Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




1. Stories on Paper

    To an extent, any division between the construction and the execution of a story is artificial, just as it is artificial to discuss the context, characters and problems of a story outside their relation to one another.  No story exists until it is actually told, and by then construction and execution are so interwoven that a clear separation of them is no longer possible.  Still, realizing that the distinction is an artificial one, I'm going to go ahead and make it, mainly because it is convenient.  For one thing, it seems to me that the most pertinent criticisms of Heinlein's stories can be made of the things he has done with his basic materials rather than of the materials themselves.  As an example, when Heinlein has taken time out in his most recent stories for an irrelevant conversation on sexual morality, the weakness is not in the framework of his story but in the tale built upon the framework.
    In this chapter, I will first discuss the words in which Heinlein tells his stories:  his style in narrative and dialogue.  I suppose that this could be regarded as a part of his basic materials, but it seems to me that there is this difference, that the author's style is not necessary to a particular story in the same manner that a particular person, problem and setting as seen from a particular point of view are; style is a personal embellishment.  As an analogy, though the Gothic style of architecture might be basic to an architect, it isn't necessary to his building in the same way that bricks and wood and glass are.  Style is always a matter of execution.
    Next I'm going to take up Heinlein's handling of sexual relationships in his stories.  This has its intrinsic interest, of course, but it seems particularly worth discussing both because Heinlein suddenly started writing about sex after ignoring it for years and because his originality lapses badly whenever he puts a man and a woman in the same bed, or even in the same room.
    Heinlein's plotting has probably been the most sharply criticized area of his writing through the years.  For instance, Damon Knight said in In Search of Wonder*   that weak plots was one of the two adverse criticisms of Heinlein that he could make (the other was Heinlein's use of slang).  Heinlein's plotting is the third major theme of this chapter.
    Finally, I mean to abandon the distinction between construction and execution completely and examine three of Heinlein's stories in the light of the points discussed in the last chapter and this one.  This time, however, instead of being criticized as examples of fiction in general, as before, the stories will be examined for what they show of Heinlein as an individual writer.

2. Style

    Every writer has his own individual way of putting things, his own style.  Given a computer and half a dozen factors -- average length of word, number of words per paragraph, length of sentences, proportion of various parts of speech to the whole, and so on -- identifying any writer should be a simple matter of comparison.  The personal stamp of a man is on the things he says and the way that he says them.
    Most writers would just as soon have things this way. They write because they want to be heard as individuals.  However, some don't sound individual at all to the ordinary reader, which is their personal misfortune.  A man who sounds individually himself is going to appeal to more readers than a man who sounds like a thousand other people.  I'm not talking, of course, of the man who sounds like himself not because he sees and expresses himself more clearly than other people, but because he is so lacking in powers of observation that nobody else could be quite as bad as he is in his own special way. I'm speaking of writers of ability.
    Listen to these two passages, both from heavily sensual writers.  First Jack Vance:

    Through the dim forests came Liane the Wayfarer, passing along the shadowed glades with a prancing lightfooted gait.  He whistled, he caroled, he was plainly in high spirits.  Around his finger he twirled a bit of wrought bronze -- a circlet graved with angular crabbed characters, now stained black.
    Then Ray Bradbury:
    It had been raining for seven years; thousands upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain, with the drum and gush of water, with the sweet crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy they were tidal waves come over the islands.  A thousand forests had been crushed under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again.  And this was the way life was forever on the planet Venus, and this was the school room of the children of the rocket men and women who had come to a raining world to set up civilization and live out their lives.
    For all the sensuality they have in common, these are distinctly different writers.  I don't see how a page from one could possibly be mistaken for a page from the other.
    A goodly portion of what makes style is bound up in the devices a writer chooses to make his work vivid.  For instance, Poul Anderson says of a policy that he follows:  "A useful device -- I think it was first enunciated by Flaubert -- is to invoke at least three senses in every scene, remembering that we have much more than five senses."**   In the opening scene of Anderson's Hugo-winning novelette, "No Truce With Kings," †† there are the following bits of sensual data:  shouts, stamping boots, the thump of fists on tables, clashing cups, shadows, stirring banners, winking light, wind and rain outside, a loosened collar, singing, a chill feeling, a dark passageway, and clattering footsteps -- all of these and others in a matter of six hundred words or so.  They tie you to what is happening.  This is not a bad policy, but neither is it an easy one to follow, mainly because no matter what a writer may determine to set down, what he actually puts on paper is not completely controlled by his conscious mind.  This policy is also, as Anderson says, not the only solution to the problem of making writing real and vivid.
    Theodore Sturgeon has a good sense of the nuances of speech and of shades of meaning.  He draws delicate portraits.  This, I think, is the key to his work:  he draws word portraits.  His writing, even to his similes and metaphors, is visually oriented.  He has the artist's eye and it marks his work as something different than Vance's, or Bradbury's, or Anderson's:
    The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear.  His clothes were old and many-windowed.  Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist.  He was tall and flat.  His eyes were calm and his face was dead.‡‡
    The common element that links Vance, Bradbury, Anderson, and Sturgeon is their use of sense impressions to make their writing vivid.  Robert Heinlein, however, is an almost extreme opposite.  His writing is not sensual in any degree.  Instead, he depends on other things -- description of people and things in action, and clever turns of phrase -- to catch and hold attention.
    No matter what policy he would like to follow, a writer in practice tells what he sees.  The impressions that are important to him are the ones he passes on.  Sturgeon lingers over visual impressions.  Anderson ticks them off and then goes on to record thumps, clashes and the feel of a loosened collar.  Heinlein gives only a minimum of visual description, and never lingers with it at all, and gives even less of other sensual impressions.
    In speaking of Heinlein's characterization, I mentioned that he hardly bothers with the looks of his characters.  Here are the three secretaries of Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land:
    Anne was blonde, Miriam red-headed, and Dorcas dark; they ranged, respectively, from pleasantly plump to deliciously slender.  Their ages spread over fifteen years but it was hard to tell which was the eldest.
    (It also seems difficult to keep them separate, since this is all the description you ever get of these moderately important characters.)
    Heinlein's backgrounds, for all that they are well-developed, are also featureless.  Glory Road, an open-air adventure much like the Vance story quoted above is sans color, sans sights, sans sounds.  Rooms, landscapes, cities -- microcosm to macrocosm -- all in Heinlein are given only in outline, never in detail.
    Even so, Heinlein's writing is vivid.  His solutions are simply different.  Since his continuing interest is in process -- how things both physical and social work -- Heinlein doesn't tell what things look like, he tells what they do.  For an example, in Beyond This Horizon, Heinlein has one of his characters introduce a Colt .45 automatic.  Physically, it is "novel," "odd," "uncouth," and has a stud on its side which when pressed lets a long, flat container slide out.  That's it.  That's all you get.  If you had never seen a .45 automatic, you would be no better off for Heinlein's description of it.  You might mistake it for a gum machine (novel, odd, uncouth; has a stud on its side which when pressed lets a long, flat container -- your gum -- slide out).  On the other hand, in dialogue Heinlein lets us know more about it and he demonstrates how it works very nicely.  You still don't know what the damned thing looks like, but you know very well what it does.
    " 'Value' " -- says Colonel Dubois of Starship Troopers -- "has two factors for a human being:  first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him . . . and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him."  This is very much Heinlein's attitude in writing.  He wants to work out how his characters can use a thing and what it will cost them.
    He doesn't really care whether it looks like a gum machine or a .45 automatic.  He wants to know if you have to put a nickel into it before the long, flat container slides out, and whether what you get is a magazine of bullets or a pack of gum.  This is not a bad attitude to have in writing science fiction where so much encountered is strange.  Does it matter what the monster looks like?  The question is whether or not he bites.  Does it matter what the machine looks like?  The question is whether or not it works.  Does it matter what the character looks like?  The question -- for Heinlein in particular -- is whether or not he is capable of doing the right thing at the proper moment. 
    Of course, it does matter what these things look like.  Not described at all, they become tricks produced from a hat.  Some description is always necessary.  Beyond minimum description, however, definition by demonstration can be effective.  Properly speaking, it isn't an abandonment of detail, but the choice of a different sort of detail to report.

    Heinlein relies heavily on clever phrasing to carry his stories.  He has an ear for brisk, bright metaphor.  In his early writing, this brightness appeared more in narrative than in dialogue.  Here is a description of a situation from Beyond This Horizon:

    The poor degenerate starveling descendants of the once-mighty Builders of Mars can hardly be described as intelligent -- except in charity.  A half-witted dog could cheat them at cards.
    Heinlein does not have a particularly acute ear for individualities of speech -- his characters have always sounded very much alike.  In his early stories, at most one character was blessed with the ability to speak in brisk, bright, clever metaphor.  The rest spoke a simple, utilitarian English.  The one character (usually a Heinlein Individual of the competent or wise old man stage) was thus enabled to stand out a bit from the crowd:
    "Well, it could be that she simply became shocked at overhearing a rather worldly and cynical discussion between the Holy One and, oh, say the High Bursar -- taxes and tithes and the best way to squeeze them out of the peasants.  It might be something like that, although the scribe for such a conference would hardly be a grass-green Virgin on her first service."  ("If This Goes On--")

    "You broke?  Shucks, I've been there myself.  Relax."  The man waggled his fingers at the waitress.  "Come here, honey chile.  My partner and I will each have a breakfast steak with a fried egg sitting on top and this and that on the side.  I want that egg to be just barely dead.  If it is cooked solid, I'll nail it to the wall as a warning to others."  (Starman Jones)

    "Uh, Star, I've got a still better idea.  Why don't we high-tail it back the way we came and homestead that spot where we caught the fish?  In five years we'll have a nice little farm.  In ten years, after the word gets around, we'll have a nice little motel, too, with a free-form swimming pool and a putting green."  (Glory Road)

    There is enough of a cumulative effect in both narrative and dialogue that Heinlein's writing soon becomes easily recognizable.  Unfortunately, however, in Heinlein's third-period stories there has been a three-fold change.  There are now more characters using brisk, bright metaphor in dialogue, those characters speak pithily more often, and the total amount of dialogue in Heinlein's stories has increased.  This is not good, first because stories need action to carry them along, not static campfire pow-wows, and second because the more one hears of people who all talk in the same unusual way, the less individual they become.  Brisk, bright cleverness in narrative is acceptable since it can be taken as the author's personal style.  As dialogue, it seems mannered and artificial.  This may be a contributing factor in the falling off in quality of Heinlein's most recent stories.

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*2nd ed., p. 77.  [ back ]
The Dying Earth, Hillman Periodicals, Inc., New York, 1950, p. 71.  [ back ]
‡"All Summer in a Day," Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1954.  [ back ]
**Personal letter.  [ back ]
††Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1963.  [ back ]
‡‡More Than Human, Farrar, Straus & Young, New York, 1953, p. 3.  [ back ]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee