Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein is my all-time favorite book and I’ve read it every few years since I discovered it in 1965. I turned thirteen in late 1964, so discovering Robert A. Heinlein and science fiction during puberty integrated a biological transformation with a sense of wonder. If we could only warn kids that whatever pop culture you take in during that time it will be imprinted into your soul. The thoughts and emotions generated by the book are recorded in my brain alongside intense powerful memories.
But there’s more, like the say in info-commercials, because 1965 was when the 1960s became the Sixties. Discovering science fiction during a social revolution only enhances its call for human transformation. NASA was blasting off with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. The Great Society, Civil Rights and feminism were all demanding major changes. And the pop culture of movies, television and music made it feel like we were transitioning from the black and white Fifties to a new Technicolor world, like when Dorothy walked out her black and white house into Oz.
While the greater world erupted into wars, riots, demonstrations, my personal world blew up too. From 1963-65, I went to five schools because of moves brought on by my restless military employed dad who moved more than even the Air Force ordered. During this period my father had two heart attacks and was forced into “retirement” where he had to work two or three low-level jobs to make family ends meet and pay for his hard drinking. My parent’s already stormy marriage moved into hell-mode, and my mother took up my father’s hobby of boozing, but she was so bad at it she almost got my sister and I killed while driving drunk. I won’t go into all the memoir-gory details, but suffice it to say I had plenty of reasons for embracing the powerful escapist qualities of reading science fiction.
No matter how many times I try to write this I can’t recreate the setting of when I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel for the first time. There was one more powerful force of nature that came into play: music. Imagine Pulp Fiction without the music, and I mention that movie because living my life was like watching that film. While science fiction painted fantastic worlds through my eyes, music filled those worlds through my ears while I read. The music of 1965 provided the soundtrack to this novel and the times, and on that soundtrack are some of the best pop songs ever like “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, “Downtown” by Petula Clark, “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire and “Stop in the Name of Love” by the Supremes, among countless others.
When I picked up Have Space Suit-Will Travel and opened to the first page all the planets were lining up in a great gravitational surge causing a perfect hurricane of emotions. I could have read anything and it would have become the greatest novel of my life, but Have Space Suit-Will Travel was it. I sure wish it hadn’t had such a dorky title. I could write hundred thousand words about why Have Space Suit-Will Travel affected me, but let’s just say I was at the right place at the right time in a very receptive mood and it did a number on me. Boy did it ever.
Finding My Religion
Why is this book so important? It’s just a kid’s book. All I’ve got to say is a lot of other people came under the sway of Heinlein in the 1950s. Over the years I’ve notice countless comments by people in various lines of work about how they were influenced by Heinlein. You can search Google but the results are generally disappointing, and only reflect the negative qualities of using the Internet as a reference tool. Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin is a good place to start, but the more recent Heinlein’s Children: The Juveniles by Joseph T. Major goes much deeper, and Panshin wrote a great introduction, “Heinlein’s Child” that mirrors many of the stories I read about people discovering Heinlein.
For over forty years I’ve been trying to figure out what this book did to me. It became my Bible and religion, and although I’ve tried to explain that many times before I happened to catch an old movie on TCM, Things to Come, that has a scene that captures the essence of Heinlein’s sermon. I think it’s worthwhile to quote it at length. In the 1936 film about war and progress, a futuristic city has just launched a space capsule to the moon:
An observatory at a high point above Everytown. A telescopic mirror of the night sky showing the cylinder as a very small speck against a starry background. Cabal and Passworthy stand before this mirror.
CABAL: “There! There they go! That faint gleam of light.”
PASSWORTHY: “I feel–what we have done is–monstrous.”
CABAL: “What they have done is magnificent.”
PASSWORTHY: “Will they return?”
CABAL: “Yes. And go again. And again–until the landing can be made and the moon is conquered. This is only a beginning.”
PASSWORTHY: “And if they don’t return–my son, and your daughter? What of that, Cabal?”
CABAL (with a catch in his voice but resolute): “Then presently–others will go.”
PASSWORTHY: “My God! Is there never to be an age of happiness? Is there never to be rest?”
CABAL: “Rest enough for the individual man. Too much of it and too soon, and we call it death. But for MAN no rest and no ending. He must go on–conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time–still he will be beginning.”
PASSWORTHY: “But we are such little creatures. Poor humanity. So fragile–so weak.”
CABAL: “Little animals, eh?”
PASSWORTHY: “Little animals.”
CABAL: “If we are no more than animals–we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more–than all the other animals do–or have done.” (He points out at the stars.) “It is that–or this? All the universe–or nothingness…. Which shall it be, Passworthy?”
The two men fade out against the starry background until only the stars remain.
The musical finale becomes dominant.
CABAL’S voice is heard repeating through the music: “Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?”
Cabal’s beliefs sum up exactly how I felt after reading Have Space Suit-Will Travel. I had already abandoned the religion my parents tried to force on me in my childhood, and I was looking for something meaningful to replace it. Heinlein’s belief in humans having a manifest destiny to explore the galaxy felt right. If we are no more than animals then we have to snatch at our little scraps of happiness before oblivion overtakes our small fragile minds, and eventually the collective consciousness of the whole human race when it becomes extinct. The question is whether or not we can become more than animals and make our own destiny.
Losing My Religion
As serendipity would have it, just after watching Things to Come I found over on Edge.org “What Have You Changed Your Mind About in 2007” survey. This major article features a lot of serious people rethinking a lot of serious ideas, including manned space exploration. In 2008, do I still believe in my religion? That’s hard to say.
