One winter shortly before the Six Weeks War, my tomcat, Petronius the Arbiter, and I lived in an old farmhouse in Connecticut. I doubt if it is there any longer, as it was near the edge of the blast area of the Manhattan near-miss, and those old frame buildings burn like tissue paper. Even if it is still standing it wouldn’t be a desirable rental because of the fall-out, but we liked it then, Pete and I. The lack of plumbing made the rent low and what had been the dining-room had a good north light for my drafting board. The drawback was that the place had eleven doors to the outside.
Thus begins Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer, frequently mentioned as one of the great time-travel SF stories. At the very least, Door was one of the first time-travel tales, and thus had a lot of influence on time-travel fiction in general. But just look at that intro: I found it strangely compelling, and a great indicator of the novel’s prose.
When Door was first published in 1956, serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Heinlein had already established himself as one of the three leaders in the Golden Age of science fiction. Heinlein’s work had traditionally been divided, his longer works written for a younger audience and his short stories written for adults, but the later half of the 1950s saw this divide break down. The Door Into Summer falls into the same Heinlein transitional phase as Starship Troopers: written for a mature, adult audience, but heavily influenced by his juvenile novels in both style and tone. Between them, I’d say Door is much closer to being a juvenile piece (it’d fit today’s “young adult” bracket well) despite being an “adult” work, while Heinlein’s originally pitch for Troopers as a juvenile novel is laughable considering its dull rhetoric and dense material.
…While still a kitten, all fluff and buzzes, Pete had worked out a simple philosophy. I was in charge of quarters, rations, and weather; he was in charge of everything else. But he held me especially responsible for weather. Connecticut winters are good only for Christmas cards; regularly that winter Pete would check his own door, refuse to go out it because of that unpleasant white stuff beyond it (he was no fool), then badger me to open a people door. He had a fixed conviction that at least one of them must lead into summer weather.
The Door Into Summer starts in the then-future of 1970 with protagonist Dan Davis, engineer and owner of the Hired Girl company, which produces household robotics. Only, things are looking down for Dan: his former business partner Miles and his ex-fiancé Belle teamed up to screw him out of his majority shares in the company. The did this nicely, though, since they bought him out at a fairly high sum, and only did it because Dan was interested in doing “non-businesslike practices” that wouldn’t have consumers buying expensive new robots each year.
Dan debates about what to do, and eventually goes to confront them about it. Bad choice, because they put him in the Long Sleep—cryogenics—and Dan wakes up in 2000. While struggling to adjust to this wild new future, Dan looks into finding a way to rectify the situation so that his duplicitous coworkers get their just desserts. Because, you see, Dan left all of his remaining stock and whatnot in the hands of Miles’ daughter Ricky.
Unlike Troopers, Door is probably the most upbeat Heinlein work out there. The prose is almost bubbly, and it’s rife with characterization for the jovial narrator and his sidekick cat. Despite everything that befalls Dan, and the nuclear devastation of most of the East Coast, Door is a bouncy thrill-ride more interested in entertaining than preaching. Oh, it’s still Golden Age, hard-SF, so Heinlein spends a great deal of time detailing how everything works—which is horribly, horribly dated, mind you—but compared to a lot of 1950s output, it’s a lot less uptight and technical, making it a joy to read. Again, it reminds me a lot of Heinlein’s juvenile novels—“Hey, gang, let’s build a rocket and fly to the moon!”—unbridled optimism meets cheery disposition.
It’s fascinating to see what predictions for 1970 and 2000 Heinlein had in 1956. It’s really hit or miss: one of the robots he describes is essentially a Roomba, and another is an overly-complicated dishwasher than can put dishes away, but they all run on vacuum tubes and transistors. Heinlein assumes that it won’t be a problem to teach a robot to put dishes away or change a diaper, but that computer memory is the issue. (I look at my $85, two-terabyte HDD and laugh). His drafting robot would have been amazing in 1956, but nowadays, AutoCAD would rock its world. And he conveniently avoids putting much detail to the year 2000.
There’s also a lot of Heinlein being Heinlein; in his vision, communism would obviously fail by 1970. And while there’s an awful lot of pro-free market, pro-capitalism vibes in here, the parts of capitalism that don’t benefit society are exactly what Dan is trying to avoid: he’s for small business, and wants to provide real long-lasting and easy-to-repair products instead of requiring consumers to buy new stuff every year. I think it even implied Dan joined a union at one point. Compare that to the traditional view of Heinlein as a conservative, particularly after Starship Troopers.
Probably the biggest flaw I had wasn’t that the book was dated, or predictable—it starts with going into the future, if you didn’t figure out he goes back in time then you deserve this spoiler. No, the big flaw is the romance later on in the book. See, the goes-back-to-the-past spoiler is important here, because he goes back to see the girl Ricky, and she tells him she loves him. That’s right. He’s twenty years her senior, is her pseudo-uncle, and the first time we see her, they’re working out this plan for her to take the Long Sleep on her 21st birthday. Because, obviously, then he’ll only be ten years older than her, and she’ll be of legal age, so if she still loves him they can get married in the year 2000. I assume Heinlein designed this as a “true romance” bit to play with the time-travel angle again, but Jesus wept, the whole thing is painfully creepy.
The novel is awarded a surprising amount of prestige; I’ve seen it crop up in any number of best-of lists, it’s a solid mid-field contender in Locus all-time awards, the Amazon reviews are almost universally positive… hell, my copy is from the Science Fiction Book Club’s 50th Anniversary series, a line filled with reprints of prestigious and certified classic novels. Reading through, I’m not exactly sure what the book has done to deserve all this. Sure, it’s well written and straightforwardly enjoyable, flowing along with its lighthearted tone. And there’s nothing wrong with the book, from a mechanics standpoint. Heinlein knew how to write a book better than most anyone else in the ’50s SF field.
But on the other hand, its ideas are charmingly dated, and the whole Dan-Ricky thing should never had made it past a decent editor. That might be part of the problem; Heinlein submitted the book to be serialized in Astounding Science Fiction, the leading SF magazine at the time, but legendary editor John Campbell turned it down. After reading the book, I think Campbell’s criticism is spot on:
I’ve got a Bob Heinlein novel on hand now [The Door Into Summer], for decision, that’s got me worried and bothered. Bob can write a better story, with one hand tied behind him, than most people in the field can do with both hands. But Jesus, I wish that son of a gun would take that other hand out of his pocket. I also have a Jack Vance novel on hand; it’s got a lovely idea. If Vance could write like Heinlein, or Heinlein would take the trouble to think as hard as Vance did in cooking this one up….
Bob’s got a cat in the yarn, Petronius, known as Pete. Pete’s a wonderful character —Bob’s made him delightful. Only… he has nothing to do with the story, dammit.