II. THE PERIOD OF INFLUENCE
1. Heinlein's First Period
years ago, Lancer Books published an anthology entitled
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
John Campbell, the editor
who bought and published the story, has described it as a story of "real
impact and value."
second story, "Misfit," followed in
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
first period begins with "Life-Line" in the August 1939
with the story "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag," published
under the name John Riverside in the October 1942 issue of
the fantasy companion of
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Border courtesy of
The Humble Bee