Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




1. Story Elements

    One of the things that every writer runs into, or at least, having accepted the folklore of the writing trade, expects to run into at any time is the fellow who comes up and says, "Listen, I have the greatest ideas.  I just don't have the time to write them down.  Let's split fifty-fifty.  I give you the ideas and you write them and sell them for us."  The eternal, inevitable, necessary answer is a hollow laugh, and the reason is that story ideas count for absolutely nothing ninety-nine per cent of the time.  Almost anything can prompt a story -- a character, a setting, or a situation -- but none of these is a story in itself.  The idea is nothing, the writing is all.  When the story is done, the original idea may or may not even be there.
    I hesitate to state categorically what a story is because tastes and definitions change.  Any definition is a line drawn in the dirt that dares someone to step over it and make you enjoy his doing it.  My own idea of a story is the statement of a problem that involves human beings together with a resolution of the problem.  The trappings of a story that make it interesting, entertaining, and dramatic are dialogue, characterization, description and details of action.  Like any list standing by itself, bare and alone, this is bound to sound bloodless, and it is, in the same way that the list of beef, potatoes, carrots, peas and spices that go into a stew gives no indication of the hand of the chef in the process and the final flavor of the dish.  Writers, like chefs, have their own ways of doing things, and although their stories are made of elements that are similar or identical to the elements of other writers, the stories themselves are marked as individually their own.
    In this chapter, I mean to discuss Robert Heinlein's handling of some of the common elements of every story -- context, people, problems, and story structure -- and his attitude toward his material.  The import of the common elements is clear.  Every story has a context, a physical and social setting.  An exposition of this is important in any story, but particularly important in science fiction since most science fictional contexts are invented ones with which the reader must be made familiar.  Since my idea of a story involves human beings, consistent and interesting characters must also be invented and set down as story population.  The crux of any story is the central problem which arises from the interaction of people within the story context, and which must be resolved (or, in a gimmick story, illuminated -- see "Columbus Was a Dope," for instance) to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion.
    As I'm using the word, structure is the plan of the action of the story.  This can generally be represented by a diagram showing the direction of story movement from the opening of the story problem to its resolution.  Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, for instance, was fond of using a two-pronged structure:  that is, he would split his two central characters and follow one until she or he got into a terrific pickle and then cut back to the other and do the same thing again, the cliff-hangers coming at the end of every chapter and the two story lines converging at the climax.  The total number of possible plans of action is immense, but most writers seem to prefer to restrict themselves to a favored two or three.
    Attitude toward material is tremendously important to the final story.  Almost any sort of story -- satire, buffoon comedy, melodrama or high tragedy -- can be made of the same basic material -- the dispossession of a Danish prince, for instance.  The difference lies in the attitude of the author to his material, the things he emphasizes and the things he discounts, the complexity or simplicity of the story he makes from the basic material, and his seriousness or lack of seriousness.
    These things are half of what makes a writer individually himself.  The other half is the words he sets on the page -- what he actually does with the materials he has assembled.  Included in this are such things as style and dialogue on one hand and on the other the degree to which the writer realizes the potential of the situations, characters and problems he has assembled.  But these things will be taken up in the next chapter.

2. Context

    Characterizing situations has always been one of Heinlein's strongest points, and I think it is safe to say that he has always done better with developing his societies than he has with developing individual characters.  The reason for this seems to lie in Heinlein's engineering interest in how things work.  Describing what people do and letting it go at that is not enough to satisfy in fiction.  We demand reasons for what people do.  Heinlein does give us reasons but he doesn't dwell on them and examine them lovingly.  It isn't a thing he cares deeply about and he doesn't labor at the business.  On the other hand, telling how a society operates, giving detail, is quite enough to satisfy since nobody is quite sure why even our society is the way it is.  Look at the internecine warfare that goes on in the social sciences, and almost any science fiction story that purports to tell why things work as they do is bound to seem superficial and less than convincing.  Heinlein in general has preferred to show how things work in such consistent detail that his societies speak for themselves; they don't need to be explained or justified.  Mark Reinsberg, in his introduction to Heinlein's Future History volume, The Green Hills of Earth, has written that Heinlein has given the future a daily life, which may be another way of saying the same thing.

