'The Past Through Tomorrow' - Book Review

The Past Through Tomorrow
by Robert A. Heinlein
collected stories from 1939-1962

This is a massive book containing much of Robert Heinlein's "Future History" series:

  • "Life-Line"
  • "The Roads Must Roll"
  • "Blowups Happen"
  • "The Man Who Sold the Moon"
  • "Delilah and the Space Rigger"
  • "Space Jockey"
  • "Requiem"
  • "The Long Watch"
  • "Gentlemen, Be Seated"
  • "The Black Pits of Luna"
  • "It's Great to be Back"
  • "We Also Walk Dogs"
  • "Searchlight"
  • "Ordeal in Space"
  • "The Green Hills of Earth"
  • "Logic of Empire"
  • "The Menace from Earth"
  • "If This Goes On—"
  • "Coventry"
  • "Misfit"
  • "Methuselah's Children"

They're presented chronologically (by the time they're supposed to represent, not the time at which they were written). Much of the science in the earlier stories is now blatantly incorrect, so you'll have to accept that incongruity. I worked through it out of respect for Heinlein, but it was in fact "work:" had I known that, I probably wouldn't have read this. A couple of them ("Methusalah's Children" I remember because it was the last one) are almost novel-length.

"Delilah and the Space Rigger" was Heinlein's attempt to show how not-sexist he was. It may have been forward-looking for the period (1949), but by modern standards still makes him look pretty damn sexist. In fact, his female characters are routinely poorly written: they're usually drawn as intelligent, competent, and often commanding ... in fact the only difference from Heinlein's male characters is their names and physical build. They're men in a woman's skin - I guess we know what Heinlein's ideal woman is like.

"If This Goes On—" was both surprising and predictable - surprising in that it tackles big religion head on, something Heinlein rarely did. Stranger in a Strange Land is all about that - but more about creating a new religion, not Christianity. "If This Goes On—" is about the U.S. ruled and utterly controlled by a former charismatic revivalist preacher and his dynasty. The story was predictable in that it features Heinlein's favourite themes: revolution, politics, fighting for what's right, the everyman.

"Methuselah's Children" struck me as being a fairly traditional "generation ship" and "voyage of discovery" type of science fiction stories. It was written in 1941, and comments on Wikipedia suggest I'm not giving it enough credit: it was probably ground-breaking for the time. But this brings me to my major problem with the entire work: Heinlein was one of THE major writers of science fiction from the 1940s through the 1980s, and as such his work has been influential on every SF writer since - most of whom I've read. So what may have been his original ideas I know from dozens of other writers and the ideas no longer appear original. The one thing that could make such an epic work worth reading would be the quality of writing ... and Heinlein just isn't that great a writer. He wrote better than almost all of his compatriots from the 1940s through the 1960s (when SF was the domain of men (and men only) of ideas, not men of artistic skill), but he wasn't a good writer. Some of the shorter stories were fun to read, but as a whole the thing was a slog.