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Time for the Stars by Robert A Heinlein

Cover art by Chris Moore

Published by Orb Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Time for the Stars was one of my first introductions to the fiction of Robert A Heinlein. I discovered it in the jr. high library, shortly after reading and loving Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and Between Planets. Given how small our school library was, I was delighted at every science fiction or fantasy book I could scrounge up in it and eagerly devoured them all. (Unfortunately, I wasn't very aware of authorship at that time, and often didn't even notice titles, so finding my favorites for a re-read has often proven difficult).

This novel begins in an overcrowded future Earth where family size is limited by law, although unlike Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel, couples didn't have to apply for permission to have a child. Instead, every family was allowed three children, but if they had additional children without getting a special reclassification, they lost their family allowance and had to pay a special tax. And our protagonist and his identical twin brother were a twofer oops. Still, it was the sort of future I was already familiar enough with that I sort of expected it to come about, something that would have to be endured (when the factors that would derail the Overpopulated Future were already in place when I was reading it).

There are several ways their family could've resoled the problem. However, their father regards the tax on supernumerary children as an indignity that no free man should have to tolerate, and every year tries to gain an exemption. When it is refused, he grudgingly sends in the check, but it means they can't be reclassified and allowed to move into roomier digs. They could apply to emigrate to one of the off-world colonies, maybe on Mars or Venus one of the Jovian moons -- but their mother will have nothing of it. When asked, she just goes silent in a way that makes it clear that trying to force the issue will be bad, because when Mama's not happy, nobody's happy.

So the family suffers along in poverty, and dear old Dad tells Tom and Pat that it will build their character and make them strong in ways they don't expect. Neither of them is overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the situation, but like all Heinlein protagonists, they make their best effort to land on their feet. They look for opportunities to be entrepreneurs, and they try to join the military by lying about their ages.

It's always interesting to re-read something and see what jumps out at you that you don't even remember from your original reading decades earlier. For me, one of the biggest ones is the use of Britishisms, particularly "flat" for "apartment" and "valve" for "vacuum tube." Given that Heinlein was an American and Scribner's was a New York based publisher, it makes me wonder whether the Grandmaster was trying to subtly signal that the characters were either living in the UK or in a world where British rather than American English had become predominant as World English. And then I wonder whether it also contains some element of criticism for English socialism, which was beginning to really develop after Labor Party leader Clement Attlee became Prime Minister (right in the middle of the Potsdam Conference, no less).

However, things change when Tom and Pat are accused of cheating at school. They're moved to opposite sides of the classroom, and even to different rooms, but their tests remain suspiciously similar.

Suddenly they are thrust into the world of the mysterious Long Range Foundation, which is charged with seeking solutions to the really big problems, the sort of projects that take hundreds or even thousands of years to bear fruit. These are the sort of people who'd consider Pardot Kynes' plan for the ecological transformation of Arrakis in Dune to be genius, not madness.

One of the things that the LRF has been investigating is telepathy. Specifically, telepathy between twins, but also the occasional telepathy between other pairs of closely related individuals. Through a series of controlled experiments, including sending one twin to Ganymede and keeping the other at base in Buenos Aires, they discovered that telepathy is not limited by Special or General Relativity, nor by the inverse-square law (suggesting a quantum mechanism, similar to the quantum hologram postulated by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell decades after the book was published).

However, research into telepathy is not an end unto itself, but a gateway to something even bigger. The LRF is already looking toward the time when humanity finds the entire Solar System too crowded for its tastes (we must remember that this was written long before Gerard O'Neill began publicizing his idea of building free-flying space colonies for permanent habitation rather than way stations, so Heinlein and his characters were still thinking in terms of the surfaces of planets and the moons of the gas giants). They plan to send out a vast fleet of exploratory ships to locate habitable planets for humans to colonize. There's already been one torch ship sent out to Alpha Centauri, but no news is expected for another two decades, since any radio message they could send back would be hardly faster than the ship's return voyage.

But the LRF is going to equip each vessel with a team of telepaths, one member of each pair on the ship and the other safely back on Earth. It sounds like a great adventure -- until Tom discovers he's the one selected to stay at home. Despondent, he tries to think positive thoughts about his brother rather than jealous ones. A downer that I felt right along with him when I was reading the novel for the first time, way back in seventh grade.

And then Pat is injured while doing a bit of seemingly harmless skiing. Not badly -- he can still function as a telepath -- but his back was injured and he can't move his legs. So now he's medically disqualified from making the trip, and will stay home while Tom goes into space.

But it's still a bittersweet triumph when Tom climbs aboard the Lewis and Clark and rockets into space on a pillar of fusion fire. It's not exactly survivor guilt, since Pat's still alive, but there's still a feeling that he somehow stole his twin's golden ticket to the stars.

Heinlein pays quite a bit of attention to relativistic effects on the outbound journey, when it's all new and strange. There are even experiments the telepaths have to do, trying to quantify the exact degree of time dilation as their speed increases, asymptotically approaching c. And there's some evidence that no, their family didn't live in the UK: when Pat tells Tom it's their birthday, Tom has to figure back from the GMT display to their home time zone, which suggests that they live in the US but have just had their language and government overtaken by UK-style systems.

And then the time dilation effects become so intense that Tom can no longer even connect with his brother. For a time, the ship is out of communication with Earth, until they go "over the hump" and begin shedding velocity instead of gaining it. As they slow and their time dilation becomes less extreme, each pair of telepaths try to reconnect. With a little hypnosis and light psychotropics, Tom is able to connect with Pat. And then the impossible happens.

Tom is sitting with the elderly gentleman who's become a sort of mentor to him, "Uncle Alfred," and inadvertently connects with the older man's partner. Tom had been thinking it would be nice for them to have an updated picture of the grand-niece Uncle Alf left behind, and suddenly hears in his mind a little girl's voice telling him that won't be necessary.

Suddenly their ship has a backup communication if anything were to happen to Pat or Uncle Alf. And it opens the real possibilities that telepaths may be able to connect with other telepaths to whom they aren't directly related.

And then they're approaching their first destination: the Tau Ceti system (the same one that Harry Turtledove would later use as the primary of Home, the world of the Lizards in his WorldWar alternate history). They've arrived safely, and there's a world that looks quite earth-like. (At a time when most astrophysicists thought planetary systems would be incredibly rare and most stars would be lonely lamps, Heinlein assumed that planets would be common as sand on a beach, an idea that has proven out as our instruments have grown better -- although so far our techniques have mostly detected very large planets close to their primaries, which suggests that true earth-twins may be rare indeed).

And another thing that Heinlein gets right: they take the time to do as thorough as possible a survey from orbit before actually landing on the planetary surface. Far too many interstellar exploration stories of the pre-Sputnik era simply assume their ships will go straight in and land, and thus get into all kinds of nasty sticky situations because they didn't take the time to do an orbital survey and discover the little surprises a world and its moon or moons might have in store for them. Space explorers aren't going to be like Columbus and the other sea-going explorers of the Age of Discovery, going into places blind and finding things out the hard way. As a Navy officer, Heinlein understood the importance of reconnaissance and having the high ground, and realized that orbit is the ultimate high ground.

Finally our heroes land, and slowly, cautiously test the situation before allowing landing parties to go out. Even then, they go in full environmental suits and are carefully decontaminated before returning to the ship, just in case some fleeting poison or disease microorganism might be on them. Only then is the crew allowed to go out -- except for the telepaths. As indispensable personnel, they are not to be exposed to any risk whatsoever -- until they decide to go on strike. Tom's uncomfortable about the near-mutiny of faking inability to connect with their partners, much as he wants to go ashore, but he doesn't want to let his teammates down.

Uncle Alf finally puts an end to it by a stern talk about honor and responsibility, but once they resume their duties, the captain finally relents and agrees that once the planet has been proven reasonably safe, the telepaths may go ashore. So Tom finally gets to see this beautiful new world that has not produced any intelligent, tool-using beings, and thus is available for humans to colonize.

After that, Heinlein jumps beyond the visit to their next star, Beta Hydri. Time has passed, so much that Pat and Tom have grown out of sync. Tom has now connected with Pat's daughter Molly, and then her daughter Kathleen. With their help, he and Pat can still connect, but otherwise it's impossible to communicate.

Bad things happened after they left the Tau Ceti system. Some kind of disease swept through their ship, killing thirty-two and sickening many others. Beta Hydri was a complete bust, at least from the perspective of finding a planet with a shirtsleeve environment. There are gas giants, one of which provided ammonia as mass for their torch, and presumably asteroids and other smaller bodies that the civilizations of modern writers' futures would recognize as raw materials for space industry and space habitats. But the LRF's exploratory mission is to find other Earths, worlds where humans can colonize as people have done since the first Homo erectus migrated out of the Great Rift Valley.

After a minor star with only a catalog number, a star that proves to be a dud, they arrive at Beta Ceti. They find a planet that appears to be a beauty, at least as nice as they found at Tau Ceti. It's a water world, with no big continents, just bigger and smaller islands. Just as the crew is beginning to feel comfortable and explore in earnest, the nightmare begins. They're under attack.

It's a desperate situation, the crew reduced to the barest minimum that might be able to operate the ship -- except that Tom is their only remaining telepath with a partner on Earth, and she's going to be too old to reconnect by the time they come down from peak time dilation. People are starting to talk against the captain, and Tom is suddenly under suspicion of conspiracy to mutiny.

And then the message comes through: the LRF is sending a new ship, the Serendipity. Our intrepid voyagers are trying to figure out how the LRF had known sixty-odd years ago to send a ship to this place --- and then they discover that it has a faster-than-light drive, technology made possible by the precise measurements that proved that yes, telepathy was instantaneous and did not weaken with distance. When I first read it, way back in jr. high, it was an emotional peak I would not equal until the ending of the Babylon 5 episode "Severed Dreams," when everything is looking hopeless and then Delenn arrives with the Minbari White Star and tells the Earth Alliance forces to "be somewhere else."

Looking back, I compare it to the ending of Homeward Bound, the capstone volume of Harry Turtledove's WorldWar series. I'm left wondering whether Dr. Turtledove chose to have it end with the arrival of the first FTL ship as a tribute to this novel, or if the similarities were just coincidences, since both plots led toward such an ending, in which the work done earlier in the novel builds toward the development of FTL.

I'm a little less comfortable about the final scene, when Tom's back on Earth. Yes, great-grand-niece is not on the traditional lists of relatives forbidden to marry, but only for the practical reason that most people didn't live long enough to even be alive when their great-grand-niece was of marriageable age. Only relativistic effects make it possible for Tom and Vicky to be of the same biological age -- but Tom and Pat are identical twins, sharing 100% of their nuclear DNA, so genetically speaking, it's as if Vicky were Tom's great-granddaughter. So I'm wondering if this was one of the very first times that Heinlein slipped in a bit of his obsession with rules-lawyering relationships past the incest taboo.

Review posted December 4, 2017

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