Information Wasn’t Always Cheap
I’ve left kitten in the Heinlein Centennial nerve center and returned to the finest hotel room I’ve ever had anywhere. We met the rest of the folks she had been working with for the past two years last night and most of the guests will be flying in sometime today. Writing is a bit slow, since I’ve got kitten’s laptop and tmobile connection rather than one of my infernal machines from home. Hopefully, the third cup of Starbucks for the morning will make up for that.
I realize that I am at a bit of a disadvantage, since some of my audience here is what has been termed post-literate. I do not use this term derisively, but more as a factual description. I do not even see this as much of a problem, since this part of the continent was explored, settled and ruled for three hundred years or so by people who had a dozen books or fewer in their possession. The library currently in my house is actually larger than the one in my home town of 750 when I was a boy.
However, when I am speaking of the importance of an author in the creation of the culture in which you are now living, it is a problem if the audience has not read his works. Any of you who can use Google and Wikipedia can find out in a fraction of a second who Robert Heinlein was. My job for the rest of the week is to explain why he was important.
Information was not always cheap. Prior to 1980 and the advent of cheap cable television and the BBS precursors to the civilian internet, the only way that one could get information quickly was to pay for it–over the newsstand counter from a cigarette-smoking guy named Joe.
The mundane views of the world were contained in magazines like Time, Life, and for the hipsters, Rolling Stone. There were three television networks with a maximum of a half-hour of news per day, plus the government-supported PBS with educational content. If you wanted to know what happened yesterday, you dropped a quarter for today’s newspaper.
For a farm boy hungry for excitement and a hyperactive imagination, this was stifling. Once a month or so, Cofoid’s Drug Store would get in a new shipment of books which might contain one item of interest. In the Summer of 1964, this was a paperback book of short stories called The Green Hills of Earth. These had been written up to twenty-five years before, but the world progressed more slowly then, and they were still talking about a future that hadn’t happened yet. Brave men and brilliant, beautiful women solved problems and survived in places that tested them on a daily basis. A lot of them were from small towns like mine. They dared to dream, and now I could, too.
By the time I hit High School, I could go to the grocery stores in the nearby towns and search their bookshelves for new science-fiction. Every once in a while, they’d have a new Heinlein–Stranger in a Strange Land (not Haight-Ashbury or Woodstock) turned me into a hippy, but I retained a trust in science and free-thought that my peers lacked. By the time I hit college, Time Enough for Love hit the shelves and, I now realize, shaped my life until, ultimately, (as kitten reminded me on Monday) I became a Heinlein character.
Now there’s a big responsibility.
Who’s in Kansas City this weekend?
1) The Literary Bunch–Heinlein is one of the three people who, more or less, invented modern science-fiction. (The other two being Asimov and Clarke.) The oldest living authors and science-fiction fans are of one generation younger than Heinlein and learned at his feet, so to speak. They’ll be here talking about his influence on their works.
2) The Old Scientists’ Club–Virtually every engineer and scientist over the age of 45 got into the business because they read Heinlein as a kid. I cannot emphasize this enough. The guys who saved Apollo 13 were using techniques of problem solving that they learned from his space adventures. When man first stepped on the Moon, Walter Cronkite had the entire world from which to choose to interview on his news broadcast about the meaning of space travel and the future–he picked Robert Heinlein.
I really liked the questions you sent me concerning wearable computers and the future of education, Augur, and I hope to run into someone who can shed some light on the subjects. The third question was the hoot, though, because one of my buddies from Fermilab who will be speaking at the conference will be talking about the history of the Bell Rocket Belt. If he still has his mockup, I’ll see if I can get a picture of him wearing it.
In any case, if anyone is going to make space travel commercially viable in the next generation, the odds are that they will be sitting within a table or two of me at the banquet. I hope to get the choice seats because of my design work on the Top Quark project, which still counts for a bit in the scientific community. (kitten being on the planning committee for the conference for two years should actually make more of a difference.)
3) The political and sociological people–If there had not been a Robert Heinlein, there would never have been a Libertarian Party in America. When they created the Party in the late-60s and early-70s, Karl Hess and the boys were reading from Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Take Back Your Government. Military thinkers and strategists pondered the questions raised in Starship Troopers about the role of military service and how it relates to being a good citizen. Hippies, who read it the same time that I did, created entire communes based on the religion that he invented in Stranger in a Strange Land–the book that Augur’s dad gave to him.
Heinlein had predicted the sexual revolution in an unpublished book in around 1939. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, he was writing of strong female characters who were the equals (or superiors) to the men around them. There’s an entire lecture track here concerning line-families, free love and mutable gender-roles in Heinlein’s works–and he had already described all of this stuff before 1965 .
So, there’s going to be lots of material from which to choose. I’ll try to come up with stuff you want to read. Please comment on things you want me to pursue and I’ll do my best to comply.
Talk to you later.