    Heinlein's most ambitious attempt to create a context is his Future History (newly republished in 1967 in one volume), a body of work that taken as a whole some people consider his most important.
    In essence, what Heinlein did was to give a detailed picture of the next two hundred years and a sketchier picture of five hundred years more.  This is an amazing and ambitious undertaking involving twenty stories written and rewritten over more than twenty years.  Other writers -- such as H. Beam Piper, James Blish, Poul Anderson, and Isaac Asimov -- have attempted similarly detailed futures in the years since Heinlein began his, and I think that most of them owe credit to Heinlein for scouting the territory for them.
    The Future History does not actually form a complete whole.  It was not planned as a unit in advance, and it belongs primarily to Heinlein's adolescence as a writer.  It was assembled by compromise, chopping, and rewriting.  The result is that the individual pieces stand up well enough by themselves while the Future History they supposedly form does not.
    The first notice of the Future History came in an editorial note in the March 1941 Astounding which pointed out that all of Robert Heinlein's stories up to that time (except for two fantasies published in Unknown) were based on common assumptions.  In the May 1941 issue, a detailed and involved chart was published that listed the imagined dates of all his Future History stories, the life spans of his various characters, and the technical, sociological and historical outlines of his projected future.  Adjustments in the chart were made later and more stories were introduced into it, but what was recognizably the same chart appeared as endpapers in the first four volumes of the Future History to be published in book form, The Man Who Sold the Moon, The Green Hills of Earth, Revolt in 2100, and Methuselah's Children, though not in the last volume, Orphans of the Sky.  A much revised version was published in The Past Through Tomorrow, the 1967 omnibus volume.*
    The chart covers the period from 1950 to 2600 A.D.  In the 1941 chart, there is a break from 1990 until 2070, with one exception, "Logic of Empire," the story about slavery on Venus, which takes place about 2010.
    By the end of 1941, every story which takes place after 2070 in the Future History had been published.  These cover the revolt against religious tyranny, the new constitution, the breaking of the constitution, and the exploration of the stars:  the stories that appear in Revolt in 2100, Methuselah's Children, and Orphans of the Sky.  They do form a whole, except for "Misfit," and I suspect were conceived as a group.
    The stories that are set before 2010, on the other hand, do not form a whole and do not really connect with the stories on the other side of the gap.  Heinlein continued to add stories to this front part of the Future History until 1962, but he never attempted to bridge the sixty years between 2010 and 2070.  Those that come before are near-future speculation; "If This Goes On--" is set in a different world with an almost medieval tone.
    This gap is one of the two things that reveal the improvised nature of the Future History.  The other is the visible chopping and fitting that was carried out through the years.
    " 'And He Built a Crooked House,' " the story of the tesseract house, was originally listed in 1941 as a Future History story.  It doesn't tie to any of the other stories, however, and was eventually dropped.
    "  '--We Also Walk Dogs,' " a 1941 Anson MacDonald story, was not originally included in the Future History, but was later rewritten to make it fit.  The fit is still an uncomfortable one:  the advances that are the subject of the story appear neither in the chart nor in the later stories.
    "The Green Hills of Earth" was not originally thought of as a Future History story.  There are references to Rhysling and his songs in a definitely non-Future History novel, Farmer in the Sky, and Mary Risling of Methuselah's Children had to be changed into "Mary Sperling" to make room for this new Rhysling.
    "The Long Watch," too, was only finally fitted or shoehorned into the Future History.  It derives from Heinlein's juvenile Space Cadet, again definitely non-Future History, and in fact is nothing more nor less than an expansion of a paragraph on page 22 of that novel.
    Reading straight through the whole Future History isn't even necessary to show its lack of unity.  Simply reading The Green Hills of Earth from cover to cover is enough to show that this is no more than a collection of stories, some of them quite good ones, that don't happen to have a whole lot to do with one another.  As Heinlein himself wrote in a note in Revolt in 2100:

    . . . These stories were never meant to be a definitive history of the future (concerning which I know no more than you do), nor are they installments of a long serial (since each is intended to be entirely independent of all the others).  They are just stories, meant to amuse and written to buy groceries.
    However, if the Future History as written fails to add up to a whole, the chart of the Future History serves as a very impressive example of developing a context, as a close reading of it will show.  It is so impressive, in fact, that its existence alone has been enough to lend the impression of connection to a set of stories that would otherwise not have seemed closely related.

    More important than this tour de force to the question of Heinlein's strengths as a writer is his performance in individual stories.  Here, much less flamboyantly, and as his skill grew, much more convincingly, he applied the lessons of his Future History chart rather than those of his Future History.
    For some idea of his method, let's take the short story "The Menace from Earth."  The core of this story is human beings flying under their own power.  Heinlein quite evidently started with this as an idea and wanted to make it plausible, both in itself and as an element in society.  A severely reduced gravity, such as that of the Moon, combined with air under normal pressure and elaborate wings solve the problem of possibility.  He adds a volcanic bubble underground on the Moon, serving as an air storage tank (its primary purpose, in fact -- a shrewd stroke).  This provides a physical setting.  The social context is the Lunar equivalent of the ski slope, and for this Heinlein has invented rules of the road, learner's wings, flightmasters, and a few other likely possibilities.  For added conviction, before Heinlein ever introduces his flying, he shows us the underground nature of Luna City and the low gravity of the Moon in bits of pertinent action.
    The heart of Heinlein's technique is the combination of actual fact (the Moon's low gravity) with possible "facts" within the story (the volcanic bubble as air tank).  The difference between this and the "facts" on economics, say, that Edward Bellamy presents in Looking Backward is that Bellamy presents his facts statically in lectures while Heinlein uses his actively.  In this case, we see people flying, flying is used as a background within which human problems are developed and come to a conclusion, flying provides a plausible, believable, possible context for people and their problems.
    A large part of Heinlein's ability, and a large part of his appeal, lies in the possible but not obvious nature of the trappings of his contexts.  Given the actual and the possible, and flying on the Moon follows, but not obviously.  Most of us have encountered moments in fiction that carry an emotional shock of recognition.  These usually come when there is perfect emotional communication between writer and reader:  the writer has his character do, or say, or think, or feel exactly the right thing for the situation, and that thing is so right that although looking ahead it can't be seen coming, looking back it seems inevitable.  Heinlein's forte has been not the emotional shock of recognition, but the intellectual shock of recognition.
    Set a problem:  given the natures of the Moon and Mars, think of a plausible cargo to be carried from a settlement on one to a settlement on the other.  The things that come to my mind are obvious and dull -- ore of some sort, possibly.  Heinlein came up with a good answer in The Rolling Stones; looking at it objectively, a beautiful answer:  used wide-tired bicycles, to be repainted and refurbished in orbit.  A bicycle makes perfect low-gravity transportation, so bicycles are plausible.  It is cheaper to send bicycles from the Moon to Mars than from Earth to Mars in terms of fuel cost, so bicycles from the Moon to Mars is plausible.  And Heinlein makes a demand for bicycles on Mars plausible by providing two applications for them, prospecting and tourism, the second application invented by the protagonists of the story when the first turns out to be less important than they had thought.  To come up with an answer like this requires not only facts about the Moon and Mars, but certain sorts of societies in both places.  Heinlein's strength is such that I am quite sure that he could have invented any number of other cargoes, all just as unobvious and just as believable.
     The two most central requirements of any context are that it be self-consistent and that it be used.  The more complex a context is, the more believable, but also the more difficult to build consistently.  The fault of too many science fiction stories of the cheaper variety is that their contexts involve little more than the obvious, the cargo of ore from the Moon to Mars, and the little that isn't obvious -- say, the drink of zlith that the hero gulps down in the second chapter for a quick lift -- comes from nowhere, serves no purpose except to add false color, and thereupon disappears never to be heard of again. 
    Heinlein has by and large been able to build complex, consistent societies, the complexity coming from individual elements that fit together at the same time that they are used to further the story action.  "The Menace from Earth," while a nice little example, is actually minor stuff.  One of Heinlein's longer stories, say, Beyond This Horizon, provides a much better sample of what Heinlein can do.
    The society of Beyond This Horizon is tightly planned.  It is not threatened from without.  Everyone has a basic living wage.  Mankind is being gradually improved by the selection of favorable genetic traits.  Life in the society is safe and sane for anybody who simply wants to continue living and die at a ripe old age.
    This is, of course, the typical utopian dream that as given in a standard manner seems like nothing so much as a vision of eternal boredom.  Heinlein has realized this:  in fact the problem is implicit throughout the entire story.  The people in this society, as people are wont to do, chafe at its strictures.  They gamble.  They search for thrills.  They take to wearing sidearms and invent an involved code of behavior, violations of which lead to duels, simply to keep things lively.
    More than this, however, malcontents seek to overturn the society.  Revolution is a common theme in science fiction but seldom if ever for such a plausible reason as boredom.  In fact, the return to a more primitive life in which there is obvious point is one of the appeals of the revolutionaries.  Heinlein, however, rejects this.  Revolutions usually settle very little and a return to the simple life is not likely.  Heinlein has the revolution defeated as summarily as it would actually be, led as it is by dilettanti.  He offers instead an alternative solution -- setting to work on some of the larger, less obvious, perhaps impossible-to-solve problems that have kept men awake nights wondering.  In other words, Heinlein's answer to a static situation is not to retrench, but to find new goals.
    This picture is built consistently and subtly at all points, subtly enough, certainly, that much of the picture I've just given is set down only in background detail and never explicitly stated.  For instance, as an indication of stagnancy, Heinlein shows men comparing nail polish.  Football, re-introduced, is accepted wildly, but only after it has been beefed up so that deaths are involved.  A scientist just back from Pluto is used for effective contrast; his little outpost society is engaged in solving real problems and not in wasting time fighting duels so that he finds himself at something of a loss when expected to carry a gun again.  A fading dance star is so anxious to have something to do that she undertakes a long jaunt to entertain the outposts on Mars and Pluto.  These details are not pounded home -- the fingernail polish is used just once and dropped -- but they do form a consistent picture.  They form a genuine, solid, three-dimensional context.

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*" 'Let There Be Light' " and the unwritten stories have been dropped from the canon, and "Searchlight" and "The Menace from Earth" have been added.  There are other changes in the body of the chart.  [ back ]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee