Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




1. Heinlein's Third Period

    From the time that he began to write in 1939, one of the hallmarks of Robert Heinlein's writing has been his concern with facts.  He doesn't just like facts, he relishes them, and he sprinkles them through his stories with a liberal hand by means of dialogue, demonstration, and if all else fails, omniscient exposition.  There is a very tender line beyond which factual lectures become tedious irrelevancies in fiction, and Heinlein has occasionally come close to this line, but if there is anything that is amazing about his writing it has been his ability to write for, say, ten pages, as he does on space suits in Have Space Suit--Will Travel, without losing or even seriously slowing his story.
    If there is one thing that marks the six novels published so far in Heinlein's third period, it is a change in those things he has lectured about in his stories.  Instead of concerning himself with facts, he has written about the morality of sex, religion, war and politics, but he has treated his opinions as though they were facts.  More than this, he has so concentrated on presenting his opinions with every narrative device he knows that he has neglected story construction, characterization, and plot as though they were completely subsidiary to the main business of his opinions-as-facts.  Why this change has come, I cannot say exactly, but I suspect a combination of financial independence and a desire to say the things that he most strongly believes has caused Heinlein to pour himself out on paper.  The result from an artistic point of view is a mistake.
    Certainly, any man's strongly held beliefs will be likely to turn up in his fiction, and most of the ideas that Heinlein has recently presented have previously been present in his fiction, but in reading fiction we can accept these beliefs only if they turn up in certain ways.  That is, either a character, acting as spokesman for the author, can present the belief -- if it is relevant to the story -- or the story itself can serve as a case for the belief.  The important point is relevance to the story -- a dialogue that continues for five pages, ten pages, or twenty pages, as dialogues have continued in recent Heinlein stories, solely for the purpose of presenting the author's opinions with no necessity for them existing within the story, damned well shouldn't be there.
    Let's take an actual example of an idea that Heinlein has put forward on at least five different occasions:  Man is a wild animal, the roughest, meanest critter in this neck of the universe.  Cross him at your peril.
    Heinlein predicts in an article entitled "As I See Tomorrow" in the April 1956 Amazing that this point of view will eventually be generally recognized.  In its context, this is clearly legitimate.  The context is an article giving Heinlein's personal opinions.
    The idea appears at the end of The Puppet Masters, and again it is clearly legitimate.  First, it suits the narrator's character that he should think this:  he is a secret agent, used to finding violent solutions to his problems.  Second, the opinion comes as a culmination to a set of events that seem to demonstrate its aptness.  Third, it is not presented as fact but only as the point of view of the narrator.
    In Starman Jones, the notion is presented editorially as a comment on the need of beasts of burden to accommodate themselves to man or perish.  The idea is tossed off in passing.  It is not necessary to the story, but neither is it dwelt upon.
    Heinlein's next fictional use of the idea comes in Tunnel in the Sky.  In this case, it is presented as the opinion of the instructor of the Advanced Survival course.  It is in character for him to hold such an opinion and a good part of Heinlein's book is an attempt to make a case -- in action -- for the opinion.  I think the case is not made convincingly -- within an hour of the start of a survival test scheduled to last from two to ten days, the hero comes on evidence of a murder and theft whose only reason for existence seems to be to provide evidence of man's untrustworthiness -- but the opinion is clearly not out of place.
    The last appearance of the idea comes in Starship Troopers, the first novel written in Heinlein's third period.  Heinlein has his narrator "prove" as a class assignment that war and moral perfection derive from the instinct to survive, thereby putting a stamp of approval on war.  Rico, the narrator, concludes:

    Man is what he is, a wild animal with the will to survive, and (so far) the ability, against all competition.  Unless one accepts that, anything one says about morals, war, politics -- you name it -- is nonsense.  Correct morals arise from knowing what Man is --not what do-gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellies would like him to be.
    The universe will let us know -- later -- whether or not Man has any "right" to expand through it.
    Though it may not seem to be, this is really the old argument that might makes right.  It is hard to say whether it is in character for Heinlein's narrator to deliver this argument because the narrator is never defined closely enough for us to tell his attitudes and capabilities.  The story itself only partly offers evidence for the argument given:  that is, we only know that Heinlein's men are willing to fight.  Most important, the argument does not belong of necessity to the story -- it is tossed in solely as an off-the-cuff remark.  In other words, the presence of this opinion in this story as it is given is of a different order than its presence in either The Puppet Masters or Tunnel in the Sky and is a digression in a way that it is not in Starman Jones.  It is frequent extended editorials of this sort that have damaged Heinlein's recent stories beyond any repair.
    The impression Heinlein has given by this change in emphasis is of a man standing in a pulpit delivering sermons against an enemy that no one but he can see clearly.  Since these opinions he has delivered are obviously of primary importance to him, negative reactions to these stories of his have seemed only to cause him to state his opinions all the more strongly.  The novelists of the last century, particularly the bad ones, are difficult and dated reading because they continually moralized and their moralizations have not aged well.  My own belief is that Heinlein's moralizations will look just as odd to our descendants and read as poorly.

2. 1959

    In 1959, Heinlein published only two stories, a short and a novel, both in F&SF, both very interesting.  The short, " 'All You Zombies--' " (March 1959), seems to belong in Heinlein's third period for the aggressive way it involves sex and seduction, subjects Heinlein never touched on before but has dealt with more and more frequently in his third period novels.
    " 'All You Zombies--' " combines sex and time travel, a very interesting combination indeed, fraught with possibility.  Time travel has always fascinated Heinlein, from "Life-Line," his first story, which involved a skinned version of time travel, through Have Space Suit--Will Travel, the last story of his second period.  The range of switches on the subject that Heinlein has used is vast:  men popping into the future, men meeting themselves, men previewing their own deaths.  " 'All You Zombies--' " came up with an idea new for Heinlein, but one that had been touched on a few years earlier by Charles Harness.
    Harness is a very interesting writer, for all that I doubt that he has published more than a dozen stories all told.  His forte has been what James Blish calls the "intensively recomplicated" story (Damon Knight calls it "the kitchen sink technique," which may be more accurate) -- the sort of story where idea is piled on idea, complication added to complication, switch thrown on switch, until nobody knows what in hell is happening, not even the author.  Most often, because they are so complicated, these stories are done poorly.  Van Vogt did them and almost always did them badly, like balance sheets that never added to the same total.  Harness was unique in that his stories combined ideas, inventions, insights, complications and extravagances, and still managed to make sense.
    One of Harness's best stories was a time travel piece entitled  "Child by Chronos."*  Its punch was that the main character, a girl, by ducking through a time machine became her own mother.  Biologically this doesn't seem to hold water since a child gets only half its genes from each parent and a daughter should be only half what her mother was, not identical.  But then, both mother and daughter do have the same parents.  It isn't possible to prove Harness wrong.  The story is very tricky, and is all the better because the switching around in time is not done solely for the sake of the final effect.  There are problems of character involved and the story, with all its switching, solves them quite neatly.
    The intensively recomplicated story has never been Heinlein's interest -- although "By His Bootstraps" is a neatly composed, if completely empty, example of the type -- but " 'All You Zombies--' " combines the intensively recomplicated involutions of a "By His Bootstraps" with an idea that goes Harness one better.
    Shorn of its complications, the plot is as follows:  In 1945 a one-month-old girl is abandoned on the steps of an orphanage in Cleveland.  The girl grows up and at the age of 18 is seduced and left pregnant.  It turns out that she is both a functional female and a potentially functioning male.  She has the baby, but her female organs are so damaged in the process that they have to be removed and she/he is given hormone shots and turned into a male.  The baby, meanwhile, is stolen from the hospital.
    The girl-now-boy becomes a confession story writer.  After seven years, he is picked up by a bartender with a time machine in his back room and carried back to look for the seducer who done him wrong.  The bartender meanwhile hops forward a bit, steals the baby and takes it back to the 1945 orphanage, then hops again to pick up the young man just after he finishes seducing his younger female self.  The bartender, who is the young fellow grown older by thirty years, then takes himself forward to 1985 where he recruits his younger self into a time police corps.
    This is a wild story with every knot tied.  In about one-quarter of the length of "By His Bootstraps" it comes to a far sharper point and assays out as considerably more of a story.
    Biologically, it fires straighter than Harness.  Baby, bartender, girl and boy are all one -- what other baby could girl and boy have than the one they do?
    The end of the story goes even further:

    I know where I came from -- but where did all you zombies come from?  . . . You aren't really there at all.  There isn't anybody but me -- Jane -- here alone in the dark.  I miss you dreadfully!
    If ever a story was meant to be told in the first person, this is it. In style and denouement it is pure Heinlein; in subject it is a departure.

    Starship Troopers (F&SF, October, November as Starship Soldier), Heinlein's 1959 Hugo award-winning novel, has been widely taken as a militaristic polemic.  I don't see that any other reading is really possible.  Not only does the story-line actively put the military life in the most glamorous terms possible (note, for instance, the emotional difference between the magazine title, the editor's choice, and the book title, Heinlein's choice), but there are numerous classroom interludes and asides by the narrator that attempt to give a direct philosophical justification for government by veterans, and militarism as a way of life.  The book's nearest cousin is the sort of recruiting film that purports to show the life of a typical soldier, with a soundtrack commentary by earnest sincere Private Jones who interprets what we see for us.  The outstanding characteristic of a film of this sort, and of Heinlein's book, is slick patness.
    The story line of this book is actually quite simple:  the training of a "Mobile Infantryman" of the future and his participation in a future war.  However, Heinlein disguises the simplicity of his story by employing a very involved order of narration that, clarified, goes as follows:
    One -- Mobile Infantrymen are dropped from a starship during a future war.  There is a quick strike, given in detail, ending with the death of one of the armored, heavily-armed soldiers as they are picked up from the raid.  This, of course, is just what a recruiting film would do, use a large slab of action as a narrative hook to arouse interest and sympathy, with some death-and-glory to tickle those young adventurers susceptible to its appeal.
    Two -- Just as the recruiting film would do, cut back to pick up the eager young narrator on the day he enlists (instead of going to Harvard, as his rich father would have him).  The next five chapters give an account of basic training:  the tough sergeant, the rigorous training, the hero fouling up and being straightened out, and then graduation from basic.
    Three -- Neatly eased into the above is a flashback to the hero's high school class in History and Moral Philosophy, a course that the society's rulers have decreed must be taken by all (though it need not be passed).  There is also a ruling that this course must be taught by an ex-service man, and this class and the hero's teacher, Colonel Dubois, are brought up again and again.
    Four -- The early career of a raw young soldier.  This is where the raid that opens the book naturally fits.  Following it is an account of leave and the narrator's application for Officer Candidates School.
    Five -- A very long chapter showing Rico, the narrator, as an officer-in-training, and then as a student officer in an important combat situation.
    Six -- Close with the narrator as a seasoned officer in a reprise of the situation that opens the book.

    Starship Troopers is in no way an account of human problems or character development.  There is no sustained human conflict.  The story is the account of the making of a soldier -- or, rather, a marine -- and nothing more.  The narrator goes in as a boot and emerges a lieutenant, and that is all.
    Heinlein's "soldiers" are really marines, by the way, based on today's Marines, not on regular infantry.  They are a small, highly disciplined elite corps with a strong esprit who are carried on board ships run by the Navy, and used on planetary raids.  Heinlein's officers are called "mister" and his basic training is called "boot camp," both true of Marines, but not of the Army.
    For all that the book is told in the first person, Heinlein's narrator remains curiously anonymous.  At the end you know nothing of his tastes, his likes and dislikes, his personal life.  The course of the book changes him in no way because there is nothing to change -- Rico remains first and last a voice reading lines about how nice it is to be a soldier.
    The other characters are even more sketchy, or are simple expositions of an attitude.  Rico's father, for instance, is used at the beginning of the book to oppose his son's decision to join the service, and then resurrected as the corporal who replaces Rico when he goes off to OCS (I said the story was pat).
    The slickness of the story is quite bothersome to me.  War in the story involves death and glory and that is all; disease, dirt, and doubt are missing.  All the soldiers we see are tough, smart, competent, cleancut, clean shaven, and noble.
    Who is Rico's replacement?  His father, of course.  Who serves under him as platoon sergeant at the close of the story?  His father again, of course.  When Rico is fighting as a student officer, who is the sergeant under him?  Why, his sergeant from basic training.
    When Heinlein introduces a character, it is with this parenthetical paradiddle:

    The Commandant had a permanent rank of fleet general (yes, that Nielssen); his rank as colonel was temporary, pending second retirement, to permit him to be Commandant.
    Drum flourishes of this sort are frequent and, of course, are irrelevant.  Emotion should always be fairly earned, not prompted, forced or manufactured.
    It is, of course, Heinlein's intention to make war glorious.  He wishes to exalt the military and the common soldier.  He says explicitly:
    A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life.  The civilian does not.
    In the society of Heinlein's book only ex-servicemen have the right to hold office, to vote, and to teach History and Moral Philosophy, a subject that presumably only they understand.  The society is defined as right.  Heinlein bulwarks his position by making it the supposed result of "a scientifically verifiable theory of morals," a stacking of the deck that seems an attempt to cut off all debate.
    I have no final answers myself and I find disturbing the ease with which Heinlein churns out his "right" answers, dismissing all other possibilities.
    As an example, Colonel Dubois, who teaches the scientific theory of morals and hence should know what is what, says flatly that value is not an absolute ("Wrong," he says, when Rico guesses it is).  Value, according to Colonel Dubois, is only in relation to living persons -- value is cost and use; if you value freedom highly you must be willing to give your life for it.  A lot of other thinkers, including Plato, have held the opinion that value is an absolute, but Dubois is able to dismiss them out of hand.  He is right, you see, and hence doesn't have to explain, refute, or argue, but simply expound his correct opinions.  This, I am all too afraid, is how rigid a government such as Heinlein propounds would actually be.  "Our system works better than any used by our ancestors," says another teacher of History and Moral Philosophy, and no doubt his definition of "better," like that of any contented man, is "things as they are," in effect, saying, "Our system is more comfortable and home-like than any used by our ancestors."
    In one class in History and Moral Philosophy, the reason is given why this "perfect" government has never been overthrown:  "If you separate out the aggressive ones and make them the sheep dogs, the sheep will never give you any trouble."  This, to my mind, is the justification of a sheep-shearer.  Luckily, of course, Heinlein defines his government as altruistic, and since everything is done by definition in this story, there is nothing to worry about.
    I can't help but wonder what the story (recruiting film) would be without a war.  The war of the story begins after Rico enters basic and no clear reason is ever given for its start.  It is simply needed for illustrative material.  Starship troopers are not half so glorious sitting on their butts polishing their weapons for the tenth time for lack of anything else to do.
    This book was written to be published by Scribner's as a juvenile, but they refused to accept it, thereby ending their long and profitable association with Heinlein.

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*Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1953.  [ Back ]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee