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Life-line by Robert A. Heinlein

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This is a guest post by Timothy Darling.

Doctor Hugo Pinero invents a device for measuring the length of life and predicting the date and time of death. This leads to the protests of insurance companies and the potential collapse of the industry, not to mention many personal concerns, and the dilemma of a humanity confronted with knowledge that they perhaps should not have.

The good: Pinero’s devise is unlike anything I’ve seen in any other SF story. It is a fascinating riff on a theme usually reserved for psychics and mediums.

The bad: Unfortunately, the story has rather flat characters. Most of them become symbols of a particular viewpoint instead of fully integrated personalities with interests outside the story line.

The interesting: The society reflects Heinlein’s own Kansas City of his younger days. It hearkens back to a reality that, truthfully, most of us would be just as happy without, an alternative to the golden-age view of the early 1900s.

"Life-line" is Heinlein’s first published story. This and the next two stories in the Future History are firmly set in the sociology of the 1940s. The heavy-handed, goon-squad politics countered by simplistic hucksteristic charm are from a less complicated era. The courtroom antics are reminiscent of tales from the Scopes Monkey Trial. The ruling is obviously that of a judge not beleaguered by unreasonable precedents. He is a stock RAH character, the cantankerous Mark Twainesque voice of wry, stubborn wisdom. Heinlein expresses his free-trade ideals with the moral triumph of his protagonist. It would be interesting to know what kind of protectionist legal decisions had been made that RAH is railing against. The importance of his viewpoint is underscored by the fact that Pinero is the only real character in the story. The other characters are almost silhouettes, props.

Pinero’s conflict with his relatives and his compassion on the young couple who go to him for a reading put his character in the third dimension. He is not a simple opportunist or a cold scientist. He is a man in charge of his own will and aware of the down side of his invention. His ultimate calm paints an interesting picture for Heinlein. Lazarus Long certainly doesn’t have this attitude… not when he’s in a good mood.

"Life-line" bears none of the polish of Heinlein’s later work. It lacks the complex characterization that makes for excellent story telling. However, it does bear the marks of RAH’s later tropes, a tantalizing inhale before a significant breath.

"Life-line" is available free on-line from the publisher as part of Heinlein’s eclectic collection Expanded Universe. Baen Books has graciously also restored the story to its original collection The Man Who Sold The Moon, from which it had been removed for reasons that seem to escape analysts. It seems likely that it was removed to make the book shorter and cheaper to publish, but it is back (though not in RAH’s recommended order), and Baen can be given much credit for that.

Thanks to Tim for this providing this article. You can read more of Tim’s stuff on his blog: The Darling Virtual Mind.

One thought to “Life-line by Robert A. Heinlein”

  1. The publication date of this story is probably debatable. It was first published in the August 1939 edition of Astounding, though it was later collected in The Man Who Sold the Moon. Thanks to Rusty for posting my stuff.

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