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Literature / —And He Built a Crooked House—

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There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.
There Was A Crooked Man

"—And He Built a Crooked House—" is a short story by Robert A. Heinlein, first published in 1941.

Quintus Teal is an architect always looking for the next big thing in design. While having a friendly conversation with his friend, Homer Bailey, Teal dreams about building a house that utilizes a fourth dimension. When he admits that this is currently impossible, he still thinks that the preliminary steps toward it could be a great new design type and he persuades Bailey to let him build a new house for him as an unfolded tesseract. When it is completed, he proudly takes Bailey and his wife to view the innovative new home. However, a small earthquake during the night has made the impossible a reality, and unfortunately, Teal and the Baileys become trapped in the middle of his architectural masterpiece.

This short story provides examples of:

  • Actually a Good Idea: Despite her determination to hate anything that Teal has to show them, when Mrs. Bailey sees the gorgeous descending staircase she begins to like the house. By the time they enter the second floor she is describing things as "quaint" and suggesting how she would decorate the house.
  • Alien Geometries: Teal's visionary architectural idea is to make a four-dimensional house. He can't actually do that, so instead he creates a house shaped like an unfolded tesseract — the four-dimensional equivalent of a 3D cube or 2D square — in the form of four stacked cubical rooms with the middle one surrounded by an additional cube on each side. In the middle of the night, however, a quake cause the house to collapse on itself and become an actual tesseract. Its insides become a complex closed loop — the top floor's stairs lead back to the bottom floor and the outside door leads to one of internal rooms — one section allows the characters to see their own backs at the far end, and its top floor windows look out on random parts of the world.
  • Alien Landmass: One of the top floor windows looks out on a strange desert landscape with bizarre tree-like vegetation with twisted branches and clumps of spiky leaves. Turns out it's Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Author Avatar: Heinlein makes a brief allusion to himself as the "Hermit of Hollywood" who lives across the street from Teal.
  • Bigger on the Inside: After it folds into a tesseract, the house appears from the outside to be a single cubical room but contains a full eight rooms within itself.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The tesseract house is created to resemble a 3D map for a 4D shape, resulting in four stacked cubical rooms with the middle one surrounded by an additional cube on each side. After it folds in on itself, it crosses into full Alien Geometries as its insides become a confusing, looping and almost inescapable maze with weird relationships to the 3D space "around" it.
  • Faint in Shock: Mrs. Bailey repeatedly faints throughout the adventure in the tesseract house.
  • Going in Circles: Teal winds up chasing himself around the entire tesseract several times before retrieving his own dropped hat and realizing what's happened.
  • Henpecked Husband: Bailey shows signs of this as his wife can be quite shrewish. However, given the events of the story, her dislike of Teal may be well placed.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: The characters become trapped in the fourth dimension while being three dimensional themselves. It makes for difficulty moving through and escaping the house, including life-threatening peril like a window that faces down from several thousand feet up.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: When Teal hands Bailey a shot of liquor to help revive his wife, he downs it himself.
  • Impossibly-Compact Folding: In the wake of a small earthquake, the tesseract house folds itself into the space of a single cubical room. In practice, it's not actually compacting into itself as such — rather, it's folding into a stabler four-dimensional form, and the cube's the only part that still projects into 3D space.
  • Literary Allusion Title: To the nursery rhyme There Was a Crooked Man.
  • More than Three Dimensions: Teal builds a house that is a series of connected cubes, designed to mimic the shape of an "unfolded" tesseract (a four-dimensional cube). The night before the architect and his friends are to visit the house, an earthquake hits. They arrive and enter, only to find that the house has collapsed back into a four-dimensional shape. They have a lot of difficulties trying to get around the unpredictable geometry of the house.
  • Motor Mouth: As Teal becomes more excited about a topic, especially architecture and theoretical geometry, he excitedly babbles on at length, whether anyone can follow him or not.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: One window on the top floor looks out at nothing — not at an empty void, not into darkness, just... nothing. Teal speculates that it looks at somewhere where space... isn't, and the characters find this experience deeply unsettling.
    "Teal lifted the blind a few inches. He saw nothing, and raised it a little more — still nothing. Slowly he raised it until the window was fully exposed. They gazed out at — nothing. Nothing, nothing at all. What color is nothing? Don't be silly! What shape is it? Shape is an attribute of something. It had neither depth nor form. It had not even blackness. It was nothing."
  • Only in America: The introduction to the story is the perfect explanation of this trope.
    "Americans are considered crazy anywhere in the world. 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."
  • We Are Not Going Through That Again: At the end, when Teal announces that he has another idea for a house, Bailey decks him.