RETRO REVIEW: ROBERT A. HEINLEIN’S THE DOOR INTO SUMMER

Figure 1 – The Door Into Summer Hardcover 1st

I absolutely believe (of course, with no evidence either way) in the multiverse. I mean, if there was time travel in this one, we’d have come across time-travelers already, wouldn’t we? But if there was a multiverse, every time one of them changed the past — even in the tiniest way — there’d be a new fork, and that universe would have time travelers in it. (I’m not sure I believe in time travel, absolutely… Look at it this way: because the future isn’t fixed, you can’t travel to it, right? But your future is someone else’s past…and if you can travel to the past, then the future is fixed and our fates are sealed. I don’t believe the future is fixed. I believe the future will be determined by our choices.)

I have a longer list of things I don’t believe in than things I do, by the way. So with two things firmly established (at least for this column) — that is, that there is a multiverse and the future is not fixed — let’s look at Robert A. Heinlein’s writing one more time. (When I say “One more time,” I do not mean “…and never again.” Heinlein’s writing alone is enough to spark a number of columns, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.) This week, I’d like to take a personal look at The Door Into Summer, which has been a favourite book of mine since I first read it in about 1959 or 1960, when I was a very young man. Now that I’m older, rereading books that affected me at a young age is an interesting project — because when I first read them, I had very little real-world experience; I soaked up science fiction and knowledge, laying down tracks in my platinum sponge of a positronic brain, as Isaac Asimov would have it. Of course, there are other, more academic reviews of Heinlein’s work, including this book, but this is a personal view. By the way, Here There Be Spoilers — I think that, since the book is sixty years old, it should be okay to discuss it in enough depth that spoilers will happen. All right?

Figure 2 – F&SF October 1957 Cover by Kelly Freas

When I was reading SF in the late ‘50s and early-to-mid ‘60s, I didn’t see many magazines, even though they were on the stands at the time. I seldom received an allowance (we were lower-middle-class and money was usually somewhat tight), so I didn’t buy books or SF/magazines; instead, I read most of my SF/F either from the library, or from friends’ collections. So I probably didn’t see these delightful covers for the serialization of this book in F&SF in October (Figure 2), November (Figure 3), and December of 1956 (Figure 4), all by Frank Kelly Freas. (Where available, comparison covers without overprints have been shown. Thanks to Laura Brodian Freas for the Virginia Edition cover in Figure 3.) When I think of the prices I would have paid back in The Day for first eds, I tend to whimper a little. But my wife is aiding me in getting out of the hoarder… er, collector mindset. So I didn’t read Door until it had been published in hardcover — and the Doubleday hardcover in Figure 1 (1957) is probably the one I read. At that time I would have just accepted the love story between Dan and Ricky — a 31-year-old man and an 11-year-old girl when the book began — as completing a story arc, rather than as an odd relationship… but we’ll talk of that later. That book became, and stayed, one of my favourite time-travel books for many years; and I’m not so sure it isn’t still right up there at the top!

Figure 3 – F&SF November 1957

Anyway, let’s look at the story. It is the future — 1970 — and there has been a limited nuclear war (such a thing seemed possible in 1956, when the book was written) — the Six Weeks’ War — which has, among other things, destroyed Washington D.C., Seattle and other cities, and made parts of New York and Los Angeles radioactive ruins. (The war had been won by “our side” by the use of two futuristic devices: the first, a “zombie” drug, which was used to make the enemy completely in our power, with no will to resist; and secondly, the “Cold Sleep,” a suspended animation technique by which people could be quickly frozen and revived. The Cold Sleep allowed the US to freeze troops and keep them in reserve, moving them quickly to where they would be useful and reviving them as needed.)

Daniel Boone Davis (“Dan”), our protagonist, is an engineer/inventor who, with his Army buddy Miles Gentry, has built a robotic better vacuum cleaner (no, not the Roomba) called “Hired Girl,” and is also working on an all-purpose ‘bot with a learning circuit, called Flexible Frank, that will be able to do just about any household chore after teaching. Dan has a tomcat, named Petronius the Arbiter (“Pete”), who also “belongs” to Miles’s stepdaughter, Frederica (“Ricky”) Virginia; Ricky is 11 years old, and has had a crush on her “uncle” Dan for years. Dan carries Pete around in a bag (like a bowling bag) with a  one-way window, and often takes him to restaurants and bars and the like where animals are not allowed; he then opens the top of the bag and lets Pete eat and drink secretly. Pete is an unaltered male cat, who thinks the multiple doors of Dan’s house (one of which is a cat door) conceal the fact that outside one door it is not winter — the titular “door into summer” and often makes Dan take him around to every door to show Pete that it’s winter outside every door. Pete remains unconvinced.

Figure 4 – F&SF December 1956

Dan and Miles have hired Belle Darkin, a “bottle blonde” secretary, who Dan plans to marry — he has even given her some stock in Hired Girl (also the name of the company) as an engagement present. Dan spends most of his days and nights working on Flexible Frank, while Miles (with Belle’s assistance) runs the company. He discovers that Miles is trying to sell the company to another firm, whereupon Miles will get a bunch of money and a vice-Presidency of the other company. Dan vetoes this — he wants Hired Girl to stay private — but discovers that Miles and Belle have secretly gotten married and, with her shares of stock, have outvoted him, now together holding a controlling interest in the company — and have ousted him as CEO and Chief Engineer and then fired him. Dan, with Pete in his bag, goes on a massive bender, and makes the drunken choice that this world isn’t good enough for the two of them — and so decides that they will take the “Cold Sleep” to the year 2000, when things will surely be better. He goes to one of the many Cold Sleep facilities and fills out papers, intending the two of them to go that night, but the facility’s doctor won’t let him be frozen until the alcohol is out of his system, and so he — like a total idiot — goes to confront Miles and Belle. Belle dopes his drink with the zombie drug and, while trying to figure out how to get away with killing him, finds the Cold Sleep papers in Pete’s bag. Pete escapes out the cat door after leaving major evidence of a fight on both Belle and Miles; Belle forges a different Cold Sleep centre’s name on his papers and they put Dan down for 30 years.

Figure 5 – Door interior illo by Kelly Freas

Dan awakes in the year 2000. For some reason, the zombie drug’s posthypnotic suggestion to forget everything Belle and Miles did hasn’t worked, and Dan remembers everything. The arrangements Dan had made with the first Cold Sleep Centre for his financial security had gone by the board due to Belle’s forgeries, and he finds Mannix (the company that bought Hired Girl) had collapsed in the meantime; he is penniless. He makes an arrangement with the head of the Centre he’d awoken in to trade days of care for money — he has 4 days prepaid care available to him. Dan is saddened that Pete didn’t take the Sleep with him; he had a vision of an abandoned cat left to fend for himself, fearing to trust any human, but there is no going backwards. He resolves to find Miles and Belle and take some kind of revenge on them for Pete.

There is a period of adjustment to the new time — clothing is different, language has new words or changed meanings for some common words, and Flexible Frank is working as a hospital orderly! He manages to check the patent plate on Frank and finds that instead of being a product of Hired Girl, Inc., or the company (Mannix) that bought her, Frank is a product of Aladdin, with a picture of a genie, but now called “Eager Beaver.” (He tracks down the patent number and finds that Eager Beaver was patented by one D.B. Davis.) He begins to try tracking Miles, Belle and Ricky — he had sent an envelope with his Hired Girl shares to Ricky back in 1970; fearing that the Gentry couple might somehow get them off her, he had merely asked Ricky to hold the enclosed envelope (with the shares) until he asked her for them. He is unable to find Ricky, even knowing that she had gone to the custody of her maternal grandmother, due to Belle’s dislike of the girl. He also was unable to find miles, but Belle—now known as (Mrs.) Belle Schultz — contacted him.

