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The Rolling Stones by Robert A Heinlein

Cover art by Bob Eggleton

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When Heinlein started writing young adult fiction for Scribners', he was already a well-known science fiction writer, having established his reputation with the short stories of his Future History in pulp magazines such as John W. Campbell's Astounding (later Analog). However, he was still under the tight editorial rein of the notoriously prudish Miss Dalgliesh, who seemed to see sex in everything, even the most innocuous details of local color. He'd already had several go-rounds with the woman, to the point that he finally took her writing and gave it the same treatment, proving that her continual stream of objections were absurd.

Still, the long history of quibbling editorial interference did not leave him in that good a frame of mind as he sat down to write his next contracted novel for Scribners'. So it was hardly any surprise that he should encounter a rather stubborn case of writer's block, unable to come up with a good idea to even start with.

His wife Virginia came to the rescue with the idea of a pair of mischievous twins whose bright ideas would get them into all sorts of trouble, from which they would be rescued by a feisty but eminently practical grandmother. And of course it would be In Space, but not a space opera in which Space is an Ocean and stellar systems are archipelagos of islands. No, it would stay firmly within the Solar System, and as much as possible he would stick to the known science of astronomy and astrophysics. His spaceships would not be ocean liners or warships translated into space, but realistic spacecraft that would follow the laws of Newtonian mechanics in their launches, landings and orbital transfers.

As we begin, we have young Castor and Pollux Stone suited up to go on the surface of their native Luna and take a look at some used spaceships. They've got a wild idea of going on an Adventure, and they think that they can buy one on the cheap. It's a translation of the used car lot to the future, a rather charming 1950's period piece with a speculative element that probably felt quite attainable in the near future for its original audience. Now, almost fifty years after the Apollo moonshots, the Zeerust on it seems almost painful. No, space is hard, far harder than our youthful dreams, even those of very practical engineers doing the landings.

And even in the world Heinlein creates, space is harder than young Castor and Pollux realize as they bargain for a spaceship that will let them head off on an Adventure. Enter their father, himself an engineer who has also done a stint as a politician, and who knows both the technical and economic practicalities of running a spaceship out to the Asteroids and back. But he's not going to simply shut them down by saying no. Instead, he requires them to work through all the issues he identifies, and decides that the entire family will be traveling together. After all, they need someone qualified to actually operate their spaceship, and he fulfills that requirement.

Furthermore, operating a spacecraft requires money, and lots of it (one thing Heinlein got right). The Stone family is not exactly idle rich, who can afford to spend money on a pleasure jaunt. If they want to go to Mars and have an Adventure, it is going to have to pay for itself.

So now Castor and Pollux are busy thinking hard about what they might be able to buy cheaply on Luna and sell at a profit when they get to Mars. They finally come up with the idea of buying up a whole lot of older bicycles and fixing them up for Martian prospectors to use. A man on a bicycle can cover a lot more distance than a man on foot, and Mars doesn't have that much in the way of local industry. So a wise prospector will be willing to make the investment in a bicycle and increase his own income proportionately.

It's interesting to see Roger Stone's methods at work. He never actually tells his sons no unless it's a matter of law or safety (for instance, he does nix their notion to import certain items that would be quite useful in the distillation of alcohol). Instead he presents them with the facts about what it will require for them to accomplish their desire, and what difficulties and obstacles they are apt to encounter, and leaves it up to them to come up with possible solutions to the problem. In the process, Heinlein is also able to slip in quite a bit of otherwise dry factual matter about provisioning and operating a spacecraft, rather like he would later present the facts of building and operating a spacesuit in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, his final novel for Scribner's.

Finally the big day comes and the Rolling Stone lifts off from its pad on Luna City's spaceport grounds. And immediately everyone discovers that their big Adventure is not going to be all fun and games, when they have to deal with the g-forces of liftoff -- and because they've all grown up under the 1/6-g gravity of the Moon, so even a couple of g's come as a crushing blow for them. Heinlein provides some explanation of why Roger Stone chooses such a severe acceleration, an explanation which may seem odd to people who've done a reasonable amount of reading on the historical Apollo lunar landings and know that the astronauts only experienced about half a g of acceleration when they fired the Lunar Module's ascent engine to lift off from the moon. However, there are two factors to consider: first, Heinlein has them using a nuclear-thermal rocket, somewhat along the lines of the NERVA program, which never got beyond testing, and second, Heinlein was writing in 1953, four years before Sputnik and eight years before Alan Shepard would make his first Mercury flight (and eighteen years before Big Al would return to spaceflight to play golf on the Moon), so Heinlein was having to base his extrapolated technologies on theoretical work rather than practical experience, so it's hardly surprising that some of the technical parts have become a bit Zeerusty.

