Wednesday, December 31, 2014

WWII-Era Heinlein

A couple years ago, I finished the venerable Book a Week by posting about Stranger in a Strange Land. I've finally returned to the work of Robert A. Heinlein by reading a couple of his WWII-era stories - "-And He Built a Crooked House", published in 1941, and "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag", published in 1942. Each is significantly earlier than the aforementioned Stranger in a Strange Land, which was published in 1961. Each provides a good view into that era's pulp sci-fi, which I admittedly know only as a dabbler, yet each is drastically different from the other.

Of what I've read of his so far, i.e. these three works, "-And He Built a Crooked House" is my favourite. It is only 12 pages long, and is available as a free e-book, making it perfect for an e-reader ride on a subway/light rail/commuter train/etc. Its opening, which zooms into the story's Hollywood setting, is a great piece of humour that shows off some of Heinlein's wittier writing. The main story concerns the question, "What if a house were built in the shape of a tesseract?" The story itself is an imaginative construction of the likely possibilities, as well as some twists I wouldn't have included but which make the story more surreal. (No spoilers, and yes, I know I'm refusing to spoil a story published in 1941.) The math-fiction blend of this story, ostensibly of the Flatland variety, is what sets it apart from other sci-fi of the time period. It is something I far prefer to aliens and ray guns, or even to only slightly more realistic Lovecraft-style fiction. The way Heinlein has characters living in an otherwise normal world become legitimately confused upon attempting to navigate the tesseract-shaped house is reminiscent of a work like the 2000 horror book House of Leaves.

My one issue with "-And He Built a Crooked House" is that it often devolves into using the protagonist, architect Quintus Teal (and what a name!), as a vehicle for explaining complex mathematical concepts rather than as a real person. How I would deal with this, I'm not sure, as most readers probably aren't too familiar with four-dimensional objects. I sometimes felt as though he resembled a textbook more than a character, though, and could even be an example of the author speaking through a character in that sense. Then again, this was one of my chief criticisms of the last part of Stranger in a Strange Land, so I wasn't too surprised it surfaced.

"The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" is significantly longer, at about 50 pages, and has more of a coherent storyline. It is also apparently a candidate for a movie rendition, which I think could work great. Of course, In the Country of Last Things has been in movie limbo for almost a decade now, so as with most movie releases, I'll believe it when I see it. Like "-And He Built a Crooked House", "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" is at its best when it sticks to events that make one unrealistic deviation from the real world, rather than making further deviations from the first one. More simply, when either of these stories asks "What if our real world were modified in this way?" rather than "What if our now modified world were further modified?", it is at its best. The titular character's mysterious occupation is thrilling enough without realism having to be completely shunted in order to accommodate the fantastical storyline that comprises the second half of the book.

A few observations: this story is by far the earliest instance of the phrase "Keep your pants on" (18) I have ever seen. I cracked a smile at that one. The completely surprising kick to the groin a character suffers later on is equally slapstick-happy. (51) The '40s noir atmosphere is plainly evident in the private eye calling his also-a-private-eye-wife "kid" throughout the story. Although I liked the first ten pages best of the whole story, as Heinlein does an absolutely brilliant job setting up the story's principal problem (i.e. what does Jonathan Hoag actually do during his days?), the last few paragraphs making up the very end are quite clever.

Each of these stories is a fun read. "-And He Built a Crooked House" contains more of what can be possibly compared to actual science, whereas "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" has more proto-Dark City feel. Lastly, and hopefully also leastly,* the sheer amount of alcohol the characters drink in each story makes me feel better about the average North American holiday season.

*Yup, I invented a new word there. I do that from time to time, kind of like my influences.

This is, incidentally, also my last post of 2014. Happy New Year!

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