Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

 
 
 
 
 


 
 
 

III. THE PERIOD OF SUCCESS 
 

1. Heinlein's Second Period 

    It isn't at all difficult to justify calling Heinlein's second period his Period of Success.  The period begins with his return to writing after the war and ends, as did his first period, with one of his better stories, in this case the juvenile novel Have Space Suit--Will Travel, published in 1958.  These years were both economically and artistically successful for Heinlein.  Of Heinlein's best stories, two, "Waldo" and Beyond This Horizon, belong to his first period, and five, Red Planet, Starman Jones, The Star Beast, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Have Space Suit--Will Travel, belong to his second.  Moreover, during this second period, Heinlein was in solid control of his writing tools and nearly everything he did was first rate.  It is only in his third period that his writing mannerisms have gotten out of control and some of his ideas have begun to seem compulsive:  the equivalent perhaps of stiffening joints. 
    All five of the novels that I have named as being the best of Heinlein's second period are juveniles, or at least were published in book form as juveniles.  Three of the five were published in adult magazines as adult novels prior to their book appearances.  This leads to a very interesting question:  is Heinlein's second period his strongest because the juveniles that he was doing then allowed him the opportunity to show off all that was best in his writing, or are these novels so uniformly good because they happened to be written at the time that Heinlein was at the height of his writing powers?  I have no firm answer for this.  It may not be answerable at all, any more than any other chicken-and-egg question.  Nonetheless, I can't help but find it intriguing.  It is possible, of course, that my estimate of these novels is completely mistaken, but we shall see about this when we come to examine the individual stories.  In any case, since the period is bounded on one end by Heinlein's first juvenile for Scribner's and on the other by his last, you may, if you wish, call it his Scribner's Period. 
    During this middle period, Heinlein switched from an emphasis on short stories to an emphasis on novels.  Until 1947, he had had no books published.  He had sold twenty-eight science fiction and fantasy stories, one quarter of which might be called novels.  The emphasis was clearly on short fiction.  In his second period, Heinlein published twenty-two short stories and fifteen new novels, but sixteen of the short stories were published by 1950 and eleven of the novels were published after 1950, a distinct change in emphasis.  The change has been even more marked in his third period which, through 1967, has seen six novels and only three short stories. 

    Of all the science fiction magazines, Analog averages the best payment, between three and four cents a word.  If you consider $10,000 a year a good living, you can set up a neat little equation:

$0.035X = $10,000

    That is to say, X number of words at 3 cents per word equals 10,000 dollars.  X turns out to be 285,714 words.  This is the equivalent of four novels, or of one novel, ten novelettes, and sixteen short stories per year.  Analog, of course, wouldn't buy that much material from any one man, and the other magazines don't pay as well, which means writing even more to make up the difference.  Making a living selling science fiction to magazines is not easy.  That is why so many science fiction writers turn to historical novels or pornography, or remain amateurs. 
    Robert Heinlein had twenty of his twenty-eight pre-war stories published in Astounding.  After the war he must have decided that if he was going to make a living at writing and was going to write science fiction, he would have to find more profitable outlets for the work he did.  That is why since 1942 Heinlein has had only three stories published in Astounding.  One was a short novel written as a favor, and the other two were novels that were published as books as soon as their serial appearances were over. 
    Instead, Heinlein did find five new markets. The movies and television were two. Another was book publication for his pre-war stories.  Fourth, and very important, was the juvenile book market. It is almost impossible to find five- or ten-year-old adult novels that are still in print, outside of immensely popular titles, but good juvenile novels continue to stay in print and to sell year after year.  Scribner's have said that they expect the Heinlein novels they have published to stay in print for a long, long time.  Heinlein's fifth new market was the slick magazines. 
 

2. 1947 

     Heinlein's first post-war story was "The Green Hills of Earth" in the February 8, 1947 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.  It is a very pretty, sentimental narrative.  Rhysling, an atomic power plant "jetman" on the early spaceships, has been blinded by a defective jet.  He then spends twenty years bumming around the Solar System making up songs.  Finally, on a trip to Earth another jet goes haywire, the regular jetman is killed and Rhysling takes over, mends the trouble, records one last version of his most famous song, and dies from exposure to radiation. 
    The story begins, "This is the story of Rhysling, the Blind Singer of the Spaceways -- but not the official version."  I don't know why it couldn't be the official version.  There are admissions that Rhysling drank, wore a dirty eyepatch, and made up filthy songs from time to time, but these strike me as the sort of failings that are made to order for the official version of a life.  Very romantic. 
    "Space Jockey" was in the April 26 Post.  This one is about a pilot who is having troubles with his wife because his job, piloting between the Earth satellite, Supra-New York, and a Lunar satellite, takes him away from home too much.  At the end he has a new job piloting between the Lunar satellite and the Moon, and his wife will be seeing much more of him. 
    This is much more detailed than "The Green Hills of Earth" and much more prosaic.  Both these stories are typical of the new approach Heinlein adopted for his slick stories.  He invented simple problems and handled them very straightforwardly, perhaps the only approach that would have been effective for the slick magazines.  Both these stories are primarily human stories rather than stories of process, and that too was something new for Heinlein, and again probably necessary for his new market. 
    "Columbus Was a Dope" may have been intended for the Post, too -- it does have a very simple story line.  Or it may have been an older Heinlein story left over from before the war.  In any case, it was published in Startling Stories in May, the last story to appear under the name of Lyle Monroe, and the only Heinlein science fiction story to appear under a pseudonym after 1942.  It is not a people story -- it is a short, simple, beautiful gimmick.  A good gimmick story is probably the easiest kind of story to sell and the kind most likely to be reprinted.  It is also the shallowest and most easily forgotten. 
    The story itself is a bar conversation among two salesmen, the bartender, and the chief engineer of the first starship, now under construction.  One of the salesmen doesn't see any point in sixty-year trips, particularly ones that are unlikely to succeed.  They are unnatural.  At the end, the conversation turns out to be taking place in a bar on the Moon.  Simple, short, and effective. 
    "It's Great to Be Back" was in the Post in the July 26 issue, and is another people story.  When their contracts are up, a young man and his wife quit their highly paid jobs on the Moon and with a sigh of relief head back to Earth again.  They find, however, that Earth isn't quite the paradise they remember -- they have changed, they no longer fit.  At the end they are headed back to the Moon where they really do belong. 
    While it is true that much of what we think of as "human nature" is really a result of our own culture, I do believe that in some regards people are much the same everywhere.  A story like this that asks the question, "Where is home?" is going to be intelligible to almost every man. This is a good and valid story. 

    I know of four good stories that ask the question, "What is a man?"  One is "Conditionally Human" by Walter M. Miller, Jr.*   One is H. Beam Piper's set of two novels, Little Fuzzy and The Other Human Race, really forming one long story and probably Piper's best work.  A third is Vercors' You Shall Know Them.  Heinlein is the author of the earliest of the four, a story called "Jerry Is a Man" that appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories in October 1947. 
    In a future in which genetic manipulation of animals is a commonplace, a woman with a soft heart and an extremely large bank account gets an affection for a "neo-chimpanzee" worker named Jerry who has cataracts and consequently is scheduled to be turned into dog food.  Jerry can't think very deeply, but he can talk, shoot craps, enjoy television, and sing off-key.  The question of whether he is a man or not is finally tested in the courts, and to help us decide the question we are presented for contrast with a very intelligent and unpleasant Martian geneticist who has been acknowledged by treaty to be a "man."  The answer is given clearly that Jerry is a man, indefinable as the thing may be. 
    It is interesting, by the way, that of the four stories on the question of humanity, three find their resolution in the courts.  If such a court test is ever made, I suspect that the answer will be the same positive one that Heinlein, Piper, and Vercors arrived at, simply because to include us all, any definition of humanity has to be a broad one. 
    "Jerry Is a Man" is hardly long enough or deep enough to allow us to extract any final answers from it.  For instance, if Jerry is a man, why isn't Nappy, the miniature elephant in the story who can read and write, who enjoys music and even beats time to it with his trunk?  The story is, however, an entertaining, honest and serious treatment of a serious subject. 
    By this point, Heinlein was fully in control of the human problem story, starting from the comparative low point of "The Green Hills of Earth."  Look again at "Jerry Is a Man."  That is a process story. The author's original question is "What is a man?"  The story concerns the settling of this question.  The people in the story are interesting to look at, but they aren't what the story is about.  Human problem stories are attacked from another angle.  They consist of taking a person who has certain characteristics and putting him into a situation at odds with his nature, then observing what happens. 
    "Water Is For Washing" (Argosy, November 1947) is an apt example of a people story.  It takes a man who doesn't like water, puts him in the Imperial Valley in California, and then throws an earthquake and the whole Pacific Ocean at him.  This is science fiction only by courtesy, but it does add up to a readable story. 

    Rocket Ship Galileo is the first and least of Heinlein's juveniles for Scribner's.  Either Heinlein underestimated his audience or was misled by someone who thought he knew what juvenile books should be like.  The result is a book that I would unhesitatingly give to an eleven-year-old but to no one older. 
    Its greatest weakness is its stock parts.  There is a scientist who has invented a superior rocket drive -- but nobody will listen to him.  There are the three young boys who serve as his crew on the first trip to the Moon.  There are mysterious prowlers, blackjackers, and saboteurs who lurk in the nighttime.  There are the left-over Nazis Behind It All and the Nazi base on the Moon.  (Luckily, of course, the scientist just happens to have a rifle on board his spaceship . . .) 
    You could call 1947 a year of marking time and preparing for new markets.
 

3. 1948 

    In 1948, Heinlein published just three short stories and one novel.  The three short stories are closely related psychologically.  All three use a science fictional context to put extreme stress on a main character.  The stories differ in what the stress causes the characters to learn about themselves.  A very influential historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, has argued that America's strength has lain primarily in the fact that it has had a constant frontier to serve as both a psychological goal and as a test.  In these stories, Heinlein uses a space frontier in much the same way as a testing ground of character. 
    "The Black Pits of Luna" (January 10, 1948) was the last and probably the most effective of Heinlein's Saturday Evening Post stories.  It is quite a simple story:  the spoiled younger son of a family on the Moon for a business trip wanders off, and his teen-age older brother, the narrator, eventually finds him in a hole on the Lunar surface when no one else can.  The reaction of the boy's family is to head back where they belong.  The reaction of the narrator is to plan to come back again. 
    "Gentlemen Be Seated!" (Argosy, May) is based on an incident from the end of "Space Jockey," the story about the pilot with wife trouble.  In that story, the seal on a Lunar tunnel is mentioned as having blown.  "Gentlemen, Be Seated!" takes up the plight of some men caught in the leaking tunnel.  Their problem is to put a temporary seal on the leak until help reaches them, and they solve the problem by taking turns sitting on the hole.  The narrator of this story reacts like the parents in "The Black Pits of Luna" -- his first impulse when rescued is to head back to Des Moines. 
    "Ordeal in Space" (Town and Country, May) is a quiet story about a man who has lost his nerve in space and come back to Earth -- in effect, it takes up the dropouts from the first two stories.  The man regains his nerve in the process of rescuing a kitten from a thirty-fifth floor ledge, and at the end is prepared to give space another try. 

    Heinlein's second juvenile, Space Cadet, is markedly better than his first, mainly because its plot is not nearly so over-simplified.  Rocket Ship Galileo had some nice details, but these were largely obscured by its goshwow plot.  Space Cadet, on the other hand, is far less melodramatic and much more relaxed, and consequently is far more successful. 
    The story is about the training of a cadet in the "Interplanetary Patrol."  (As Rocket Ship Galileo, in radically different form, was the basis of the movie Destination Moon, so the seeds of Tom Corbett can be seen in Space Cadet.)   In this case, Heinlein knows his material particularly well -- the training he writes about is quite clearly an analogue of the training he himself received at Annapolis.  There are a number of novels about the U.S. Naval Academy, and any comparison will show the basic similarity.  If this transference were all that Heinlein was doing, he might as well not have bothered.  James Blish has labeled stories of this sort "call a rabbit a smeerp" and describes the justification as, "They look like rabbits, but if you call them smeerps, that makes it science fiction."**    However, Heinlein is doing a job of extrapolation, not merely a simple job of reporting.  In other words, there is much more than a mere one-to-one correspondence. 
    The course of the story takes the hero, Matt Dodson, through qualification to be a cadet, training, personal doubts, and eventual self-realization, the standard pattern for a story of this sort.  What is good about the book are some of the moments along the way. 
    One, very nicely underplayed, has Matt as an advanced cadet doing a minor detail, guiding a bunch of newly-arrived cadets, a scene we saw once before from an opposite point of view when Matt himself was newly-arrived.  The difference in perspective is startling, and it is a measure of the distance he has traveled.  The problems that bothered his earlier self are simply not the problems he has now.  It is a compelling little scene and is a good illustration of the central point of the book -- the growing of a boy into a man. 
    Another, near the end of the book, finds Matt and several fellow cadets having to straighten out a touchy situation on Venus and get off the planet again with a sick man and a prisoner.  Their success is important for the way it is received, that is, as being no more than was expected of them. Nicely done. 

    I would like to digress here for a moment and mention Clifford Geary, the illustrator of eight of Heinlein's novels for Scribner's, beginning with Space Cadet.  A few of the pictures are ordinary drawings, but the bulk of them are something quite unusual and quite striking.  The figures are black, and the backgrounds and detail are white, instead of just the opposite as in most pictures.  This is done by what is known as "scratchboard" technique, a process in which a dark medium is laid down on a light-colored surface and then blocked out and scraped away to form a picture.  In Geary's hands, the result was quite odd and added an unusual flavor to the books he illustrated.  It's hard to say whether they were an ornament or not, but I rather think they were. 
 
 

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*Galaxy Science Fiction, Feb. 1952.  [ Back
**The Issue at Hand, p. 92.  [ Back
 
 
 
 
 

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee