1952’s The Rolling Stones is intriguing from any number of angles. It’s the final Heinlein juvenile set entirely in the Solar System. It has genuinely interesting and potentially informative rocket science. In contrast with several of the earlier books the stakes, while important to the characters, are comparatively low. The sexual politics are tragic in a way I can talk about. My discussion about the two leads will starkly illuminate how poorly I manage to keep current affairs separated in my head from whatever I happen to be reading. It’s all good!
The novel itself is fairly straight-forward: Castor and Pollux, two bright but undisciplined teenaged twins, get it in their heads to use the money they’ve earned in a harebrained interplanetary merchandizing scheme, a plan they are insufficiently grateful for it being scotched by their long-suffering dad 1. Instead they get to accompany their entire family on an expedition in the space ship Rolling Stone across a good part of the inner Solar System, from the Moon (via Earth) to Mars and from Mars to the Asteroid Belt. As the book closes, they are on their way to distant Titan.
I had remembered this as a comparatively laid-back book but actually the trip is an endless sequence of brushes with death and other calamities, a fair amount of it driven by the world-building. For example, because Heinlein sticks to relatively reasonable delta-vees, the trip to Mars has to occur in a narrow launch window. This (and the fact trade has developed between Earth-Moon and Mars) means they have a lot of company as they head for Mars, which in turn means when it seems like they might have to abort the trip, the other ships are a potential navigation hazard. It also means that it is entirely reasonable that other ships will be near by when they run into trouble, because due to the constraints of the orbital mechanics 2 there’s a diffuse fleet headed for Mars.
Another significant contributor to the sequence of calamities is that Castor and Pollux, while talented in specific – very specific – fields, are pretty ignorant and steadfastly incurious, to the point they invest their money in an exporting scheme without bothering to do any research about the laws of the polity they are exporting goods to. This very nearly earns them jail time for fraud and conspiring to evade the customs duties, something they escape only because their grandmother is a lot more cunning than the twins 3.
It’s pretty clear from Castor and Pollux’s nickname on the Moon – the Unheavenly Twins – and comments like
“I feel better. The last time but one, you’ll remember, it was experimenting with atomics inside the city limits and without license. But why aren’t they out on bail? Or is there some-thing worse you haven’t told us?”
that this kind of blundering into disaster is standard operating procedure for the twins.
They come by their narrow focus honestly, because they have the misfortune to have engineer-turned-writer Roger Stone for a dad. Roger has fairly constrained ideas about what constitutes education:
0700 Reveille (optional for Edith, Hazel, & Buster)
0745 Breakfast (Meade cooks. Twins wash dishes)
0900 School C & P, math
Meade, astrogation, coached by Hazel
Lowell, reeling, writhing, and fainting in coils — or whatever his mother deems
1200 End of morning session
1300 School C&P, math
Hydroponics chores, Meade
1600 End of afternoon session
1800 Dinner — All Hands initial ship’s maintenance schedule.
SATURDAY ROUTINE — turn to after breakfast and clean ship, Hazel in charge. Capt
ain’s inspection at 1100. Personal laundry in afternoon.
SUNDAY ROUTINE — meditation, study, and recreation. Make & Mend in afternoon .
Note the total absence of the arts, along with all the hard sciences. The twins aren’t stupid but they are – despite their father’s early ambitions otherwise – being kept very ignorant of the world and this comes back to bite them over and over.
To be honest, every time I read a scene with the twins, I kept thinking of Toronto’s Ford brothers. There’s the same politically-connected dad, the lack of curiosity about most fields of interest, including some that directly affect them, and an open-minded attitude towards certain regulated substances (Plan A for Mars involve moon-shining). My expectation is that they will keep rolling the dice until they come up snake eyes at a time when their parents or grandmother are not around to save them and that will be that for the twins.
Which gets us to Meade and the gender politics in this book. The first scene with Meade in it has her repeatedly berated to stop moving. She’s (almost) 18 to the boys’ 15 and yet while Roger talks about wanting to send the boys to a proper Earth university, nothing like that is mentioned for Meade. Later on Roger apparently forgets she has any space training at all when he talks about leaving the ship in the kids’ hands. You will note that in the schedule above, unlike her brothers she only gets schooling in the morning; in the afternoon she is relegated to maintaining the hydroponics. This is because she is a girl and the problem with girls is they just get married, so what’s the point of educating them?
