Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



3. People 

    Heinlein's characterization has not shown the variety that his contexts have, but in a way this makes very good sense.  Basically, Heinlein has used the same general characters in story after story, and has kept these characters limited ones.  There is, however, a distinct difference between limitation in characterization and unconvincing characterization.  One is neutral and the other is negative, and Heinlein's characterization has always been more neutral than anything else. 
    One would think that almost every writer in attempting to characterize would describe his people physically, if nothing else, but in actual practice this doesn't hold true.  In fact, there are a number of writers, Robert Heinlein among them, who make it a deliberate policy not to describe their characters.  Heinlein always gives the sex, sometimes the age, sometimes the size ("tall"), but seldom anything more than this, particularly since his first period. 
    The policy, as nearly as I can tell, comes from Murray Leinster.  The reason for it seems to be that if a character is not described, the reader can picture him as he pleases, and the picture doesn't even have to come close to that held by the writer.  In actual practice, the reader usually never notices that the description is not there.  He does what Leinster or Heinlein expects and forms his own picture. 
    Generally speaking, however, I don't think the practice is a very good one.  First, while the reader doesn't notice the lack of description while he reads, afterwards individual characters aren't likely to stand out in his mind.  Leinster's characters are a blank-faced crowd and Heinlein's characters, with one exception, are not particularly singular.  Second, the policy can lead to occasional shocks.  For instance, Mr. Kiku, the wily diplomat in The Star Beast, turns out to be an old man, but Heinlein doesn't say so until far into the book, though mention of age or gray hair might have been made early.  The realization that Kiku is old requires a readjustment of attitude.  Too many readjustments can needlessly ruin a story. 
    Instead of describing them or giving them different speech patterns, Heinlein has generally differentiated his characters in terms of action and dialogue, what they do and what they say.  For the most part, his most striking characters come from his earliest period of writing when he did allow himself a certain amount of latitude:  Joe-Jim Gregory, the two-headed mutant in Orphans of the Sky, for instance, and Harriman, and Waldo, and Lazarus Long.  These stand out, however, more for what and who they are than for any great individuality in personality.  More recently, there are Hazel Stone and Mr. Kiku, but it is their positions in their stories that make them stand out, rather than their unique natures.  By and large, the most truly individual of Heinlein's characters have been the various aliens that have populated a number of his juvenile novels:  the Mother Thing from Have Space Suit--Will Travel, Willis the Bouncer from Red Planet, Lummox from The Star Beast, and "Sir Isaac Newton," the Venerian dragon from Between Planets, and part of their individuality may come from the fact that they are of necessity more thoroughly described than Heinlein's human characters. 

    There is one unique and vivid human Heinlein character, but he is a composite of Joe-Jim Gregory, Harriman, Waldo, Lazarus Long, Mr. Kiku and many others, rather than any one individual.  I call the composite the Heinlein Individual.  In its various avatars it is Heinlein's most serious attempt at characterization.  It is a single personality that appears in three different stages and is repeated in every Heinlein book in one form or another. 
    The earliest stage is that of the competent but naive youngster.  The hero of almost any Heinlein juvenile will serve as an example, as will John Lyle of "If This Goes On--" and Valentine Michael Smith of Stranger in a Strange Land.  The second stage is the competent man in full glory, the man who knows how things work.  Examples of this are Zeb Jones of "If This Goes On--," the secret-agent narrator of The Puppet Masters, and Sergei Greenberg of The Star Beast. The last stage is the wise old man who not only knows how things work, but why they work, too.  Jubal Harshaw of Stranger in a Strange Land is an example, and Baslim of Citizen of the Galaxy, and Colonel Dubois of Starship Troopers. However, these three stages as I have given them are simply the equivalents of frames cut from a movie film to serve as illustrations -- the Heinlein Individual forms a continuum covering all points between youngster and wise old man. 
    Outside of this Heinlein Individual, there is usually a small supporting cast of side men in any one book.  Their most striking feature is their competence, reflecting that of the Heinlein Individual.  Beyond that, however, hardly any attempt is made to individualize them, for, after all, they are no more than supporting characters, and if lead characters are not described, what can be expected for less important players?  After this small circle, Heinlein ordinarily relies on caricature, and he has a number of set pieces which he produces as needed.  One is that of Whining, Useless, Middle-Aged Mama -- the mother of John Thomas Stuart in The Star Beast is an example.  Matching this is the Pompous Male Blowhard -- for example, Secretary for Spatial Affairs MacClure, to go again no farther than The Star Beast.  A third is the Nasty Young Weasel, usually named something like "Sneaky" Weems.  You can find examples of him in Starman Jones, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Space Cadet, among others.  Further caricatures could be named, but let's stop with these. 
    I have only two real criticisms to make of Heinlein's characterization, one of which I have already given -- nondescription of characters.  The other is Heinlein's lack of ability in drawing convincing women.  There is a vast difference, for instance, between Heinlein's standard juvenile hero and Podkayne Fries, or Holly Jones of "The Menace from Earth."  Podkayne uses artificial slang, deceives herself regularly, and is less than completely competent -- she comes, in fact, closer to being a caricature than she does to being a female example of the Heinlein Individual.  Heinlein's adult women generally appear little and then as background figures in all but his third period stories, and the women of that period, Barbara Wells of Farnham's Freehold, for example, are little more than voices repeating dialogue, not rounded characters.  This lack may be one of the reasons that Heinlein's juveniles as a body are his best work -- women are not demanded in them as centrally participating figures. 
    Heinlein's characters, it seems to me, are clear if not striking, and for his purposes this is probably enough.  The one overwhelming reason that I can see for the existence of science fiction is its potential for setting the familiar and the unfamiliar side by side to allow new perspectives.  Heinlein has concentrated on developing unfamiliar contexts for his stories; if he were to populate these contexts with wild characters, the result might seem chaotic.  On the other hand, the small cast of characters that Heinlein has actually used has not been an intrusion in our view of his contexts.  Moreover this balance of unfamiliar backgrounds and familiar people may well be a considerable factor in Heinlein's noted ability to provide lived-in futures.  The futures seem lived-in because we can see people we readily recognize living in them.  Since the hardest thing to achieve in science fiction is credibility, Heinlein may very well have been distinctly ahead by keeping his characters restricted. 

