Heinlein is one of the leading authors of early science fiction, expertly blending the future with human nature. In this case, the future he imagined in the 1950s is already part of our past – the year 2000.
Dan Davis is a thirty-year-old, talented engineer in 1970, who designs robots that make housekeeping easier. With his friend and business partner, Miles Gentry, and a very efficient office manager, Belle Darkin (whom Dan expects to marry), he is already marketing Hired Girl, that cleans floors, and Window Willie that cleans glass and ceramic surfaces – sinks, bathtubs, etc. Both robots prove immensely popular, and their small manufacturing company is soon ready to expand.
In the story’s opening scene, Dan is in a Los Angeles bar, depressed after a company board meeting in which the other two shareholders, his friend Miles and his fiancée Belle, have pooled their stock holdings to vote Dan out of the company. They have changed the locks and posted armed guards to prevent Dan from “stealing” his latest invention, “Flexible Frank” a multi-tasking robot servant programmed to perform a great number of tasks. Belle has broken their engagement “because Dan yelled at her during the meeting.” He is left with his minority stock shares and a furious anger at Belle’s treachery. He notices a neon sign across the street from the bar – an insurance company’s ad – “Earn while you sleep!” promoting suspended animation – cold sleep for years, in hopes of a better cure for cancer, or for an improved stock market when you are awakened.
Or for Dan, hopes of a world where Belle no longer exists. Or better yet, where she is an old woman and he is still thirty. He is left with only two allies, his tomcat Pete, a feisty feline warrior; and Miles’s 11-year-old stepdaughter Ricky, who can’t stand Belle, but looks on Dan as her honorary uncle and Pete as her favorite animal.
Dan’s lawyer advises him that going to court would be only his word against theirs, therefore be satisfied with his own share of the stock. Dan signs a large portion of his shares over to Ricky, to be kept in his own Bank of America account and released to her, and only her, on her 21st birthday, ten years hence.
Dan then signs up for a thirty year sleep for himself and Pete (the original research on suspended animation was done with cats) and he and Pete drive out to Miles’s house to confront Miles and Belle that evening. The conversation soon turns violent, and when Dan speculates on what Belle’s fingerprints would reveal about her past life, she produces a syringe from her purse and jabs Dan. The hypnotic drug soon renders Dan passive and unable to move; he is still conscious but totally controlled by others’ commands. That’s when Pete takes over, fiercely attacking both Miles and Belle with his claws. After locking Pete out of the house Belle searches Dan’s pockets and finds his signed papers for the long sleep. Better than shooting him; the police won’t be involved. Next morning, Dan has recovered from the hypnotic shot but still obedient when Belle drives him to the sleep sanctuary, and signs him in. His last memory is of feeling very cold . . .
The story picks up again with his being awakened thirty years later. “Greater Los Angeles” has changed a great deal in speech, clothing, and economics. “Sleepers” like Dan are not rare in the year 2001, but his engineering skill is thirty years behind the times and he must take a menial job to survive. But he studies at the library every night, and within six months is conversant enough to talk professionally with contemporary engineers. Reminiscing with one of them over a couple of beers one evening, Dan wishes there were some way to go back in time as well.
“There is, you know,” says his friend. “We worked with it in the military some years ago. There’s a retired professor in Denver . . . something about turning time around a different axis. Only trouble is, he found no way to predict whether an object would turn up in the past, or an equal number of years further into the future . . .”
In the complicated but pleasing ending to the story, Heinlein dismisses criticism of sci-fi and time travel with a bit of philosophy: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will. Free will and predestination in one sentence and both true . . . If so, it will be because the Builder designed the universe that way.”