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Reading Heinlein: “Life-Line”

One of the things I plan to do this year is read all of Heinlein’s short stories and about half his novels in order. I considered tackling all the novels in one year but that would have crowded out reading any other novels this year. Most will be rereads although for some the original read will be long enough ago that I suspect they’ll be close to first reads. Most of the Heinlein I read was first read before I finished high school.

For two novels and at least one short it will be the first time I read the current texts. Both Podkayne of Mars and Stranger in a Strange Land have had the author’s prefered texts printed since I first read or attempted to read them respectively. Also on my list is to read the serialized versions of novels which, for Methuselah’s Children at least, means reading a shorter version while reading the shorts and a fuller version when reading the later published novel.

If you know of other Heinlein novels that were significantly different than the previously published serialized version please let me know in the comments.

Today I kicked off the adventure with one of the shorts I know I’ve read multiple times in the past, “Life-Line”. It was Heinlein’s first published short, appearing in August 1939 in Astounding Magazine. Today I read the story straight from a scan of the issue on the Internet Archive. If you haven’t read the story, go do so as I’ll be spoiling some key elements.

The biggest new revelation from this reading is how one of its core themes was somewhat persistent through Heinlein’s writing. It looms large enough that I can actually quote Lazarus Long for an explicit statement:

A fake fortuneteller can be tolerated. But an authentic soothsayer should be shot on sight. Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved.

Lazarus Long

Dr. Pinero’s retail prediction of death, contrasted with the wholesale predictions of insurance companies, troubles not only the good doctor himself, but that of the scientists hired to debunk him. One standout item is Dr. Pinero is untroubled by his death, facing it with a well ordered last meal, but the death of Ed and Betty Hartley, a young couple expecting their first child, who hired him to predict their deaths is disturbing. Pinero’s reaction to the death of the Hartleys foreshadows the conclusion of the scholars who were tasked by a court to collect evidence of the effectiveness of his methods of prediction.

The same sequence gives the story a very deterministic slant to the predictions in the story. As would show up later in other Heinlein stories such as “By His Bootstraps” and “All You Zombies” Pinero’s attempt at intervention leads to the Hartleys being in harm’s way at the appointed time. Stripped of the time loop self-creation aspect of the other two stories in this case the feeling is less solopsistice and more fatalistic.

The passages on going to court to stop stronger competitors and on the scientific versus the scholastic methods have been discussed in plenty of other places. I’ll just acknowledge that they too show from the very start key ideas throughout Heinlein’s work and, yes, ones having drank heavily in my youth they became pretty deep principles I would do well to keep in mind.

The strength of this story despite having read it multiple times myself and Heinlein having written it nearly three decades before my birth bodes well for my reading this year.

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One Comment

  1. The other story that I’m aware of that was altered in the 1990s reprint was Red Planet. The original version had quite a lot near the beginning trimmed to conform to Ms. Daeglish’s political preferences.

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