Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Review - The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein by Robert A. Heinlein

Stories included:
Magic, Inc.
'-And He Built a Crooked House-'
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag
Our Fair City
The Man Who Traveled in Elephants
'-All You Zombies-'

Full review: Heinlein didn't write many fantasies, tending to stay closer to the hard end of science fiction, or at least the polemically political end. As a result, when collecting Heinlein's fantasies, it is actually possible to assemble pretty much every story published under his name that could credibly called "fantasy" into a single volume. Although the title of the book is The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein, anyone looking for swords, sandals, and mysterious wizards handing out quests is likely to be disappointed. Quite simply, Heinlein didn't tell those kinds of stories. Instead, when he did dabble in magical realities, he dealt in a kind of fantasy that was both closer to our own and stranger than most "standard" fantasy fiction at the same time. Containing three novellas and a number of shorter stories, this book is a fun collection of some of Heinlein's most fantastical and in some ways weirdest works arranged in order of original publication.

The first story in the book, and the first of the three long stories contained in the collection, is Magic, Inc., and unfortunately it is one of the weakest stories in the volume. Set in a world very much like our own with the addition of magic as part of the everyday reality of life. The protagonist, a construction supplier and contractor who hires magical help to make sure his products are up to high quality standards, finds himself confronted by a protection racket that is attempting to direct all of the magical business to their preferred suppliers. Eventually, the would-be monopolists shift tactics and try legal avenues to secure their cartel by creating a government sanctioned professional organization to restrict entry into the market and control those who do. Effectively, the "fantasy" element of the story is little more than a vehicle to tell a fairly standard Heinlein tale of free market ideology. In a world in which regulation of entry requirements has come to encompass professions as innocuous as interior decorators and hairdressers, the story seems as relevant now as it was when it was written in 1940. However, the story repeatedly beats the reader over the head with its point, and as a result, it gets somewhat tiresome and loses effectiveness that a slightly more subtle argument would have had.

Another of the three longer stories in the book, Waldo is an strangely schizophrenic tale about an eccentric engineering genius, a thorny technological problem, and the magical solution that comes out of nowhere. In a future in which the power for almost everything is collected as "radiant energy" by deKalb generators, it is potentially disastrous when some of the generators simply cease working for unknown reasons. Desperate, the power company hires the notoriously cranky and reclusive Waldo, a genius who lives entirely in orbit as a result of the extraordinary weakness of his own body. Waldo uses a variety of remote apparatus to conduct business on Earth, and has become fabulously wealthy, allowing him to maintain a fairly lavish lifestyle even though everything has to be shipped to him from the surface of the planet. Confronted with the problem of the deKalb generators and a related problem related to his own health, Waldo is intrigued but frustrated as no engineering solution seems to offer any hope of finding the cure for the mysteriously malfunctioning power receptors. To a certain extent it feels like Heinlein got bored while writing the story, because the answer appears magically out of thin air and essentially moots everything that came before in the story. At the end, things take a massive left turn into an anticlimactic oddity - albeit an oddity that was sort of presaged in the very opening of the story. The trouble with Waldo is that after the first three-quarters of it sets up an interesting set of mysteries, the remaining quarter hand waves its way to the resolution, giving the whole an entirely unsatisfactory feel.

The final long story in the book is The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, a very strange and creepy tale about a man who doesn't know what he does for a living. Told from the perspective of a private investigator Hoag hires to find out what his job is, the story wanders through some bizarre territory as the protagonist tangles with a shadowy conspiracy before finding out what Hoag's very unlikely profession actually is. This is probably the strangest story in the book, and even though the "good guys" ostensibly come through on top, the journey to the resolution calls into question the basic nature of reality in such a way that makes the resolution deeply unsettling. One interesting side note about this story is that even though Heinlein posits a constructed world with a designer behind it, the lives of the characters are given no purpose or meaning as a result of this. Heinlein seems to have not been a particularly big fan of most religious organizations, and this, and a few other elements of the story, seems to be an almost deliberate attempt to stick his thumb in the eye of theologians.

Two of the stories '-And He Built a Crooked House-' and Our Fair City provide mostly comic relief in the collection, although in a manner that is distinctly Heinlein. In '-And He Built a Crooked House-' an architect gets the idea of building a four-dimensional house in the shape of a tesseract. Because it is impossible to build a four dimensional object in our three dimensional world, he settles for building a version of his hypercube house in an "unfolded" state. However, it turns out that tampering with four-dimensional objects is not as simple as one might think, with somewhat confusing and humorous results. Our Fair City is a silly little story about a sentient whirlwind and the man who befriends it. The story is a parody of local politics and government corruption with a dash of goofiness thrown in.

Another story with a touch of humor, but which is mostly bittersweet is The Man Who Traveled in Elephants, featuring John Watts, an elderly everyman and widower who had worked his entire life as a traveling salesman. When he retired, rather than asking him to settle down, his wife suggested that they continue to wander the country as door-to-door elephant salesmen with the "purpose" of canvassing the market for potential buyers. After a lifetime spent enjoying the simple pleasures of county fairs and roadside diners, Watts finds himself on a special bus on his way to the state fair. His journey is interrupted by a minor traffic accident that turns out to be more significant than he thought at first. The story wends its way into a very homespun kind of Midwestern heaven. Though the story is somewhat predictable, and Watts seems a bit slow on the uptake, it is touching without being overly cloying or maudlin.

The best two stories in the volume are among the shortest, and both deal with the question of solipsism from different angles. 'They-' is a study in paranoia in which the central character is convinced that he is the target of a massive conspiracy designed to make him think that the reality around him is real, and not the false facade that he believes it to be. Approaching the question of solipsism from a different angle, the protagonist of '-All You Zombies-' turns out to be much more that one thinks at the outset, and their disbelief in the reality of any other person seems almost justified. It is one of the strangest and best time travel tales and if your head doesn't hurt from trying to map out the interlocking pieces of the looping puzzle at the core of the story, then you probably missed something.

Because they are Heinlein stories, the sum total is pretty good, although most of them are fairly different than what one normally thinks of when one says "fantasy" tending more towards science fiction with an overlay of fantasy. With three outstanding stories, one pretty good story, two funny stories, and two average stories, the contents of this collection span nearly twenty years and encompass Heinlein's most prolific period of writing short stories. For anyone who likes their fantasy with a little bit of a science edge or who just wants to read some good Heinlein stories, The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein is an excellent compilation of unusual fantasies from the mind of a Grand Master of science fiction.

Note: Two stories in this volume have been nominated for awards -

Waldo won the 1943 Retro Hugo Award for Best Novella
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag was nominated for the 1943 Retro Hugo Award for Best Novella

Hugo Award Winners for Best Novella

1943 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 2018)

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  1. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Me too! I've read almost everything he ever wrote, but so long ago that if I wanted to review them I'd have to read them again. Maybe I'll start doing a Heinlein book a month or something.