April 7, 2020

Review: Assignment in Eternity by Robert Heinlein

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Why read old scifi? We’ve often heard this question kicked around in the darkened corners of science fiction conventions and on ye’ ole cyber webs. Hey, it’s true that we now live in an age where such red-letter sci-fi dates as 2001 and 1984 have come and gone… and even The Terminator’s Skynet was to have been long since operational by now.

But we would counter that even historical science fiction has its contemporary merit as a window into a generation’s hopes, dreams, and yes, even fears and anxieties. It’s quite possible that future historians will study the Hunger Games and Ender’s Game hoping to catch a glimpse of how we really perceived our expectations of the future.

It was this motivation that drove us to grab Robert A. Heinlein’s Assignment in Eternity out of the stack for review this week. Out from Baen Books this month as a reissue, Assignment in Eternity collects together some of Heinlein’s early “pulp” sci-fi under one cover. Fans will also remember our recent review of the controversial Heinlein classic Sixth Column, also out from Baen earlier this year.

Not only does Assignment in Eternity give you a look at the science fiction expectations of yesteryear, but it also provides the reader with a glimpse of “Heinlein before he was Heinlein.” A naval officer during World War II and an astute political and social commentator, Heinlein no less than single-handedly founded the subgenre of military science fiction. Some cite his Starship Troopers — a novel that still cries out for a proper remake, we’re sorry, the cheesy 1990’s flick doesn’t count — as “Star Wars before there was Star Wars.” Heck, we grew up on a steady diet of juvenile Heinlein sci-fi — again, the YA term for “Young Adult fiction” had yet to be coined — with novels such as Space Cadet and Farmer in the Sky.

Assignment in Eternity contains two of Heinlein’s short novelettes Gulf & Lost Legacy, as well as the early Heinlein short stories Jerry Was A Man and Elsewhen. You can see the foreshadowing and the early ideas in the near-future tale Gulf for what would later become the novel Friday, one of Heinlein’s signature and definitive works.

Telepathy, superhuman time-travelers, and Martians abound in these tales. Also, keep an eye out for such prophetic gems of technology as portable personal phones, though of course, travel via pneumatic tube has yet to come to pass. It’s interesting to note that even in his early days, Heinlein was already planting the seed for character versus technology-driven science fiction. Heinlein was interested in telling the tales of what it means to be human, along with the nature of that being. Like so many other authors of the “pulp era,” he saw the empowerment promised by science and technology, but also recognized the impact that it might have on the fundamental nature of humanity finally unleashed.

Be sure to give Assignment in Eternity a read… it’s a must for any good student of science fiction!


  1. [...] fans of this space will recall our recent reviews of Assignment in Eternity and Sixth Column, early Heinlein works also reissued by Baen last year.   Their latest release [...]

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