The Past Through Tomorrow

Robert A. Heinlein
Future History


I know my comments are going to come off as half-hearted for the most part but in the two years between when I bought this and when I apparently stalled in mid-book (going by the two library slips I found between the pages) I read this until it was battered and scuffed. Part of the issue is it is hard to read these stories as naively as I did when I was 14 but I think it’s also possible I reread this so often I buffed off my Heinlein receptors.

Introduction (1967) [Damon Knight]:

I didn’t reread this for mechanical reasons: although the book is in pretty good shape given how hard it was used and how old it is, the binding is beginning to go and the pages in the intro looked like they were going to fall out.

Life-Line (1939):

An inventor discovers an infallible way to predict lifespan, only to discover premonition brings no comfort if there’s no way to alter what has been written; the murderous hostility of companies whose income is threatened by the device is almost a side issue.

This is mostly notable as Heinlein’s first published short story, although I do like a nice “precognition: threat or menace” story. The hat tip to Life-Line in Methuselah’s Children was probably intended as an Easter egg to long time readers; ominously it foreshadowed what was to come in Time Enough for Love and worse.

The Roads Must Roll (1940):

An uppity engineer schemes to use America’s dependence on what amount whole towns on conveyer belts to grab power for himself!

The setting is completely ludicrous but details like

” The author (of Concerning Function, the text the strikers are inspired by), Paul Decker, disclaimed the “outworn and futile” ideas of democracy and human equality, and substituted a system in which human beings were evaluated “functionally” - that is to say, by the role each filled in the economic sequence. The underlying thesis was that it was right and proper for a man to exercise over his fellows whatever power was inherent in his function, and that any other form of social organization was silly, visionary, and contrary to the “natural order.”

The complete interdependence of modern economic life seems to have escaped him entirely.

rings true; it’s completely believable that a group of people might find a text that told them it was right for them to grab power very convincing. That said, there is considerable cognitive dissonance between the admission that the Strike of 1976 was totally justified and the determination of the bosses to make sure the workers never again gather the will to repeat it. At least for the most part they try to buy the workers off, rather than doubling down on oppression.

The scenes with Australia’s Minister for Transport reminded me of the scenes with the Canadian Minister in Oath of Fealty (athough Heinlein doesn’t flag his ignorance of Australia quite as plainly to me as Niven and Pournelle did theirs of Canada) and I wonder if that’s homage or just the result of similar narrative needs.

For all the fuss over the Roads, the timeline diagram shows that they vanish around the time of Logic of Empire, having lasted much longer than the Pony Express but not as long as steamboats.

The custom of becoming utterly dependent on something not all that difficult to disrupt is a bit of a pattern in the Future History and we will see it again.
This was quite popular in its time and was adapted to radio by Dimension X and X Minus One.

Blowups Happen (1940):

Building reactors out of pure atomic explodium turns out to have the downside that working in an evironment where one mistake can doom a state, a nation or even then the entire world is stressful, which only increases the odds of a fatal mishap.

It’s clear that Heinlein updated this (there are references to the Manhattan Project) but as I recall he admitted the ideas about nuclear power in this are unfixably dated. Even granting that its from an era when life was cheap, it’s really hard to believe people would react to “all the experts agree this could all go up in a flash of MC^2 the first time a techie sneezes” by allowing the hell-plant to be built, particular since by this point solar power was a solved problem. The whole set up feels contrived, to drive up the consequences of the plot.

A number of Heinlein works have speculations about how the Moon or the Fifth Planet fell victim to misapplied technology and this is one example.

The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950):

Bold venture capitalist DD Harriman uses half-truths, lies, fear, deception, fraud and chicanery to kick-start the Age of Space. Unfortunately for him, he manages to make himself too vital to the process for his own good.

Unfortunately for Heinlein, he painted himself into a corner with the resolution of Blowups Happen, although he also gave himself an easy out since it’s perfectly reasonable that rockets using modified atomic explodium might not be entirely safe.

At some point I plan to maliciously drop

He caught his breath and went on, “Take safety for instance. Do you know why I let LeCroix take that ship out instead of taking it myself? Do you think I was afraid? No! I wanted it to come back-safely. I didn’t want space travel getting another set-back. Do you know why we have to have a monopoly, for a few years at least? Because every so-and-so and his brother is going to want to build a Moon ship, now that they know it can be done. Remember the first days of ocean flying? After Lindbergh did it, every so-called pilot who could lay hands on a crate took off for some over-water point. Some of them even took their kids along. And most of them landed in the drink. Airplanes get a reputation for being dangerous. A few years after that the airlines got so hungry for quick money in a highly competitive field that you couldn’t pick up a paper without seeing headlines about another airliner crash.

That’s not going to happen to space travel! I’m not going to let it happen.
Space ships are too big and too expensive; if they get a reputation for being unsafe as well, we might as well have stayed in bed. I run things.”

into the next heated discussion between fans of safety versus development in space. Sadly, Harriman’s determination to keep space safe is going to work out about as well as his determination to go there in person.

I cannot help but wonder if the reason space is still not paying for itself decades later in the Future History (to the point America drops it entirely) had anything to with the fact it was a space-added con man who got the whole thing going.

The end of this story foreshadows a number of other Heinlein stories, where protagonists are forced to abandon dreams due to pressing responsibilities. For the most part later protagonists don’t get as bitter a pill as does poor DD.

Delilah and the Space-Rigger (1949):

A space station of engineers is thrown all a-tizzy when it turns out the new hire is a girl. Sure she can do her job but can that compensate for the mesmerizing power of her boobs?

If anyone is planning on citing this as Heinlein in feminist mode, it is vital you not let the person you are citing it to actually read it. It had not aged well.

Space Jockey (1947):

A spaceman’s wife’s unreasonable failure to do everything in her power to facilitate her husband’s career forces him to choose between marriage and career. Happily, she comes to her senses.

It’s probably just as well they Gift of the Magi their way out of this because although it has been many years since I was married, I sense sending a letter that reads in part

 — never said so outright, but you resent my job.
“I have to work to support us. You’ve got a job, too. It’s an old, old job that women have been doing a long time-crossing the plains in covered wagons, waiting for ships to come back from China, or waiting around a mine head after an explosion-kiss him goodbye with a smile, take care of him at home.

You married a spaceman, so part of your job is to accept my job cheerfully. I think you can do it, when you realize it. I hope so, for the way things have been going won’t do for either of us.”

would have ended badly.

I never particularly thought about it before but do Heinlein protagonists ever have heart to heart discussions with their loved ones or do they just lecture them until they stumble into happy endings more or less by accident?

Requiem (1940):

The story to which the novel The Man Who Sold the Moon is a prequel, this demonstrates the lengths to which Harriman was willing to go to reach the Moon.

That prediction in The Man Who Sold the Moon about people strapping together rickety jalopies to barnstorm space totally came true, but of of course Heinlein knew what he wrote back in 1940 when he wrote The Man Who Sold the Moon a decade later.

The Long Watch (1949):

Atomic peace-keeping missiles on the Moon offer UN soldiers a chance to take power for themselves or it would if not for the efforts of one quick acting man.

The fall of the League of Nations is referenced in this as an indication of what could happen to the UN. Details in later stories indicate there was a World War III and that the world government is called the Federation but the timing and details of what happened are a bit unclear. To make things even foggier, this story is referenced in Space Cadet, which is definitely not in the Future History at all. I am inclined to view this as a spurious inclusion in the Future History, along with “We Also Walk Dogs”. That’s a bit annoying because if they’d dropped those two stories there would have been room for Orphans of the Sky.

Gentlemen, Be Seated (1948):

An extremely minor story about men dealing bravely, if cheekily, with a mishap on the moon.

The Black Pits of Luna (1948):

Another mishap on the Moon, this one involving one of the bratty kids who come up from time to time in RAH’s fiction, allows a young man to prove he is not just another Terran second-hander but true pioneer material.

Clark from Podkayne of Mars is one of those bratty, poorly disciplined kids dialed up to 11; his mother’s failure to beat him daily in the manner of loving parents left him to grow into a budding sociopath.

It’s Great to Be Back!” (1947):

Tired of the constraints of living on the Moon, a couple moves back to Earth to discover you cannot go home again.

There really is no chance the moral was going to be “Wow, the Moon sure sucked! Am I glad to be back in Peoria!”

We Also Walk Dogs” (1941):

Some anecdotes from a company that specializes in solving any problem with ingenuity and the Green Lantern Axiom that with sufficient will, any technical problem can be overcome.

This is the other story that cannot fit into the Future History. I don’t know why they included it in this collection.

Searchlight (1962):

Would be rescuers search for a blind girl marooned on the Moon.

It would be so comforting to say Heinlein stopped writing stories set in the Future History at this point. It must have been tempting because the background was definitely showing its age by this time but sadly he went on to write Time Enough for Love and worse.

Ordeal in Space (1948):

A brush with a terrible, lonely death in deep space leaves a spaceman with crippling PTSD; by bad luck and the active intervention of the writer he is dropped into a crisis that seems to designed to trigger his PTSD. The circumstances are such that he can turn and walk away without anyone knowing, leaving it a private struggle between trauma and self-respect.

Boy, SF writers sure love cats. If that had been a young girl and not a kitten the spaceman would totally have lectured her about lifeboat rules before pushing her off the ledge to her death.

The Green Hills of Earth (1947):

Thanks to shoddy industrial safety standards, an otherwise unremarkable space coot is blinded for life on the job and thanks to the egregious lack of pensions or workers compensation, he is then forced to make a desperate living as a wandering poet and musician. Everybody wins!

There is a prize named after poor Rhysling but inexplicably it is for poetry and not appalling acts of depraved indifference by the ruling classes.

This was adapted for radio by Dimension X, X Minus One and the CBS Radio Workshop, as well as inspiring an episode of Out There and a dramatic reading by Leonard Nimoy for Caedmon Records.

Logic of Empire (1941):

Having argued about conditions on Venus, two weathy layabouts drunkenly agreed to a term as indentured workers on that world The conditions are appalling, the human workers are brutally exploited, and the natives even more so. Although their social positions offer them escape, this leaves the question of what is to be done about the terrible way Venus is run, which leads to one of those conclusions where the Bad Thing that Everyone Agrees is a Bad Thing turns out not to be any specific person’s fault:

I would say that you have fallen into the commonest fallacy of all in dealing with social and economic subjects-the “devil theory”.’


You have attributed conditions of villainy that simply result from stupidity. Colonial slavery is nothing new; it is the inevitable result of imperial expansion, the automatic result of an antiquated financial structure -,

I pointed out the part the banks played in my book.’

No, no, no! You think bankers are scoundrels. They are not. Nor are company officials, nor patrons, nor the governing classes back on Earth. Men are constrained by necessity and build up rationalizations to account for their acts. It is not even cupidity. Slavery is economically unsound, nonproductive, but men drift into it whenever the circumstances compel it. A different financial system-but that’s another story.’

In many people’s hands that would lead naturally into a story about how the flawed system is replaced by a better one but in this case it ends with the two men returning to the bottle.

Happily, Scudder takes over the US soon after this and they are probably both shot. Unless they both sell out, a real possibility.

If any of you have wondered “Say, what was that story where Heinlein tossed the term ‘nigger’ around?”, it was this one:

Loosen up. You’ll like my place. Just like a home - I run a free crock to Venusburg for my boys. Had any experience handling niggers?’


Well, the natives ain’t niggers anyhow, except in a manner of speaking. You look like you could boss a gang. Had any experience?’

Don’t say I never do you favours.

The Menace from Earth (1957): 

A young girl on the Moon comes to the conclusion that she has misjudged the true nature of her relationship with her engineering partner when an Earth woman suddenly seems to be an unbeatable romantic rival.

There has got to be a better method of relationship counseling than tossing people into life or death situations to see how their SO reacts but you would not know it from Heinlein. On the plus side, while the girl admits she loves her big lunk, she isn’t going to give up her dreams of being an engineer or building starships.

This is pre-Interregnum so the odds are she died long before the first star ships got built. That’s not actually sad; she’s not on Earth and might have enjoyed a long happy life as an engineer off Earth and away from the US. The people on the first star ship ended up creating a pocket community of peasants and cannibals, whereas the crew of the second one had it stolen from them by elderly hijackers.

If This Goes On — ” (1940):

Forbidden infatuation propels a naive young man into an implausibly central role in the effort to overthrow the religious dictatorship that took over America several generations earlier.

I thought the protagonist’s innocence was a bit at odds with how high and quickly he rises in the resistance. On the whole I found it a bit dull but I did wonder about the whole ‘old enough to give a young man lessons, too sullied by experience to settle down with them” romantic subplot that pops up echoed details in Citizen of the Galaxy, “The Menace from Earth”, and I think Podkayne of Mars (and suddenly I am very happy the character never hooked up with Clark1) whether it was in any way influenced by Heinlein’s personal ideas of what went on in his marriage to Elinor Curry. If so, better than how he incorporated Leslyn into his fiction.

Something that gets discussed is it’s not enough just to overthrow a government. You have to replace it with something better and something stable if you don’t want it all to go to hell. Although we don’t really see more of the process than people shouting at each other, they didn’t screw up too badly going by the next story.

Interesting details: the US turns in on itself but the world Federation kept on going, as did some of the off-world colonies despite the general collapse in space flight (which never paid for itself). Also, the UK seems to be a going concern here whereas by Methuselah’s Children the UK and Europe are largely uninhabited thanks to some event that left them uninhabitable and radioactive. There’s some interesting history undocumented here or Heinlein lost track of the details between 1940 and the late 1950s.

Coventry (1940):

An arrogant dumb-ass refuses to bend the knee to the namby-pamby society around him and accepts exile to the land of the Manly Men. He discovers that he chose unwisely.

Misfit (1939):

The struggle to turn asteroids to Man’s purpose allows “Slipstick” Libby, a poorly uneducated boy from an isolated community, to reveal that he has previously unsuspected intellectual gifts.

Methuselah’s Children (1958):

Although the people of the future set a lot of stock in their maturity and the pure quill scienceology behind their institutions, it all falls apart when the Howard Families foolishly reveal that they are all extraordinarily long lived. When it becomes clear the mob has turned on them and their likely lives on Earth will involve concentration camps and inhumane experimentation, the Howard Families take the bold step of stealing the second star ship even constructed. Unfortunately for them, the habitable worlds of the near stars have their own inhabitants, beings to whom humans are at best amusing animals.

I always found the stuff on Earth a bit boring, preferring the first contact sections. On rereading it I notice that while people claim to operating on the basis of Science! And Math! their models don’t really give them better results than if they just winged it. I have to suspect that their much lauded models might not be any more grounded in reality than Christian Science or Dianetics. I am also suddenly curious if George Turner’s Beloved Son, Vaneglory and Yesterday’s Men were in any way inspired by this novel, because the way the Ethic (?) falls apart as soon as it encounters a similar challenge to its code is rather reminiscent.

It’s around the time the novel version was published that Heinlein drifted from “respect even seemingly backward peoples for they may have abilities we do not suspect” (not that the natives on Venus benefit from that) and stories where confrontations between humans and aliens end with humans utterly vanquished to the Humans Uber Alles of later stories and there’s a hint of the inflection point in Lazarus Long’s dissatisfaction with how the confrontations with the aliens were resolved.

Speaking of Long, this is where he showed up. He seemed so harmless in this novel….

  1. Not on-stage, anyway!” my unhelpful subconscious says.

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