Sometimes, when he was younger, Robert A. Heinlein would speculate in his stories and novels about the science of space travel, and that could get a bit wonky. Sometimes, when he was older and had had wide success, he would fill his fiction with bombast about how humans should live, and that could get tedious.
In The Green Hills of Earth, Heinlein does what he does best — writes about that endlessly mysterious and endlessly curious thing called human nature.
The Green Hills of Earth is a 1951 collection of nine short stories and a novella, originally published during the previous decade. Here, there’s not much discussion of space hardware or theoretical physics. People are people, albeit in alien settings or in exotic circumstances.
The novella “The Logic of Empire” is set mainly on the harsh landscape of Venus (which seems very much like equatorial Earth, except hotter and muggier), but the subject is one that has been an aspect of human society from the beginning — slavery.
Through a series of unexpected events, lawyer Humphrey Wingate finds himself as a labor client on the second planet from the sun, which is to say that, since there is no way to buy his way out of his contract and obtain a flight back to Earth, he is a slave.
He eventually escapes in a scene reminiscent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and, back on Earth, wants to wage a crusade. His friend Sam Jones, however, argues that Wingate faces an uphill struggle.
It’s nothing new; it happened in the Old South, it happened again in California, in Mexico, in Australia, in South Africa. Why? Because in any expanding free-enterprise economy which does not have a money system designed to fit its requirement, the use of mother-country capital to develop the colony inevitably results in subsistence-level wages at home and slave labor in the colonies. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and all the good will in the world on the part of the so-called ruling classes won’t change it…
Obviously, it’s not so clear cut as that. Many of the worst forms of slavery, for instance, have been outlawed by virtually all nations. Still, there’s no question that the tendency in human affairs — unless limited in some way by government action — is for the wealthy and well-connected few to exploit the many.
An unusual depth of feeling
The first story in the collection “Delilah and the Space-Rigger” looks at what happens when a woman radio technician arrives out in space to join an all-male construction crew building a space station.
Heinlein plays it for fun, but this 1949 story deals with the serious feminist question of who can do what work where. Rosie the Riveter, during World War II, had shown that many jobs, formerly identified as men’s work, could be handled well by women.
Heinlein’s story looks at the complications that arise when women and men are laboring on the same task. (Hint: It has to do with sex.)
If “Delilah and the Space-Rigger” was a bit of a screwball comedy, “The Long Watch,” “Gentlemen, Be Seated” and the story that gives the collection its title “The Green Hills of Earth” are about heroism in the face of disaster. In an elegiac scene, one character realizes that his bravery is going to cost him his life:
He accepted, without surprise, the fact that he was not unhappy. There was a sweetness about having no further worries of any sort. He did not hurt, he was not uncomfortable, he was no longer even hungry. Physically he still felt fine and his mind was at peace. He was dead — he knew that he was dead: yet for a time he was able to walk and breathe and see and feel.
Usually, Heinlein is a bit of a smart-aleck. Here, though, he writes with unusual depth of feeling.
In other stories, an astronaut, washed out of the program by a fear of falling, sees a kitten sitting precariously on a ledge high up on the façade of a tall building; a firm that specializes in solving (for a hefty price) the problems of the rich and busy has to figure out how to negate Earth’s strong gravity for important aliens from low-gravity planets; and a space jockey considers grounding himself to save his marriage.
In “The Black Pits of Luna,” a young boy gets lost on the surface of the Moon, and his clever older brother, about 10, comes up with a way to find him. And in “It’s Great to Be Back,” a married couple leaves Luna to return to life on good, old Earth, with unexpected consequences.
Any of these stories could have been written without any mention or reference to space or science or the solar system. The Green Hills of Earth is Heinlein as a writer of short stories that just happen to take place, mainly, out beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
That is Heinlein at his best — when he is a writer who just happened to set his fictions somewhere out in the Universe.
Patrick T. Reardon