1949, Heinlein published
another handful of short stories, one of his best books, and a very odd
short novel that is still considered controversial. This flurry of short
stories was Heinlein's last -- he has had very few shorts published since
then. Science fiction, because of its strangeness, needs room for development,
and Robert Heinlein's strength has always been in his ability to develop
backgrounds -- two reasons, perhaps, why Heinlein has never been at his
most effective in the short story form. I don't propose to spend much space
on Heinlein's shorts, but I do want to talk at some length about his juvenile
and his short novel "Gulf."
Fair City" is a fantasy,
an amiable trifle involving a corrupt city government, a crusading reporter,
and a sentient whirlwind named Kitten. Judging from the tone of the
story, I suspect that it was written originally for
only wound up in the January 1949 issue of
Ever Happens on the Moon" ran as a two-part serial in
in April and
May, but it is actually only about 13,000 words long. It was written
and has neither been reprinted in a Heinlein
collection nor anthologized. The story is about a young Eagle Scout
moving to Venus with his family, with a stopover on the Moon. The
boy's ambition is to become the first Triple Eagle in history and he has
to use every moment of his three weeks on the Moon in order to qualify
as a Moon-type Eagle. He succeeds, but only after getting into trouble
in company with another boy through mutual overconfidence, and then getting
and the Space-Rigger"
December) is a smoothly-written but empty little bit
of nothing about women breaking into previously all-male space jobs.
The ending is a foregone conclusion: Gloria wins her job.
Long Watch" was published in the December 1949
American Legion Magazine,
and is long on glory.
There seem to be signs in these last two stories that Heinlein was growing
tired of writing simple, slick shorts and was making them more and more
perfunctory. In this case, there is a grab for power by military
officers stationed on the Moon, forestalled by another young officer who
disobeys orders, dismantles all the bombs and destroys them, saving the
Earth and getting himself killed by radioactivity in the process.
The story derives from a few sentences in
-- which leads
to some interesting conclusions as to the nature of the Future History,
a subject that will be discussed in a later chapter. Probably the
American Legion Magazine
was the perfect place for this story. I have
no doubt the hero of this story is the model of the American Legion image.
was an advance over
Rocket Ship Galileo,
Heinlein's third juvenile,
marked another and far greater advance. It is primarily
a boy's book rather than a book for both adults and youngsters like so
many of Heinlein's later "juveniles," but it is a superlatively good boy's
book. It is more tightly plotted than his two earlier juvenile novels,
and far more original. The Nazis of
Rocket Ship Galileo
make it seem terribly dated.
for all its virtues, is a very obvious story.
is neither dated nor obvious.
The backgrounds of Heinlein's earlier Scribner's
books were conventional ones: middle-class boys off on a toot to
the Moon, and a boy passing through a military academy. In the case
however, I think Heinlein started from an entirely
different angle -- first he worked out social, economic and physical conditions,
and then planned a story that might arise from them. In many ways
this is the most effective way of writing a science fiction story.
Backgrounds are always more difficult to invent than plots. Once
worked out, any detailed background can provide room for a number of plots,
characters, and situations that are completely independent of each other,
and any story that is set against such a detailed background automatically
has a solid base. On the other hand, stories in which backgrounds
are constructed to suit plot vagaries often seem makeshift and hollow.
began by accepting the "canals" of Dr. Percival Lowell -- one of Lowell's
maps is even reproduced as an end paper in the book. Heinlein then
worked out a migratory pattern of life for human colonists in which, to
avoid the one-hundred-below-zero Martian winter, they use ice scooters
and boats to transport themselves from pole to pole and back again each
year via the canals. He worked out respiratory masks and suits with
which to brave the climate. He set forth the circumstances of life:
Mars is under the control of an Earth-based company with whom the colonists
have contracts; various projects are under way to make Mars livable, including
the major one of unlocking oxygen from the Martian sands. Most important,
he worked out the nature of the Martians the colonists have to deal with.
All of these things are central, and antecedent to the plot of the story.
The story proper is actually composed of two interlocking
lines. One is the relations of the colonists with the proprietary
company. Things go awry partly because the people who control the
company are back on Earth and have little conception of the actual conditions
on Mars, and partly because in spite of the non-profit nature of the company,
those who represent it on the spot are to a large extent merely
Because of ignorance and cupidity the attempt is made to halt the regular
migrations, make the colonists sit tight through the winter, and import
more colonists to take advantage of the unused buildings at the other
The colonists learn about this before things have gone too far, rebel against
the company and proclaim their independence so as not to have something
similar happen again.
