Birthday Reviews: Robert A. Heinlein’s “Sky Lift”

Birthday Reviews: Robert A. Heinlein’s “Sky Lift”

Cover by W.E. Terry
Cover by W.E. Terry

Robert A. Heinlein was born on July 7, 1907 and died on May 8, 1988.

Heinlein won his first Hugo Award in 1956 for his novel Double Star. He subsequently won three more Hugo Awards for Best Novel for Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Although he has never won a Nebula Award, despite four nominations, Heinlein was the first person designated a Grand Master by the SFWA, in 1975. In 1980 he received the Forry Award from LASFS. He has won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award seven times, for The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land, Red Planet, Methusaleh’s Children, Time Enough for Love, “Requiem,” and “Coventry.” In 1978, I Will Fear No Evil won the Seiun Award. Heinlein has also won the Retro Hugo Award four times, for “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” Farmer in the Sky, “The Roads Must Roll,” and “If This Goes On…” Heinlein was Guest of Honor at three separate Worldcons, Denvention 1 in 1941, Seacon in Seattle in 1961, and MidAmeriCon in Kansas City in 1976. The only other person to be a Guest of Honor at three Worldcons was John W. Campbell, Jr. In 1998, he was a Posthumous Inductee into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

“Sky Lift” was first published by William L. Hamling in the November 1953 issue of Imagination. Heinlein included it in his collection The Menace from Earth in 1959. The story was selected by Damon Knight for A Century of Science Fiction and was included in Off the Main Sequence: The Other Science Fiction Stories of Robert A. Heinlein. Gregory Benford and George Zebrowski chose to include it in Sentinels: In Honor of Arthur C. Clarke in 2010 and it was also reprinted in New Worlds to Conquer, part of the Virginia Edition, which reprinted all of Heinlein’s works. In addition to its English language publications, it has been translated into Italian twice, first by Hilja Pini for Urania #306 and a new translation, also by Pini using the name Hilia Brinis, for Gamma #14. Fritz Steinberg translated it into German for Unternehman Alptraum. It has also been translated into French twice.

“Sky Lift” is a strangely titled story about a medical supply run to the planet Pluto which has to be conducted under extreme conditions due to the urgency to get supplies to the distant planet (the title used in its first Italian translation, “Accelerazione ‘3g’” is a much better title). Like Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” which would be published in Astounding nine months later, Heinlein achieves emotional impact by creating a situation heavily stacked against the protagonists, Joe Appleby and Lieutenant Klueger.

Heinlein’s set up has Appleby placed on a high G mission to Pluto when he was supposed to be on Earth leave. Although tests had shown how dangerous lengthy travel at 3.5Gs was, nobody had ever actually tried it. As they traveled to Pluto, both Klueger and Appleby began to experience dysfunction, beginning with an inability to focus or remain awake. Hours and days pass when both are unable to operate non-automated systems, leading to a variety of problems, although in the end they successfully make their delivery, although at great personal cost.

The story is an interesting take on the laws of physics, peppered with supposition about how the human body and psyche would respond to extreme conditions. Because Heinlein’s set up is so contrived, however, he undercuts the emotional response to Appleby’s and Krueger’s fates. The story winds up being more about the physical mechanics than the human cost.

Reviewed in its original publication in the collection The Menace from Earth, by Robert A. Heinlein, Baen Books 1987.

Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Doing Business at Hodputt’s Emporium” in Galaxy’s Edge. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.

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Rich Horton

There you go again, picking some completely obscure writer.

Actually, had you said you were reviewing a story called “Sky Lift”, I would have thought you WERE covering someone obsure. I don’t remember that Heinlein story at all.

By the way, its original publication was in that issue of IMAGINATION, right? And the original publication of THE MENACE FROM EARTH (the collection) was from Gnome Press in 1959.

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