Crooked House

The first great science fiction story I read was “…And He Built a Crooked House”, by Robert A. Heinlein. I read it in a collection called “Space Odyssey”, which also had a number of other first-class stories (such as the hilariously named “Coffin Cure” about a man who finds a cure for the common cold).

“…Crooked House” reels you in right on the first page; in fact, it hooks you right at the first sentence:

Americans are considered crazy anywhere in the world.

The rest of the first page goes:

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!

High up on Lookout Mountain at number 8775, across the street from the Hermit—the original Hermit of Hollywood—lived Quintus Teal, graduate architect.

And Quintus Teal is the man whom the story is about. He’s a crazy, enthusiastic, excited architect, a lovely counterpoint to the insufferable Howard Roark.

The story begins with Quintus Teal talking his friend, Homer Bailey, into building a 4-dimensional house. It takes some persuasion, but Homer Bailey finally agrees to commission Teal to build an opened-out tesseract — a 4-dimensional cube — as a surprise gift for his wife. The wife, predictably, takes a very dim view of the house once she sees it; particularly when an earthquake ‘folds’ the house in the 4th dimension into a real tesseract.

I found “…Crooked House” very funny, and I still do. Quintus’s character is infinitely endearing – the architect with a crazy idea and a friend to bankroll it, who makes the most of the artistic license he’s given.It’s hard not to love his enthusiasm — such as when he shows off an automatic staircase inside the house: “Teal wriggled like a boy who has successfully performed a card trick”.

As a general rule, my preference in science fiction is for stories set in the present, or in the recent past, or perhaps in the very recent future. Not for me the era of galactic explorations or disembodied intelligences; I prefer stories that are about the world we live in today, but with one or two minor modifications. Minor from a science perspective, that is; but which make a world of difference in science fiction.

At MIT for the TR35, I met Noah Snavely, that very personable image processing genius who invented Microsoft Photosynth. We spent a delightful half hour together at coffee, discussing our favorite science fiction. My ‘favorite’ list had only three names on it, all short stories. For the record, here they are. Each was read approximately 5 years after the previous one.

1.  …And he built a crooked house, by Robert Heinlein
2.  Dust, by Greg Egan
3.  Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang.

I think my favorite science fiction novel would probably be Contact (by Carl Sagan) though I like a lot of Clarke too. I’m not that much into science fiction novels, though.

For what it’s worth, Noah’s list had only two items on it, and they weren’t exactly science fiction. They were both by Borges:

1. “Funes the Memorious”
2. “Pierre Merard, Author of the Quixote”

Sad to say, I haven’t read either of them yet — not even after such a high recommendation by Noah.



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