Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



4. Plot

    Heinlein's plotting has probably been the most continually criticized element in his writing, and to me there seems to be justice in the criticism.  In fact, we use the word "plot" to cover a multitude of things, and Heinlein has had his problems with at least two of them.
    The thing that is usually meant by the word "plot" is the plan of action of a story, the thing that I discussed earlier as "structure."  Heinlein had his problems with this when he first started writing.  Stories like "Life-Line," "Misfit," "Elsewhen" and "If This Goes On--" are severely flawed because they aren't told crisply.  They begin with an end in mind and eventually get there, but the route they take is a wandering one.  Overcoming this is in part a matter of deciding what the story is really about and learning to pick only significant details, and in part a matter of planning in advance.
    By the end of his first period, Heinlein was no longer troubled by this kind of plot weakness, as "By His Bootstraps" amply demonstrates.  A man who couldn't plan the structure of a story could not have written "By His Bootstraps," " 'All You Zombies--,' " or The Door Into Summer, to name just three that are extremely involved but which do take the shortest routes to their destinations.
    However, by the end of his first period, another and very different sort of "plot weakness" had become apparent in Heinlein's writing.  This was not a failure in structure but a failure in providing all the details that the structure demands.  Boucher and McComas, for instance, had this to say in reviewing "Waldo":  ". . . 'Waldo,' while being his best concept, illustrates the basic weakness in most of Heinlein's work, a tendency to rush the ending and to shirk final developments."*   The failure, in other words, is one of execution, not of plot structure per se.
    This has been a continuing problem with Heinlein.  It hasn't been present in every story, but it has been present often enough to make it obvious that Heinlein, if he doesn't keep close control, can let his stories trail away, in de Camp's words, "as if the author had simply grown tired."**
    In "Gulf," for instance, Heinlein spends one day in time and thirty-six pages in enrolling an agent.  He then spends six months, skimmed over in another thirty-odd pages, in training the agent.  Then, just to end the story, he kills his agent off in a job that takes him one day, buzzed over in a mere four pages.  The gradual loss of control is obvious.
    Farmer in the Sky begins in close focus and then gradually slips away until large amounts of time are covered in sentences.  Heinlein then tries to recover his story with a large chunk of closely detailed action.  The same thing exactly is true of Between Planets, and true again of Time for the Stars.
    As another aspect of this same problem, Heinlein has also tried to force his stories to go on farther than their plots will carry them.  Beyond This Horizon is one example, but since the extra words are spent on a very interesting society in action, the flaw is a minor one.  Glory Road is another example; and since the extra words are spent mainly in discussing the theory of sexual and political morality, the flaw is more than the book can stand.
    If Heinlein were consistently troubled by his plots, he would be relatively easy to discuss and to sum up, but the trouble is that he has shown such a wide variance in his plots that he becomes very difficult to categorize.  On the one hand there is a story like Podkayne of Mars that comes dangerously close to being without any structure at all, let alone a flawed one, and on the other there is a story like Starman Jones that is more than adequately built and one like Have Space Suit--Will Travel that is beautifully built.  The only thing that I can say is that given a Heinlein story and asked to guess before reading it what its most serious problem might be, I would guess that Heinlein had had some trouble with his plot.  And about sixty per cent of the time I would be wrong.

5. Some Examples

    In this section, I intend to briefly discuss three of Heinlein's stories, "Coventry," Have Space Suit--Will Travel, and Farnham's Freehold, one from each of his three periods, in light of what I have said about Heinlein's construction and execution.
    The context of "Coventry" is the libertarian society developed in the last half of the Future History.  One of the advantages of using a general background in several stories is that a complicated context can be given in a short length without need for great explanation.  Having established his new society in "If This Goes On--," Heinlein is here free to treat it as a given and then show what happens to those who are unwilling to accept it.  He has them placed in an area kept separate by a force field and left to themselves, and allows that any man who cares to can rejoin the United States by acceptance of its social contract.
    There are only two developed characters in the story, both aspects of the Heinlein Individual.  One is the protagonist, David MacKinnon, a literary critic who answers criticism of himself with punches in the nose, and who is sent to Coventry when he refuses psychological treatment.  The other is an agent of the United States operating secretly in Coventry who takes MacKinnon under his wing and keeps him out of trouble.  MacKinnon is the naive young Heinlein Individual.  The agent is the slightly older, more knowledgeable and more cynical version.
    There are two story problems.  One arises primarily from the context of the story, and the other primarily from the nature of the protagonist.  The contextual problem is how to warn the United States of a planned breakout by the dissident little states within Coventry.  The other problem is the rehabilitation of MacKinnon.  Unfortunately, Heinlein solves this second problem twice.  He does it once by demonstrating to MacKinnon that the sort of rugged individualism he dreams of just doesn't exist, and that for better or for worse he is a member of society.  He shows that even the crippled personalities within Coventry find government necessary and that their government is a mess because of their sickness.  However, Heinlein then gives MacKinnon a flamboyant chance to demonstrate his new self by sending him off to warn the United States of the potential revolt.
    Since Heinlein's two problems are not really closely related, his structure is a divided one and he has to close with an attempt to pull them together.  This he does by MacKinnon's flamboyant gesture.  This isn't quite satisfactory, however, because Heinlein's realism insists that the potential revolution cannot be a serious threat, that the United States government would be well aware of the situation, and that therefore MacKinnon's journey is not as important as he believed it was.  He refocuses attention on MacKinnon's rehabilitation by throwing away the revolution, but the cost of the adjustment is that the rehabilitation seems like an anticlimax.
    There is a mild romantic interest, lightly sketched, in which MacKinnon moons after a fifteen-year-old girl, but little is made of this.  The story itself is told briskly and straightforwardly.  What clever wisecracks are included are restricted to the appropriate character -- the middle-stage Heinlein Individual secret agent.
    In sum, the context of the story and the problem of the would-be anarchist are the best things about "Coventry."  Heinlein's biggest problem is in deciding what the story is really about -- in other words, plot structure.

    The framing context of Have Space Suit--Will Travel is a near-future Earth in which there is a human colony on the Moon but in which hot rods, malted milks, soap slogan contests, and high schools with empty curricula still figure.  The story begins with this and returns to it at the end, and it puts parentheses around the novel, but Heinlein concerns himself with a larger context, too, a confederation that unites various races throughout this galaxy and the Magellanic Clouds.
    There are three central characters in the story.  One is the Mother Thing, perhaps the most charming of Heinlein's aliens, and a representative of the confederation.  Heinlein characterizes her as "the cop on the beat," the epitomal policeman.  The second is an eleven-year-old female genius, perhaps a little too knowing to be quite believable, but good fun.  The third is the narrator, a typical young example of the Heinlein Individual, though not as naive as some.  The rest of the characters are background figures, either competents or caricatures.
    The main story problem is really handled quite subtly.  It is, in fact, nothing less than the determination of the nature of the contact between Earth and the confederation, something to be settled by the thoughts and actions of the little genius and the narrator.  Stated flatly, this would be just too much to swallow, but Heinlein leads up to it by very neatly misdirecting his readers with immediate problems and adventures that only in retrospect are seen to be necessary predicates to the central problem.
    The story is beautifully plotted.  Starting from a mundane tomorrow morning, Heinlein begins a series of little adventures, each one carrying the characters a little farther from that mundane tomorrow, until hardly knowing how one has gotten there, one is set face to face with the confederation and accepts it.  The structure on which this plot is built, returning full circle to exactly the point at which it left Earth, is very neatly done, too.
    There is a hint of romantic interest to come between the little genius and the hero, but it is again very mildly stated, just as one might expect.
    Heinlein's taste for the pithy remark is confined for the most part to description; not inappropriate since his narrator is a Heinlein Individual.

    . . . I was like the Army mule at West Point: an honorary member of the student body but not prepared for the curriculum.

     . . . We lived like that "Happy Family" you sometimes see in traveling zoos:  a lion caged with a lamb.  It is a startling exhibit but the lamb has to be replaced frequently.

     At times, of course, it does sound more sophisticated than might be expected from an eighteen-year-old boy, but that is a minor point.
    In Have Space Suit--Will Travel, there is probably as close to an even balance between characters and background as Heinlein has ever managed.  Though the continuing import of the background is greater, the import of the characters within the story is re-emphasized by the return to Earth and to the original context.  The story is theirs.  What comes after belongs to the context.

    One of the major flaws of Farnham's Freehold is that (unusually for Heinlein) it lacks a clearly-defined context.  The present-day world is destroyed by bombs by the end of the second chapter.  The woodsy-idyll context is shown to be an illusion.  The slave society to which the characters are taken is not seen in detail; all that is seen is one portion of one household.  This leaves very little for the main characters to function against.
    Only one character is dwelt on at length and that is Farnham himself.  He is a Heinlein Individual somewhere in between the stage that knows what-is-what and the stage that knows why.  Strangely, however, his competence is questionable, for all that Heinlein asserts its presence.
    There is no story problem in Farnham's Freehold except that of mere survival:  survival of the bombs, survival in the woods, survival in a slave society, survival of the aftermath of the bombs when Farnham and his wife return to their own time.  For some reason, Heinlein has always regarded sheer survival, as a thing in itself regardless of any other factors, as a comforting and sufficient end.  Farnham's survival, however, is an accident and nothing that he himself causes and so on an overt level the story seems pointless.
    Part of the problem, of course, is that Heinlein uses the better part of his space in formal little debates on the subjects of freedom and race and family relations, and these tangential things substitute for the story instead of adding to it.
    However, if one wants to carry a search for meaning in Farnham's Freehold beyond the overt level, another idea of context and story problem does emerge.  If the context of the story is really an unheeding universe that treats Farnham like a bemused boy toying with a grasshopper and making it "spit tobacco," then Farnham's futility takes on new meaning.  The story may be Heinlein's unconscious way of saying that competence is not enough.  The point of the story then becomes the persistent attempt by Farnham to escape from whatever it is that is mistreating him so casually and to find a haven for himself.
    In fact, the book may even be taken as the search of a solipsist for a universe in which to be God.  If this seems far-fetched, perhaps the following chapter will make it seem less so.

back   |  home   |  next

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.

*Fantasy and Science Fiction, Summer 1950.  [ back]
**Science-Fiction Handbook, p. 155.  [ back ]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee