Strange & Familiar Lands

I’ve still not read a lot of Heinlein. Local libraries & bookshops when I was a kid were stuffed to the gills with Asimov and Clarke, but little to no Heinlein. I’ve read most (though not all, given how prolific they were) of Asimov and Clarke, but of Heinlein I’ve just read Stranger in a Strange Land and I Will Fear No Evil, and maybe a couple of others at most.

(of course, I’ve always intended to go back and read it all but “things to read before I die” is a long, long, long list. also a bit maxed out on my mid-20th-century American sf quota because I’m still working my way through the thirteen volumes of The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon.)

Colombo’s second-hand bookshops, then marginally less endangered than they are today, had this policy that you could borrow books for an indefinite period, for something like fifty rupees, as long as you put down a deposit equivalent to the price of the book. (That was generally in the range of a few hundred rupees at the time. The exchange rate has undergone dramatic changes since then, so converting these numbers to dollars will make a lot less sense today than it would have twenty years ago.) Then when you were done with it you could return it and borrow something else, and so on until the deposit was used up in borrowing fees. So you could read five or six books for the price of buying one. It was like an ad-hoc library without membership, due dates or late fees. I don’t know if they still do this.

(I spent most of the 00s barely reading at all because that decade was a disaster and when I finally picked up the habit again, it was the age of the Kindle and that worked better for me. sic transit, &c.)

In the 90s most of those second-hand book guys knew “classic” sf authors by name. You could ask them for science fiction recommendations in the 90s and get Clarke (always Clarke first, seeing as how he was a local celebrity) and Asimov, and occasionally something else like a battered Bradbury or a dog-eared Dick. But in all those years, I don’t think any of them ever handed me a Heinlein.

(last time I moved I donated nearly all of my paper books to those very same second-hand bookshops, including those copies of Stranger in a Strange Land and I Will Fear No Evil. Circle of life and all that.)

Anyway, because of this strange and inexplicable absence of Heinlein from the local scene I didn’t actually realize Heinlein’s stature in American sf for the longest time. I’d heard the name, probably read some of the short fiction, but I had no idea he was considered so major or influential. Until sometime in the mid/late 90s, when I found a collection of essays by Asimov called, unimaginatively, Asimov on Science Fiction. The book had been published in 1981; in it, in an essay called “The Second Nova” first published in I think the mid-70s, Asimov contended that “Doc” Smith, Weinbaum and Heinlein were the three most important figures of early American sf. At that point I’d read Smith’s The Galaxy Primes (of all things) and of course I’d read “A Martian Odyssey”, so I knew who those two were. Weinbaum was the titular “second nova” and the essay was mostly about him. But Asimov did go on to say that Heinlein was the third and last nova, meaning that après Heinlein, le deluge: sf supposedly diversifying thereafter to the point where no single person could be that universally influential ever again.

I’m not saying this was a critical masterstroke; let’s say it’s an, er, expressed enthusiasm. The important takeaway here is that it was Asimov himself who had to explain to me who Heinlein was!

(it was shortly after this that I found those two Heinlein paperbacks. or rather, it was only after this that I really saw them, picked them up, took them home. I don’t know how many times I’d seen and ignored them before.)

I know I’m not the only sf reader growing up in Colombo in my generation who had this same blind spot, either, because I’ve had this conversation many times over the years. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to explain to someone who Heinlein was. No, I’d insist, he was apparently totally a big deal and I don’t know why we’ve never heard of him! And then I’d try to get people to read Stranger and prevent them from reading I Will Fear No Evil at all costs.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d like to advance a new conspiracy theory to explain how all this came about: what if Sir Arthur engineered this situation so that at least in his adopted hometown, he would always be unambiguously number one? Bet you didn’t see that coming.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “The Ravens’ Sister” by Natalia Theodoridou in The Kenyon Review: “But if you hold me, you will burn me, I said, and I will die. And the Sun said, then you won’t care about your brothers any more, will you?”