Book review: “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert Heinlein

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Book review: “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert Heinlein

I am pretty much an illiterate about the science of space travel. When talk turns to apogees and pounds-per-second and all that stuff, a fog descends on my brain.

Still, from my low (and foggy) rung on the ladder of understanding, I am able to recommend Robert Heinlein’s 1950 short story collection The Man Who Sold the Moon to anyone who does have a glimmer of how the human race has been able to send people into space and land men on the moon.

The interest, for such readers, will be in how well Heinlein was able to imagine space travel decades before it became a reality.

And not just space travel, but other technological breakthroughs as well.

heinlein --- man who sold moon

Five of the book’s six stories were originally published in 1939 and 1940, and revised a bit for this collection to account for new scientific insights as of the mid-century mark. The title story, an 89-page novella, first saw the light of day in this book.

As little as I know, I’m able to recognize that Heinlein got a lot wrong. We don’t, for instance, wear finger watches as he envisioned, and there are no huge regional networks of moving conveyor-belt-like roads for getting from one city to another as a daily commute.

That’s beside the point, though. What’s interesting is how much he got right — or, maybe, how well he grappled with the scientific issues, using only public documents as his resource.

At least, I suspect that’s what a knowledgeable person would find interesting.

“What do you propose?”

As dense as I am about these things, even I recognize some startlingly on-the-money predictions by Heinlein, such as tumblebugs:

Gaines and Harvey mounted tumblebugs, and kept abreast of the Cadet Captain, some twenty-five yards behind the leading wave. It had been a long time since the Chief Engineer had ridden one of these silly-looking little vehicles, and he felt awkward. A tumblebug does not give a man dignity, since it is about the size and shape of a kitchen stool, gyro-stabilized on a single wheel. But it is perfectly adapted to patrolling the maze of machinery ‘down inside’, since it can go through an opening the width of a man’s shoulders, is easily controlled and will stand patiently upright, waiting, should its rider dismount.

That sounds a lot like a Segway, doesn’t it?

And here’s an exchange that resonates with the present day. Two scientists are talking about their discovery, and how big business is doing everything in its power to make sure the discovery never sees the light of day by making it impossible for the scientists to turn a profit:

“What do you propose we do?

“Give away the secret. Tell the world how it’s done.”

Sort of like open-source software today, right?

Something in the air

I’ve always read Heinlein because of his quirky take on human nature and his great storytelling ability.

Both of those qualities are on display here, even if obscured at times by all the physics, math and other, for me, mumbo-jumbo.

After a successful Moon rocket launch, a reporter asks D.D. Harriman — the man behind the effort and “The Man Who Bought the Moon” — for a comment.

“Tell then that this means new frontiers…”

I’m pretty sure that, in 1960, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy and his speechwriters hadn’t read this story. Nonetheless, JFK told his fellow Democrats, “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier.”

Obviously, there was something in the air.

“Suppose….”

For me, the most impressive moment in The Man Who Sold the Moon came about midway through the title story. Harriman is brainstorming with his close aides about how to raise the money to make a Moon shot.

Harriman is arguing that, once space travel begins, humanity will reach further and further and, eventually, will come upon — “ ‘People!’ ” He goes on:

Suppose we do find people? Think what it will mean to us. We’ve been alone, all alone, the only intelligent race in the only world we know. We haven’t even been able to talk with dogs or apes. Any answers we got we had to think up by ourselves, like deserted orphans. But supposed we find people, intelligent people, who have done some thinking in their own way. We wouldn’t be alone anymore! We could look up at the stars and never be afraid again.

Never quite saw it that way before.

I know other science fiction writers have posited wars between humans and other intelligent life forms. So has Heinlein in other books.

But I think he has something here about humanity’s loneliness in the universe. And how that could change if — when — we finally meet someone else.

Patrick T. Reardon
12.11.13

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