The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"And He Built a Crooked House" by Robert A. Heinlein: An Appreciation by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

The first book of "real" SF short stories I ever bought with my own money was Heinlein's collection The Green Hills of Earth (1951). There are many Heinleins, I would discover, and this was the innocent storyteller of the 40s and 50s. Very suitable for a boy of 10 or 11 in the world of 1969. And I remember every story in that collection, almost as if I read them yesterday. I'm usually happy if I truly love 20% of a collection or SF magazine, but 7 out of 10 stories in The Green Hills of Earth make the grade in my book. Whether through starry-eyed innocence or blind luck, I'd stumbled across a winner early in my SF readings and then proceeded to read every one of what we might call today Heinlein's YA novels in my junior high library.

I don't remember when or in whose collection I first read "And He Built a Crooked House" (1940). But I do know that I had already discovered tesseracts and the idea of a four-dimensional object, along with the intriguing mysteries of the Möbius strip and the Klein bottle, and I'd read Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott, so I took to "And He Built a Crooked House" in a flash.

D&D players know about portable holes, Dr. Who fans know that the Tardis is larger than a London call box and the latest Harry Potter movie includes spacious quarters housed inside a modest pup tent. But those of us who read Heinlein's story knew how to make a house bigger on the inside than the outside -- build perpendicular to the usual three dimensions.

It's an engineer's house, full of quirks and disturbing realities as one can watch oneself disappearing into a room down the hall. And while the views from the windows are a wee bit unusual, they're certainly conversation starters. There's just one small technical problem with the place.

This story appeared some sixty-five years ago and yet the opening sentiments are still fresh:

Americans are considered crazy anywhere in the world.

They will usually concede a basis for the accusation but point to California as the focus of the infection. Californians stoutly maintain that their bad reputation is derived solely from the acts of the inhabitants of Los Angeles County. Angelenos will, when pressed, admit the charge but explain hastily, "It's Hollywood. It's not our fault--we didn't ask for it; Hollywood just grew."

The people in Hollywood don't care; they glory in it. If you are interested, they will drive you up Laurel Canyon "--where we keep the violent cases." The Canyonites--the brown-legged women, the trunks-clad men constantly busy building and rebuilding their slap-happy unfinished houses--regard with faint contempt the dull creatures who live down in the flats, and treasure in their hearts the secret knowledge that they, and only they, know how to live.

Lookout Mountain Avenue is the name of a side canyon which twists up from Laurel Canyon. The other Canyonites don't like to have it mentioned; after all, one must draw the line somewhere!

Hard to imagine that this 1940s California was just a shadow of what it would become today. Yet the iconic imagery of carving subdivisions and mansions out of what should've been left desert is buried deep in our collective unconscious--Hollywood TV and movies have seen to that. Perry Mason himself could've driven his car up to Heinlein's tesseract house to investigate what happened. So we're well grounded right at the beginning of the story, even nodding at how crazy we Americans really are. And Heinlein's characters are straight from his box of tricks--part optimist, part charlatan-cum-make-a-buck, part progressive, part conservative--and his sense of timing perfected. And it's not only culture which requires this story to be embedded in California . . .

Okay, so the characters are a bit dated and woefully politically incorrect by today's standards. And you'd never get anything built so quickly today without dealing with zoning boards, etc. It's an old short story, I'll willingly make allowances.

But the real reason I wanted to write this appreciation was that a few years ago I stumbled onto one of the greatest accolades I've ever seen for a story: Bob Seitz's 1997 tribute to "And He Built a Crooked House".

Preamble: The plot and the title for this story belongs to Robert Heinlein. I read it in a science fiction anthology decades ago and thought it was pretty amusing. Unfortunately, I don't know where to find it. I have rewritten it from scratch to go with my paper on relativity.

To tell the truth, I was using Google to try to find Heinlein's story and found Seitz's first. And while it is really intriguing to look at his story in comparison to Heinlein's, this helps illustrate why SciFiction was so important. So someone could find a story like this online. So that we don't have pull a Bob Seitz and write our own versions when we can't find a remembered work online or in print.

See, I'm not so sure we're ready for the Phil Kaldon version of a Time Enough For Love, which thankfully is still in print. But that's a different, later, longer Heinlein than this one and for another time and place.

Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

Link to story


Blogger Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

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9:03 AM  
Blogger Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

Footnote: I just figured out where I first read "And He Built A Crooked House". It was reprinted in one of my all-time favorite SF anthologies, Where Do We Go From Here? edited by Isaac Asimov (Doubleday, 1971), which was intended as a Science Fiction reader for high school and college science students -- there are study questions after each story.

For this story, Asimov included three figures of a tesseract in pseudo four-dimensions and unfolded in three-dimensions. He also mentioned that Heinlein in 1941 lived on Lookout Mountain Avenue and was the Original Hermit of Hollywood he refers to in the beginning of the story.

I read this anthology in Mr. Moody's Physics class at Grimsley Senior High School, Greensboro NC, in my junior year -- 1974-75 -- and eleven years later in physics graduate school at Michigan Tech my office mate, Dave Woon, had a copy which he gave to me after I rhapsodized about how wonderful a collection it was, and so I am eternally grateful to him. (, BTW, lists 39 new & used hardcover copies for sale starting at $0.29!!)

Dr. Phil

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live on Lookout Mountain, in Los Angeles. Everything he says about the Hills is true, save that now we live cheek-by-unshaven-jowl with our neighbors.

5:22 PM  

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