Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Sort of a Book Post

I've just started reading Robert Heinlein's For Us, The Living. Apparently, this was the first thing Heinlein wrote, but it was pretty much unsalable, and it sat in his desk drawer until somebody decided that Heinlein was famous enough that it was salable, after all. As Spider Robinson repeatedly points out in his introduction, it's less a novel, really, as it is a thinly fictionalized showcase for Heinlein's ideas of what the future should be like. To its credit, I suppose, it doesn't really seem to be trying to pretend to be much of anything else, which is more than you can say for a lot of his later works. I can't really offer an opinion on the book yet, as I'm only 50 pages in, but I am finding it kind of interesting to read, just because I always find it interesting to look at science fiction books from many decades ago and compare their visions of the future with the directions things actually went in in reality. This one was written in 1939 and set in 2086. What I find most interesting about it is that, 50 pages in, I'm already getting a strong sense of Heinlein groping blindly towards the idea of something resembling the internet. Apparently when his residents of the future want information (e.g. copies of old newspaper articles from 1939), they call up a records facility on the telephone, place an order, and have the information delivered to them via pneumatic tube in as little as half an hour. Clearly, Heinlein had no way of imagining the technology that would make it possible to gather information like that in seconds without so much as speaking to a human being, but in terms of the basic concept, it seems eerily prescient.

Some things, on the other hand, nobody ever gets right. One of the things I find most consistently bemusing and amusing about old science fiction novels is that, in their versions of the future, everybody smokes. All the time, everywhere, and without ever asking first if anybody minds. Apparently absolutely nobody was capable of imagining that tobacco might ever start to go out of style...

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