Thursday, October 14, 2010
The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein
Oh, 1950s science fiction - is there nothing you can't do?
One of the downsides to our modern information age is that we have so much information available to us. If I see a reference on a blog or in a book that I don't know, it's a quick hop over to Google or Wikipedia to find out what it is, and if it's really interesting I can find myself learning about something I never knew before. And so, if I want to know more about cold sleep, robotics or time travel, there's a whole host of ways that I can not only learn about it, but learn why it's just so hard to do. I mean, think about robotics - we've been looking forward to the perfect household robot for decades now. One that can cook and clean and do all those tiresome chores that we would rather not spend our time doing. The problem is that those tiresome chores are actually marvelously complex tasks, involving not only precise physical movements, but some very complicated judgment calls. Every time we figure out how to get a robot to do one of those things, we then have a hundred other things that need to be done to get it even close to human-like competence.
I know this because the internet knows this.
But back in 1957, this stuff was all new and fresh and unknown, so if Robert Heinlein wanted his main character to cobble together the perfect household robot with some off-the-shelf parts and a little bit of magic tech (the Thorsen Memory Tubes), then why not? Assuming we had the technology, what couldn't we build?
Thus is the set-up for The Door into Summer, an adventure in engineering, patent law, and economics, with a little bit of time travel thrown into spice it up. Our hero, Daniel Boone Davis, is an engineer of the purest sort - he got into engineering to solve problems, and that's what he does. He doesn't want to be just one guy working on one cog for a huge corporation; he wants to make things himself that he knows will benefit everyone. He's a real Populist Engineer, too - his creations are made with replaceable parts, specifically so that the owner can quickly deal with any mechanical problems themselves, rather than have to wait for a repair shop to do the work. The parts are all off-the-shelf, too, which not only makes the machines easier to produce, but makes the production cost lower. In other words, he's making machines that will benefit as many people as possible, and the first one is the somewhat misogynistically-named Hired Girl.
This machine (which is a very close approximation of the Roomba, by the way) becomes an instant success, and the company that Dan forms to take care of it is looking to become fantastically wealthy. Unfortunately for Dan, his business partners - Miles and Belle - are far more interested in becoming filthy rich than helping mankind. So when it looks like Dan's newest creation, an all-purpose household robot named Flexible Frank, is going to be a wild success, they manage to freeze him out of the company. Literally. They steal his inventions out from under him and force him to take the Long Sleep - to be frozen cryogenically for thirty years. He wakes up in the year 2000, without money, without a job or prospects, and without his beloved cat, Pete.
A word about the cat angle to this story - if you're a cat person, like me, then the relationship between Dan and Pete will really resonate with you. Its clear that Heinlein himself was a cat person, as he shows a wonderful understanding of the human-cat relationship, including the absolute uncertainty as to which one is in charge at any given time. While the cat is not absolutely necessary to the plot, it's a nice addition to the story. If you're not a cat person, well... you should be.
Anyway, in the wild future of 2000, Dan discovers that something very strange was going on around the time he got frozen, and the more he uncovers, the more it looks like there can be only one explanation - time travel!
This is really classic science fiction at its best. The narrator is a brilliant man who never meets a problem he cannot solve, at least not eventually. He's a certified genius, and were it not for his blind spot for pretty women and his trust in his business partner, he would have had a fantastic life as an inventor. But his love of making stuff gets in the way of how the real world works, and sets him up for a series of thefts and betrayals. But you never really worry about him, because he is a man with no uncertainties. He doesn't wallow in self-loathing and moral dismay when he encounters a problem like being thirty years in the future with no means of supporting himself. No! When he sees a problem, his first thought is, "How do I solve this?"
In other words, he's an engineer.
It's a remarkably optimistic book, too. While the future of 2000 isn't perfect, it's still a whole lot better than 1970. And while 1970 certainly isn't perfect, it's a whole lot better than 1957. The book rests on that wonderful mid-century assumption that while human innovation can't solve every problem (and indeed often succeeds in creating more problems), it is, in the long run, a force for good. For the modern reader this may seem terribly naive, but I found it refreshing.
So while the story is really pretty predictable, it's a fun ride. Even the time travel element isn't quite as risky as Heinlein tries to make it out to be, since the reason Dan opts for time travel is that he's found evidence that he's already done it. Therefore no matter how dangerous it might be, he knows for a fact that he'll be successful. He doesn't mention this, or even seem to notice it, but the sharp-eyed reader should pick it up pretty quickly.
While most of the driving force of the book is what I would normally consider pretty boring - patent law and engineering - there is one element to it that is distinctly Heinlein: the universality of love. Dan is done in by his belief that he loves Belle, who turns out to be a gold-digger of the lowest order. But in the end, Dan knows who he truly loves. The only problem is that she's an eleven year-old girl. Whether in the publication year of 1957, the year Dan starts in, 1970, or the far-flung future of 2000, a grown man marrying a pre-teen is something that is generally frowned upon. They're able to settle this problem with a little time travel/cryogenic jiggery-pokery, but when you stop to think about it, the situation can be somewhat... unconventional. If you stop to really think about their relationship, there's some strange moral ambiguity going on there. Fortunately, the characters don't really care and the book ends without going into the ramifications of what they've done.
The book isn't about moral complexity, though. It's about solving problems and finding happiness, no matter what you have to do to get it. It's about overcoming adversity, betrayal and even time itself to get the life that you know you deserve. It's about finding that door into summer, when all the other doors lead you only into the winter. While we may not be able to solve our problems quite as neatly as Dan Davis did, we can still follow his example.
Except, perhaps, with the romancing eleven year-olds. That's still not cool.
"Despite the crepehangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better. With hands... with tools... with horse sense and science and engineering."
Daniel Boone Davis, The Door into Summer
The Door Into Summer on Wikipedia
Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia
The Door Into Summer on Amazon.com
The Heinlein Society