Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2008
Introduction to Project Moonbase and Others By John Scalzi
In the early 1950s, and one assumes after the success of Destination Moon, Robert Heinlein teamed up with producer Jack Seaman to create a science fiction television anthology series. The anthology series had as a framing device a teacher educating a student of his about the history of space exploration; the episodes themselves were largely adaptations of Heinlein’s “Future History” stories, with some original teleplays written or proposed to go along with them. One of those original teleplays, “Ring Around the Moon,” was put into production as the pilot for the series.
And what happened to the series? Well, nothing happened to the series; what happened is that Jack Seaman unilaterally decided to make “Ring Around the Moon” into a feature film, retitled Project Moonbase, padding out the script and story to feature length (barely: the whole thing clocks in at sixty-three minutes) and getting it out to theaters in September of 1953. The movie was made “economically”—which is to say so cheaply that its sets and costumes were used simultaneously on another production, the evocatively-titled Cat-Women of the Moon (“love-starved moon maidens on the prowl!” exclaimed one tagline for the flick)—and its biggest star was the guy who would later be best known as “Dr. Bellows” on I Dream of Jeanie. To call the acting of the leads Donna Martel and Ross Ford wooden is to invite splinters from affronted furniture and railings.
Project Moonbase was not a smashing success, Heinlein was reportedly (and entirely understandably) miffed by the whole debacle, and the teleplays he wrote for the proposed TV series went into the proverbial drawer for fifty-five years. This book you hold in your hands represents the first publication of most of these teleplays and treatments; in a sense, it’s new Heinlein work.
Which is pretty cool.
And also intriguing. The fact of the matter is that here in 2008, we can’t experience these teleplays (or the works most of them are derived from) the same way people in 1953 did—or would have, anyway. In 1953, the 1970 setting of Project Moonbase was inarguably the future; seventeen years away. Inside those seventeen years lay Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard and John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11—indeed, most of what we think of as the Space Age, right down to the Tang (invented in 1957, popularized by space flight in 1965). Given the title of Project Moonbase, it’s not much of a spoiler to let you know that the heroes of that film make the first moon landing in September 1970; it was a good guess on Heinlein’s part to get within 15 months of the actual date, from back in 1952-53, when he was putting together the script.
In 1952-53, Heinlein was writing in the present about a possible future; in 2008, here we’re reading stories from the past about a future, now past, which never happened. Our 1970 had moon landings but no space station; it had astronauts but all of them were men; it had a civilian space administration, not one run by the military. Factoring in the fact that Heinlein never shied away from entertaining his audiences, he still tried for a plausible vision of the future; he succeeded in that, but his future 1970 is nevertheless not the 1970 of our past. Nearly all of his futures in this book, in terms of timeline, now exist behind us—the latest of them (unless I’ve misread), in “Home Sweet Home,” takes place in the then far-distant but now just-past year of 2002. We read the work here looking back at someone looking forward.
But of course, we do that any time we read science fiction from the “Golden Age.” Heinlein was not the only writer to make a guess at what the future would be like just a few decades forward; lots of science fiction writers of the 40s and 50s hearkened to the amazing ages that would exist in 1970, 1980 or—gasp!—the unspeakably futuristic age of the year 2000. I have my quibbles with Golden Age science fiction, much of it relating to the fact that even the progressive views of gender and sexual politics of the time are cringe-inducing now (Heinlein is no exception; he’s progressive enough in Project Moonbase to have a female in charge of the moon mission in 1970, but enough a product of his time to see nothing wrong with having a general threaten to spank said woman if she gets out of line, and have it not quite be a joke). But one thing to admire about the Golden Age writers is that they seemed unconcerned about failure; they picked their years and guessed what life would be like then and essentially put their chips down. If they were wrong, oh well; they’d try again later. Today’s science fiction writers—and I include myself in this—are a little more cagey about it. Try to get us to put an actual year to our near-future fiction and see how far you get.
What’s different in this book—and what makes it worth reading aside from the stories themselves—is that thanks to the script notes that accompany nearly all of the teleplays here, you get commentary from Heinlein himself about how one goes about imagining a future, based on what you have in front of you at the time. There are many examples of this peppered throughout the scripts, and I leave them to you to find and appreciate them, but let me point out a key paragraph from Heinlein in his treatment of “Home Sweet Home”:
We accomplish three things simultaneously: the mechanical gags, i.e., the new things which make this a 2002 house rather than a 1952 house, must all be things which you yourself could conceivably want in your dream house although they are not now commercially available; second, these improvements must be things which are reasonable to us and the audience in terms of extrapolated technology… and the third point is that despite the desirability and reasonableness of these 21st century comforts the Arnolds get into lots of trouble with them because they are new and complicated gadgets, sometimes through overconfidence, sometimes through carelessness, and frequently through the brattish inquisitiveness of Junior, meddling with things he should not touch.
Heinlein writes these script notes because in them he’s talking to set designers, art directors, prop handlers and other key production folks who may not be familiar with science fiction and thus need an explanation not only for what Heinlein is doing here but why. In today’s science fiction-laden Hollywood, set designers and art directors probably wouldn’t need this sort of annotation, but in 1953, when the only science fiction film that took science seriously was Heinlein’s own Destination Moon in 1951, it was still useful. And for us today, it’s a key insight to Heinlein’s craft as a writer and to understanding why his futures were essentially mechanistic extensions of mid-20th Century America; Heinlein was writing from what he knew, and also writing from what his audiences knew and could accept as being plausibly extensible into the future. All science fiction writers do this (we write about the future but we sell books and stories now), but leave it to Heinlein to encapsulate it so succinctly.
The script notes offer an additional perspective into Heinlein, the writer: The man is practical, not precious, about his work. Throughout the script notes, Heinlein is offering suggestions to the props and effects departments about how to achieve the effects he’s putting into the script… contingent on their budgets. Zero-gravity? Well, if they have the budget for it, put the actor in a harness, paint the wires black and put him against a dark background. No budget? Give him “gravity boots” and put real magnets on the soles to give the boots an authentic click when the actor walks (note: Project Moonbase featured gravity boots. No clicks).
Maybe this is a little thing for most people, but for me it increases my admiration of Heinlein. The man was aware of the environment he was putting his stories into and was doing what he could to make the stories as realistic as they could be in the context of—well, in the context of what the production could afford. A streak of practical realism is not a bad thing for a writer to have, particularly when that writer lived and worked in an era in which a rocket on a string was still acceptable effects technology.
More to the point, these script notes offer fans and writers another look at one of their favorite wordsmiths. It would be a little much to say these notes offer a glimpse into Heinlein’s soul—they’re script notes, not memoirs—but what they do offer is a glimpse into his process and into the way he communicated his ideas to the uninitiated. It’s Heinlein explaining Heinlein, and by extension explaining science fiction. And that’s worth putting into a book.
This book, in fact. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.