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The Past Through Tomorrow 

Robert A. Heinlein

Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything —you can't conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him"

Reviewed by Alan D. Abbey

It was with trepidation that I sat down to reread Robert Heinlein's short story collection, The Past Through Tomorrow. I worried that the stories would not be as enjoyable as they were the first half-dozen times through, that Heinlein's reactionary politics would get in the way of my enjoyment, and that the stories which incorrectly predicted what was his future and is now our past would seem dated, or at least trite. 

But none of that came true. The strong stories transported me; the weaker ones brought smiles and nods, and the two longer items, the novellas, If This Goes On, and Methuselah's Children, provided more than enough food for thought to nourish. 

Heinlein's collection begins with his first published story, Life Line, which dates back to 1939. As the myth goes, Heinlein wrote it after being forced into retirement from the U.S. Navy from illness, and, after receiving $50 for it, never really looked back from a writing career. This kind of commercial beginning - writing for money rather than a burning desire to express himself - provided an easy way out for Heinlein: as a self-proclaimed commercial hack, he was able to avoid the encrustation of critical analysis during his lifetime. For years, decades really, he was subjected to little more than the dictates of crusty magazine editors, cutthroat publishers and adoring fans, primarily teenaged boys and young men who gorged on the pulp magazines in which Heinlein published most of his early work. 

But that myth is too convenient. Heinlein had something to say from the beginning of his career about individual responsibility, commercialism, and free markets. His early work contains more introspection and insight into human behavior than generally believed, and his characters, far from being stereotypical cardboard cutouts ("heroic space jockey pilot," "pixie-cute girl," "troublemaking teen"), spend time not just thinking about themselves but about the world in which they live. 

Heinlein's world is not exactly like ours. In the stories of The Past Through Tomorrow, personal helicopters scoot across town, smart roads control ground traffic, rocket ships are flung into space from a giant catapult built into the side of Colorado's Pikes Peak by a private corporation, and mammoth, high-speed conveyor belts have replaced the suburbs, exurbs and gated communities of our world. 

Yet he was right far more than he was wrong. Even when he didn't guess correctly about the details of nuclear power in the stories Blowups Happen and The Long Watch, he got the essence right. In Blowups, the workers at a nuclear plant must be watched continually by a psychologist for fear the pressure of working at such a dangerous locale could lead to sabotage. But he caught the anxiety we have about nuclear power, whether it is the safety considerations in the wake of Chernobyl and Detroit in 1966, the unresolved questions of what to do with nuclear power plant waste, or the newer concerns about nuclear terror, either by plant sabotage or the use by terrorists of nuclear-armed "dirty bombs." 

For me, perhaps, his most terrifying prediction was that an evangelical-style Christian dictator would take over the United States and turn it into an anti-technology theocracy that would crush all dissent and other religions. Nowadays, that threat seems to have receded, but it was on the rise through the 1970s and 1980s when these stories gained popularity. 

We can continue to explore the accurate and not-so-accurate predictions he made, and we can demean his workmanlike - at best - prose. But we should not ignore Heinlein's ability to draw fully realized characters within the boundaries of a traditional, pulp-magazine short story. In Space Jockey, Heinlein takes us deep into the mind and world of a rocket ship pilot (who leaves his wife and her theater tickets to make the Earth to Moon run and then must face a fuel crisis in space that threatens the lives of hundreds of the rocket ship's passengers). He details the man's fears, anxieties, passions, and, quickly enough, his successes, in a way that makes the sci-fi jargon of ballistic computers, ship trajectories and retro rockets recede. The man shines through. 

Similarly, in Requiem, possibly the collection's best, Heinlein makes us feel the passion for space of a global entrepreneur (who may be the man Richard Branson aspires to be) and his apparently hopeless dream of actually traveling into space. 

For a simply thrilling adventure story, albeit one predicated on the troubling undertone of religious fundamentalism, If This Goes On pulls the reader through. Heinlein's descriptions of the nuts and bolts of underground organizations and revolution in a technological society ring true in this day and age of the Internet, cyber terrorism and spy satellites. 

Just as it is difficult to read these stories without getting bogged down in the fact that they are tales of a future that is now already behind us (The stories were written in the 1940s and 1950s, and, with few exceptions, take place before the turn of the 21st century), it is difficult to read them as a science fiction fan and Heinlein aficionado without the encrustation of future Heinlein stories and ideas surrounding them. One who cares about Heinlein and is familiar with his personal story will see hints of the writer's personality and his later concerns in these early stories. 

Yet it would be unfair, let alone plain inaccurate, to read these stories only for what they presage about his later, more "mature" novels, including, Stranger In a Strange LandStarship Troopers, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. The stories of The Past Through Tomorrow stand on their own, with or without their "future history" framework, and will provide an open-minded reader with everything from a few hours of diversion to days of thought after digging into the ideas Heinlein often casually tosses out. The best of these tales linger long after the last rockets have fired, and the last personal helicopters have landed.

Alan D. Abbey is a journalist, writer, editor, blogger, and website manager. He has worked for news organizations in the U.S. and in Israel. He is the author of a biography of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon and has published book and movie reviews, and columns of political and social commentary.


Publication Date: Published in several editions, the latest in 1987

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?No

Author bio: Robert A. Heinlein, who died at age 80 in 1988, was a 20th century American science fiction author. He received Hugo Awards for four novels, including the one considered his greatest, Stranger in a Strange Land. He also was awarded the first Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America.

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