aprilhenry (aprilhenry) wrote,

Slide rules and sex

July 7 was the 100th birthday of the pioneering sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein. He joined the Navy planning to be an officer, but was discharged when he caught TB. (Full disclosure: we don’t really think about TB any more, except in the case of Andrew Speaker, but back in the day it used to be called consumption, because it basically ate you up. Years ago I met a nurse who worked in a TB sanitorium in the 1920s. The “cures” they tried were horrible – making people lie outside with sandbags on their chests, even if it was winter and snow piled up on their beds, removing people’s ribs, injecting substances into their lungs, removing a lung, etc.)

Searching for a way to earn some money, Heinlein saw an ad in a pulp fiction magazine offering $50 for the best story by an unpublished author. In four days he wrote a story called "Life-Line," about a machine that can predict a person's death. He decided it was too good for an amateur contest, so he sent it to Astounding Science Fiction magazine. It came out in 1939.

The Writers Almanac says, “At the time, most science fiction stories were full of gimmicks and imaginary machines that had no relationship to actual science. Heinlein was one of the first science fiction authors to look at the world the way it was and try to imagine how it might actually look in the future. And he tried to make sure that all the imaginary technology in his stories could really work. He wrote about things like atomic bombs, cloning, and gay marriage years before they became realities. And he was one of the first writers to imagine how space travel could actually be accomplished.”

I read plenty of sci-fi when I was a kid, especially Heinlein and Silverberg. The books for kids tended to feature boys in space with slide rules. Once I ran out of their books in the children’s section, I ventured upstairs to the adult section and checked out their books there.

What an eye-opener! The characters all had a lot of sex, not necessarily of the one man-one woman variety. I still remember the premise of I Will Fear No Evil, about a dying male billionaire who has his brain transplanted into a donor – who turns out to be his beautiful secretary, killed in an accident. One of the questions the book grapples with is who the main character should be having sex with: the beautiful nurse, his old business partner who thinks he looks pretty damn good now in the secretary’s body, etc. (Heinlein’s answer: everybody). It did get me thinking about how sexual conventions were kind of arbitrary.

Did you ever read an author as a kid who wrote completely different books for adults?

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Tags: heinlein

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