Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



3. Sexual Relationships

    There was a story some years ago by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Lincoln Boone about a particularly unpleasant comedian named Martin Snyder.*   Snyder had a trademark -- at the punchline of one of his jokes he would remove a monocle he wore, breathe on it, and then polish it while the audience laughed.  One night, just to demonstrate the control he had over his audience, and to justify his contempt for it, he removed the monocle without saying anything, breathed on it, and polished it.  He still got his laugh.  The comedian was given as thinking of this as a case of conditioned response, but I don't think it was.  It strikes me as a case of basic communication.
    Communication is a process of symbolization:  a person codes a message in such a way that his meaning can be understood by someone else.  I speak in a code called English, for instance, and write English in a Latin alphabet.  A request for a hamburger in Swahili in the average American restaurant would do me little good, and a message in Braille -- for all that it is written in English -- would hardly be enough to persuade the milkman to leave me an extra bottle of milk.  Communication is an art.  Some people are more adept at coding and uncoding messages than others.  However, the basis of communication is always in terms of symbols held in common.
    In the case of the comedian, Snyder, that removal of the monocle was a common symbol signalling something funny.  When the monocle was removed with no joke, this was unexpected and funny -- the monocle changed from a signal to something funny in itself.  If the laughter had been a conditioned response, the people would have laughed as often as Snyder yanked the monocle out of his eye, whereas I rather think that if he had done it twice without a joke he would have lost his audience.
    Our culture is filled with symbols that are held in common as part of our tradition, some of which are hidden so deeply that they are not even widely understood, but merely felt, as for instance the ritual cannibalism in our Christian churches.  Some symbols are dead, though still observed generally, like walking on the gutter side of a lady or the ritual of hat-tipping.  Some are still alive and full of meaning.
    These symbols, both alive and dead, appear in fiction.  Any good writer always deals in terms of symbols.  The search for the right word is no more than the search for a proper and effective symbol.  The difference between a good writer and a bad one can be described, I think, in the respective percentages of live and dead symbols they use.  We can no longer accept "close-set criminal eyes" as a live symbol of a man's character, for instance, and a writer who sticks close-set criminal eyes into a story is likely to be a bad writer.  A good writer finds fresh ways of handling symbols, rather than presenting us with old symbols preserved like ants in amber.
    In general, through his career, Robert Heinlein has used and presented ideas freshly, but there is one whole area of his fiction in which he has never used anything but long-dead symbols.  I'm speaking of his treatment of sex.  In more than seventy stories Heinlein has presented uncoy, unclichéd inter-sexual relations no more than twice, the two cases being thoroughly married couples in "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" and "It's Great to Be Back."  I suspect that Heinlein isn't comfortable with the subject.
    At first glance, it would seem that Heinlein almost completely ignored sex for years, mentioning it only when he had to and then obliquely, and then in his third period became obsessed by it, making a complete about-face.  There is some truth in this, but in actual fact the old Heinlein and the new one are not as separate as that first glance makes them seem to be.
    The first Heinlein story with a major female character was "If This Goes On--."  In the original version, the hero, John Lyle, falls in love at first sight with a sweet, young, innocent, professional Virgin.  Damon Knight quite accurately calls it a "story-book romance"** -- a tag for the sort of dead symbolism I'm trying to point to.  With the romance established, Heinlein (and apparently Lyle, too) forgets about the girl until the end of the story when she and her marriage to Lyle are mentioned in passing.
    In the expanded version of the novel, Heinlein tried to make Lyle's relationships more likely.  He replaced the story-book romance with another involving Lyle and a different handmaiden of the Prophet.  The odd thing is that the new romance is right out of a story-book, too.
    In both versions, Lyle is naive, but his naiveté is more obvious in the expanded story, partly because the added length gives him more of an opportunity to display himself.  Everybody else knows that there are all sorts of backstairs assignations going on in the Palace.  Lyle doesn't.  Zeb Jones, Lyle and two girls go on a nude swimming party.  Lyle objects when he finds out what he is involved in.  Zeb takes one of the two girls off to a private beach and until he is restrained, Lyle wants to go join them . . .
    The heroine of the new version is as much a stock character as the heroine of the original.  This new one is the Good Bad Girl.  She is one of the Prophet's sexual castoffs, is Zeb's ex-mistress, and has slept around.  In a scene rewritten and used again as recently as Glory Road, she offers her fair body to the hero on a sleep-in basis and then becomes flustered when he insists on marriage first.  In this case the last you see of Lyle and his love together is in a story-book pose:  "We had a twenty-minute honeymoon, holding hands on the fire escape outside my office. . ."  This is typical of Heinlein's representations of inter-sexual relations.  His heroes are pure and never have sex without marriage even when women offer themselves openly -- and Heinlein adds purity insurance by making all his young heroes sexually naive.
    Also typical of Heinlein is the banter he assigns the central characters in " 'Let There Be Light,' " the second of his stories to include a central female character.  The hero and his girl are represented as being scientists at the very top of their respective fields.  However, they spend their time calling each other "kid," "mama," "ape," "lug," "sister," "wench," "chum," and "son."  When the hero actually gets up the nerve to kiss the girl, she pushes him away, saying, "Archie, you remind me of the Al G. Barnes Circus; 'Every Act an Animal Act.' "  The banter and shying around covers acute discomfort, and I suspect the discomfort belongs to Heinlein as much as to his characters.
    There are two romances in Beyond This Horizon.  One is a case of mutual love at first sight (harking back to "If This Goes On--").  In the other, the two call each other "Filthy" and "Flutterbrain," and the boy has to get into a physical fight with the girl as an excuse to touch and kiss her for the first time.
    By the time of The Puppet Masters, there is some advance:  neither the hero nor heroine is naive.  But the advance is limited.  The girl invites the hero to her apartment, mentioning her bed in the invitation, and then locks her bedroom door.  The hero sleeps on the living-room couch.  Before they sleep together, they get themselves so firmly, tightly married that the marriage clerk finds their contract something to comment on.