The interesting thing is this isn’t an old timey author being unable to imagine women working as professionals, not exactly. Roger’s mother Hazel raised him as a single mother (the details don’t match Hazel Meade in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, so don’t even mention that). She is an engineer but she left the field because of pervasive sexism. Roger’s wife is an MD. The problem seems to be Roger; he doesn’t want his wife to work as a doctor (granted, in part because he is afraid for her safety) and the idea that Meade might have interests outside of marriage doesn’t cross his radar. The twins won’t be any help, either, because while Meade offers early on to use her astrogation skills to help them out with their problems, they see her mostly as a pest to be discarded.
The odd thing is Hazel seems to be complicit in all this. She does train Meade and does praise her skills but seems resigned to the fact that no space line company would hire Meade because she is a woman. Both Hazel and Meade end up finding some success in the … entertainment industry but for Meade that seems to be a stop-gap measure on the way to her inescapable fate:
“Well… there’s actually no reason why we should go back to Luna, not just now.”
“So I was thinking. But what about Meade?”
“Me?” said Meade.
Hazel put in dryly, “They’re thinking you are about husband-high, hon.”
Dr. Stone looked at her daughter and nodded slightly. Meade looked surprised, then said, “Pooh! I’m in no hurry. Besides — there’s a Patrol base on Titan. There ought to be lots of young officers.”
I was interested to discover when reading the terrible Patterson biography of Heinlein that Heinlein and Roger had a lot in common, particularly when it came to crushing the ambitions of women. Heinlein paid lip service to the idea that women could be professionals but all that had to stop as soon as he married one of them, even if it meant poverty for the Heinlein family. There are other parallels – both engineers, both pulp writers, both very touchy about status – but their common war on women’s ambitions is the one common element that really stands out.
There is lots of wasted potential in the twins but it’s nothing compared to Meade’s wasted potential. I just hope when the Stones get to Titan (which, as we know from other SF stories, will be populated by freedom-loving lesbians and other rad-fems), she finally escape her terrible family and the chains her society wants to clap on her.
When Jo Walton reviewed this book a few years ago, I suddenly noticed parallels between The Rolling Stones and the old comedyLife With Father. I don’t know if those parallels are deliberate on Heinlein’s part or if it’s just coincidence.
Because Heinlein sticks to atomic rockets supplemented by single‑H hydrogen fuel/reaction mass, the delta-vees in this book are low enough orbital mechanics matter. In particular this is one of very few SF novels I can name that explicitly uses the Oberth Maneuver. I am just going to quote Geoffrey Landis at length here:
If you fire a rocket engine that produces a given Delta V while at perihelion
of a gravity well of depth V(escape), the kinetic energy you end up with is
0.5 (Delta V + Vescape)**2
= 0.5 (Delta V)**2 + Delta V * V escape + 0.5 (Vescape)**2
When you leave the gravity well, you lose the kinetic energy 0.5
(Vescape)**2, but retain the energy 0.5 (Delta V)**2 + Delta V * V escape,
which is clearly larger than the energy that you would get by firing the
engine outside the gravity well. In fact, the impulse is multiplied by a
SQRT (1 +2 (Vescape/DeltaV) )
Geoffrey A. Landis,
Nyma, Inc, at NASA Lewis Research Center
What this means is massive bodies are useful. In contrast to “spacers avoid gravity wells”, they actually would exploit them heavily. In fact, current space probes make great use of the propulsive potentials, passive and active, of other planets. The lesson here is constraints make for interesting plot potential.
An interesting minor detail is that while Heinlein didn’t really get computers, he still had some idea about automation and space travel. Many, perhaps most of the rockets are robot ships.
The family’s collective lack of curiosity about the world around them leads them to export animals called “flat cats” from Mars without bothering to do a jot of research about the flat cats’ habits. In another author’s hands, this is the point at which this novel would have become a horror novel, with the Stones being hunted, trapped and consumed one by one by their rapidly breeding, voracious house-guests.
Star Trek fans will notice some parallels between the flat cats and Star Trek’s tribbles. There is an interesting story in that, which is discussed in David Gerrold’s The Trouble With Tribbles.