Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




1.  Heinlein's First Period

    Several years ago, Lancer Books published an anthology entitled First Flight, which contained the first stories of a number of now prominent science fiction writers.  Damon Knight, the editor of the anthology and a critic whose opinions I respect and admire, wrote in introduction of Heinlein and "Life-Line," his first story: "few writers have made more brilliant debuts."  The story was published in the August 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, a magazine known today as Analog.  John Campbell, the editor who bought and published the story, has described it as a story of "real impact and value."
    Heinlein's second story, "Misfit," followed in Astounding in November.  In reviewing this story when it appeared in Heinlein's collection Revolt in 2100 in 1954, the editors of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction called it "quite unfortunate," and other commentators have found it seriously flawed or worse.
    My own opinion is that "Life-Line" isn't all that good -- Knight's comment is probably more a reflection on the quality of most first stories than anything else -- and that "Misfit" isn't all that bad.  The two stories have a great deal in common in the way they were constructed.  If they had been the only two stories Heinlein ever wrote, he wouldn't be worth discussing at all.  However, for all that they are flawed, in these first stories can be seen much of Heinlein's later style, attitude, approach and materials.
    "Life-Line" is still quite a readable story.  In essence, this is the plot:  Hugo Pinero has invented a machine that can predict the date of any man's death.  Examples are given within the story -- a reporter dies as predicted within minutes after being examined with the machine (a sign falls off a building and kills him as he is going to his office), and later a young couple are killed by a car, for all that Pinero attempts to prevent them from leaving to meet the death he has foreseen.  The examples demonstrate the inexorable rightness of the machine's predictions.  Pinero is rejected by a scientific academy which is unwilling to truly examine his claims.  The public, however, uses the machine to institute or cancel life insurance policies, depending on the length of life the machine sees ahead of them.  The insurance companies, suffering great losses, attempt to halt Pinero through the courts, and this failing, have him assassinated and his machine destroyed.  It is found at the end that Pinero knew of his own death and apparently was able to accept it quite calmly.
    There are many flaws in this story.  For one thing, it is not unified.  The viewpoint shifts so frequently that none of the characters, with the possible exception of Pinero himself, even begin to come close to being alive.  The story rambles along through a number of scenes and then is abruptly brought to an end.  A scene more or less would hardly have made any difference at all, and that is a sign of a story that is not strongly built.
    The interior logic of the story is shaky, too.  Why Pinero would build his machine in the first place is never explained, nor how it was built; and Pinero does not seem to realize that it is his own act of marketing his predictions that brings his death upon him.  We are given a fixed, immutable future in the story, yet the logic of the story says that Pinero forces his own death by his actions.  Would he still have died from some other cause at the same exact moment he predicted if he hadn't made his machine public?  Perhaps so, but there is no evidence in the story that he attempts to find out.  He states that his motivation in making the machine public is to make money -- yet the death he knows is coming is very close as the story opens and he hardly has any time to enjoy the money that he makes.  This is not explained.  The machine is apparently, in one sense, a time machine -- it can measure the future length of a life -- but nothing is said of the possibilities of a more complete time machine.
    This story, so Heinlein has said, was composed in four days.  I rather suspect that Heinlein sat down, wrote it scene by scene until an ending occurred to him, and then stopped.  This is not a good way of writing a story simply because unplanned stories are likely to ramble, are likely to fail to build smoothly to a climax, and are likely to have holes in them, all as "Life-Line" does.  The sort of questions that I've asked above are exactly the sort that the author should ask himself at some time before the story is finished and shipped off.
    On the other hand, this story is not a usual first effort.  Most first stories are so thoroughly bad that they are never published anywhere.  Most "first stories" are in fact the fifteenth or twentieth story the author has written -- it is in these unpublished stories that the author serves his apprenticeship and learns to avoid basic mistakes.
    Heinlein's story was bought, in spite of its flaws, because it is smoothly told in even competent prose, and rolls on without lag in such a convincing manner that the reader cannot bring himself to stop the onrush and protest, for example, about the over­convenience of that falling sign, or to make any other logical objections.  If there is such a thing, Heinlein is a born story-teller.
    The dialogue in "Life-Line" is competent and convincing, and it shows the beginnings of a Heinlein habit that usually has been very entertaining.  This is the use of the well-turned phrase -- folksy, pithy, and clever.  Pinero says, for instance, "Is it necessary to understand the complex miracle of biological reproduction in order to observe that a hen lays eggs?"  This is typical Heinlein phrasing for you.  Done with restraint, it can add a touch of vivid life.
    In "Life-Line," moreover, Heinlein shows a good grasp of sociological processes.  His stories, from first to last, have all been more concerned with process than with any other thing.  He has always been the man who likes to know how things work, and he shows it here, switching from scientific meeting to press conference, to courtroom, to consulting room, all with equal skill and believability.

