitterly divided over the question of whether they should continue or try to make it back to Earth. An unexpected development renders the incipient mutiny irrelevant but at the cost of making the survivors just as irrelevant as the mutiny

The exploration part of the plot seems oddly rushed because Heinlein spends more than half the book just getting to the first exoplanet. The plague and the next two systems are handled in about six pages, the debacle on Elysia in 14, and the aftermath and resolution in about 30 pages. It’s odd and reminds me of similar issues in Farmer in the Sky. Speaking of familiar elements, the debacle on Elysia reminds me of Starman Jones; the natives in this seem to be moister versions of the ones Max and his companion run afoul of.

Beta Ceti, a massive and therefore short-lived star, should have no business having a habitable world. There’s no reason the  explorers  would have targeted a

a small giant, thirty-seven times as bright as the Sun.

because it would be obvious the star would not last long enough for complex life forms to appear and this setting lacks the means to detect exoplanets from the Solar System. Odd choice on Heinlein’s part because the other stars in this - Tau Ceti, Beta Hydri, an unnamed G-star - are plausible choices.

Heinlein drops the equation for the Lorentz–FitzGerald formula into the text and the novel itself is a literal example of the famous twin paradox but Heinlein’s grasp of relativity still seems shaky. None of the trip times are correct, given the accelerations specified.

Given that telepathy completely breaks relativity, I don’t know that it makes any sense to discuss whether the way he telepathic communication is affected by relativistic star-flight is realistic.

Previous Heinlein protagonists were clearly ill-informed but anyone looking for a very obvious example of an unreliable narrator could do worse than to look to Tom. He seems honest enough in his conscious mind but self-deception and a lack of perception mean he often misapprehends what it going on around him.

There’s a general rule that the more time a parent is on stage in the juveniles, the more obstructive they are. Pat and Tom’s father is a nice example. Some of the family’s financial difficulties are because of population tax problems caused by the twins putting the family over the limit but more of it is caused because their dad is a cane-waving bombastic fool, very much like the father in Tunnel in the Sky.

Maybe Dad did not handle the emergency right. Many families get an extra child quota on an exchange basis with another family, or something, especially when the tax-free limit has already been filled with all boys or all girls. But Dad was stubborn, maintaining that the law was unconstitutional, unjust, discriminatory, against public morals, and contrary to the will of God. He could reel off a list of important people who were youngest children of large families, from Benjamin Franklin to the first governor Of Pluto, then he would demand to know where the human race would have been without them? — after which Mother would speak soothingly.

[…]

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.

As you might guess from the above, this is another Malthusian Doom book, sort of.

“There can be only one answer — living room! Room to grow, room to raise families, broad acres of fertile grain, room for parks and schools and homes. We have over five billion human souls on this planet; it was crowded to the point of marginal starvation more than a century ago with only half that number. Yet this afternoon there are a quarter of a million more of us than there were at this same hour yesterday — ninety million more people each year.

The interesting thing about that is that the growth rate is something like 2% a year; a doubling time of about 35 years. The fact that the population has only doubled in the last century tells us that in fact this rate must be atypically high, presumably due to Malthusian limits since overcome. Despite the tragedies inherent in the legions of implied dead in the quoted paragraph, the people of America in this book still persist in breeding like rabbits, a grim condemnation of cultural stasis.

Speaking of cultural stasis, there is this from Pat to Tom: 

But now you must buckle down and assume your responsibilities in the family business.” He stopped and breathed heavily, then went on more softly, almost to himself. “I had no sons, I have no grandsons; I’ve had to carry the burden alone.

Pat does have descendents. He just doesn’t have male descendents. It is true that Vicky comes across as strong willed but the way she will exert her will is by controlling her husband, Tom, like that’s hard. I know someone could argue “well, some societies are egregiously sexist and Pat’s a dick besides” but I cannot think of a single Heinlein where the sexism breaks in the women’s favour.

On a related matter, not only is the saintly old African American on board is called “Uncle” but he also turns out to be one of the crew who never got to have had any schooling. Uncle Alfred does manage to show the other telepaths how to seem obedient and submissive while maneuvering the boss into a position where they have to give someone like Uncle Alfred what he wants. Yeah. It’s not Farnham’s Freehold but I think you can see Farnham’s Freehold way off in the distance.

Speaking of foreshadowing: in 1941’s Methuselah’s Children, protagonist Lazarus Long gets squicked by the idea of being romantically involved with a distant relative. In contrast, Tom has no such problem hooking up with his grand-niece Vicky, someone with whom he has shared an intimate mental connection since she was an infant. For those of you going “ew”, Heinlein got much worse in the 1960s- so so much worse - so if this bit bothers you, go read some of the later stuff and the Tom/Vicky pairing will seem comparatively innocent.

I’m left dissatisfied with this. Aside from the games with the unreliable narrator, those elements that are not recapitulations from earlier books are regrettable. It’s almost a regression and I was left with the impression of something like a trunk novel. I know the next book is better so I am left to wonder what exactly went wrong with the genesis of this novel.


  1. The loss of the Vasco de Gama serves two purposes. One, it underlines how dangerous exploration is. Second, it ensures that Lewis and Clarke and not the Vasco de Gama – headed for Alpha Centauri – is the first to find an Earth-like world.

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