Unwillingly, but knowing she would be the only way for him to track Ricky — who will now be a middle-aged married matron, he thinks — he agrees to meet Belle and finds her older-looking than her putative 50-something years; unattractive both physically and mentally, and an obvious alcoholic. She tells him Miles died years ago and somehow she had been cheated — the biter bit! — out of the money she was “due.” The Mannix deal for her and Miles had fallen through, as Flexible Frank had disappeared the night they sent Dan into Cold Sleep. She professes to know nothing about Ricky, but dredges up the girl’s grandmother’s name — Heinecke — out of her alcohol-sodden memory, and tries to come on to Dan. She has obviously forgotten what she and Miles did, and only remembers that Dan had had a “thing” for her. Dan leaves her in disgust, knowing that time has gotten his revenge for him.

Figure 6 – Signet paperback edition cover by Paul Lehr

Dan discovers that his engineering knowledge is so far out of date that the only job he can get that’s even close to what he wants is a figurehead job — for publicity purposes — for the company — Geary — that now owns Hired Girl, as the inventor. While he is working for them (and trying to upgrade his own engineering skills to current) he finds out that Ricky has been awakened from Cold Sleep and has married someone named “Daniel Boone Davis!”

A fellow Geary engineer, over beers, tells him that a man in Colorado had actually demonstrated time travel at one point; and Dan begins to see this as a way to possibly resolve all his problems. He moves to Colorado and inveigles Dr. Twitchell, a man whose career was on the skids, into demonstrating time travel on him, goading him into sending Dan back to 1970. He arrives (Figure 4) in a Colorado nudist colony in 1970, with a few thousand dollars in 24-carat gold wire (legal in 2000, not so much in 1970) wrapped around his waist. Now he has money, and knowledge of past events — and can begin setting things right! After tracking down Ricky and retrieving the envelope with the stock certificates in it, he assigns the stock to her, telling her that if she still wishes to be with him, she should wait until she’s old enough and then take the Cold Sleep, waking in 2000. He then goes to Miles’s and Belle’s house — arriving just in time to rescue Pete. He steals the Flexible Frank prototype from the garage, and disassembles him, also shredding the plans. This will thwart Miles and Belle. He then creates a company called Aladdin, patenting Flexible Frank as Eager Beaver, and including a number of improvements he learned of in the future. He then takes — with Pete, this time — the Cold Sleep into the year 2000, where he and Ricky are married. All the issues are resolved and the time circle is closed.

Figure 7 – British paperback, year and artist unknown

Of necessity, I’ve condensed a lot of the book and left some things out of my description above. So what do we know about, to begin with, Heinlein’s prophecy? Well, we’re pretty sure that there was no Six Weeks war — and that a “limited” nuclear exchange wouldn’t be limited or leave most of the country unharmed. There is no Cold Sleep (yet… cryogenic freezing of humans has not been licked, but people are still working on it); there is no Great Los Angeles, and the seat of the US Government is still in Washington D.C. There’s a fair amount of smoking in this book, which was common in the late ‘50s — Heinlein didn’t quit smoking until 1978, according to Bill Patterson’s bio (thanks to the Heinlein forum on Facebook and Spider Robinson for tracking this down for me). Waving a cigarette to light it was apparently a “thing” in this book’s 2000. By our 2000, of course, smoking was already beginning to be disapproved of.

The engineering in this book is, by today’s standards, laughable. Computing was in its infancy — the first IBM digital computer was sold in 1953 and had 240 40-bit words of memory; to serve as memory, Heinlein invented the mythical “Thorsen tube.” Transistors and printed circuits were beginning to replace tubes in 1956; Heinlein didn’t foresee the integrated circuit (invented in the 1960s), which could put hundreds or thousands of transistors in a single chip. He also invented something (called a “Shipstone” in other books) that basically gave everyone free power. Then there was “Sticktite” fabric closures that replaced zippers. As a prognosticator, Heinlein didn’t do so well in this book. (There are many other failures, but I won’t go into detail; this column’s long enough as it is.) Another success in prognostication is private ownership of gold, though he missed the boat on finances in the future: a hospital bed is cited as being $100/day. (For those of you who don’t know, gold bullion was not legal to own privately for the most part; the price of gold was pegged at $35/troy ounce by the US government.) The storyline is fairly straightforward for a time-travel story; not nearly as convoluted as “All You Zombies,” (which was recently filmed as Predestination; that story is still a couple of years in Heinlein’s personal future).

As far as action/adventure SF, I think this book works; it moves along at a steady, quick pace, which should keep the average reader interested. There are some 1950s societal attitudes — towards women and minorities (I seem to recall the word “colored” in there somewhere) that have changed a lot in the last 60 years; but nothing terribly shocking. Heinlein did foresee the word “kink” gaining a sexual connotation — Dan, the protagonist, gets slapped across the face or something for using it in casual conversation; but none of his other word choices seem to have become reality.

The story has a certain circularity — all the loose ends seem to be tied up nicely — but if you’re a modern person of the age of majority, there’s an elephant in the room that takes this book a bit out of the mainstream and may, in fact, make it uncomfortable for people to read. I’m referring, of course, to the fact that Ricky (Frederica Virginia Gentry/Heinecke) is 11 years old at the beginning of the book, while Dan (Daniel Boone Davis) is 30 or 31. She, as a young girl, became fixated upon her “uncle” Dan, and wanted to marry him. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s uncommon for very young girls. They grow out of it somewhere in their preteen or teen years. The uncomfortable part of this is that Dan, when he returns to 1970, actually encourages her to grow up and take the Cold Sleep so that he and she would be around the same age so they could marry. I’m not alone in finding this somewhat creepy; I think Alexei Panshin might have mentioned it in Heinlein In Dimension; and Jo Walton has also mentioned in a fairly recent review of the book that it creeps her out. When I first read this, I was a sexual innocent, and to me it seemed somewhat natural: boys and girls fall in love and get married — I was too young to understand that even by the standards of 1956 it was an odd relationship. Of course, it wasn’t until much later that I learned that sex and gender weren’t even binary — that would have really thrown me for a loop!

There is one character in the book, however, that I think all readers like — and that is Petronius the Arbiter (“Pete” the cat). I also liked the two Boulder nudists (John and Jenny) and Doctor Twitchell as characters; I think Heinlein had a flair for quick characterization. Like much of Heinlein’s work, I would have to say that Door Into Summer is good, if flawed science fiction — thanks again to his treatment of relationships, including sex. If they can get past the Dan/Ricky age thing — ignore it for the sake of story — I think most SF readers will enjoy the book.

Please comment on this week’s column; I’d like to hear your opinion. You can comment here, or on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. I welcome all comments, favourable or brickbats. Please don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

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3 thoughts on "RETRO REVIEW: ROBERT A. HEINLEIN’S THE DOOR INTO SUMMER"

  1. zid says:

    Heinlein did love making things a bit convoluted didn’t he? Pete was the best part of this book. I wish he’d been in it more.

  2. Gideon Marcus says:

    Thank you for the review! I read this after I’d started my journey back 55 years (1954) but before I started chronicling it (1958). Thus, I read this book “when it came out” and enjoyed it in context, but my memory of it is fuzzy, and I have no notes.

    It is archetypical Heinlein, complete with libertarianism, nudism, cats, and bucked social norms. Nevertheless, I recall it being a fun tale. Certainly way better than his latest (“Stranger in a Strange Land”… feh!)

    What decided you to pick this story to revisit?

    Gideon
    http://galacticjourney.org

    1. Thanks for the comments, folks! Gideon, I’ve been a Heinlein fan forever, and I’d rather review one I liked than one I disliked. (And when I say “disliked,” it usually means there are, for me, contentious areas in a book, not that I disliked the whole book.) I plan to do more Heinlein reviews, as I reread all the Master’s works! 🙂

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