If you are someone who writes you will understand it when I tell you that I’ve tried to answer that before. In fact, many times. The last time was, What Happened to My Future? – from January 2007. It’s January 2008, so maybe it’s an annual unfolding of my unconscious at the beginning of the New Year. There are core emotions, or biological programming, memories, or whatever, that just nag the hell out of me, causing me to write about them over and over again. Each time I hope the focus of thoughts will make things clear and exorcise their haunting. I’m like my own psychiatrist trying to get myself to experience a breakthrough so I’ll understand why I am the way I am.
Another way to think of it is I’m a programmer looking at old code, examining loops and functions deep in a billion lines of code wondering what they mean to the current functionality of the program. This time I’m going to look at the subprogram introduced when I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein in 1965. If I could time travel back to my 13 year old self and ask him what his life would be like in 2008 it might reveal a lot about why I am the way I am today. However, does understanding the past ever free us from its programming? Can we reprogram ourselves over again?
Robert A. Heinlein seduced his readers into the romance of space exploration. Heinlein preached the gospel of the manifest destiny of human kind belongs exploring the galaxy. Heinlein was selling science fiction as something greater than Buck Rodgers crap, which is hard to believe because Have Space Suit-Will Travel was a parody of kid’s TV shows of the day, so how subversive could it be? America has always sold the future in a big way and Heinlein preached with the fervor of Elmer Gantry.
Evaluating the validity of space exploration is beyond the scope of a blog entry so I want to focus on one tiny view of how Have Space Suit-Will Travel intertwined in my mind, and how so very strangely it leads me from 1965 to 2008 and writing this essay.
Why would a thirteen-year-old kid read a book and decide living in outer space is the ultimate goal of his life? What’s so appealing about the high frontier? I’ve been able to look inside of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules several times in my life and there is nothing glamorous about them, but during the sixties I envied those astronauts more than anyone else on Earth. The mature “me” knows I could never have been an astronaut. Hell, I’m squeamish about public toilets and I’m addicted to creature comforts. But let’s say that volunteering to be a colonist on the Moon or Mars required no discomforts greater than traveling on a jet and living in a hotel, what makes living on those rocky worlds so appealing?
Is life so meaningless on Earth and so meaningful if we can blast off for parts unknown? Is breathing bottled air so much more exciting than breathing fresh air? There is absolutely nothing on the Moon and Mars other than rocks, and I was never interested in geology. Playing Freud I could say having two alcoholics for parents and living in a DMZ between the two of them and their never ending war was enough to make my 13-year-old self want to leave Earth, but I don’t think that’s it either. Although I have to admit that my teenage years of fiction and television addiction and playing around with drugs was obviously my psychological effort to escape.
The ending to Things to Come is the clue. By the way, I had seen this film before, many times, but I had forgotten it, so when its ending stood out like beacon it got me to thinking. Was Heinlein influenced by H. G. Wells? Most modern science fiction disappoints me because it lacks this philosophy. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy was a good adult exploration of these ideas, but it had little impact in the field of SF. From what I can tell most people want entertainment from SF, not a religion promoting the conquest of space. Is it time for me to give up too?
I don’t know if I can give up. It’s like people who lose their faith late in life, they can’t just chuck it all because too many lingering subprograms. I’m like Mother Teresa, with a lot of doubts after seeing years of harsh reality. And there are two subtle things that I have to distinguish between: science fiction and space exploration. Science fiction has as much to do with the realities of space exploration as the Harry Potter books do to the realism of magic.
Let’s face it, fiction, no matter how fancy you make it, is about entertainment and escapism. James Joyce can pretend to show us the world, but what Joyce shows us is no better than what Monet shows in his paintings. In the end, both writers and painters make something artificially beautiful for our minds to contemplate, but their allusions to reality, are just that, illusionary. Have Space Suit-Will travel is gorgeous jewel of a picture for me to contemplate, but it lives on its own with no real connection to the real world.
Now for believing in space exploration. It seems tragic that we live in such a large universe but are confined to such a small portion of it. It may not be possible to move our fragile life very far from Earth. And humanity, and life on Earth, is like the life of one person. We come into being, live for awhile, and die. The desire to explore space is also the desire for the human race to live longer, to seek immortality. But even this universe will die someday. The real reason to colonize space is to provide life insurance for mankind in case something happens to Earth.
When I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel I couldn’t imagine my own death or the death of the human race, which by the way is the subject of the book. Now that I am older, the knowledge of death creeps into my life like the slow decay of rust. Yeah, Neil, you were right, rust never sleeps. The reality is that most of humanity does not see the value of space exploration. It’s like that old Woody Allen joke where he professes he doesn’t want to find immortality in his work, but he just wants to live forever himself.
I think this same philosophy applies to environmentalism. People do not want to sacrifice for space or the Earth because the benefits are not direct to them. In other words, buying into Heinlein’s religion of manifest destiny of exploring the galaxy just isn’t natural. Like doubting Christians though, I always want to hold out for the possibility that space exploration will happen.
Like the people contemplating changes of mind at Edge.org, my change of mind for 2008 would be about science fiction. I officially declare that I no longer believe that science fiction is about science, or has any relation to it. From now on, whether I call the books I read science fiction or fantasy, all I expect of them is to be entertaining, and any logical analysis will only focus on judging the consistency of the fictional world the author creates. Now, do I really believe that? Yes, for all books of science fiction I read. But if I ever wrote the science fiction books I dream about writing, I’m going to do what Heinlein did, write the best entertainment possible and continue the religion.