Book Review: Tomorrow, The Stars (Anthology, Heinlein, 1952)

The 1967 Berkley edition
(Copyright © 2014 by Wil C. Fry.)

Full Title: Tomorrow, The Stars: a science fiction anthology
Author: multiple (edited by Robert A. Heinlein)
Year: 1952 (mine was 1967 paperback)
Publisher: Doubleday, Berkley Medallion Books
ISBN 425-04304-5
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When I chose this book from my shelf a few weeks ago, I thought I was about to re-read a Heinlein book I’d already finished years before. I was pleasantly surprised to note that (1) it was an anthology, and (2) I hadn’t read it before; it had somehow rested there for several years. Tomorrow, The Stars contains 14 speculative fiction short stories, selected and edited by Robert Anson Heinlein — usually considered one of the “The Big Three” of sci-fi authors, along with Asimov and Clarke.

Authors included in this anthology are (in order of this book’s table of contents): Jack Finney (1911-95), C.M. Kornbluth (1923-58), Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922-2007), Bob Tucker (1914-2006), John Reese (1910-81), Henry Kuttner (1915-58), Lester Del Rey (1915-93), Eric Frank Russell (1905-78), William Tenn (1920-2010), Judith Merril (1923-97), Murray Leinster (1896-1975), Isaac Asimov (1920-92), William Morrison (1906-80), and Fritz Leiber (1910-92). Notably, all of them are dead now.

I enjoyed the entire book, as I usually do enjoy older science fiction. It’s worth mentioning that all of the stories herein were written before any human had ventured into space, before Sputnik even. Yet eight of them are either primarily about space travel or mention it. A couple are about robots and time travel.

What I usually find most fascinating about older science fiction is how they imagined the world of the future, versus how that world actually turned out. Most of the old sci-fi that I’ve read over the years envisions ubiquitous space travel but completely missed the advances in computers and electronics that would soon take over the world instead.

For example, this book’s second story, “The Silly Season” (Kornbluth), talks of flying taxi cabs skimming quickly from one state to the next, but they’re using paper maps and not everyone has a phone (and no one has mobile phones). “Jay Score” (Russell) is about space travel, with Martians aboard, but they communicate from one end of the ship to the other via a hollow tube. “Poor Superman” (Leiber) has one character ask a secretary for a phone number, and she sorts through a pile of cards to find it, though the same story depicts moving sidewalks and other futuristic technology.

I was intrigued in a few of the stories by treatment of gender and ethnic issues. “Jay Score” has “black Terrestrials” as ship’s surgeons “because, for some reason nobody’s ever been able to explain, no Negro gets gravity bends or space nausea.” The author later describes the ship’s “Negro surgeon” saving the life of an engineer and ends that section with: “A good fellow, Sam. But he was like all doctors — you know, ethical.”

“Survival Ship” (Merril) keeps secret till the very end that the interstellar exploration ship is crewed mostly by women — the officers — while the four men aboard are lowly laborers.

Several of the stories mentioned alien life forms, which was just nearly required in early stories of interplanetary travel, indicating a very hopeful belief that we’d soon find life somewhere other than Earth.

I wonder how disappointed these authors, and others of the time, would be to learn that here at the end of 2014, we still have sent just over 500 people into space, and never more than a handful at any one time; that we don’t have permanent bases on any of the planets or moons in our solar system; and that we’ve simply expanded our highway systems instead of traveling primarily through the wide-open skies. Or that we’re still burning fossil fuels for electricity and space flight — many of them assumed nuclear power would have taken over by now. Or that many religions have — more than ever before — resisted the advances of science and technology — as predicted by some of these same writers.

It would clearly surprise many of them (in 1952) to learn about touchscreens, smartphones, tablet computers, and the internet (though Jules Verne and others predicted something very like the internet in the late 1800s). One of the stories, “Misbegotten Missionary” (Asimov), however, describes a man using a “photo-typer”, which was a 6″x8″ “featureless dark plastic slab” that weighed less than a pound. “Drake could operate it with either hand. His fingers would flick quickly and easily, placing their light pressure at exact spots on the blank surface, and, soundlessly, words would be written.” That sounds a lot like a small tablet computer, until you notice that it had a roll of paper advancing across the front of it. Even though Asimov got quite close to describing a handheld, touchscreen computer, he was still thinking of typing on paper.

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