    "Misfit," Heinlein's second story, is about a member of a future military CCC that is given the job of converting an asteroid into an emergency rescue station set between Mars and Earth.  The boy turns out to be a lightning calculator, and when a computer fails in the worst possible moment, the boy fills in.  As Sam Moskowitz has pointed out, this is the first of Heinlein's juveniles.  In subject matter and approach, it presages his whole series of juvenile science fiction novels.
    As with "Life-Line," the story is rambling, clumsily constructed, and rife with coincidence.  Its interior logic is stronger, however, and it is smoothly told and filled with convincing detail (using vacuum to dry-clean clothes; the details of a space suit, thoroughly thought out).  Heinlein's ability to integrate his exposition of strange and wonderful things, even to lecture about them without dropping his story, has been one of his most prominent characteristics, and this is apparent in both these first two stories, particularly "Misfit."  Heinlein's interest in the man of ability, the competent individual, is also apparent in these first two stories.  It is easy to see how closely the three Heinlein hallmarks I have just mentioned -- the story of a process, the tendency to lecture about details, and the choice of characters able to do -- are related.  I would call it an engineering outlook.

    Heinlein's first period begins with "Life-Line" in the August 1939 Astounding, and ends with the story "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag," published under the name John Riverside in the October 1942 issue of Unknown Worlds, the fantasy companion of Astounding that died in the World War II paper shortage.  In this time, he published twenty-eight science fiction and fantasy stories, about a quarter of which were novels.  The first of the stories were, like "Life-Line" and "Misfit," not well constructed.  The last were considerably better.
    There is a bit of information that I have heard enough times in enough different places that I begin to suspect that there is some truth to it.  It is that newspapers prefer to hire reporters who haven't been turned out by journalism schools.  The reason given is that while journalism schools do a perfectly competent job of teaching what newspapers look like and how news stories are put together, that is all they teach, and these mechanical things are the least important part of being a reporter.  Newspapers, so the story goes, prefer to take people who already know something and teach them how to report.
    Similarly, Robert Heinlein's stories had content from the beginning.  What he lacked was the formal knowhow to tell them most effectively.  A look at "Life-Line" or "If This Goes On--," Heinlein's first novel, shows them to be thrown together any which way.  They are consistently interesting, but in themselves they are poorly told stories, no more interesting today than, say, "Bombardment in Reverse" by Norman L. Knight or "The Dwindling Sphere" by Willard E. Hawkins, or any other pulp story of the period.  It is Heinlein's later work, particularly from his second period, that gives them interest.
    The stories that Robert Heinlein was writing two and three years later -- Beyond This Horizon, -- " '--We Also Walk Dogs,' " and "Waldo" -- all show his gaining ability to use his materials effectively.  Heinlein1939 could not have written them.  That, in simple, is half the story of Heinlein's first period.

    The other, and more important half, I think, is Heinlein's influence.  It is regularly taken as a given these days that Robert Heinlein has been a major influence on the science fiction field.  Jack Williamson, for instance, says "the first name in contemporary science fiction"; Willy Ley says "the standard"; Judith Merril says "there are few of us writing today who do not owe much early stimulus to him."
    The point I'm discussing is not popularity.  Popularity has nothing to do with the influence of a writer, though it may reflect it.  Influence is impact on other writers.  Heinlein's impact has come directly from the work that he was doing between 1939 and 1942.  Since then, Heinlein has refined his techniques, and so, in their own ways, have those touched by him, but I believe that the influence would not have been greatly different if Heinlein had not written another word from 1942 to the present.

    I think I can stand as a fairly typical example of a writer influenced by Heinlein.  I have consciously tried to copy his narrative pace, wide range of materials, and thoroughly worked-out backgrounds, and most particularly his ability to inject detail into his stories without making them tedious.  This one thing is above all necessary in science fiction -- where everything is strange and new, readers have to be given their bearings -- and at the same time very difficult.
    These things in which I have been influenced by Heinlein are the same ones in which most present writers have been influenced.  It is a tribute to Heinlein's ability that there is no obvious person who has gone beyond him in his own line.
    The influence and copying I am talking about are not an attempt to duplicate Heinlein's tone, his phrasing, his situations, his plots or his attitude.  They are not an attempt to sound like Heinlein (which could be most easily done, I think, by copying his folksy, metaphorical dialogue).  They are, actually, the adoption of a superior technique for writing readable and solidly-constructed science fiction in the same manner that newly invented techniques have been adopted in recent years in swimming, shell racing and shot putting.  If a better way is found, it is naturally seized upon.  Heinlein has introduced a number of ideas into science fiction, but the importance of this is comparatively minor since only so many changes can be rung on any one idea, while the range of use of a narrative technique is a good deal greater.
    Heinlein's imitable qualities were evident, I would guess, by the time he had published half a dozen stories, and certainly by the time he stopped writing to work during the war.  Alva Rogers has a tendency to overstate in A Requiem for Astounding, but I can't argue with him when he says that Heinlein in his first two years changed the face of science fiction.  His narrative technique eliminated a lot of stodgy writing, and this faster, smoother writing coupled with Heinlein's wide range of interests meant a new sophistication that spread quickly through science fiction writing.
    For an analogy, you might imagine a rookie pitcher who has invented the curve ball.  He can't throw anything else at first, but he does have that curve.  Other pitchers learn it from him, but none of them can throw it quite as well as he can.  After a few years, the rookie picks up all the conventional pitches and from then on dominates the league.  That was the situation at the end of Heinlein's first period.

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