Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Door Into Summer: My Favorite Cat Book

  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...
Yes, Pete the cat, a major character in Heinlein's The Door Into Summer, runs his household with a firm paw.

In 1970, Daniel Boone Davis is an excellent engineer and inventor. With patents on a line of devices to ease the burden of housework, his little manufacturing company, Hired Girl, Inc., is doing well. He's his own boss, and his partner Miles does the paperwork and legal stuff, with some help from Dan's fianceé, Belle; Dan is free to think up new gadgets and bring them to life. His best friend is a burly, ginger ale-drinking tomcat named Petronius Arbiter (Pete); he is "Uncle Dan" to Miles' adorable 11-year-old stepdaughter Frederica (Ricky). He has a well-rounded, satisfying life.

His only problem seems to be that his fianceé doesn't like cats.

But Dan has more problems than that. Miles and Belle are greedy; they get married behind his back, and conspire together to boot Dan out of the business. Dan tries to fight back, but before he can get organized to do battle, they drug him and consign him to "Long Sleep"—Dan will be frozen for 30 years. By the time he awakens in 2000, his beloved Pete will be long dead, and little Ricky will have been subjected to 7 years of the poisonous influence of Belle.

Now Dan Davis is not the kind of man to let one little setback defeat him. He sets out his priorities:

  1. Get a job.
  2. Find somewhere to live.
  3. Catch up on technology, to be able to be an engineer again.
  4. Find Ricky.
  5. Find Miles and Belle, and wreak revenge for Pete's abandonment.
Dan methodically accomplishes the first three in this "brave new world" of 2000. What he learns when he finds out what happened to Ricky, however, sends him searching for the door into summer than will take him back to 1970 to set things right...

ATM systems. 3D printing. CAD-CAM and plotters. Manufacturing robots pre-programmed for their tasks. The Roomba floor cleaner. Waterbeds. These are common technology now, but when Robert A. Heinlein wrote The Door Into Summer in 1955, they were a figment of his fiction.

Heinlein's fiction was never intended to be predictive, but as an engineer with an "in" to military development of his day, he was often eerily right about what lay ahead. Just as often, he was drastically wrong; Dan Davis is still using "tubes" for programming in 1970. More grating to non-technical ears are the everyday-technology errors: in 2000, Dan needs to go to a drugstore to use a telephone. No cellphones, no personal computers. And "Great Los Angeles" in 2000 has a well-used public transit system called "the Ways" (no other explanation), and helicopter buses.

But if you can set aside the already-past future of this "futuristic" story, what you have is a brilliant tale of time travel and the losses we all face as we make our one-way trip through time. If for no other reason, read (or reread) it for the pure joy of encountering Pete, the cat who never accepts that there is no door into summer. You just have to keep looking.