Book review: “Time for the Stars” by Robert A. Heinlein

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Book review: “Time for the Stars” by Robert A. Heinlein

heinlein -- time for the starsBack in 1905, Albert Einstein promulgated his relativity theory. One wrinkle had to do with how time would be experienced by someone on Earth as compared with someone else traveling in a rocket ship at near the speed of light. Twins, say.

I can’t claim to understand the mathematics or physics, but the idea is that time would be slowed down for the one in a rocket ship — to the extent that, on his return to Earth, he would find his twin much, much older than himself.

In his 1956 book Time for the Stars, Robert A. Heinlein took that theory and ran with it.

And ran with a lot of other stuff as well, including telepathy, the search for Earth-like planets, the strategies of family dynamics, psychosomatic injuries, the psychology of siblings, the nature of life on other worlds and the meaning of “alien.”

“How does it feel to be a little green man in a flying saucer,” says one character as a ship from Earth prepares to land on a newfound world.

“What?”

“An oofoe. We’re an oofoe, do you realize that?”

“I suppose we are a U.F.O, sort of.”

No “sort of” about it. Heinlein understood that, just as Earthlings get scared at the idea of an “unidentified flying object” being a ship from space, so would any intelligent life forms on a planet visited by an Earth rocket.

 

Quite a homecoming

Telepathy, as an ability harnessed and employed by humans, often comes into play in Heinlein stories and books.

In Time for the Stars, telepathy is the method that Earth uses to keep in contact with a fleet of twelve torchships sent to all points of the compass, travelling at near the speed of light, in a search for Earth-like planets to colonize. And it’s the way the ships keep in contact with each other. Other communications systems just don’t work when one of the parties is traveling so fast.

Tom and Pat Bartlett, identical teenage twins, turn out to be skilled telepaths, so they’re among a troop of telepaths — most, but not all, of them twins and triplets — who are signed up for the space exploration.

In most cases, one twin stays on Earth while the other rides in a torchship. In some, one telepath rides on one ship and the partner on another.

Of the Bartletts, Tom ends up being the one to go into space, and, after four years of travel, he returns. He’s 18. His brother, though, has lived through 71 years, and is 89. It’s quite a homecoming.

 

Quite a trip

And it’s quite a trip.

Heinlein tells the story through Tom’s narration, and he looks at wide-range of questions about space travel.

The size of the crew, for instance, is important. Larger is better on a long journey so people don’t get on each other’s nerves.

Telepaths, as Heinlein envisions them, lose contact and sympathy with their twin or partner during the travel boosts when velocity most closely approaches lightspeed. On the ships, it seems that telepathic communication is interrupted for only a few weeks or months, but, on Earth, it’s years and even decades.

So new telepathic partners from the family need to be linked and trained.

In one case, a visit to a seemingly unthreatening planet results later in an outbreak of a plague inside Tom’s torchship, leaving many dead. On another world, the land is open and uninhabited, but there are warlike beings living in the oceans.

 

Quite a twist

And, then, Tom’s ship is gone so long that, when it faces a crisis of whether to go forward or return, it learns from Earth that a brand-new technology has been found which makes travel through the Universe immensely faster — indeed, virtually instantaneous.

Tom and his crewmates are Rip Van Wrinkles when they return. Yet, young Rip Van Winkles with full lives ahead of them.

It’s quite a trip and quite a homecoming.

And then Tom does something that’s totally reasonable, but also totally unexpected. It’s quite a twist, and, while it may make some readers a bit queasy, it puts the whole story into sharp perspective.

Patrick T. Reardon
2.20.15

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