I recently posted a brief review of The Man Who Sold the Moon, a 1950 story about the first lunar trip, and thought some reviews of other early Heinlein stories might be of interest as well. (For those who haven’t yet read these stories, I’ve tried to minimize spoilers.)
Let There be Light (published in 1940). Archie Douglas, a scientist, tries to pick up a very attractive woman who is dining by herself. She politely turns him down, but it soon transpires that she is the very same Doctor M L Martin with whom Douglas has a scientific meeting scheduled. (M L = Mary Lou.) Initially, Archie refuses to believe that a woman so attractive could have such outstanding scientific credentials, but he is soon convinced, and the two begin a research collaboration that quickly develops romantic overtones.
Their effort initially focuses on the development of electroluminscent light panels, making use of Mary Lou’s earlier research on the firefly–but when Archie’s factory-owner father faces the prospect of being run out of business by discriminatory electric rates imposed by the power cartel, the pair decides to reverse the process and efficiently create electricity from sunlight. They succeed…but the power cartel is not happy about the prospect of cheap distributed generation and will do anything to keep them from bringing their technology to market.
A fun story, with lots of snappy banter between the pair.
The Roads Must Roll (published in 1940). Larry Gaines, chief engineer of the Reno–San Diego roadtown, is explaining the rolling-road technology and its social/economic impact to an Australian visitor. These ‘roadtowns’ are huge multistrip conveyor belts: passengers can get on at any point and then, depending on the length of their journey, move from the initial 5mph strip all the way over to the 100mph strip. More conducive to intermediate stops than the Elon Musk approach!
The fast strip is wide enough to allow shops and restaurants to be located on it…Gaines and his visitor are conversing while having lunch at Jake’s Steak House. (“To dine on the fly makes the miles roll by.”) The Australian (who is Transport Minister of that country) is impressed with what he has seen and what Gaines tells him about its usefulness and social impact–but he demurs politely: “”isn’t it possible that you may have put too many eggs in one basket in allowing your whole economy to become dependent on the functioning of one type of machinery?”
Gaines responds that the potentially-serious reliability issue is not with the machinery, but with the men who tend it: “Other industries can go on strike, and only create temporary and partial dislocations…But if the roads stop rolling, everything else must stop; the effect would be the same as a general strike: with this important difference: It takes a majority of the population fired by a real feeling of grievance, to create a general strike, but the men that run the roads, few as they are, can create the same complete paralysis.”
“We had just one strike on the roads, back in ”sixty-six. It was justified, I think, and it corrected a lot of real abuses–but it mustn’t happen again.”
Gaines is confident that there will be no such problems in the future, he tells his guest: the engineers who manage the road’s operation are now part of a military-like organization with high esprit de corps: indeed, they are graduates of the United States Academy of Transport, and even have their own song, to the tune of “Those caissons go rolling along.”
Just then, Gaines’ coffee lands in his lap. The strip has abruptly begun slowing to a stop. He soon discovers that members of his workforce have fallen under the spell of an ideology called Functionalism, which holds that people who do the most critical work in a society should have political power to match. And, what is more, the primary instigator of the rebellion is…Gaines’ own deputy.
I’m not sure whether the technology would really be workable–with strips running at speeds up to 100mph, it would seem that the resulting winds would create an insoluble problem, even with Heinlein’s proposed solution (partitions to isolate air flow between the different strips) But it’s a good story, and points out a real potential issue with critical infrastructure operated by key, hard-to-replace personnel.
Delilah and the Space-Rigger (published in 1949). This story takes place some time after the first lunar flight, as portrayed in The Man Who Sold the Moon. Space travel is now becoming a sound commercial proposition, and a large space station is under construction. A new radio operator is being sent up to replace a man who was fired for gambling–crooked gambling, at that–and problems occur when a new radio operator–identified on the paperwork as G Brooks McNye –joins the project. It turns out that the initial “G” masked the new employee’s real first name, which is Gloria. (Heinlein loves playing gender-surprise tricks on his male characters)
“Tiny” Larsen, the construction superintendent who is running the project, is resolved that the new arrival must be sent back to earth immediately: he fears the effect of one woman among several hundred men, including “wild kids” and hard cases: his instinct is to send her back immediately. But his older friend and subordinate “Dad” Witherspoon, the story’s narrator, isn’t so sure that her presence would be a problem. And the liason man from Harriman Enterprises, for whom the station is being built, will not allow a situation in which there would only be one qualified radio operator, even for a brief time.
What will Tiny Larsen do?
(I’ll be posting several more reviews of Heinlein stories in the near future)