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Worlds Without End Blog

Expanded Universe by Robert A. Heinlein Narrated Bronson Pinchot Posted at 8:27 AM by James Wallace Harris

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Bronson Pinchot does such a fantastic job narrating Heinlein’s old book Expanded Universe (now reprinted in two volumes) that I picture Heinlein sounding like Pinchot. On one hand, I recommend Heinlein fans buying these audiobooks because the narrator brings these old stories into a fresh light, but on the other hand, I also recommend everyone NOT buy these books as a protest against how they are being sold. Encouraging publishers to reprint single-volume books as two volumes makes a terrible precedent!

I hate that the Blackstone Audio has followed Phoenix Pick, the current publishers of the ebook/paperback editions of Expanded Universe, by selling Expanded Universe as two audiobooks. This is an absolute rip-off! I didn’t buy it on Audible because I didn’t want to waste two credits on one book. It is worth one credit to fans who want to complete their Heinlein on audio, but not two.

I refused to buy these two-volumes until I saw them on sale at Downpour for $4.95 each. In a weak moment, I crossed my own picket line. So I guess I recommend buying the two-volume audiobook edition if you can get them in a 2-for-1 deal. Even then that galled me! It’s annoying to have one book broken into two parts in my library.

If you just want to read Expanded Universe, I recommend getting the original single volume used at ABEbooks. There are many copies available for less than $4 including shipping.

Can you imagine if it became standard to sell old books in two parts so the publisher can charge twice as much? Expanded Universe isn’t even a large book. On audio, the two volumes run just over 18 hours. Many new science fiction novels run longer. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson is 22 hours and 34 minutes long. Hell, one credit at Audible can get me The Complete Sherlock Holmes (58 hours) or The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard (65 hours). To expect fans to use two audiobook credits for a medium size audiobook that’s essentially the dregs of Heinlein’s trunk stories is not fair at all.

Expanded Universe has always been a kind of publishing rip-off. Expanded Universe reprints a small Ace Book from 1966 called The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein which I already owned. The first book contained four of Heinlein’s older stories along with one new story, “Free Men” that had been written in 1947 but never published. Sort of like buying an album of older so-so songs with one unpublished out-take as a sales come-on.

In 1980 Ace expanded this little book as The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein Expanded Universe. That was an honest enough title, expanding those original five stories to twenty-seven, with introductions. It’s a nice collection of Heinlein’s rejects, forgotten works, and a few famous early stories that would appeal to his hardcore fans. Still, it’s yet another repackaging of Heinlein for his ardent fans. The best of these stories were already in the classic Past Through Tomorrow collection.

Before now, I never really like Expanded Universe or The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein though. The less famous stories always seemed dated and slight, and few famous stories were in multiple other collections. That is until I heard Bronson Pinchot read them. Most of the stories are from the 1940s and feel moldy. But when listening to Pinchot read them I realized what Heinlein had been trying to do back then, and it’s far more impressive than I ever gave him credit. For example, some of the stories were written before we dropped the A-bomb on Japan, or just after, and they are now eerily relevant again because of Kim Jong-un.

Many of these forgotten stories reveal better characterization and writing than Heinlein gave his readers after 1965. But they also reveal the seeds of his later obsessions. Expanded Universe is a must for people studying Robert A. Heinlein.

Other stories are minor delights for Heinlein fans who enjoy observing how Heinlein progressed as a writer. For example, “They Do It With Mirrors” is Heinlein’s attempt at writing a mystery story, even including his pet fetish for nudism. Because many of the stories have introductions you get a bit of biography with this book too.

I divide Heinlein’s writing into four periods – the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, and everything after 1970. Heinlein thought his best work was Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1965) and wanted to be remembered for those three books. I thought he peaked with Have Space Suit-Will Travel in 1958, feeling his best books were those published in the 1950s. In my opinion, Heinlein’s storytelling abilities began to decline in the 1960s. Stranger and Mistress still revealed decent storytelling chops, but those skills beginning to be overrun by soap-boxing philosophy, and his books after Mistress are painful for me to read now. I thought his work from the 1940s was good, but not up to his 1950s standards. In the 1960s Heinlein started emulating Ayn Rand, and I think that totally ruined him as science fiction writer.

Hearing these 1940s short stories and essays showcased them in the best possible light, and have changed my mind about Heinlein’s 1940s work. Pinchot dramatizes the stories very effectively, bringing out everything I believe Heinlein intended. Because these stories were never my favorites I never put much effort into reading them properly. Pinchot has done that for me now, and I’m seeing Heinlein with new eyes, (or ears).

Listening to these stories allowed me to grok Heinlein’s writing goals and ambitions in a way I hadn’t before. For example, I’ve always thought “Life-Line” a stupid story for its main idea of scientifically predicting when people will die. This time around I realized that Heinlein was writing a story that attacked how people accept or reject new ideas. Pinchot made its characterization come alive, and I felt like I was watching a 1940s black and white movie full of colorful little character actors like an old Frank Capra flick.

If you want to hear what Pinchot sound like listen to samples at YouTube. Here’s about four minutes of the introduction for the voice of Heinlein, and about five minutes from “Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon” for how Pinchot does character voices.

Normally, I’d hate taking the time to listen to a writer’s lesser works, but Expanded Universe became something I looked forward to listening to every morning during breakfast. If you only have one credit at Audible to invest in hearing Heinlein’s short stories, I’d recommend one of these collections: The Menace From Earth, The Green Hills of Earth, The Man Who Sold the Moon, or Assignment in Eternity. It would be wonderful if someone would hire Bronson Pinchot to read The Past Through Tomorrow which collects many of the stories from these four collections along with the novel Methuselah’s Children.

If you want everything by Heinlein you have to get Expanded Universe. How you rationalize paying double is up to you.

 

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