Another bit of Zeerust is their decision to pass the trip to Mars without any form of artificial gravity. In the 21st century, with the experience of long-duration spaceflight aboard Mir and the ISS, we know that spending extended periods in microgravity has negative effects on a variety of the body's systems, from the bones to the circulatory and immune systems. However, at the time Heinlein was writing, when practical experience in freefall was limited to a minute or so in an airplane flying a parabola (the Vomit Comet), a lot of people, including prominent scientists, honestly believed that microgravity would be beneficial to health, and people who lived in low-g or zero-g environments might well enjoy greatly extended lifespans (we see a bit of this even in the 1990's in Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge's Exordium series with the Nullers, who live extraordinarily extended lives by spending them in gravity-nullifying bubbles).

One thing he did get right is space sickness, what is formally termed Space Adaptation Syndrome in modern NASA parlance. But it's probably no huge surprise that at least some spacefarers would experience motion sickness, given how many experience it in land, sea and air travel. (In actual spaceflight history, the real surprise was its sudden appearance on Apollo missions after none of the Mercury and Gemini crews had reported it. However, it was subsequently theorized that the larger cabin volume of the Apollo Command Module, and the Space Shuttle orbiter that followed it, made it more likely that astronauts would experience conflicting inputs from their eyes and sense of balance, and thus have their brains interpret it as evidence of illness and induce vomiting).

On the way to Mars they have some unwelcome excitement in the form of an epidemic on another spacecraft, one of the big space liners that is traveling in a transfer orbit close enough to their own that it's possible to send someone between vessels. Here we see Heinlein the seaman in the law and ethics of space travel in his future. Although he sought to avoid the Space Is an Ocean trope that is so common in space opera and have his space travel follow actual Newtonian mechanics, he expected that space law and custom would be at least in part based upon maritime models. The obligation to help a fellow seafarer in distress, the rights of salvage, etc. seemed to be logical to extrapolate into spaceflight -- but he did not anticipate the Outer Space Treaty and its effects upon the legal regime in space, one which has arguably stagnated spaceflight for decades by removing the commercial incentive to exploit space resources by making it difficult or impossible to have a clear title to any real estate beyond Earth.

As our protagonists arrive in Mars orbit, Heinlein gives us yet another masterful touch, mentioning the "ancient German war rockets" as a comparison for the little glider rockets that take passengers down to the surface. He is of course referring to the V-1, the primitive cruise missile nicknamed the "Buzz Bomb" for its peculiar engine sound. By referring to something that was still very recent at the time of publication as "ancient," he momentarily puts his contemporary readers into the mindset of a person far distant in time from the events of World War II, events of which his young readers might well have even had dim childhood memories.

Safely on the Martian surface, our young protagonists set to making their business efforts pay. And in the process Heinlein gives us a view of the planet that was still just barely within the bounds of the known science at the time. To be sure, it was a stretch to still have the image of Mars with an air that was thin but not so think it couldn't be made breathable with a suitable respirator, a Mars that was the home of an ancient civilization that had built canals and slender towers that could last for untold millennia, where one could pick up odd little creatures like the Martian flat cat. The evidence was growing that the Martian atmosphere was far thinner than previously thought, to the point open water would be impossible, and humans would require full pressure suits to walk on the surface. But until the Mariner and Viking missions, it was still sorta-kinda believable that the instrument readings from Earth might be wrong. And an inhabited Mars made for a more interesting story, so Heinlein reused the setting of his earlier Scribner's juvenile Red Planet, complete with the native Martians with their mysterious powers who will later become a critical part of the backstory of Michael Valentine Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land.

And in true Heinlein fashion, what had seemed like a simple business proposition when the twins thought it up on Luna turns out to be more complicated. There's been a huge strike out in the Asteroid Belt (at that time, the Kuiper Belt was still unknown, and what we now call the Main Belt was just "the Asteroid Belt), and all the prospectors are running off to the Hallelujah Node in hopes of getting in on the find. So there's no longer a market for bikes for prospectors, and all those bikes the guys spent so many hours working on are now a huge albatross around their necks.

Or is it? As they're bemoaning their luck, they realize there's another untapped market for those bikes: tourists. Of course they won't buy them, since these are people who won't be staying long, but they'll be happy to rent them from someone who will buy them. Now the twins just need to find someone who's in the business of catering to tourists, and they'll have turned a profit.

