Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



9. 1954

    This brings me to the question of just what a juvenile novel is, anyway.  As our publishing industry is run, in most cases there isn't much question.  Freddy the Pig is on one side of the line and Lolita is on the other, sharply distinct.
    However, there are plenty of so-called "adult" books that are of legitimate interest to children, and any good children's book will very likely be read by adults as well.  Is Charlotte's Web just a children's book?  Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn, counted the two best American novels, are read by children.  It seems to me that any book published for children that adults cannot enjoy is likely to be a pretty poor book.  And if some adult books cannot be enjoyed or understood by children, there are plenty of adults who cannot enjoy or understand them either.  I don't see any distinct line and I doubt that there is one.  As it is now, a juvenile book is a book that the publishing industry packages and sells as a juvenile.
    The Star Beast, Heinlein's "juvenile" novel for 1954, is a good illustration.  It was serialized as an adult novel in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (May, June, July 1954) and then published by Scribner's as a juvenile novel and marketed in a juvenile package with a simple-minded blurb that begins, "Robert Heinlein's 'space zoo' is unique -- there is an unusual animal in each of his books" -- untrue, by the way, of even his books for Scribner's.  Either Scribner's has a much higher opinion of the minds of children than most publishers -- a notion belied by their jacket blurbs -- or they were so used to publishing Heinlein's books as juveniles that they never stopped to think twice.  A third alternative doesn't occur to me.  Perhaps it is Heinlein's fault for writing a book that can be interesting to almost any age.

    The Star Beast is really about a diplomatic incident, not about unusual animals from outer space.  There are two main story lines.  A ship has appeared in our skies claiming that we are holding prisoner one of their own, a party to a six-sex marriage that has been planned for two thousand years, part of a larger genetic schema that has been under way for thirty-eight thousand years.  The other line follows the trouble gotten into by Lummox, the pet of John Thomas Stuart XI.
    Lummox is an extraterrestrial brought home by John Thomas's great-grandfather, a crew member on one of the earliest interstellar ships of exploration.  Lummox loves steel (he once ate a second-hand Buick) and is the size of half a house (either half).  He has the right number of legs -- eight -- to be the missing Hroshia, but his size and lack of arms seem to rule him out, so when he inadvertently causes a considerable amount of damage, starting with a dog and some rose bushes and ending with part of a department store, he is scheduled to be done away with.  It turns out, however, that Lummox is a "she," the missing heiress, and also that the Hroshii may well be capable of destroying Earth if they are frustrated in getting her back.  It is then up to the Department of Spatial Affairs and its Permanent Under Secretary, Henry Kiku, to straighten things out.
    Of Kiku, Damon Knight says:

    It's a pure delight to watch him at work. Heinlein's interest, as always, is in The Man Who Knows How, other types appearing only as caricatures, and if this makes for a distorted view of humanity, it also makes for close-textured, fascinating writing. Stories about know-nothings inevitably repeat the same stock motions; the repertory of competence is inexhaustible.*
    The dealings of Kiku, his understudy Sergei Greenberg, and Dr. Ftaeml, the medusa humanoid go-between for the Hroshii, are nothing short of fascinating.  Only a little more than half of the book is directly concerned with John Thomas and Lummox, the rest is Kiku's show and he makes the most of it.
    Besides the usual Heinlein touches (the double for the Secretary General of the Federation who sits through dull formal programs, for instance, a notion that later grew into an entire book of its own in Double Star), this book stands by itself among Heinlein's books in being filled with satire and black humor:
    John Thomas's girl friend, Betty Sorenson, lives in the Westville Home for Free Children:  she has divorced her parents for their odd ideas.
    Mr. Kiku's stomach can't stand snakes, so every time he meets Dr. Ftaeml, whose head writhes with tendrils, it is an ordeal for him.
    As Damon Knight said, most of the characters in this book are caricatures, as, of course, is likely to be true in any satirical book.  The culmination is probably Mrs. Beulah Murgatroyd, inventor of the popular puppet Pidgie-Widgie (Pidgie-Widgie on the Moon, Pidgie-Widgie Goes to Mars, Pidgie-Widgie and the Space Pirates) and the power behind "The Friends of Lummox."  Mrs. Murgatroyd earnestly desires Mr. Kiku to come on stereovision with her and Pidgie-Widgie and talk things over while they all settle down to a nice bowl of Hunkies.  Heinlein must have been pleased with that one, and with 
. . . the terrible, hushed-up occasion when a member of the official family of the Ambassador from Llador had been found, dead and stuffed, in a curiosity shop in the Virgin Islands.
    And finally, Lummox's view of the matter is that she has been spending a hundred years in raising John Thomases, and she damned well plans to continue.  She won't go home unless she has her way, and so, when she goes, John Thomas and Betty go with her.  Luck, Lummox.

10. 1955

    As I say, I don't understand the juvenile publishing industry.  Starman Jones, The Star Beast, and Heinlein's Scribner's novel for 1955, Tunnel in the Sky, all share a darkness in tone that you just don't expect in children's books.  It may be that there is a tremendous hunger for bleak children's books and the manuscripts just cannot be found.
    The blackness of Starman Jones lies in the society portrayed.  The blackness of The Star Beast lies in its attitude.  These are both very successful books.  Tunnel in the Sky is less successful, partly because Heinlein gets tired about two-thirds of the way through and rushes his ending.  This seems to happen in those Heinlein stories in which the action is spread over a number of years.  In a moment I will come to the other reason for Tunnel in the Sky's lack of complete realization.
    The basic idea for the story is one of the best ever invented, elemental enough to stand a thousand usings.  In essence, it is to strip a character of everything but a toothpick and a piece of chicken wire and chuck him out into a hostile wilderness.  In a Murray Leinster story he turns the toothpick and the chicken wire into a blaster and a spaceship (with the aid of a little bit of native ingenuity) and hops off to conquer the universe.  In a Robert Heinlein story, with the aid of his native ingenuity, the character survives.
    In this case, the hero is Rod Walker, a high school senior enrolled in Advanced Survival, Course 410.  The members of the class get their choice of weapons and are then dropped: "(a) ANY planet, ANY climate, ANY terrain; (b) NO rules, ALL weapons, ANY equipment."  With skill and luck, they survive.
    The "Ramsbotham Gate" -- step through on this side and step out somewhere else -- has made thousands of planets available to Earth, but most of them have their own particular dangers.  Trained men are needed to cope with them, and courses like the one that Walker takes are given both at high school and college level to train them as much as possible.
    Walker's group is dropped for a period of two to ten days, but the pickup is never made.  They and other classes dropped on this who-knows-where have to band together and make something of themselves.  After two years contact is re-established -- a supernova in the immediate stellar vicinity threw all calculations off and finding the kids again has been a hit-or-miss operation.  The beauty of the story is that when they are found, they have made something of themselves, believably and interestingly.

    Tunnel in the Sky is not a bad book, but it is not among Heinlein's best.  The second of its flaws is the nature of its hero.  By the evidence of this book, if he were to stand in the middle of a desert on a cloudless day, he would attract lightning.  He is doubted, struck on the head, flimflammed, ignored, shoved around, victimized, and treated as an incompetent.  He is naive (when asked whether or not he is sexually interested in a girl he goes off on long hunting trips with, he can't even understand the question), and he never, never sees his next lump coming.
    At the beginning, his instructor says:

    "I could drop you [from the course].  Perhaps I should."
    "But why, sir?"
    "That's the point.  I couldn't give a reason.  On the record, you're as promising a student as I have ever had."
    I know the reason. The instructor has nagging doubts about that "Kick Me" sign that Walker wears on his back.

11. 1956

    In 1956, Heinlein had his most active year since before the war, publishing three novels.  Two were adult novels, his first in five years, and only his second and third since 1942.
    Not too long ago, I had reason to look back over all the issues of Astounding and Galaxy published between 1950 and 1960 in search of stories dealing with politics.  The bulk of them were either about dictatorships or about Galactic Empires.  The dictatorships were all bad and deserved to be overthrown.  If the stories were long enough, they usually were.  The Galactic Empires either had Galactic Emperors who stood alone while ministers plotted in the antechambers, or were the home bases for secret corps of political sophisticates that spent their time manipulating native populations for their own good.  This is exciting as hell, of course, but it's crude entertainment.  Robert Heinlein is one of the very few science fiction writers who have had any experience in practical politics, and this may partly explain his surer and less melodramatic handling of the subject.
    Although the central idea of Double Star (Astounding, February, March and April 1956) is melodramatic -- an actor permanently taking the place of a stricken political leader -- its development is not melodramatic, but sure and real, because its concern is with the changes that take place within the actor.  The story is not a public one, but a private and personal one, and melodrama is not melodrama without a stage to strut on.  Put the most flamboyant swashbuckler ever conceived in a prison cell by himself and leave him there, and he has to become something more or the story dies.
    What Heinlein envisions is a parliamentary system and empire like that of 19th Century Britain.  John Joseph Bonforte is head of a coalition of minor parties whose interests are libertarian:  "free trade, free travel, common citizenship, common currency, and a minimum of Imperial laws and restrictions."  The main bone of contention is that common citizenship.  Bonforte's Expansionists want to include the native populations of Mars and Venus as full citizens within the Empire, while the party in power, the Humanists, take a strict humans-first attitude.  Bonforte is about to be made a member of a Martian "nest" when the story begins, and no excuse short of death will be sufficient for him to miss his appointment.  Only days before he is due to be adopted a radical splinter group of the Humanist Party kidnaps him, knowing his absence will create exactly the sort of blood-in-the-streets incident that will serve their interests.  It is in this situation that an out-of-work actor named Lawrence Smith -- "The Great Lorenzo" -- is persuaded and pressured to double for Bonforte during the adoption ceremony.
    He does this successfully enough, but then Bonforte is turned loose by his captors in such condition that Smith must continue his impersonation.  The problem is compounded by the resignation of the Humanist government, meaning that Bonforte's party must form a caretaker government until a general election can be called.  Since Bonforte as a person is the only thing that holds the Expansionist coalition together, he must be present in person.
    Smith, the actor, is originally completely apolitical, Martian-despising, and even cold to the idea of the impersonation he has been inveigled into pulling off.  He is also a thorough-going self-admirer.  However, once inside the skin of Bonforte, he begins to grow.  He learns to respect first the people around Bonforte, and then Bonforte himself.  At the end, he is a larger, more pleasant, saner man.  Perhaps the lesson is that accomplishment is a matter of both aptitude and the opportunity to demonstrate it.
    The story ends when, just as the Expansionists are winning their election, Bonforte dies of a stroke.  Smith agrees to carry on in this final role.  There is a short afterword written twenty-five years later that indicates Smith's success in becoming Bonforte.
    There are a few minor carelessnesses that mar the story a little that might have been eliminated by closer proofreading.  For instance, there is a character mentioned on page 20, Doc Scortia, who is never heard of again but who seems to have been replaced by a Doc Capek.  There is a story behind that:  Heinlein has a physicist friend named Tom Scortia and he wanted to do him the favor of slipping him into a story behind a beard and putty nose.  Heinlein then learned that Scortia himself had started writing and selling science fiction, so the manuscript was combed over and the name replaced -- in all but one place.
    On a different level, I wish that Heinlein had written in greater detail.  He has done a fine job of showing the metamorphosis of Smith into Bonforte, and he has described his political system interestingly enough.  However, I wish that he had brought the two together more intimately and had let us see more of the political system in action.  Smith tells us of it, but we never see more than glimpses of it in closeup.  When one of his aides says to him at the end in trying to persuade him to stay on, "Chief, you remember those confounded executive committee meetings?  You kept them in line," we can't remember it, because we haven't seen it.
    This is a good novel -- it won the Hugo award as the best science fiction novel of its year -- but if Heinlein had gone into the detail he might have, but did not, this would have been a deeper and far more important novel.  As things are, Double Star is good light entertainment, but no more than that.

    Time for the Stars was the last of Heinlein's Scribner's novels to be illustrated by Clifford Geary.  Anthony Boucher thought the story was the best novel of its year and said that the only thing that kept it from being serialized in F&SF was that it didn't divide well into parts.
    In The Rolling Stones, Heinlein's central characters were the twins, Castor and Pollux Stone.  Seen from the outside, they present so united a front that it is really not possible to tell one from the other.  The hero of Time for the Stars is also one of a set of twins, but in this case we see twinhood from the inside and get an entirely different picture of it.
    Earth has a population of five billion people when the story opens and a group of twelve starships is about to be sent out to find favorable real estate.  Research has turned up the fact that some identical twins can communicate telepathically and that telepathy is not limited to the speed of light, thereby making it a perfect communication medium between Earth and ships that may be gone for as long as a century.  The "prison yard whisper" that Tom Bartlett, the hero, and his twin, Pat, have been using for years turns out to be more than they thought it was, and they are signed up by the foundation sponsoring the trip.  As a general rule, I have no affection for stories that involve extra-sensory perception.  When the stories aren't foolish, which many of them are, the psionics is likely to be so important to the story that normal human motivations and concerns wind up missing entirely.  In Time for the Stars, however, Heinlein has managed to present telepathy as a major plot element without letting it overwhelm the story.
    Partly this is because of the well-developed relationship between Tom and Pat.  Pat has more grab and winds up with the shipboard place while Tom is to stay behind on Earth, cut out of the trip.  Then Pat has an accident that paralyzes his legs and Tom is back in the picture again.  The kicker is that subconsciously neither of them really wants to go on this trip -- the ship is fairly certain never to get back safely -- and that Pat has won again.  Tom's growing understanding of the real nature of his relationship with his twin is the core of the story.
    It might not have been, except that again Heinlein has skimped on the finale of his story.  It is a catalog of places visited -- " 'Whistle-Stop' wasn't worth a stop.  We're on our way to Beta Ceti, sixty-three light-years from Earth." -- of people who die, and of telepathic linkages lost.  The story ends with the ship being picked up by a newly-invented faster-than-light ship.  Tom meets his latest telepathic linkage, his brother's great-granddaughter, Vicky, who decides to marry him, and the two then prepare to go out to the stars once more.  It is, I think, the rushed nature of the last part of the story that made it impossible to serialize.
    There are some very lovely things in the story. One is the nature of the organization that sponsors the whole business: the Long Range Foundation.

    The charter goes on with a lot of lawyers' fog but the way the directors have interpreted it has been to spend money only on things that no government and no other corporation would touch . . .  To make the LRF directors light up with enthusiasm you had to suggest something that cost a billion or more and probably wouldn't show results for ten generations, if ever . . .
    There is also the idea of limiting family size by imposing quotas and taxing any children over the quota. I understand that this idea has had serious discussion.
    Finally, Heinlein tickles my fancy with his account of serendipity, which he defines as digging for worms and striking gold.  He then, without pointing it out, demonstrates it beautifully with his faster-than-light ships which are given as the offspring of research done to explain the instantaneous nature of telepathic communication.

    Heinlein's third novel in 1956, The Door Into Summer (F&SF, October, November, December), was another adult story.  Like the first two novels, it was written in the first person, though for less obvious reason.  A story like Double Star of a man changing from one thing to another can probably be told most easily in the first person.  Again, the first person certainly makes the difficult difference between identical twins easier to exposit.  In a story like The Door Into Summer, choice of viewpoint seems to be less central and might have been as easily decided the other way.
    There is a certain amount of continuity of thinking in these three books.  In all three, for instance, comment is made to the effect that any man has the right to decide when and how he will die.  John Joseph Bonforte's ship in Double Star is named after Thomas Paine, and so is the hero of Time for the Stars.  And servo-mechanisms of the sort that are the central interest of The Door Into Summer are mentioned in passing in Time for the Stars, as though Heinlein had the idea in the back of his mind while writing the earlier book.
    Daniel Boone Davis, hero of The Door Into Summer, is an engineer in 1970, in partnership with a lawyer friend whom he met in the army.  Davis has invented Hired Girl, a machine that will clean floors all day long without supervision, and Window Willie, a machine to wash windows.  He is making a good deal of money, is having the time of his life, is engaged to the company's beautiful and talented secretary, and is about to finish Flexible Frank, a machine that will be capable of doing just about any household dirty job.  But Davis and his partner are divided -- the partner wants to rush Frank into production while Davis wants to hold it back until every part is plug-in replaceable.  He has no taste for machines that are full of bugs.  Davis won't budge, so the partner, whose own taste is for being a wheeler-dealer, and the secretary-fiancée conspire to ease him out of control and out of the company.
    You can, by the way, tell that lovely Belle Darkin, the fiancée, is really nasty -- she and Davis's cat just don't see eye-to-eye.  On the other hand, the partner's eleven-year-old stepdaughter Ricky, Davis, and Davis's cat make a very neat threesome.  Little Ricky can't stand Belle, either, showing that her childish instincts are good.
    While on a drunken binge following his betrayal, Davis decides to take cold sleep, a suspended-animation process, for thirty years along with his cat so that he can come back and sneer at lovely Belle Darkin when she isn't quite so lovely any more.  He signs the papers, but then sobers up and changes his mind.  However, when he goes to confront his ex-partner, he stumbles on a piece of information that will blow the whole mess to pieces, so Belle gives him a shot of a hypnotic drug that puts him out of commission, then brings him forward at the proper time for his cold sleep appointment and sends him off on a thirty-year trip to tomorrow.
    The story really gets complicated from here on.  Davis becomes adjusted to the year 2000 and finds he likes it, turns himself into a good engineer again, then stumbles onto a number of bits of evidence that he has done more things back in 1970 than he thought he had.  A fellow with a proper time machine is introduced (there is an uncertainty factor -- half the time it throws you forward, and half the time it sends you back; but then Davis has reason to think that he will go back because he has gone back, he has done things in 1970 that he never did the first time around), Davis goads the machine's misanthropic inventor into sending him back to 1970, and once back there, straightens things out.  He invents two more machines: a drafting machine and an advanced version of the flexible machine he never finished; he sets things up so that all of his property will go to little Ricky and agrees with her that after she has spent ten years growing up, she will take cold sleep herself and join him in 2001; then he destroys the working model of old Flexible Frank to keep it out of the hands of Belle and his ex-partner, collects his cat which was left behind on the night he was shanghaied, and is off again via cold sleep for the year 2001 where he and Ricky and the cat are all joined together in Holy Matrimony.
    Time travel stories are generally so complicated that they have to be tightly plotted if they are to be successful, and Heinlein's time travel stories as a group are probably his best constructed.  This one is no exception.  As a whole, the story is thoroughly melodramatic but very good fun.  I imagine that it was a very enjoyable story for Heinlein to write, particularly the nicely-developed engineering ideas.  It was as though Heinlein the engineer said, "If I had the parts available, what little gadgets would I most enjoy building?" and then went ahead and built them fictionally.  A good story.

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*In Search of Wonder, 2nd ed., p. 83.  [ Back ]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee