Waiting for Heinlein

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 14, 2017

Are you disappointed your life hasn’t turned out like the stories you love? Would I feel this way now if I had loved literary fiction instead of science fiction? In the last third of my life, I’m cherishing nineteenth-century English novels and early twentieth-century American novels, realizing they would have been better preparation for my life – the life I got instead of the one I wanted. Science fiction is as wondrous as any religion but as frustrating as a Samuel Beckett play. Of course, doesn’t religion and science fiction promise futures that will never arrive?

Robert Heinlein

I’ve been waiting a long time for the future to get here – sixty years by one reckoning. And I must admit, sometimes I feel the fringes of Tomorrowland when I use my smartphone, but for the most part, I’m still waiting for Heinlein to show up. Other writers have complained about not getting their jetpack, but they had such foolish gadgets back in the sixties.

I’m waiting for interplanetary rocketships with long sleek hulls, that land on four fins with thrusters, or interstellar spaceships like the U.S.S. Enterprise. Reading about extrasolar planets is encouraging, but it ain’t what Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke promised with tales of visiting them.

I’m also waiting for robots like Asimov and Simak promised. I do talk to Alexa, but she has no soul. And I enjoy seeing the little robots DIY people make with a Raspberry Pi board, but I think we should have robots well beyond the ones we saw in Forbidden Planet and Lost in Space.

Do we screw up kids by letting them read science fiction and fantasy? Even before I discovered Robert A. Heinlein at age 12 in 1964, I had absorbed a great deal of science fiction via an old black and white television my family bought in 1955. Should we judge reality by our dreams? Would we have invented everything that makes us human by accepting reality as it is?

Maybe fantasies are fine except we should be more discerning when creating them.

I don’t know if this is too sick to admit, but as a kid, I was disappointed that WWIII didn’t happen. All those 1950s movies about mutants and last people on Earth had its allure. Living like Harry Belafonte in The World, The Flesh and the Devil seemed great, especially after Inger Stevens arrives. (Like Harry’s character, I could have done without the Mel Ferrer’s character.)

And even though the robots in Target Earth were scary, I liked them, although I didn’t love them like I loved Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was a shame learning in the 1960s that our 1950s flying saucers dreams were flaky and fake. It was somewhat redeeming when we got to see Closer Encounters of the Third Kind in the 1970s, but it really was too late, at least for believing in Have Space Suit-Will Travel adventures.

It was crushing in 1972 when we stopped going to the Moon. From reading Heinlein I was positive humans would reach the red planet by the end of that decade and build colonies there in the 1980s. I thought before I died (which I imagined being around the mid-21st century), I’d leave life knowing that interstellar travel was in the preparation phase.

I’ve written this essay before. I’ll probably write it again many times before I die. The feelings that inspire these thoughts come out again and again. I wanted more science fictional dreams to come true in my lifetime. Of course, I also expected more of my liberal dreams to unfold before I died too, but Donald Trump has crushed them. Books, especially those we read when we’re young give us a kind of hope that never goes away. I know the hopes I got from science fiction are no more practical than the hopes the faithful get from reading The Bible. Does needing the impossible mean we’re stupid? Or do those desires shape our souls?

The thing that distinguishes science fiction from religion is the belief that humans can build rockets that will take us to the stars. The faithful believe God will take them to heaven. Maybe my frustration with the future is it takes longer than a lifetime to get where I dream of going.

I still embrace three science fictional hopes that could come true before I die. The first is SETI. I’m not sure humans will ever travel to other star systems, but we might get messages from beings living light years away. Second, even if we don’t get a message from ET, I hope astronomy will eventually detect atmospheres with spectrographic evidence of advanced life on extrasolar planets. Finally, I hope AI minds arrive. Many people fear artificial intelligence will wipe out humans, but I hope they will help us evolve. Our species is smart, but I don’t think we’re smart enough to survive self-extinction. AI minds could save us from our own stupidity.

I’ve been waiting my whole life to live my favorite stories of Robert A. Heinlein. That’s quite childish of me. On the other hand, I could have followed in my father’s footsteps. He died an alcoholic at age 49. I always assumed he drank because he couldn’t achieve his childhood aspirations. I’ve often wondered if science fiction was my alcohol. At least science fiction has kept me alive longer.

Like Vladimir and Estragon, my old friend Connell and I have been arguing about the future since 1967, waiting for Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov to arrive.


10 thoughts on “Waiting for Heinlein”

  1. Hi James

    Even close to home, talking to my wife she seemed to have more faith that the science fiction world we read about would actually unfold than I did. She watches The Expanse to get a bit of the feeling but when I glance at it, it seems as dirty, sad, intolerant, and violent as my worse impressions of large parts of the world we live in today, so why take it to space. I must admit as I became an adult I hoped for a world were most of out social and environment challenges would start to be solved, so I am having trouble accepting that every morning when I wake up the news from all over the world seems worse and that we have lost ground. I am still looking for and occasionally finding the sense of wonder once I found in stories like Clarke’s A Meeting with Medusa or Wayne Douglas Barlowe’s book Expedition “Being an Account in Words and Artwork of the 2358 A.D. Voyage to Darwin IV”. Recent examples are Dan Simmon’s Muse of Fire and the astronomical bits of Eleanor Arnason’s story The Garden. And I know there are some Van Vogt novels and Ace Doubles among my summer reading for the cabin.

    A few hours ago I posted on some Robert Heinlein covers you might enjoy.


    All the best

  2. Maybe we should think of these nostalgic futures from our pasts as limited by time — but rather ideal visions that could still transpire. SF can compel us (and clearly has compelled you) to work towards and wish for a better future…. Heinlein (although I find him politically rather abhorrent) has succeeded in instilling a worthy positivism!

    1. Yes, that’s true, Joachim. Although much of science fiction is about futures we fear, overall I feel science fiction has instilled in me a desire to create a positive future.

      I have a love/hate relationship with Heinlein. I don’t like his politics either. I tend to only like his books published from 1947-1959. Of course, that was a period where his editors had some sway. When he went to Putnam, he found he could preach to his heart’s content. That ruined his stories for me.

      I mostly think of Heinlein as his 12 Scribner juveniles and his few books from Doubleday.

      1. Even futures that we fear might convince us to work against said futures…. SF isn’t an act of prognostication, we can’t get caught up in treating it as such 🙂

  3. Heinlein, Asimov, Simak, and others had a certain view of the Future. But, what they didn’t account for was the Hegelian dialectic that produced voters and politicians who don’t believe in Science. The Future isn’t here because of the cuts in science funding. Science education in most public schools is a joke. If the Future arrives, it will be because scientists in the Far East and Europe make it happen.

    1. Wow, that’s an EXCELLENT point, George. It might also explain why I hate Republicans so much. All they can think about is tax cuts. They want civilization on the cheap. And that means cutting out science for two reasons. One, building a high-tech future is expensive, and they don’t want to pay the taxes to buy it. And two, accepting science means accepting responsibility for the Earth, which they don’t want to pay for either.

  4. It’s not just the Republicans (although they have a lot to answer for) but also religions that deny women the opportunity to get an education. At least half the Future belongs to women, yet they face wage discrimination and harassment in all professions. Many of my favorite characters in Heinlein’s SF novels were females. The Future you’re waiting for is being held up because women aren’t allowed to fulfill their roles in making it happen.

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