Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Menace from Earth by Robert A. Heinlein

The Menace From EarthThe Menace from Earth is another collection of stories written in the late forties and early fifties by Heinlein. Although he never claimed to be a prophet, RAH was such a good student of the human condition that he really nailed a lot of things before their time.

The Year of the Jackpot is the tale of Potiphar Breen, a statistician (who writes a story about a statistician?) who has noticed some strong correlations among the various cycles of human behavior and some of the natural cycles. I think Heinlein re-uses some of this material when he refers to The Silly Season in later work - it seems familiar. A number of these cycles seem to be coming to a vast peak, and he and a young woman he meets must decide what they should do when things get really strange...Armageddon strange.

Another little bit of recycling of a theme that shows up much later in RAH's famous Stranger in a Strange Land, " was a report about the All Souls Community Church of Springfield: the pastor had reinstituted ceremonial nudity. Probably the first time in this thousand years, Breen thought..." The Year of the Jackpot was an entertaining bit, except that he ended the story abruptly, as if he was mad at his characters.

By His Bootstraps is a time travel tale, in which a man doubles back in time over and over again to make sure that his younger self does what is necessary to bring about the final result. I think David Gerrold told a better tale on this theme in The Man Who Folded Himself.

Columbus was a Dope is a cute little short story about Luddites and discouragers, with a truly surprising twist at the end. At first, you'll think it's one of those "two guys walk into a bar..." jokes.

The Menace from Earth is a bit of young adult fiction smack dab in the middle of the book. Holly Jones is a high school student on the Moon, who moonlights (so to speak) as a tour guide for ground hogs. She meets her nemesis in the person of an earthling named Ariel Brentwood, a knockout blonde with wealth to boot. Holly and her partner, Jeff Hardesty, have worked together for several years designing a starship, though their relationship didn't seem to mean anything more serious to Holly until she introduces Jeff and Ariel, and suddenly she's the third wheel.

This story has a really great set of scenes in a volcanic bubble where lunar residents can strap on birdlike wings and fly in the 1/6 gravity of the Moon. Really makes you want to be there. The grand finale takes place when Holly agrees to teach Ariel to fly, and has to save her pupil's life when she panics and goes into a tailspin. All very G rated, of course.

Sky Lift is the story of a mission of mercy between the planets, wherein a pair of rocket jockeys must boost for nineteen days at more than 3 Gs to deliver medicine to an outpost at one of Pluto's moons, or nearly the entire staff will die. Goldfish Bowl is an odd tale about aliens so vastly different from us that our interactions with them resemble those of us with cheap pets, or maybe vermin.

Project Nightmare once again shows Heinlein's interest in the paranormal. A government project has been studying people with ESP, telekinesis, clairvoyance and so forth. They discover that some of the telekinetic talents can influence atomic decay, setting off an atomic bomb before the detonator is pressed. When the Russians (remember when they were our enemies, folks?) plant bombs in 27 U.S. cities and threaten to detonate them if we do not surrender, the telekinetics are recruited to suppress the explosions, and a long nightmarish vigil ensues as they race against time to find the devices. Sounds eerily prescient in light of what we suspect terrorists might attempt today, doesn't it?

The final story, Water is for Washing, paints a vivid picture of what might happen if the Big One ever strikes California. There's an interesting historical bit about the formation of the Salton Sea - I used to vacation there as a boy - that I've got to check out one of these days. Heinlein explores both the worst and the best of people's actions in a crisis in this one.

A mixed bag in this collection, but it all shows Heinlein's varied interests and pet theories.

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