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  • More Heinlein Stories

    Posted by David Foster on July 28th, 2019 (All posts by )

    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)


    19 Responses to “More Heinlein Stories”

    1. John Henry Says:

      I always love me some Heinlein.

      I downloaded The Man Who Sold the Moon and Orphans of the sky when we were talking about them a couple weeks ago. $5 on Kindle. It’s an anthology with a buncha stories including Man who Sold the Moon, Requiem, Roads must roll and many more.

      It also has Let their be light. If I had read it before it was a long time ago and I did not remember it. Kind of cool that he invented LED lighting back in the 40’s. And photovoltaic.

      I meant to check to see if the LED process is reversible. If you put an LED lamp in the sun, does it generate juice? I don’t think so but don’t know.

      Ditto if you put juice to a PV panel. Does it generate light? Yes, if you put enough but the light is just arcs and sparks and flame and very temporary

      My father, born in 1913, had the complete, 20 or so volume set of Tom Swift and read them voraciously as a tad. Now that I think of it, I seem to remember Tom doing something along those lines. No idea what at this far remove but I do remember it involved selenium. The reason I remember selenium was because I thought it was such a cool name. For reasons known only to a 10 year old boy.

      John Henry

    2. MCS Says:

      I’m pretty sure that an LED can act as a photo diode, especially since the junction is visible. I have a pico-amp meter at work, I’ll have to try it out. A lot of materials exhibit photo-electric properties, it’s one of the problems you can run up against trying to measure small signals. I expect to see a nice 60Hz signal from the florescent lights. As I implied, this is a manifestation of the same effect that gives us photo cells.

      One aspect of “The Roads Must Roll” is that they are powered by these photo-panels as well as the industries and houses distributed along them.

      Heinlein was one of the first to plot out a rather detailed “Future History” and nearly all of his stories are tied to it in one way or another. The science in his books is correct, he has plotted the orbits and other elements that he could. At the same time, he didn’t let that get in the way of a good story.

      In “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” he has the Moon exporting wheat to Earth. The wildest recent speculation on possible resources derived from space hasn’t gone that far. Ice mining was a major occupation that falls right in line with what we believe now, but I don’t think we’ll see water tankers from the Moon.

    3. Kirk Says:

      Humorous aside about Heinlein… When the guy that started building the first factory-made waterbeds went to try to patent them, he was turned down on the basis that the invention had already been described in one of Heinlein’s stories.

    4. Jon Davies Says:

      You have reminded me that Heinlein has to be my all time favourite science fiction short story writer. Will have to dust off my books and re-read!

    5. David Foster Says:

      In ‘Let There be Light’, Archie Douglas has trouble believing not only that a *woman* could be a distinguished scientist, but especially, that an *extremely attractive woman* could be so scientifically accomplished. Reminds me…

      One of the greatest American naval architects was William Francis Gibbs, whose accomplishments among other things included the ultimate Atlantic liner, the SS United States. The designer of the propellers for that ship–which were innovative enough that their design was classified–was Elaine Kaplan, speaking of whom, Gibbs said:

      “Mrs Kaplan is a complete and perfect mystery. How anybody can look the way Mrs Kaplan looks and come up and talk to you on a technical subject is beyond me–I am not over it yet.”

    6. Sam L. Says:

      “Let There Be Light” is a story I do not remember. My Heinlein books are in storage, so I’m stuck.

    7. miguel cervantes Says:

      Or how can one forget hedy lamarr, the actress who had not a few patents to her name, including with radar technology,

    8. Frank Says:

      As for the first initial trick, my mother (WWII generation) ran two departments -one the paint dept – at the local Montgomery Ward.
      She always signed things as E. Hanson.
      When the store manager went to regional manager meetings, he often heard lines like ‘more people should run departments like Mr. E. Hanson does’.

    9. Grurray Says:

      Also, Lord Byron’s daughter Ada who was an ur-programmer of Babbage’s difference engine, as well as an early pioneer in what they’re now calling computational thinking. She looks pretty good in the portraits of her, as far as I can tell.

    10. David Foster Says:

      A recent piece on the potential of moving walkways in cities:

    11. MCS Says:

      Heinlein’s 3rd wife Virginia was a chemical engineer he met during WWII at the Philadelphia Naval Yard where he was with Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp. I think I read that he was working on radar. I seem to recall that there were some other SF writers there too.

      The Wikipedia article seems to be pretty straight forward:

      I think I’ve read everything that he published. He was on the very short list of authors that I would buy in hard cover whenever something new came out. Unfortunately, my affluence only corresponded his last few years. Most of his books I own are old paperbacks that are falling apart.

    12. John Henry Says:

      I probably download 20-30 Kindle samples a month. I don’t necessarily read or even skim them all but if I see a mention of a book that looks remotely interesting, I download the sample. I think this is one of the best things about Kindle. I actually buy 4-5 books a month.

      So when we were talking about The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I decided I should re-read it. I downloaded the sample, just to put it in my reading pile. I only buy books when I am ready to read them.

      So I started reading it this AM while in a long post office line. This evening I got to the end of the sample (about 2 chapters) and decided to buy it when I noticed something odd.

      When you get to the last page of any sample, it jumps to the books page in the Amazon store and allows you to buy the book. In this case for $11.99 which seemed a bit pricey.


      In book samples, if you run across the top of the page you get an orange blurb that says “buy this book for $1.99” in this case.

      That is a heck of a difference and the first time I had ever noticed anything like this.

      A bit odd and I wonder if it is normal?

      In case you are wondering if the $1.99 was a typo, once I purchased, I got an email confirmation and the charge was $1.99, not $11.99.

      May be something to look for if you read samples like I do.

      John Henry

    13. raven Says:

      Well that brought back some memories!. As a kid I would take the bus into Hartford and go to a side street bookstore, used and new, and spend all my money on Heinlein,Asimov,Pournelle, Niven, Doc Smith, Fleming etc. The mention of Tom Swift brought to mind a kids series, “Rick Brant” science adventures. Interestingly, they were not written by committee and had some very solid observations on culture.

    14. OBloodyHell Says:

      }}} The Roads Must Roll (published in 1940).

      As I have noted in many places, this is one key signature Heinlein story in which he actually describes something that in many ways resembles something that exists today, though with a very different technology.

      If you consider the descriptions therein to today’s interstates, it is a remarkable parallel, right down to its effects on small towns formed by crossroads, etc.

      The other two such are Blowups Happen, about safety concerns and nuclear power, and Solution Unsatisfactory, about a nuclear weapon leading to a tension-riddled stalemate and what eventually became termed MAD — BOTH of these written BEFORE Fermi’s pile had been built, much less made public. Neither technology matches the reality, but he saw the tertiary consequences of what had to be next, even without the primary devices.

    15. OBloodyHell Says:

      }}} Heinlein was one of the first to plot out a rather detailed “Future History” and nearly all of his stories are tied to it in one way or another. The science in his books is correct, he has plotted the orbits and other elements that he could. At the same time, he didn’t let that get in the way of a good story.

      He went further than that — for a single throwaway paragraph in The Rolling Stones, he took the time and effort to hand-calculate the correct numbers for a Hohmann Ellipse Transfer (minimum energy orbital change). Supposedly covered the kitchen with paper.

      }}} In “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” he has the Moon exporting wheat to Earth. The wildest recent speculation on possible resources derived from space hasn’t gone that far. Ice mining was a major occupation that falls right in line with what we believe now, but I don’t think we’ll see water tankers from the Moon.

      It is possible we’d see ice from Jupiter or a comet, but the most likely useful thing would be a nickel-iron asteroid from the belt. The amount of iron in one medium-sized asteroid (there are thousands of these) is more than the entire output of the world for a year. And it’s up there, where we want a lot of it already for industry. The notion is that we have most of the filthy energy-intensive industries up there, and only push down the finished product or at least fully refined ingots, etc.

      Two books are worth reading
      Doomsday Has Been Cancelled, by Peter Vajk (somewhat dated, but still has a lot of useful observations to apply when debating Greens)


      The Third Industrial Revolution, by G. Harry Stine (also dated, but discusses all the possibilities, most of them still remaining to be explored)

      Stine also wrote
      Space Power


      Halfway to Anywhere (much more recent)

      Stine also wrote some interesting military fiction, about a future instance where the military had gone to a total drone design, but was finding issues with the limitations, and implemented a semi-autonomous strike force of humans and low-grade AI robots mixed together.

      Stine passed away in 1997

    16. OBloodyHell Says:


      For anyone else interested in her.

      I love the internet.

    17. Anonymous Says:

      }}} I think I’ve read everything that he published. He was on the very short list of authors that I would buy in hard cover whenever something new came out. Unfortunately, my affluence only corresponded his last few years. Most of his books I own are old paperbacks that are falling apart.

      LOL, time to replace them, then, huh? :-D

      I met him very briefly at the 1977 WorldCon in Miami — he was there for the blood drive — they were already closing up so I could not donate. :-(

      I did manage to get a signed numbered LE of Friday, some years later.

      I also got to meet his wife, Ginny, about two decades ago, long after he’d passed away, she was there for a local book shop promotion. Surprisingly few showed up. But it meant we got lots of personal time with her.

    18. OBloodyHell Says:

    19. MCS Says:

      For SF to be good, at least for me, the action has to come from the ideas and the ideas have to hold together logically. I’ve always considered “Star Wars” to be strictly second class. About on a par with a 40’s Buck Rodgers serial with better effects. There’s a lot like that still.

      Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and few others set a high standard when the norm was Tom Swift and Doc. Savage.

      Some time, around the 3rd or 4th “Dune” book, I stopped paying much attention to SF except for authors I was already familiar with. For what it’s worth, I think that “Number of the Beast” could have used a ruthless editor. I think there are too many endless series, I’d rather read one good book than have to contemplate starting 5 or 8. When I have, I’ve found that some author’s reach exceeded their grasp. It’s hard enough to write one really good book.

      I’ve reread a couple of Heinlein books and will continue, but I’ve been reading for going on 60 years and would rather find something new. If only to give present day authors some market. If I looked around Project Gutenberg, I’m sure I could fill up my remaining time with books published before 1900 enjoyably. There are exponentially more worthwhile books than anyone can read in a lifetime.

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