Except they forgot one thing: the government. In this novel, the human government of Mars is heavily into charging fees, including heavy tariffs on imported goods. Tariffs the twins, hailing from the Luna Free State which is libertarian to the point of being anarcho-capitalist, never even thought to ask about until it's too late and they're in a world of legal trouble. However, good old Grandmother Hazel Stone saves the day, recognizing the judge as a descendant of one of the other Founding Fathers of the Free State and thus winning his sympathies just enough that he is willing to accept that Castor and Pollux had no intent to smuggle, but simply failed to ask the appropriate questions because neither realized those questions needed to be asked. Then she caps her argument with a discussion of economics, and argues that while bicycles may be luxury goods for the tourists who own them, the same bicycles are in fact production items for their people renting them out.

Even so, the taxes and fees pretty much eat up all their profits from the enterprise, and suddenly their plans to stay on Mars until the next launch window for Venus seem less than the pleasant idyl they had originally been. Maybe it's time to consider a change of plans and take a look at business possibilities in the Hallelujah Node. Of course that change of plans comes with some costs, thanks to orbital mechanics, which Heinlein cheerfully explains for us in yet another of his infodumps that somehow never slow down the story. And then a lively discussion about the economics of mining vs. trading to miners, which leads to some interesting items in the cargo manifest for their new trip. A few of the items have accumulated a little Zeerust in the intervening years, particularly the AV projectors that use media on "spools" where today's future would use some kind of digital storage. But the "spools" could be read as digital storage, rather like discs or USB sticks, so it doesn't feel as Zeerusty as the old-school Mars with canals and intelligent natives.

Except nothing ever goes quite as planned. Remember that little critter the twins acquired for their little brother on their first day on Mars? Well, little Lowell has been feeding it quite a bit. Nobody worries overmuch when it gives birth to eight tiny kittens, miniature versions of their parent. It turns out that flat cats are hermaphroditic, and can self-fertilize -- and will breed to the limits of their environment to support them. Suddenly all those dainties the twins had bought to sell are going into the maws of the alien beasties that are threatening to overrun the habitable volume of the Rolling Stone

If any Star Trek fans out there are thinking about "The Trouble With Tribbles," it's probably not a coincidence. In fact, when someone at Paramount recognized the similarity, there was some real concern about a possible lawsuit. However, Heinlein was his usual gracious self, especially after David Gerrold averred that he had never read the novel and based his story on an account of rodents multiplying in a favorable environment -- after all, Heinlein had taken his own idea from such an account, quite possibly the short story "Pigs Is Pigs" by Elias Parker Butler. Rather than demanding a ruinous sum, he just wanted a signed copy of the script to keep for his files (although later he was less than happy when tribbles did not quietly disappear after that one episode, but showed up in the animated series and as spinoff merchandising).

After the Stone family get the flat cat problem back under control (by a more practical but less hilarious method than the one used by Kirk, but transporter technology doesn't exist in their fictional universe), they finally arrive in the Asteroid Belt. Things are a little different than they're accustomed to, and the idea of needing to take precautions against hijackers and bandits come as a surprise. But they've already shown that they can land on their feet, An encounter with a miner desperate to get medical help for his buddy results in the discovery of a real market for all those hibernating flat cats in the hold, and a happy ending after all their travails. The story ends with the doors left open for a possible sequel in their planned voyage into the outer Solar System, but Heinlein never wrote one.

In some ways, The Rolling Stones has held up better over the passing years than Space Cadet or even Red Planet. Sure, there's the Zeerust, particularly related to his depiction of Mars and the Asteroids, but it's not so bad that I'd feel uncomfortable recommending the book to a young reader wanting more science fiction, as long as that reader understood this is a classic that was written using some older theories about the Solar System. And the characterizations are less dated than some of his other works, perhaps now that he had proved himself enough that Ms. Dagliesh didn't take exception to female characters who stepped outside the bounds of what was expected in the early 1950's: for instance, Edith Stone's being a doctor is treated as completely unremarkable, and Grandma Hazel is not only a female character with agency (so much that there are a few times when she arguably becomes the protagonist instead of the twins), but an older female protagonist who is a strong presence in the story, respected by the entire family. So often, even in fiction that strives to be "inclusive" and proclaims itself as such, elders and especially older women, are overlooked, even treated as if they were invisible, or become set-dressing rather than actual characters. Yet Heinlein was able to write a feisty grandma with plenty of agency, who's sometimes even smarter and more able than her son, the nominal head of the household, all the way back in 1953 and even a prudish editor couldn't get the character bowdlerized away.

One for the win.

Review posted December 4, 2017

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