Robert Heinlein & the “view phone”

To start with, Robert Heinlein’s Future History Series.

Book One: Methuselah’s Children

Methuselah's ChildrenMethuselah’s Children was published in 1941 as a short story then expanded into a book in 1958, the first of eight in the Future History series.

The book is set in in the 2100s. Heinlein dates himself only a couple of times, even with all of the high-tech talk he ventures into.   The science itself sounds pretty legit to me, although he uses terms that are completely foreign, naturally, because he has to make up the name of something before it exists. The “view phone”, a totally on-target future device (for him) since we now use our phones for exactly that, to view photos and videos and even talk to each other by video like in the book.

That’s some good tech predicting.

The thing is, we use that device right now, in 2014, and the people in the book use it in 2136. We now know that by 2136, if our technology continues to increase, we will have implants or other such devices that will be streamlined into our brains (or something else that my 21st century brain hasn’t imagined). Hard to fault him for that…!

Here I am in 2014, listening to a book written in the 1940s and 50s, about the year 2136. Heinlein simply does a phenomenal job of seeming modern, of being modern. Of knowing exactly what he’s talking about, or at least sounding like he does. I’ve read old-timey sci-fi books before, more like the style of perhaps early Pohl, ones that make you think of Star Trek in the 60s with their huge computer knobs, but this writing is more sophisticated for its time. (I’ll have to read Pohl again soon to double-check that.)

More about Heinlein’s first Future History book, Methuselah’s Children, in the next post…

4 thoughts on “Robert Heinlein & the “view phone”

  1. Does it actually matter whether or not his random guesses (he made thousands of those that have no panned out) turn out or not? I think you are predicating too much on the supposed merit of “prediction.” I like to think of it more as “postulation.” These things could happen in the future but I want to make a snazzy future for a good story… Which is what EVERY single one of his juvenile tales of boy going to in space with spaceship etc represent. A future with a good story.

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    1. Not 20 minutes after I replied to you on this I started listening to The Man Who Sold The Moon (2nd in the series) and Heinlein addresses the issue you brought up in a preface. I’ll include some of it here because it’s so applicable.

      He begins with a quote from L. Sprague de Camp: “It does not pay a prophet to be too specific.” He then continues:

      “The stories in this and later volumes of this series were not written as prophecy, nor as history. The author would be much surprised if any one of them turned out to be close enough to future events to be classified as successful prophecy. They are of the ‘what would happen if’ sort, in which the ‘if’, the basic postulate of each story, is some possible change in human environment, latent in our present day technology or culture. Sometimes the possibility is quite remote. Sometimes the postulated possibility is almost a certainty, as in the stories concerned with inter-planetary flight.”

      And later he says “This past decade has been as revolutionary in technology as the century which preceded it. Increasingly each year the wild predictions of science fiction writers are made tame by the daily papers….”

      Anyway, just wanted to share that, I love it when that happens. 🙂

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      1. I think some readers dismiss older SF because it “didn’t turn out.” I find that profoundly unfair for a number of reasons:1st, as we’ve been discussing SF authors ultimately want to tell a good story and are speculating (often, wildly) about the future. 2nd, the fact that this speculative visions of the future were imagined in that time and place is in itself fascinating. Why were these futures considered “possible,” why do we need to warn out readers about these kinds of future, etc. All fascinating. 3rd, I think it is a failure to understand what SF is and is trying to do. It is not an attempt to write dry, technical, dull “predictions” about the future. Rather, it is to show a range of varying, often incredibly impossible, futures in which mankind (or alien kind) is forced to engage with. It often tells more about the present than it will EVER say about the future. The future is such a complex concept…

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