You Should Read This: The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover of Robert A. Heinlein's The Past Through TomorrowA blog post I read recently used attitude towards Robert A. Heinlein as a measurement of a person’s…I’m not quite sure what, but it seemed to be connected to their worthiness to be part of the F&SF community.

I don’t care so much about that. There are problematic aspects to Heinlein’s writing, yes, and one fascinating thing about that is that they span the range of the political spectrum. But regardless of attitude, if you want to be well-read in science fiction (by which I mean you have read much of the significant material in the field and understand at a rudimentary level where it fits in relationship to other significant works), you need to have at least a nodding acquaintance with Heinlein. And if you are looking for one work that shows his range and also includes some stories that show how marvelous a wordsmith he can be, I recommend The Past Through Tomorrow: Future History Stories.

Why do you need to have read Heinlein?

  • Because a significant group of readers came to science fiction through Heinlein’s YA novels. Know the novels and you’ll have a better understanding of some of their sweet spots as well as many of the basics for writing a YA novel. Heinlein knew how to do it.
  • Because he wrote so many landmarks in the field. Decades later, they’re still using the word “grok” (from Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land) at Microsoft. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers are other books that are worth grabbing if you only read a few of his books.
  • Because he influenced so many other writers and also interacted with and mentored many of them. Read his letters to get a sense of those interactions.
  • Because he is problematic. Farnham’s Freehold is infamous for how badly it’s aged and how racist it appears today, and in some ways it showcases how a writer can fail (in my opinion) to rise above the limitations of their own world view. If you want to avoid similar traps, you need to understand where Heinlein fell into them. Heinlein has some books that I recently saw described as “squicky” and I will agree that featuring an incestuous relationship with underaged twin girls, for example, in a book does strike me as squicky — (although I didn’t note it at all when reading the book as a teen). Lolita‘s squicky too. But it’s still literature. I don’t think anyone should be shamed or scolded* for having read Heinlein or even liking his work. I like a lot of his books.

To go back to the idea of using this as a measurement of who belongs in fandom and who doesn’t: this assumption is asinine. It’s a straw man argument. If you read and enjoy science fiction, you are a part of science fiction fandom regardless of what is and isn’t your favorite. And to present this as a characteristic of some monolithic block in fandom (or use it as a way to place them outside “true” fandom) strikes me as a misguided strategy if one is genuinely trying to solve divides causing difficulties in communication.

But I digress, and in doing so I’m pulling you away from some writing that has always moved and impressed me. The story, “The Green Hills of Earth,” for instance, makes me weep and sticks with me to this day. “The Man Who Sold the Moon” is another classic, with a protagonist who is one of my personal favorites. Beyond that, the book provides a sense of the chronology of Heinlein’s universe and the events that shaped it, functioning as a sampler of of his stories.

And it holds “The Menace From Earth,” a story that so irritated me that decades later it spurred my reply, Long Enough and Just So Long.

So yeah. You should read a little Heinlein. And you should read other stuff too, newer stuff. Stuff that grew out of his works, like Bill the Galactic Hero, which was Harry Harrison’s reply to Starship Troopers, or Soldier, Ask Not, which was Gordon Dickson’s answer in turn.

*I note that this has never happened to me, but several people have recounted incidents. Your mileage may vary.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 100+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012.
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  • khaalidah

    The Past Through Tomorrow is one Heinlein book that I haven’t read, but I’m willing to try on the strength of your recommendation. I happen to love Heinlein despite the many problems in his writing. The first Heinlein book that I ever read was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and I go back to it when I haven’t anything new or good to read. That book has left such a favorable impression on me. I loved that book, the messages, the voice and the characters. Farnham’s Freehold…Yeah, this is problematic, but I choose to take the forgiving approach and believe that while he missed the mark, he was really trying to make a good point. (I hope.) I also loved Farmer in the Sky, although I can’t really articulate why beyond the fact that I really appreciated the relationship between the father and son, the way they related to each other and their eventual struggle.

    • Cat Rambo

      There’s a lot to love in Heinlein. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is another of my favorites.

  • Susan Erickson

    My favorites were Citizen of the Galaxy, Red Planet, and Have Space Suit will Travel (the first of his that I read in fourth grade. I don’t regret having read his “adult” books but generally dislike them for a multitude of reasons, their squickiness is definitely the predominant one. I am never sure if The Door into Summer was considered an “adult” but I did really enjoy that one, especially how it got its name.

    • Cat Rambo

      Loved The Door into Summer!