My paperback copy of The Past Through Tomorrow is beaten up, with a notched cover and a broken spine. That means I’ve had it since before I started treating books carefully, which is a very long time – most of my books look unread. It’s also one of the foundational books of my interest in science fiction.
More important, it’s, as it say son the back, “One of the greatest achievements in the history of science fiction”. That may be overstating it a bit, but there’s no denying that the collection is impressive, and the stories varied and effective. I haven’t read this for some decades, but I remember many of the stories well. Lazarus Long in particular (he also appears in other Heinlein books) was an influential figure in my childhood.
It’s this latter part that has changed. I read this book around age 10. I absorbed its politics uncritically. Reading it now, it’s far clearer that Heinlein’s politics were a) not the same as mine now, and b) somewhat muddled. While famously libertarian, here what he really seems to favor is authoritarianism – so long as it’s his guy in charge. That makes for great competent heroes, but not for sound societies.
One of Heinlein’s strengths, though, was in creating likeable characters. There are weaknesses, of course – lead women are few and far between; when they’re there, they’re hyper-competent, though generally willing to defer to men. But in these stories, Heinlein hadn’t yet descended into his later, “woman are always right, and by the way, incest is fun” stage. Here, Lazarus Long is reluctant to even sleep with a great-great-granddaughter. Generally, though, his heroes, are tough, able, and engaging.
What I found both familiar and surprising – that is, I remembered it, but no longer found it believable – is how Heinlein treats disagreement. Despite his ability to create reasonably credible characters, Henlein repeatedly resolves arguments by having one person explain the facts to his opponent – who then says, “Oh, I see. You’re right, and I retract what I said, and now support you.” Wouldn’t it be great if people worked that way – if all you had to do was present incontrovertible facts and sound logic? The world would be a different place, and a better one.
In any case, this collection is, in many ways, the best of Robert Heinlein, and worth reading. Nobody’s saying you have to read any official canon of SF. But Heinlein was undoubtedly one of the Big Three, and these stories are a big part of the reason why, and why science fiction looked like it did.
Among the best stories are:
- “The Roads Must Roll”
- “The Man Who Sold the Moon”
- “We Also Walk Dogs”
- “The Menace from Earth”
- “If This Goes On”
The book ends with the novel “Methuselah’s Children”, which is interesting and introduces Lazarus Long for the first time, but ends on a bit of an off note. I see that some later versions of the collection include a final novella, which may function to offset that a bit.
In any case, well worth your time, whether for fun or as a part of SF history.