Short Story #44: Ordeal in Space by Robert A. Heinlein

Title:  Ordeal in Space

Author:  Robert A. Heinlein

Short Story #44 out of 365

Rating:  (out of 5 stars)

Book cover:  Bill Fawcett - Cats in Space (1992)
Date Read:  2/9/2014
Source:  Cats in Space and Other Spaces, edited by Bill Fawcett, Baen Books, 1992.  You can find the full text on this site.  You can also find a half-hour BBC radio production on this site.


"William Saunders" (a psuedonym the narrator uses) is done with open space.  Back on Earth and cleared by the psychiatrists, he is seeking employment that has nothing to do with any open spaces.  It's just too much for him to the point where he hides who he was and takes a low-ranking job.  At his new job, he eventually makes friends with a coworker named Tully who invites him over.  Dinner also includes Tully's brother-in-law who is an obnoxious person trying to berate his opinion into everyone.  The conversation comes to Mars and what to do with the Martians.  The brother-in-law prefers a more aggressive route, but William speaks up unexpectedly in their defense and we flashback to the Martian that he had met and respected.  Later on, when he is in bed, he hears crying from outside his window.  Slowly and with much trepidation, he eventually peers out the window to find a kitten stuck on a small landing outside his room.  It becomes clear that he will not be able to save the kitty unless he gets out on the ledge but his fear of open space makes it almost impossible.  It's at this point he flashes back to his experience in space where in order to save everyone on the spaceship.  He climbed about the ship to replace an essential antennae but in doing so, found his ability to get back into the ship impossible.  He clung to ship for as long as he could before losing his grip.  When he awakes, he is on a different ship that happened to be near by and could pick him up.  After reliving this flashback, William finds the courage to go outside and get the kitty and bring it in.  Upon coming back in, he begins to reconsider his choices and wonders if going outside is all that bad after all. 


The story's execution was good in that reader is kept guessing as to why William is so fretful of the outdoors.  We know it has something to do with space, but we're not clear until the end.  There' also the good contrast of knowing this man was an astronaut but somehow has faced something so overwhelming that he lives in fear of it.  Heinlein also captures what it must feel like to be detached in space and how that can impact someone without ever having to spend much time on that part of the story.  That is, we get a clear sense of the after-effects without having to spend much time with William while he is floating in space.

For a full listing of all the short stories in this series, check out the category 365 Short Stories a year.

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