Monday, August 6, 2007

Robert Heinlein's "Life-Line" (short story, free): Soothsaying can be dangerous business!

This is Heinlein's first published story. Rather thin on science, but very well told & engaging.

Story summary.
Dr Hugo Pinero invents a machine that can determine your date of birth or death by taking measurements of your current body, & by knowing certain details of your physical size (height, weight, thickness) at various times past in your life.

The device considers your physical existence in universe as a geometric sweep through the 4-dimensional space-time, & finds the endpoints of this swept geometry by sending some kind a field through the swept volume in either the direction of past or future, & measuring some parameter of the echo off the other end.

He founds a business, "Sands of Time, Inc", doing death predictions. Insurance industry doesn't like it one bit. Like someone buys a big life policy a week before known death!

Main protagonist on the insurance industry side is one Mr Bidwell, Chairman of the Amalgamated Life Insurance.

Story is of the fight of Pinero to get social recognition as a serious inventor rather than a charlatan; of the Academy of Science acting on behalf of Bidwell to discredit him; a court case brought & lost by Bidwell against Pinero when the later begins being treated as a prophet by society; & ultimately of the murder of Pinero by killers hired by Bidwell.


  1. "Richter 10" (1996) by Arthur C Clarke & (Late) Mike McQuay. Pinero uses a stunt here to get social recognition - by depositing a good amount of money in a escrow account to be paid to first client for whom the prediction is false. A very similar stunt is used by Lewis Crane in "Richter 10" to gain back the recognition during second Mississippi quake prediction after the first was ruined by enemies who tinkered his field data. In fact, the entire story has a level of similarity - both are essentially about predicting what is currently pretty much unpredictable. Both see the death of the main protagonist in the end.
  2. "Atlas Shrugged" (1957) by Ayn Rand. Using influence in an established scientific body by a currently established business to challenge a new player - via a FUD game - is very similar.
Fact sheet.
First published: Astounding Science Fiction, August 1939.
Rating: A
Download full text.
Related: All stories of Robert Heinlein.

Note: Moved here from original location on Aug 6, 2007. Reason.