Robert A. Heinlein: The Future History
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 27, 2000, with later edits
A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
"One good way of getting at the exhiliration that writers and readers of SF felt during those years is to suggest that they somehow felt that they were indeed constructing a ladder to the future. And there at the heart of it all was Robert A. Heinlein." - [John Clute, from Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia]
Sometime late in 1940, John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, became aware of a wall chart RAH had created, containing a basic outline of the futuristic stories he had written as well as ones yet to come. Characters and major technological developments, along with social and cultural trends, were graphed in a speculated future chronology. RAH credits the idea for this chart to an account he had read about Sinclair Lewis, who used a similar device to organize the many characters and plots in his fictional Zenith. Campbell was successful in persuading RAH to allow him to print this chart, and it appeared in the May, 1941 issue of ASF. Campbell's labeling of his work as a "Future History" of the world and the United States did not please RAH however, and later it was a source of contention when some of his proposed stories did not fit into this chronology.
According to an email I received from a reader, I probably provided incorrect information as to when and where Campbell first saw this chart. I had originally said he saw it while visiting RAH in Colorado Springs, but I now realize RAH had not taken up residence there until after the war, he was still in California at that time. An email exchange with Virginia Heinlein led me to believe Campbell first became aware of the chart through a photo sent to him by RAH that had been taken by a friend, Bill Corson. It showed RAH in his office with the chart on the wall behind him. If Campbell actually ever saw the chart, or a photocopy of it, it was more than likely during a visit by RAH to New York.
Heinlein was not the first, and certainly not the last, to write a series of stories with a common backdrop. What distinguishes the Future History from others is that it is more like a pyramidal structure rather than a linear series. Each story is self-contained but provides a solid base for subsequent ones to rest upon. With only a couple of exceptions no characters appear in more than one story, and odder still, with the exception of "Life-Line" the stories were not originally written or published in the proper chronological sequence either. For instance, "Requiem," only the third RAH story published, in January, 1940, is actually a sequel to the novella "The Man Who Sold the Moon," which did not appear until 1950. Today, one must wonder what readers initially thought of the significance of the "Requiem" character, D. D. Harriman, since they were not privy to his history as related in the "earlier" story published ten years later.
A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Beginning with The Man Who Sold the Moon, a collection of the first of the Future History, all of this series was reprinted in the early '50s in three other books, the collections The Green Hills of Earth and Revolt in 2100, and the short novel Methuselah's Children. The latter was deemed to be the last of the set until its main character, Woodrow Wilson Smith (aka Lazarus Long), returned in the 1973 novel Time Enough for Love. The book cover images below are from the earliest copies I read of these books, and I like the nostalgic look of them more than I do for most of the current editions. Please note that at this time Revolt in 2100 and Methuselah's Children are available in a combined paperback edition, and The Green Hills of Earth has been combined with a marginally related collection, The Menace from Earth
The Future History, certainly one of the most consistently satisfying sequences in all SF, was also published in an omnibus edition in 1967 entitled The Past Through Tomorrow (not in print at this time), with "Let There Be Light" deleted, and "Searchlight" and "The Menace from Earth" added. In my opinion, this collection would be the perfect introduction to Robert A. Heinlein, considered by many to be the "Father of Modern Science Fiction," so I would recommend you try to find a used copy of it somewhere.
It is true that the majority of the events in RAH's Future History chronicle never came to pass, or ever will in the case of incidents set much further into the future - at least not in the way presented. The brilliance of RAH's work is not in that type of exactitude, but rather in the dynamics of his characters' reactions to the movement of their society through time. We can easily accept the "unreal" background of the story because his protagonists are "real," i.e. easily identifiable archetypes whose fundamental nature is the same as the reader.
His first moon landing takes place in 1978 and is the result of the efforts of private enterprise, specifically the space-obsessed businessman D. D. Harriman of "The Man Who Sold the Moon" and "Requiem." We do not have a low-cost, high-yield energy source like the Douglas-Martin power screens of "Let There Be Light." The transportation technology of "The Roads Must Roll" frankly is so far-fetched as to be ludicrous. The specifics were most definitely wrong, but the postulated ideas were true in essence. Today there are more private enterprises engaged in space research and exploration than ever before; more efficient solar panels and storage batteries are developed each year; instead of moving roads, we have urban sprawl and the horrifying prospects of nation-wide transit strikes. Even though specified as being centered around the 1960s, the "Crazy Years" quite possibly are with us still. None of the news-flash headlines from Methuselah's Children have occurred exactly as reported, but neither are they ones that would surprise us if they had.
The progression of the stories is a logical extrapolation of many "what if..." scenarios that build on each other to create a concrete vision of "a" future, not necessarily our future. Another example of how RAH misjudged things completely is the speed at which planetary exploration and exploitation progressed after the initial moon landing. Again, many of these actions were the direct result of one man, D. D. Harriman, determined to see his dreams made real. The Future History timeline shows the founding of Luna City to be in approximately 1990, just 12 years after the moon flight, and establishment of outposts on Mars and Venus before the end of the century. The Green Hills of Earth collects these stories of man's expansive reach across the sea of space, beginning with "Delilah and the Space Rigger," which details the construction of the first orbiting space station. It closes with "Logic of Empire," a tale of the colonial exploitation of Venus and her native inhabitants. One must keep in mind the limited knowledge available concerning the planets at the time the majority of these stories were written, so RAH - as well as many others - should be forgiven false speculations regarding their natures.
I for one fervently hope RAH's prognosticative abilities maintain their current percentage, for the next collection, Revolt in 2100, begins approximately 75 years later with "If This Goes On," wherein the United States is plunged into the dark nightmare of a theocratic dictatorship. What intervened between these totally disparate states of existence, and how the lowly tele-evangelist Nehemiah Scudder rose to power as the First Prophet, was only revealed to us in the collection's postscript, entitled "Concerning Stories Never Written."
Below is the version of the Futury History chart as printed in my copy of 1967's The Past Through Tomorrow. Click on the image for a larger view.
The sixth decade referred to in the "Remarks" column is of course the 1960's, and the mass psychoses the "Crazy Years." The Interregnum was the period of religious fanaticism that resulted in the rise to power of Nehemiah Scudder, and it ended with the Second American Revolution recounted in the novella "If This Goes On." I am positive the Voorhis financial proposals were never mentioned in any of the stories of this series, so this is probably both an indication that RAH endeavored to flesh-out his universe with as many details as possible, and that there were certain ideas that never materialized in a finished story. Three stories that do not appear on the chart as reprinted in most of the latest editions of these books are the ones referred to in the postscript to Revolt in 2100, "Concerning Stories Never Written." On the original version they are included in the intended order, but within brackets, in the gap between "The Menace from Earth" and "If This Goes On." I have seen the latest edition of The Green Hills of Earth from Baen Books, and it reinserts these stories - as well as two others - back into the chart.
Nehemiah Scudder - whose name does appear on the chart - was briefly referred to in "Logic of Empire," the final story in the previous collection, The Green Hills of Earth. "The Sound of His Wings" would have concerned his growing popularity as a television evangelist and his entry into politics, resulting in his election as President, the dismantling of the Constitution, and the founding of the Theocracy. The drama of "Eclipse" was to have been set on Mars and Venus as those colonies strove for self-sufficiency in the wake of the Interregnum. "The Stone Pillow" would have recounted the beginnings of underground resistance to the Theocracy, which come to fruition in the recruitment of John Lyle, the hero of "If This Goes On." I have read of speculation that the 1966 short story "Free Men" could possibly have been a revamped version of this story idea.
"These three stories will probably never be written. In the case of "Eclipse" I have dealt with the themes involved at greater length in two novels… As for the other two, they both have the disadvantage of being "down beat" stories… I am not opposed to tragedy and have written quite a bit of it, but today we can find more than enough of it in the headlines....As for the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable… No. I probably never will write the story of Nehemiah Scudder; I dislike him too thoroughly. But I hope that you will go along with me in the idea that he could happen, for the sake of the stories that follow… I hope you will enjoy them—at my age it would be very inconvenient to have to go back to working for a living." — [Robert A. Heinlein, "Concerning Stories Never Written"]
The novella If This Goes On is sometimes confused with the title of the book collection in which it was reprinted, Revolt in 2100, which was the publisher's title, not Heinlein's. It was only the fourth of his stories ever published, in the February and March, 1940, issues of ASF, but the action it details is approximately two-thirds into the Future History chronicle by both years and word count. By this time the Theocracy is in complete control of the country and the United States has once again become isolationist. Since the U. S. had been the predominate force in planetary exploration those activities have been abandoned, and the energies of the government spent solely in consolidating its power. The technologies that had been developed in the 20th and 21st Centuries are still utilized but there are no further advances during the Interregnum, other than in the disciplines of mass psychology and social control developed by the priest class.
The story's hero, John Lyle, is a West Point graduate assigned to the Angels of the Lord, the elite guard regiment at the palace of the Prophet Incarnate in New Jerusalem (Washington, D.C.? - maybe New York?). A pious and naive young man, he has become disillusioned by the political machinations that surround him in the palace. After falling in love with Sister Judith, a deaconess in service to the Prophet, he conspires to have her spirited away and in so doing comes into contact with the growing underground movement working silently to undermine the oppressive regime. He himself is smuggled out of the palace when his life is thrown into jeopardy, and after many narrow escapes finds his way to the cabal's secret headquarters in a cavern in southern Arizona. There his military background is put to use in the preparations for the coming revolution.
This is one of RAH's most crisply-told tales. Once hooked on the narrative flow of this story you will have no difficulty accepting the fictional premise no matter how far-fetched you may believe it to be at the beginning. Heinlein knows people, and he is a master of emotion. I would compare his effect on the reader very closely to the way that film-maker Steven Spielberg has been able to tap into the psyche of his audience and touch their innermost being. Some may say that this is manipulation. That may well be, but it is effective, and that is precisely the intent.
The revolt succeeds, the Constitution is restored, and yet a further specification of the Rights of Man is declared. The Covenant is adopted, and is the genesis of what RAH's timeline chart refers to as the beginnings of The First Human Civilization. The validity of this concept is tested in the next story in the sequence, Coventry, which sees a man banished to a segregated community for violating one of the Covenants basic statutes. At first welcoming the opportunity to remove himself from what he considers a repressive society, he quickly learns how much the basic protections the Covenant offers is preferrable to the anarchy which reigns in Coventry.
Revolt in 2100 ends with the short story "Misfit," which is one of the few tales that introduced a character who later appeared in another story. Andrew Jackson Libby is an Ozark mountain boy on his first assignment with the Cosmic Construction Corps, one of the first exploratory missions created by the new government to reestablish a presence in space. Libby's unique mathematical ability and eidetic memory enables them to successfully complete their assignment of capturing a small asteroid and, with the help of strategically placed rockets, move it into a position where it will be utilized as a refueling stop on the Earth-Mars run. "Slipstick" Libby returned in a prominent role in the novel that followed, Methuselah's Children.
Robert A. Heinlein is generally considered to be a Hard SF writer, but the technological advances and innovations he describes, unlike those of others such as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, are never the focus of his narratives. His characterizations are what distinguish his work from almost any other of the Golden Age authors. This was never more evident than in the novel Methuselah's Children, which introduced perhaps his most famous protagonist.
A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Woodrow Wilson Smith's life encompasses the entire range of the Future History, having been born in 1912 and when last seen in RAH's final novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, was approaching the age of 2500. This may seem preposterous at first, but I will explain. Methuselah's Children focuses on members of the Howard Families, whose long life-spans are the result of a selective breeding program initiated by the financial endowment of Ira Howard, an immensely wealthy man who died of "old age" at 48 in 1873. The stipulation of his will which created the Howard Foundation was to establish research into prolonging average life expectancies. The executors of the foundation started with the method of selecting people who could boast a familial history of long-life, and offering them a financial incentive to marry and have progeny with others of similar ancestry. Smith was the product of only the third generation of this project, so it is evident that his particular situation is the result of a random mutation. The novel opens in 2125, and Smith is 213 years old, which makes him The Senior, the oldest surviving member of the Howard Families, the next oldest being Mary Sperling, at 183 years.
During the course of the Future History, and most especially during the "Crazy Years" and also the Interregnum, the Howards were forced to keep their identities and their nature secret from their short-lived neighbors. Every twenty or thirty years they resorted to the adoption of aliases and relocation to other geographical areas when their assumed ages became too old to justify their youthful appearance. Smith did the same, spending the majority of the time of the Interregnum on Venus, returning to Earth only after the overthrow of the Prophet's regime. One of the many names he had assumed over the years, and the one he most often used, was Lazarus Long.
After the establishment of the Covenant, the Howards decided the atmosphere of the newly formed government warranted the risk of revealing themselves to others. A small group, approximately 10% of the members, came forward and disclosed their true age. Initially they were not believed, but after they had given sufficient evidence to support their claims, the prevailing attitude from others became one of anger and resentment. The Howards were thought to be withholding vital information as to some magical "secret" related to their extended lives. Much pressure was brought to bear upon the government to extract this information, even if it meant violating sacred Covenant agreements. A secret accord between Lazarus and Slayton Ford, the Administrator for the Council of the Covenant, enabled the Howards to escape Earth in a newly commissioned starship.
Utilizing a revolutionary new space drive developed by Howard member Andrew Jackson "Slipstick" Libby, they visit two separate planetary systems, both of which pose dangers to the Earthmen. Rather than risk another such peril it is agreed to return to Earth in hopes that the political climate has changed enough for them to finally be accepted in peace. Due to paradoxes of the space-time continuum approximately 75 years have passed since their departure. During this time, positive that the Howards had discovered fundamental secrets of longevity, Earth scientists had undertaken massive research projects that had born considerable fruit in the development of several forms of rejuvenation techniques, affording even "normal" humans extended life-spans. Lazarus decides to avail himself of these techniques, since now he determines he has time enough at last - even Time Enough for Love.
Before moving on to another period of Heinlein's work I would like to take another look back at the Future History and make a few additional comments. For those who may not be familiar with RAH or who have only read a few of his works, I want to point out again that these stories are available in several versions. All of them, with the exception of "The Man Who Sold the Moon," were originally printed in various magazines, the majority in Astounding Science Fiction, but also in such widely-varied periodicals as Super Science Stories, Argosy, The Saturday Evening Post, Blue Book, Town and Country, Boy's Life, and American Legion Magazine. The first appearance of "The Man Who Sold the Moon" came in 1950 in the book collection of the same name, which also included RAH's very first story, "Life-Line," as well as four others. The next group of stories in the saga were collected in The Green Hills of Earth, followed by Revolt in 2100, and the final story (at least at that time) came in the novel Methuselah's Children.
All of these titles have been recently reprinted but also should be available in most used book stores. RAH has a legion of devoted fans so there may be some of his titles that will be difficult to locate, however you can be sure most of his work will continue to be reprinted - Heinlein has kept many a publishing house afloat for the past fifty years. As an example, recently the titles Revolt in 2100 & Methuselah's Children were reprinted in a combined edition by Baen Books. Almost the entire saga, with just a few revisions but including the final novel, was issued in the omnibus edition titled The Past Through Tomorrow in 1967.
A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Even if RAH had not written any more stories or novels than these I feel confident his place in the SF hall of fame would be assured. Not only are the majority of them immensely enjoyable reads, they also reflect the sensibilities of one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking writers in genre history. Even considering the downer nature of "If This Goes On," his work is imbued with a spirit of hope and a confidence in the essential dignity of man and in his ability to overcome any obstacle to shape the future into a place where all his aspirations can be realized. His characters are brilliantly conceived and totally believable. You may not know anyone like them personally - many of his people are as exceptionally intelligent and well-rounded as their creator - but their thoughts, actions, and reactions are completely credible, and you will come to think of them as real, persons you would feel privileged to know and count as friends.
There are many of the short stories I have not mentioned specifically, and I have given but the barest of outlines for others, but I have to point out that this series includes several that in my opinion must be considered classics of the SF field. My favorites are (not necessarily in this order) the novel Methuselah's Children, the short stories "The Green Hills of Earth," "It's Great to be Back," "We Also Walk Dogs," and "Coventry," and the novellas "Logic of Empire" and "If This Goes On." There is one other, "The Man Who Sold the Moon," which SF author, critic, and historian Damon Knight has classified a "major work of art." I am not sure I would go that far, but it is also one of Heinlein's very best.
"Written with deceptive ease and simplicity, it functions brilliantly on half a dozen levels at
once. It is a story of man's conquest of the Moon, a penetrating essay on robber-baron
capitalism, and a warm, utterly convincing and human portrait of an extraordinary man."
[Damon Knight, from his introduction to
The Past Through Tomorrow]
It is my fervent hope and wish that somewhere in the world today there is such a man as D. D. Harriman, someone who could spark a renaissance in space exploration (Richard Branson? Elon Musk?). Without Robert A. Heinlein to point the way to that future his presence is needed now more than ever. Perhaps in some small way I can contribute to this endeavor, by introducing new readers and reaquainting older ones to the works of "The Dean of Space Age Fiction."
The Heinlein Society
The Robert A. Heinlein Homepage - maintained by James Gifford
We would appreciate your support for this site with your purchases from
Amazon.com and ReAnimusPress.