4. Problems 

    Characters, background, and story problem are the interlocking essentials of any story.  A genuine problem, arising from the nature of the background and characters, is probably the most important of the three because characters or background alone are seldom enough to hold attention, but a real and urgent problem requiring a resolution is enough to keep almost anyone reading. 
    Science fiction's unlimited canvas offers any number of possibilities for the testing of human beings.  The trouble has been that much of modern science fiction has been written by men who freeze in the face of unlimited possibility.  The result has been a reliance on trivial situations. 
    One variety of this tail chasing is the arbitrary problem solved in an arbitrary fashion.  Here's an example for you:  an urgent reason exists for getting from Point A to Point B.  Let's say that everybody on board ship has caught the deadly piffle plague and will die if they don't get to the medical station on Planet Zed.  Halfway there, however, the ship's hyperspace navigation device goes on the blink and unless it is repaired, everybody on the ship will die. There's the arbitrary problem for you.  Instead of opening a drawer, taking out a spare part, and fixing his bloody machine, the genius hero of the story fashions a new frabismus with his bare hands, two pieces of wire and some bat's blood and single-handedly brings the ship in.  End of story, arbitrarily solved. 
    Almost as bad is the silly sort of adventure story that starts running after the science fictional equivalent of the jeweled idol's eye (smuggled gorph beans) and never stops long enough for us to see that we are chasing a meaningless goal.  The quest for "The Egg of the Phoenix" in Glory Road is exactly this sort of story problem. 
    There are some very sharp problems set forth in science fiction.  Poul Anderson's "The Man Who Came Early"* is a good short example.  It poses a familiar character, a modern soldier, in an unfamiliar context, Viking Iceland.  The story problem arises from character and situation:  the man thinks and acts wrong; by the standards of the time and the place, he isn't a real man.  The solution of the problem is the character's death.  Whether or not you like its conclusion, the story does examine a portion of what it is to be a human being. 
    All but a small portion of Robert Heinlein's stories ask similarly serious questions about people and society.  This, in fact, is the second of Heinlein's obvious strengths, the first being his ability to portray strange contexts.  This isn't a small matter, either -- it takes real discernment to develop genuine problems from a given situation and character. 
    As an example, look at the story "Sky Lift."  This story is in fact about the deadly piffle plague, but the difference between the story I outlined above and the one that Heinlein actually wrote is great.  In this case, the people with the piffle plague ("Larkin's disease") are on Pluto and medical supplies have to be rushed to them.  The crux of the story, however, is nothing so empty as a breakdown in an imaginary device.  It is an actual fact that to get from Earth to Pluto in nine days means a constant boost at three-and-a-half gravities, and it is another fact that the human body is not built to take acceleration of that sort for that length of time.  Heinlein simply sets as one of his story conditions the necessity to get from Earth to Pluto in nine days.  The plague is not the story problem.  The problem is the difficulties a man encounters in attempting to function at a necessary job under intolerable conditions that are slowly turning him into a moron.  The difference between a problem that involves a broken hyperspace navigation device and a problem that involves a broken human being is an important one that deserves to be more widely recognized in science fiction than it presently is. 
    Take another example:  a society that has turned fact into allegory and a man with an inquiring mind.  What does the man do when he finds that everything he has been taught is completely wrong? 
    Or say that a guild system exists and that you can't get a job unless you belong.  What does a young fellow do if the only job he wants is protected by a guild he can't join?  The obvious fictional reaction would be that he starts a revolution and throws the blighters out.  A dozen science fiction novels at a minimum have done just that, but a revolution obscures the central problem that Heinlein takes the time to examine: what does a person do when every choice he has seems a dead end? 
    Once it is granted that Heinlein chooses genuine problems to examine, it is interesting to see where he lays his emphases.  If a story problem results from the interplay of characters and context, there is still a question as to which side of the interplay is emphasized in the problem.  With most writers, the question doesn't arise at all.  The story problem is always character-centered.  An example of a character-centered story is Starman Jones:  Max Jones' problem, that of being stymied by a guild system, while no doubt widespread in his society, is here given as a personal problem solved in a personal manner.  In Heinlein's writing, however, just as his stories have emphasized context more than character, as often as not his story problems have been context-centered. This is not common. 
    The interest, for instance, in Heinlein's very first story, "Life-Line," is in the effect of an invention on society rather than on any individual person.  There is still an interplay of human beings and society, but society is central.  The same thing holds true for "Misfit," Heinlein's second story.  While Andrew Jackson Libby, the young protagonist, is important, he isn't of central importance.  The story problem is the building of a space station, not the metamorphosis of a young boy; the metamorphosis is important only in that it makes the final success of the space station complete. 
    Beyond This Horizon is centrally concerned not with its individual characters but with the human problems of a perfect society.  The Puppet Masters is concerned with what happens to a society threatened by an enemy that is totally alien, implacable, and totally bent on subjugating it.  We see what happens from the point of view of one man, but the story is not his.  Both these stories are context-centered. 
    The emphasis on context-centered story problems was greater in Heinlein's early stories than it has been since, but even in his more recent fiction there have been strong strains of context-centered problems.  In Have Space Suit--Will Travel there is the minor problem of refurbishing a used space suit.  This reveals little about the hero; it reveals a great deal about space suits, which in the developing context of the story become important.  This sort of problem is typical of Heinlein and shows his continuing interest in how things work. 

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*Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1956.  [ back

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee