Book review: “The Menace from Earth” by Robert A. Heinlein

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Book review: “The Menace from Earth” by Robert A. Heinlein

Success, in the form of “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961), went to Robert A. Heinlein’s head.

He discovered a callow audience enthralled with his pop psychology and jejune philosophical rantings on free love, non-conformity, self-reliance and nudity, and took it as a license to pontificate. He became bombastic and preachy and, well, a crank.

That Heinlein, thankfully, is nowhere to be found in “The Menace from Earth,” a crackerjack 1959 collection of eight stories published between 1941 and 1957.

These stories are just plain terrific, displaying, in a highly concentrated form, Heinlein’s great story-telling abilities.

One, “Water Is for Washing,” isn’t really a science fiction story at all, just a great short story. It is a breathlessly told account of four strangers trying to survive a flood in California’s Imperial Valley that occurs when an earthquake opens the way for the Pacific to flow in.

“The Year of the Jackpot” is another story of a rush from disaster. A statistician and his girlfriend (who meet cute in the opening pages when she unaccountably begins stripping on a street corner) flee to the mountains to escape a break-down of society, then a nuclear attack and invasion, and then a threat from space. It ends with a touching scene of the two sitting calmly to await the end of their world.

Heinlein’s inspired imagination about future technologies is in evidence in “The Menace from Space” (a romance about two teens on the Moon where lower gravity permits them and anyone else who can operate a set of mechanical wings to fly) and “Sky Lift” (an adventure about two pilots on a rescue mission to Pluto who pay a steep prices for their heroism).

In this collection, Heinlein takes on time travel (“By His Bootstraps”), telepathy (“Project Nightmare”) and alien intelligence (“Goldfish Bowl”) in ways that, more than half a century later, remain fresh and thought-provoking.

The shortest of the stories — “Columbus Was a Dope” — is worthy of O. Henry.

It tells of a bar discussion of space exploration among four men, one of whom, Barnes, thinks the idea is crazy and ridiculous:

“Pete, here, is a wise man, ” Barnes said confidentially. “You don’t catch him monkeying around with any trips to the stars. Columbus — Pfui! Columbus was a dope. He shoulda stood in bed.”

But, then, Heinlein adds the story’s twist ending.

It is a very satisfying conclusion to a very satisfying story in a very satisfying collection.

Patrick T. Reardon
6.7.12

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