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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Green Hills of Earth

Recommended: "The Green Hills of Earth" (Robert Heinlein)

Robert Heinlein wrote some pretty weird science-fiction novels. Classic Heinlein novels are long, bizarre, and seem to revolve around sex. And free love. The protoganist (almost always male) suggests a certain auto-biographical flavor... So was Mr. Heinlein a randy old goat, or are these stories just his sexual fantasies?

(Let me emphasize that was a rhetorical question, in case any commenters know more about his personal life than I want to know!)

All this to say that Mr. Heinlein was, I think, a strange man, and he wrote strange books. At times, however, his work is inspired. Stranger in a Strange Land is great (although, there's not as much sex in this one). The Number of the Beast is very fun (it's fan-fic; fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Frank Baum should enjoy the palpable love Mr. Heinlein has for Barsoom and Oz.).

But his early work swings to other end of the spectrum. A collection of short stories (also titled The Green Hills of Earth) displays the usual outrageous patriarchal world-view fantasies of '50s television. The stories were written earlier in his career, during the late 40s and early 50s. Perhaps he wasn't a committed swinger yet, or perhaps he needed to sell stories that publishers would actually pay for.

These are very simple stories. Sappy Man-Stories. Women characters, although always treated with respect, fade into the background. I can make up a plausible plot in five minutes: "Hey Pops, can you teach me to fly the rocket?" "Not until you raise your grades in algebra, Junior." "Aww, Pops!" So of course Junior takes the rocket out for a spin anyways, Junior's little sister sneaks on board, danger ensues, but in the end Pops rubs Junior's crew cut with fatherly pride.

I made that plot up, but it sounds just like one of Mr. Heinlein's stories. Seriously. These stories *are* that bad. And this guy won the Hugo Award? Five times?

But who said stories had to be good to be recommended? I think these are fun stories. "The Green Hills of Earth" is as manly, simplistic, and sappy as any of the others. The story tells the history of an old blind spaceman named Rhysling, who cadges his way around the solar system, lugging his accordion and yowling out doggerel:

We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth
Let us rest our eyes on fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.


Think for a moment what your life would be like, if you spent the next several decades working in asteroid belts and on strange moons. Do you remember what it's like to be away from home for weeks... months, years? Have you felt the quiet pull of familiar lands, of the home whose memory still floast through your dreams?

The homesickness pours through this story--it's a story of love, loss, and yearning for home. And that is what makes it beautiful.

That rare gift, to make the pages of a story sing out with emotion, that gift is Mr. Heinlein's.

The Green Hills of Earth is back in print. Hunt through your local bookshops, or try your library. Yes, you can get it cheaply from amazon.com, but even so, it's not a book you'll read more than once.

More sex Heinlein!

  • The Hugo Winners: Double Star, Farmer in the Sky, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

  • It's almost like it's a Heinlein-festival! Mindy at ProperNoun agrees with me. Also, visit Biology in Science Fiction for some more about sex and Heinlein.

  • I like Mr. Heinlein's science-fiction. The science isn't emphasized (people and relationships are first and foremost), but he does throw in little sciencey-details now and again. Hooray, science!

  • There's something very interesting about female characters in his work, even if they rarely emerge from the background. Always--always--the female characters are capable, independent, and strong. They do frequently assume stereotypical gender roles (as do the men), but that is not an hindrance to independence. For example, in "Space Jockey", Phyllis must nervously wait at home, twisting her hands on her apron (yes, an outrageous housewife stereotype), while Jack earns the bread flying dangerous rockets and rarely coming home (a manful gender role). Yet Phyllis begins to contemplate divorce because she's not willing to ignore her emotional needs. It's a very small point in the story (Phyllis herself isn't a major character), but you can see little details like these crop up even in early Heinlein. Good for him.

1 comment:

Billy Goat said...

Mister Troll, your review is three days too late! Saturday was Heinlein's hundredth birthday!

I've only read Stranger in a Strange Land, but I have a number of his other works on my bookshelf, just waiting for me to get to them.