Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
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Run Silent, Run Free
Douglas Trumbull's "Silent Running"

by Daniel C. Smith

Perhaps more than any other, the late Robert A. Heinlein epitomizes the twentieth century science fiction writer. His stature is that of icon, and he is the winner of any award and honor worth having in the field. Heinlein penned the sci-fi milestones Stranger in a Strange Land and The Cat Who Walked Through Walls as well as the teenage classics Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and Rocketship Galileo. Many of his novels have been made into major motion pictures (Starship Troopers, The Puppet Masters) and his influence and presence still resonates with writers today. The only trouble with being a new (or even old ) fan of so prolific a writer is that sometimes a true gem can slip through the cracks of said writer's repertoire, most often overshadowed by more publicized or successful works (or, in Heinlein's case, controversial). These works are often unknown even to the most diehard of fans; I believe that that is the case with one of my favorite early-Heinlein novels, The Door into Summer, originally published in 1956.

This is the story of Daniel Boone Davis, an atypical Heinlein character in many ways: crafty, independent and smart-- very 'Americana' if you will (with a strong nod to Horatio Hornblower, heavily laden with the Libertarian sensibilities that smack of more than just a foreshadowing of Heinlein's beloved character Lazarus Long), scrappy and resolute-- yet there is a certain vulnerability about the man which not only endears him to the reader but also allows him to be duped in a business transaction by his best (human) friend and the woman with whom he had fallen madly in love. In a fit of depression, he decides to take 'the big sleep', i.e., cryogenic suspension (although taken for granted by a reader of sci-fi today, the idea of human hibernation was relatively new when this novel was originally written).

This is one of the more intriguing aspects of this novel, Heinlein's uncanny ability to see around the corner of technological innovation. This book is a true product of the 'Golden Age' of sci-fi, and Heinlein's near-prescience as to the direction of technology and cultural trends are what made him a master of that bygone era. This story's protagonist, as an inventor, takes the reader inside the design of many (at that time) futuristic, robotic machines, many of which (surely you will recognize Hired Girl) have found their way to today's marketplace. While daydreaming, our hero outlines plans for a machine in his head that will perform what we can now recognize as computer aided drafting (CAD).

Heinlein also offers a glimpse of the future of film with a brief mention of interactive theater; remember Douglas Trumball, the director of Silent Running? He is now a pioneer in this new field of interactive or audience participation theater, a field that he has virtually invented, the eventual progression of which is the 'holo-deck' (with all of its interactive capabilities) popularized by the various Star Trek television series.

Add ATM's, ideas for 'solid' circuits (solid state circuitry was still many years away) and postulations on the fallibility of government-subsidized industry and it becomes easy to think of Heinlein not just as a great science fiction writer but perhaps as a prophet as well.

But wait, there's more. In order to find his own 'door into summer' our hero must open a door back into the past and travel-- through 'temporal displacement'-- back to where (and when) he started. An arduous enough journey, but one that will prove worth it-- if he can save his fortune, get revenge on his best friend and former fiancée, get the girl, and most importantly , find his cat.

While The Door Into Summer does not focus on many of Heinlein's more mature themes and concepts that made many of his later classics (such as Stranger In A Strange Land or Friday) so compelling (and controversial), it is an enjoyable read, a great adventure that spans decades and it is chock full of everything that made the Golden Age of science fiction the definitive era of the genre and, more importantly, all of the things that make science fiction… FUN.

If you're a Heinlein fan and you overlooked this one, put it on your list-- and if you're new to Heinlein and would like to familiarize yourself with his work, this book is as good a starting place as any. Of course, every sci-fi fan should be familiar with Stranger In A Strange Land, but I also recommend, in addition to all of the titles mentioned thus far, the novels The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Job: A Comedy of Justice, Methuselah's Children, and of course Time Enough For Love. Heinlein also wrote a plethora of short stories, including the classic tales Universe, Jerry Was A Man, and The Roads Must Roll. While there is nothing in the Heinlein catalog not worth reading, these handful of titles represent what I feel are the highlights of a truly stellar career.

© 2011 Daniel C. Smith

Daniel C. Smith has published over a hundred stories, poems, articles and reviews in venues such as Bare Bone, Tales of the Talisman, The Leading Edge, Star*Line, and Space and Time.

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