The other major plot line is the relations of the
colonists with the native Martians. Though the colonists have been
on Mars for some good while, the Martians are an enigma to them.
Before things are straightened out, the Martians are about to throw all
humans off the planet in reaction to the wrong-headed actions of the proprietary
company. This is settled, too, but not before there seems a distinct
possibility that the Martians may cut the Gordian knot -- by exterminating
every human on Mars.
It should be apparent that this plot is one that
an adult novel could easily use.
is a boy's book
not because it is something less than good, but because we are for the
most part given strictly a boy's-eye view of the revolution, and because
the same boy is the first to discover that the Martians are much more
creatures than had been hitherto thought.
almost every one
of Heinlein's juveniles, as in so many of his other stories, there are
small seasonings of mysticism, perhaps included simply for flavor, perhaps
to remind us again that there are more things in heaven and earth than
can be explained by
The World Book Encyclopedia.
Rocket Ship Galileo
the salt is evidence of long-extinct Lunarians; in
it is an intimation that the asteroids were a self-destroyed
fifth planet. Mysticism, of course, can easily get out of control
and ruin a story, but the only cases in which this has happened to Heinlein
that I can think of are three early pieces -- "Beyond Doubt," his collaborative
story set in Mu, "Elsewhen" and "Lost Legacy" -- and a fourth story we
will come to a little later in this chapter, "The Man Who Traveled in
In all four of these stories mysticism has been not just added value for
your penny, but all that the penny buys. More often, though, as in "Waldo,"
Space Cadet, Red Planet,
or any number of others, Heinlein has let his mysticism
be an added value, with much greater success. In
mysticism is the question of whether or not the Martian elders are ghosts,
a notion that Heinlein expanded on considerably in his more recent novel,
Stranger in a Strange Land.
November 1949 issue of
an odd one. One year earlier, in the letter column of the November
1948 issue, a reader named Richard Hoen had written to criticize the articles
and stories in the
November issue. John Campbell not
only printed the letter, but purely for the fun of it did his best to make
the actual issue identical to the one Hoen had written about. Among
the stories that had been discussed was a serial, "Gulf," by Anson MacDonald.
did appear in the
November 1949 issue, but since Heinlein had long since given up the MacDonald
pen name the story came out under his own name. It did appear as
a serial, too, but only by courtesy since the story was really a short
novel, comparable in length to "Waldo" and "Coventry" and "By His
The story marked Heinlein's first appearance in
I have a very marked distaste for "Gulf."
It is a superficially exciting story and a continuously interesting one
and this hides somewhat its sloppy construction, but I have the feeling
that it was written in a hurry in order to be included in the surprise
issue and the result was that first answers were used when better ones
might have been arrived at. As it is, it is shoddy not only in
but in basic thinking. If it had been written during Heinlein's period
of apprenticeship, it could be dismissed in a short paragraph along with
some of his other trial efforts, but coming as it does among his mature
stories, it can't be set aside quite so easily.
gulf of the title
is the narrow but distinct gap between ordinary men and a set of self-identified
supermen. The supermen do none of the silly things that the comic
strip character or A.E. van Vogt's creations do -- they differ only in
their ability to think. Heinlein makes a very good case for this
and I accept his reasoning. However, I don't think he has demonstrated
his case in action.
The plot is as follows: the hero, a security
agent, is bringing back microfilmed plans and pictures of an ultimate weapon,
"the nova effect," from the Moon. He changes his appearance and identity
on the way. A bellhop approaches him and solicits him to stay at
the New Age Hotel, a super-posh establishment. The agent agrees,
but then minutes later catches the bellhop's hand on his wallet, and is
forced to dismiss him.
Soon after, however, the agent discovers that the
bellhop switched his wallet for a replica identical in cards and pictures,
even down to a scratch and an inkstain. The agent assumes he has
been found out and that he had better get rid of the films while he can.
He mails them after disposing of several people who try to stop him, and
then goes on to the New Age Hotel. He is captured there by fake policemen,
knocked out, and put into a cell with a solitaire-playing helicopter salesman
called "Kettle Belly" Baldwin. He and Baldwin find a way to communicate
using the red cards of the two decks Baldwin is playing with. Then
the agent is taken out and briefly interrogated by an evil and wealthy
old woman named Mrs. Keithley. When the agent is returned to the
cell, he and Baldwin conspire to escape and manage to get away without
Once free, the agent checks in with the home office
only to find that the all-important films never arrived, and that he is
suspected of having sold out to the enemy. The agent flees, calls
Baldwin, and is flown by one of Baldwin's men to a ranch. Baldwin
turns out to be top dog in an organization of supermen, and seems to think
that the agent might qualify to join. Moreover, he has the lost films,
which he destroys.
When the agent's new training is complete, Baldwin
informs him that Mrs. Keithley has obtained one of the other copies of
the nova effect films, has installed the world-destroying bomb in the New
Age Hotel, and has the bomb set up to be triggered from the Moon.
The agent and another superman, female model, go to the Moon, are hired
by Mrs. Keithley as servants, kill her, and then disarm the bomb trigger
by blowing it to pieces. The agent is killed in the explosion and his companion
is killed by guards. A plaque to their memory is placed on the spot.
It takes thirty-six pages and about one day in time
to get the hero to the ranch. This is thoroughly exciting.
It takes another thirty-six pages and about six months in time to explain
the supermen and to train the hero. This is thoroughly interesting.
It then takes a final four pages, and one day, to dispose of Mrs. Keithley
and end the story. The excitement and interest that the story generates
are enough to thoroughly entertain, but only if the story is not examined
Why are films of this importance given to one single
agent to carry, rather than to an armed team? Why did the agent stop
over at a hotel instead of proceeding directly to his home office?
Why on Earth did Mrs. Keithley's people switch his wallet, an action that
merely serves to alert and alarm him, and how did they manage to make such
an exact copy of it? After all that has happened to him, why does
the agent not suspect that the New Age Hotel might be a trap? Why
does Mrs. Keithley -- who knows enough about the agent to penetrate his
disguises and duplicate his wallet -- swallow Baldwin as a fellow security
agent, and why should she put them together in the same room?
The communication with cards is simply not credible,
particularly since they are pretending to play a card game at the same
time they are stacking all these red and black cards to form messages.
Try to stack 104 cards, pass messages, and pretend to play a card game
at the same time -- two to one you drop the cards on the floor.
Why didn't the agent that our hero's bureau set
to watch him after he arrived from the Moon not see the altercation with
the bellhop or the two people that the hero left writhing on the pavement
on his way to the post office? Why, in view of all the hero's stupidities,
is he ever accepted in the organization of supermen? Why, in view
of all their stupidities (Baldwin is
for the nova effect
-- he wanted to prove it couldn't be done), does our hero accept the
organization as the supermen they claim to be?
Why is it that Mrs. Keithley's new-made bomb and
the ending of our hero's training coincide so remarkably? Why is
a beginner given the job of disposing of her, particularly since any slip
means the end of the world? If our hero is so smart, couldn't he
find a better way of solving the problem than getting himself blown up?
If the organization of supermen is so good, couldn't they find a better
way of solving the problem than sacrificing an agent they have just spent
six months training? Unless, of course, they were simply picking
the easiest way to get rid of someone who just didn't work out.
More important than these considerations of plot,
however, are some of the careless notions of which Heinlein delivers himself
in the course of the story. His supermen are not only good people--
all of the evil people in the world are on the other side -- but anything
they do is justified. In a long conversation, Baldwin tells our hero
who and what the supermen are. The agent says, "You chaps sound like
a bunch of stinkers, Kettle Belly." Baldwin terms this "monkey talk"
and says that the agent will come around after he sees how things really
are. He does come around, but the supermen still sound like a bunch of
Heinlein says of a girl tortured by Mrs. Keithley:
"She stood, swaying and staring stupidly at her poor hands, forever damaged
even for the futile purposes to which she had been capable of putting
All his hero had done is order beer from her, but on that little evidence,
he is willing to slap the label "clearly not bright" on her. The
girl is defined, both by Heinlein and his hero, as stupid and futile, but
she isn't shown to be. Do genuine supermen have magic marks on their
foreheads by which they can be known?
The ending, too, with its deaths and its memorial
plaque, is an attempt to force sentiment. I can't help asking myself if
the sentiment and glory were made inevitable by the things that came before,
and I can only say that they seem gratuitous.
But if all you want is excitement . . .
Of Heinlein's three stories about first trips to
the Moon, all unconnected, two were first published in 1950. Heinlein
has not been one for repeating his stories, though he has returned to a
number of themes, and it is certainly legitimate to wonder when two stories
on the same subject turn up in one year. However, the point of view
and handling of the stories are different enough that the question of repetition
doesn't really occur. If anything, these stories are complementary.
first is "The Man Who
Sold the Moon," a Future History story. The central character of
"Requiem," Heinlein's third published story, was D.D. Harriman, the man
who made space travel possible, whose dream was always to go to the Moon
himself, but who was never able to go. This story tells how he did
make space travel possible.
other story is "Destination Moon," which was based on Heinlein's
screenplay, and appeared in
Short Stories Magazine
in September 1950, just about the same time as the release of the movie.
The stories are complementary to the extent that
"The Man Who Sold the Moon" is concerned with how the first trip to the
Moon -- actually, the first two trips -- might be arranged and financed,
while "Destination Moon" is concerned solely with the first trip itself.
Both stories also have in common the premise that the first trip to the
Moon will be made by private business rather than by a government.
close to the line of the movie, but it begins at a later point than the
movie does, just twenty-one hours before the ship takes off. The
trip is successful in that the ship does reach the Moon, but everything
that can possibly go awry does go wrong and it is by no means certain at
the end that the ship will successfully return to Earth. As Jim Harmon
pointed out in reviewing the story in
most of the problems solved are handled by the commanding officer of the
ship yelling at everybody else until somebody gets around to putting things
right. The story is a skeleton, worth a glance but not much more.
Man Who Sold the
Moon" is much more interesting. In many ways it is every bit as unlikely
as "Destination Moon," but it is fascinating to watch old D.D. Harriman
juggling, conniving, pushing, arguing and dealing to get a ship off the
Earth. When somebody
something that badly and is willing
to do that much fighting to get it, things are bound to be interesting.
At the end of "Destination Moon" it isn't clear whether or not the ship
will make it back home. The problem, unfortunately, is more intellectual
than emotional -- the characters are so lightly sketched that it is difficult
whether or not they get home. Not so with "The Man
Who Sold the Moon." At the end of that story, it is shown that Harriman
cannot go to the Moon -- if he were to be killed, the whole project,
put together, would fall apart. He can't have the one thing he most
wants, and unlike the ending of "Gulf," this conclusion does arise from
what has gone before it. The finance of the story may be old-fashioned
and the solutions of the problems of the story not always the most likely,
but the story is a human one. It can be felt.
large portion of
Farmer in the Sky
appeared as a four-part serial in
under the title
As in "Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon," Heinlein's first story for
Scouting is a
major concern of the story, but in this case Scouting is not all that the
story is concerned with.
seems to have
a particular fondness for Ganymede: one of the young fellows in
was a Ganymedean colonist, the hero of
was born in a ship that was on its way to Ganymede;
Farmer in the Sky
about the settling of Ganymede. Ganymede, one of the four major satellites
of Jupiter, is a moon three thousand miles in diameter with a gravity one-third
Earth normal. In
Farmer in the Sky,
a heat trap that holds
heat and light has been set up to give the moon a livable climate.
The whole place is nothing but rock, and it has to be turned into a farming
The narrator of the story is Bill Lermer, a boy
of about fifteen. He emigrates from an over-crowded Earth with his
engineer father, and his new stepmother and stepsister. The main
portions of the story are the trip to Ganymede, finding that things aren't
as rosy as they had been promised, going ahead and carving out a good life
anyway, living through an earthquake that knocks out the heat trap and
kills two-thirds of the population, and a final side-jaunt in which traces
of past inhabitants of Ganymede are found.
The novel is very impressive in many ways.
Until the day that we do have an actual colony on Ganymede, I can't imagine
a more likely account of what things will be like. The story is real
and the technical thinking that went into it is overwhelming. On
the other hand, the telling of the story is diffuse, particularly toward
the end when we are given the sort of synopsis that might be found in a
diary kept by a not-too-conscientious person, six months covered in a
For instance, though Bill reports a considerable interest in a girl named
Gretchen who is mentioned with fair regularity, Heinlein only sets down
two words ("Suit yourself") that she says in all the time Bill is involved
with her. I could multiply my examples, but the point is that enough
is left out and told rather than shown that I have the feeling of missing
something. What we are given is good, but I wish there were more.
*No. 68, 1964. [
Border courtesy of
The Humble Bee