Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



5. 1965-1967

    Over the years, Heinlein had gathered his short stories and published them in some half-dozen collections.  In the middle 1960's only a handful remained unreprinted, including two stories from Boys Life of no great interest to adults and several stories from his earliest years like " 'My Object All Sublime' " that might better be forgotten.
    However, Ace Books, a paperback house, noticed that enough material remained unreprinted in paperback to make a readable collection, and contacted Heinlein.  The resulting book contained five stories, including one new one, together with an introduction that was a modified version of a Heinlein article originally published in Galaxy in 1952.  The book appeared in early 1966 under the title The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein.
    The new story was a short novelette entitled "Free Men."  It apparently had received no welcome from the science fiction magazines, which is understandable since the story is not economically told and is sketchy in detail.  The plot is reminiscent of Heinlein's early novel Sixth Column in which a few men throw out an Oriental invasion force.  The plot in that case was John Campbell's, and it seems possible that Heinlein was impelled by his sense of realism to re-examine the theme.  In any case, "Free Men" is about a guerilla band in an occupied post-atomic war America.  The band is betrayed and their leader killed, but at the end they determine to carry on, even though they have no visible prospects of winning, because that is the sort of thing that free men do.
    One other unpublished story of Heinlein's was proposed for the collection, but was ultimately not included because it was not science fiction.

    The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein's most recent novel, was serialized in If in late 1965 and early 1966, and won him his fourth Hugo award for best novel.  Line-by-line, it is fascinating reading. I suspect that Heinlein could even write laundry lists that would be entertaining to read.  Moreover, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is less flawed by sermons and constructional weakness than the other books of his third period.  I must admit, however, that fascinating as I find it, I don't think The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a good or effective novel.  It is, moreover, almost as marked with symbols of resignation, doubt and defeat as Glory Road and Farnham's Freehold.
    The plot line of this, the second longest of Heinlein's novels, is simple enough.  Like Heinlein's first novel and so many others since, it is a story of revolution.  In 2075, Luna is a penal colony, a dumping ground for transportees, much as Australia was at the beginning of the last century.  Because of irreversible physiological changes (so Heinlein says -- for once he skimps on justification and I would have been interested to be shown his evidence) these transportees are unable to return to Earth when their sentences have been served.  Luna raises grain for an over-populated and undernourished Earth which continues to shove convicts at her, but which returns next to nothing in the way of goods for the food it receives.  In short, and in general, Luna is being victimized.
    The large computer that co-ordinates almost everything on the Moon estimates seven years before food riots take place on the Moon, followed by cannibalism and social disintegration, and Earth just will not listen.  It is happy with things as they are and sees no reason why Luna should not be, too.  In fact, the people on Earth are almost infuriatingly smug.  The only answer is revolution, and the novel follows the Lunar Revolution from the foundation of the nuclear cell in the revolutionary organization to capitulation by the Federated Nations of Earth.
    The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is totally a story of process rather than character.  Heinlein has always been more interested in how machines and societies work than in why people act, and this is probably more true of this novel than any of his others.  And it is the center of what is wrong with it as a story.  There is wonderful material here on the organization and implementation of a revolution.  In fact, if I ever had to run a revolution, I think I might well consult this book.  It is this expertise and Heinlein's skill at phrase-tuming that give this book its line-by-line fascination.  However, because this is a book about the workings of things rather than the workings of people, it is ultimately flat and a failure as a story.  It is a handbook, not a novel.  Heinlein tries with great skill to inject drama into The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, but the devices he uses do not bear examination or are such obvious appeals for unearned emotion that they irritate rather than captivate.
    Heinlein has always had a weakness for forcing emotion, possibly because his characters themselves are unemotional.  When Heinlein wants us to approve a character or a position, or to feel moved, instead of giving us a natural emotional reason growing out of the story or, alternatively, underplaying, he is all too likely to try to find a button in us to push.  One example appears in the scene in the book version of "If This Goes On--" where an old man stands to speak in assembly against the use of psychological re-conditioning.  First, we are told that he looks like Mark Twain.  That's a button.  Then, we are told that the end of his speech is punctuated by him dropping dead.  That's another button.  In truth, if a writer wants an emotional response from his readers, he should be expected to work for it.  The bid for emotion has to be placed in a context.  If I say, "Beth died," it would be foolish to expect my readers to break out their hankies.  If I say, "Beth, a big-eyed little girl with pipestem legs, was wantonly killed by a drunken Nazi butcher. As they dragged her forlorn body away, her schoolbooks lay spilled in the gutter," that is forcing sentiment by obvious appeals.  If I want my readers to cry, I've got to provide them with reasons for liking Beth and solid reasons for her death.
    However, and most particularly in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein's appeals to emotion don't arise legitimately out of his context.  That is completely filled with the mechanics of revolution.  Instead he follows the middle course outlined in the last paragraph and from time to time breaks out a bugle or a violin.  He plays for a paragraph and then puts his instrument away again.
    The title of the novel, for instance, is a ringing phrase that means not very much in particular, and exactly nothing in relation to this book. The--Moon--Is--a--Harsh--Mistress.  Hear the bugle?
    Or this:

    Station was mobbed and I had to push through to see what I assumed to be certain, that passport guards were either dead or fled.  "Dead" it turned out, along with three Loonies.  One was a boy not more than thirteen.  He had died with his hands on a Dragoon's throat and his head still sporting a little red cap.
    This is effective writing.  There is no question of that.  It is also basically shoddy.  I don't believe that in the entire history of the world a boy not more than thirteen has attacked a soldier with his bare hands and "died with his hands on a Dragoon's throat and his head still sporting a little red cap."  If Heinlein had said the boy skulled a guard at thirty paces with a rock and got shot as a consequence, I'd believe that, but "Dragoons" and "little red caps" are the devices of propaganda.
    The date of the story is deliberately chosen for resonance with the American Revolution.  The Lunar Declaration of Independence is settled on the 2nd of July, 2076, and announced on the 4th.  In one sense you can say that this was intelligent capitalization on historical sentiment by the Loonies, but in actual fact it is nothing more than Heinlein doing a bit of auctorial cheating.  The sentiment being capitalized upon is not that of the North American Directorate in 2076 -- it is your sentiment now.  The closer the similarity between one revolution and the other, the more obvious it is that Heinlein is trying to fife-and-drum us into accepting what we would not otherwise find moving, and when he says, "A dinkum comrade, Foo Moses Morris, co-signed much paper to keep us going -- and wound up broke and started over with a little tailoring shop in Kongville," he isn't talking about the Lunar Revolution at all.  He's talking about Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution, who died in poverty, and as a consequence I somehow just can't quite accept "Foo Moses Morris," who never appears again, as being real.  Notice, too, that when Heinlein wants to jerk a tear he throws in the word "little."  Not just a tailoring shop, but a "little" tailoring shop; not just a red cap, but a "little" red cap.
    Heinlein also tries to give his story dramatic force by tying it onto the tail of another of his novels, The Rolling Stones.  An important character in that book is Hazel Meade Stone, and a moderately prominent (but not important) one in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a young girl named Hazel Meade, who eventually marries a young tough named Stone.  Apparently your affection and interest in her earned in The Rolling Stones is supposed to pay Heinlein's way in this novel.  The only trouble is that it is impossible for the Lunar society of The Rolling Stones to be derived from the supposedly previous society of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and it is impossible for the Hazel Meade Stone of one book to be the Hazel Meade Stone of the other.  (See pages 184-185 and 190 of The Rolling Stones just to start.)  Heinlein doesn't care about this -- he is interested only in the effect of the tag "Hazel Meade Stone."
    The Lunar society that Heinlein creates doesn't seem completely self-consistent.  For one thing, he states that half the newcomers to Luna die with reasonable immediacy:  "Luna has only one way to deal with a new chum: Either he makes not one fatal mistake, in personal behavior or in coping with environment that will bite without warning . . . or he winds up as fertilizer in a tunnel farm."  Yet he produces Lunar idiots and asses to suit his purposes, exactly the people one would think would make fatal mistakes.  Moreover, he has a number of very idealistic marital systems that horrify North Americans, but which newcomers accept readily, the systems being based on the Heinlein-given fact of two million men and one million women on the Moon.  But women are given as being protected and half of the newcomers die, so Heinlein says.  One would think that would tend to balance things.  Only five percent of the population, again according to Heinlein, is actually convict.  One would think that, as with the Mormons who immediately attracted many more women than men, in a reasonably short period the natural balance of children would assert itself, and by the time free citizens made up ninety-five per cent of the population, the numbers would be approximately even again.  The narrator of the book is a third-generation Loonie and the imbalance is still two to one.  None of this seems to bear examination.
    The most obvious device that Heinlein uses to manufacture suspense is patently artificial.  One of the four members of the original cell, and the whole-hearted coordinator of the revolution, is the computer mentioned earlier, named Mike.  The notion of a sentient computer is not particularly objectionable in itself, except for the consequent diminishing in stature of the human characters.  However, at the beginning of the story the computer announces the odds against success are seven to one.  Thereafter, at frequent intervals, new odds are announced, getting longer and longer until they eventually reach a hundred to one.  Throughout, however, to our apparent view things are going exactly as planned.  We have to take Heinlein's word that things are actually getting worse.  One would think, too, that the initial odds would have taken into account all the necessary chances the revolution has to take, and that only the unexpected would materially affect the odds.  The unexpected does not seem to happen, but the odds -- Heinlein's computer tells us -- keep getting longer and longer.  The result is an altogether unreal sort of suspense that lacks the power to compel belief.
    The most irritating device that Heinlein has used in the book, however, is the language it is told in.  The narrator thinks and writes in a sort of babu-Russian in which the first-person pronouns and definite articles are all but missing.  This is bothersome to read in itself, but it is also both artificial and irrelevant.  First, it is not consistent either with itself or with actual Russian grammatical construction.  (Buttonhole a passing Russian and check the book out with him.)  Second, by 2075 one assumes that everybody will talk enough differently from the present to need translation into our terms.  The future equivalent of "damn," expressed in present terms, is "damn."  If one assumes that in 2075 English is spoken on the Moon with a Russian grammatical structure, it will not sound then like an ignorant present-day Russian trying to speak English.  It will sound "normal," and therefore should be represented by normal English, with perhaps an odd word or two for flavor.  Third, and reinforcing this point, it is a fact that the narrator is the only character in the whole book who speaks this artificial jargon.  It would have better been dispensed with.
    Part of the problem is that this main character is a cipher.  The computer is much more alive and forceful.  (Note, too, that the computer, like the main character of Stranger in a Strange Land, is named Mike, which -- as has already been pointed out -- means "who is like God," a point Heinlein is well aware of.)  The only claims that the protagonist has to individuality are his one arm and his dialect.  Other than that, he is faceless, even more so than the similar narrator of Starship Troopers, and where Rico of StarshipTroopers can act decisively, the present hero does not and cannot.  Manuel does nothing throughout The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress but report the progress of the revolution.  He is an observer, but he does not himself act.  In fact, at the one point in the story at which he is called upon to act -- to initiate the defense of the Moon against a sneak attack in his capacity as Minister of Defense -- he is not present and not able, and the computer, which overshadows him throughout, imitates his voice and issues his orders for him.  The narrator has no opinions of his own, no tastes, no individual will -- he is exactly the person to be replaced by a sentient computer.
    The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress has its interest, but it is not as a novel.  It is as dramatized lecture.

Bibliography -- Heinlein's Third Period

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Note:  The print edition of Heinlein in Dimension is still available from Advent:Publishers, PO Box A3228, Chicago, IL 60690 or (autographed) from me .  $17 for a hardcover copy, $10 for a paperback.  I charge for shipping and handling, Advent doesn't.
    For those who may be interested, the circumstances surrounding the writing of this book are described elsewhere at this site, in The Story of Heinlein in Dimension.

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee