The Man With a Crater
"What the hell goes on here?" Whitey Ardmore demanded.
Not the most plangent or belletristic sentence ever written, is it? And yet, the book that it begins is the reason that we're all here. Not "here" in any epistemological sense, but rather in the easily grasped I'm here writing this and you're here reading this. Who wrote the sentence and the book? Robert A. Heinlein. I'm tempted to add an "of course" but I'm not sure that he's weathered well among the younger generation. When the book was published, as it says on the cover, Heinlein was the "dean of space-age fiction." It was written in 1941, before there was any space age. And dean or not, somehow I don't think we're still in the "space age" any more, unless it's a virtual one. A book whose age has come and gone. "The Day After Tomorrow" was originally titled "Sixth Column," a WWII reference to the "fifth column" resistance fighters, and I've always preferred the original because—let's face it—"The Day After Tomorrow" is simply a stupid title.
I don't recall stealing much from Heinlein that has made it into this blog. I find that I didn't even use his definition of an "honest politician" as one who "stays bought" although I have mentioned him in a few blogitems. And yet, there is a potent Heinlein infusion permeating my writing.
One day in my remote youth I found myself in a "candy store." Apparently I had $.35 more than I desperately needed for my Sky Bars and other confections, and picked up this book on a whim. (Yes, I know it says $.50 on the cover. This decrepit copy is probably five to ten years newer than the one I bought that fateful day!) It was my habit in those days to get up at 06:00 to watch "Sunrise Semester" on the teevee, no doubt why I remember how to calculate the area of triangles when necessary. At some point during a math or science lesson I grabbed this book and started reading it. So much for Sunrise Semester! An hour or so later I was summoned for breakfast, which I ate with my nose in the book. Off by bus to school, where I completely ignored for the first time ever my schoolbooks, they being obscured by a certain paperback. By the time I got home I had nearly completed reading the book, so I ran to my room and did just that, disregarding entreaties from parental units that I emerge. (I actually don't recall if there were entreaties; I was in disregarding mode.)
By the end of that day I had read my first real science fiction book, not including the usual Toms Swift and Corbett. It's not now my favorite SF book, nor even my favorite Heinlein (that would be The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) but it was my first, and one doesn't forget that. I was much too young at the time to realize that some of the science in the book made no sense, as opposed to simply being "undiscovered" at the time. A lot of Heinlein's science does make sense, especially his celestial mechanics. But to get a noticeable magneto-gravitic effect you need a pretty big mass current; a Priest of Mota's staff won't do the job. ("Bless you child, Gold is the gift of Mota" is the obscure quote from this book that I have been using in party invitations for decades. A mystery solved for some!)
I don't propose to do a book report here, even though the plot could be described in a paragraph and the characters in a second one. And it's not because I don't remember it, either. When I picked up this book I opened it to Page One and read the beginning out loud to the seller while ostentatiously looking away from the book. That's how many times I've read it, although none of them recently.
I don't recall ever wanting to be a fireman or a cowboy or, God help us all, a doctor. In fact, I don't recall giving the subject much thought in grade school, although my destruction of household electronic equipment, modification of model railroad transformers, and experimentation with dangerous chemicals might have been a good clue. Heinlein's book started me on the path that ultimately led, with some help from Tom Lehrer, to my third pen and to my life as a, well, whatever it is I am. I do not now, nor have I ever, worked for NASA or a major aerospace corporation. But if you ask the soon-to-be-retired aircraft and spacecraft designers who it was that gave them the impetus for their careers, you'll find a lot of "Heinlein" responses. I can't help wonder who, if anyone, has filled those shoes.
I never met Bob Heinlein. He attended science fiction conventions but pretty much gave them up before I discovered them. I truly wish I could have thanked him, since I'm pretty content with whatever it is that I am. Earlier I wrote a blogitem about a friend of mine, the man with a moon. Heinlein only has a crater; it's on Mars, the planet with which his writing is closely associated, as in Stranger in a Strange Land and many others of lesser fame. Wikipedia asserts, possibly with more hope than justification, that
There is then a chance that underground ice will be found in the vicinity of the Heinlein Crater, making it a possible site for human settlement.
When I was much younger and we didn't know how long everything would take, I had little doubt that I would eventually visit earth orbit and maybe the moon. I wasn't so sure about Mars, but now, sadly, I am. Maybe some ham radio operator in the future, maybe even one alive today but much, much younger than I, will eventually receive a QSL card from Heinlein Base.
NP: "Runaway" - Marillion