    In Heinlein's juvenile novels, there are a number of sympathetically drawn marriages, but always between adults, always long-established, always seen at a distance.  The marriages are given as facts, not as processes being established.  In view of all the other processes Heinlein has written about, this can only seem strange.
    The central characters of the juvenile novels are always protected from the facts of life by their naiveté.  The hero of Tunnel in the Sky, for instance, is pure and ignorant.  The people around him are all getting married and having children but not the hero.  He quite literally can't even recognize a girl as a girl even when he meets one.  His best friend comes out of an extended period of delirium, and Rod, the hero (why Rod? -- it doesn't seem appropriate somehow), introduces him to another person approximately as follows:
    "Meet my friend Jack with whom I've been in close contact for, lo, these many moons.  He's a good boy."
    Delirious friend, raising head from pillow: "Boy?  You nut -- Jack is a girl."
    Rod (wonderingly):  "Gosh.  Are you certain?"
    This business is Heinlein's own choice.  It is not imposed by story requirements nor even by the fact that the book is a juvenile.  Heinlein simply raises sex as a subject and then has his hero blind to it and uninvolved.
    Citizen of the Galaxy offers even more reason for wonder.  The hero is an ex-slave, ex-beggar, raised in a gutter environment, exactly the sort of person one would think would be sexually knowledgeable if not sexually experienced.  However, on two separate occasions in the story he is pursued by attractive girls so openly that everybody else realizes what is going on, and in neither case can he see beyond the end of his nose.
    The Door Into Summer dates from the end of Heinlein's middle period, after he had been writing for more than fifteen years; it is not a juvenile.  The romantic situation in this story is a very interesting, very odd one:  it is nothing less than a mutual sexual interest between an engineer of thirty and a girl of twelve ("adorable" is Heinlein's word for her), that culminates in marriage after some hop-scotching around in time to adjust their ages a bit.  It puts me in mind of the popular singer, Jerry Lee Lewis, who married an eleven-year-old girl, saying (if memory serves), "She may be young, but she's all woman."
    It seems to me that the sum of the examples I have given so far, typical of Heinlein before his third period, is that all are naive, sentimental, clichéd, uncritical, implausible, and life-not-as-experienced.  I would say they were the result of an internalization of romantic ideals that we mouth but don't really observe.

    The supreme popular example of the romantic idealist in our culture is the Boy Scout.  When I was a Boy Scout, we spent a good deal of time on camping trips, and each night of each camping trip we would lie awake in our tents and tell filthy stories.  In the last ten years I haven't heard one-tenth, or even one-fiftieth, of the filthy stories that I heard and told in two years of Scout activity.  Those stories are a normal reaction.  They are a way of saying that you're really grown-up, that you're a man -- an analogue of the secret cigaret.  They are a way of saying that for all you are a Boy Scout you really know what is going on.  And they are daring.
    These stories all seemed to rely on wild props:  watermelons, Chinese bells, sledgehammers, flashlights and motorcycles.  It was one of their two common elements, the other being impossible exaggeration, otherwise known as plain unlikelihood.
    In 1959, in " 'All You Zombies--,' " Heinlein wrote a story about sex.  It amounts to a boy seducing himself and getting himself pregnant, with a time machine for a wild prop.  And not only did Heinlein get the story printed, but it has been reprinted, too.  It's a dirty joke -- fun, daring, and it shows the whole world that Heinlein really knows what is going on.  Since then, Stranger in a Strange Land, Glory Road, Farnham's Freehold, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress have been offered as additional proof to an unbelieving world that Heinlein really does know what is going on.  But a Boy Scout is no less the romantic idealist for his dirty jokes, and neither is Heinlein.
    Stranger in a Strange Land is a particularly difficult book to discuss because it is so long, so complicated, and about so many different things.  Sex is not treated as a single subject, but as an adjunct to Heinlein's religion.  So far as the way the story is constructed goes, the sexual relations are beyond criticism, self-justified.  Within the story, anyone incapable of accepting the religion along with its sexual concomitants is not a real person; anybody capable of accepting the religion (or, more properly, being accepted by the religion) is automatically beyond damage.  This sort of built-in self-protection for the author is no more than a way of writing around a subject without ever coming to grips with it.
    I have added reason for this opinion.  In none of the four novels named above does Heinlein describe sexual relations directly.  There are no textures, no actions, no movements, no thoughts and no feelings.  Everything is given in terms of the particularly noxious and limited "Yes, now" school of dialogue.  It seems a case of deliberately blinding oneself to avoid seeing what is being set on paper.
    A more central criticism of Stranger in a Strange Land is that in the real world, as in the Oneida Community which lacked the protection of a defined-as-right religion, what Heinlein has given is an unstable way of living.  Heinlein ignores completely the pain, jealousy and uncertainty that are the ordinary stuff of human experience.  He describes a romantic ideal, unworkable in practice.  A similar state of affairs exists in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.  Heinlein describes ideal mass marriages as being necessary on the Moon, the result of a population imbalance that several generations have not righted.  (One wonders why.)  The marriages are odd enough to arouse Kentucky prejudices, but newcomers to the Moon find them instantly acceptable.  (One wonders how.)  But Heinlein says it works and nobody seems to be anxious, hurt or unhappy.
    The situation of Glory Road is much simpler.  The hero, Evelyn Cyril Gordon, will go to bed with anybody, or so he says.  But then he finds excuses.  Not with those Vietnamese; they're too childlike (incredible after The Door Into Summer; incredible to anybody who has seen a Vietnamese girl).  Not with the old girl friend who sent him off to the wars in the traditional way -- he assures us it isn't because she is married now; he just doesn't feel like it, that's all.  And the heroine, the Empress of the Twenty Universes, she, too, will go to bed with anybody, but when the moment of truth for her and for Heinlein comes she has this convenient wound in her side and just isn't up to it.
    Evelyn Cyril is as naive as any former Heinlein hero, any statement in the book to the contrary notwithstanding.  It might be claimed for him on other evidence than his sexual oddities that he isn't even half-bright, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and call him simply another Boy Scout.  Just as in "If This Goes On--," when the hero's True Love indicates her willingness and points to a clump of grass (I mean this literally), the hero insists on marriage as his price for submitting.
    Glory Road is in some ways the Boy Scout's dream.  Imagine waking on a beach to find a beautiful naked girl standing and pointing -- "You, you clod, you're the only man for me."  But the Boy Scout wouldn't know what to do with his dream if he had it, and Evelyn Cyril's reaction is to stammer of marriage.  The difference between an old Heinlein hero and this new one is that Evelyn wears a badge saying, "I'm really not so pure."  Only he is.
    Farnham of Farnham's Freehold does sleep with the heroine the first time he meets her, which seems a departure, but Heinlein can only let him do it by having Farnham reject both his wife and the pretty little bedwarmer he is assigned by his owner when he becomes a slave.  Beyond this, the conventions remain as tired and unexamined as ever.  Heinlein's married couples are not notably fruitful, but in Farnham's Freehold, as in " 'All You Zombies--,' " conception is the result of one isolated night of love; on that basis, you would think Heinlein's juvenile heroes would have many more brothers and sisters than they do.
    The point, of course, is that once Heinlein gets even one inch away from a direct concern with men and women together, his maturity, realism and ability to think re-assert themselves.  As an example, in Methuselah's Children there is a situation that L. Sprague de Camp describes as follows:  "the long-lived hero is confronted with the problem of whether to marry his great-great-great-great-grand-daughter.  Genetically their relationship is negligible, but such a union still seems somehow incestuous and wrong."***   De Camp is mistaken, however.  The union seems incestuous and wrong only to the hero, not to the other characters, and not to Heinlein:  " 'I know I'm old-fashioned,' he said uncomfortably, 'but I soaked up some of my ideas a long time ago.  Genetics or no genetics, I just wouldn't feel right marrying one of my own grandchildren.' "  In Time for the Stars, as though to demonstrate the exact limits of his ability to look at men and women together (and to refute de Camp) Heinlein has his hero come home from journeying among the stars to quite happily fall in love, at first meeting, of course, with his great-grand-niece and marry her.

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*"The Corpse in Your Bed Is Me," Venture Science Fiction, May 1957.  [back]
**In Search of Wonder, 2nd ed., p. 77.  [ back ]
***Science-Fiction Handbook, p. 225.  [ back ]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee