VIII. HEINLEIN'S NON-FICTION
Since the main interest of this book is Robert Heinlein's science fiction, I've made no attempt to discuss his articles, lectures and speeches. However, it is quite true that a number of them are very interesting and have a certain pertinence to his science fiction, and hence deserve some discussion, if only briefly.
recent years, science
fiction has been a staple item with the large professional publishing houses,
but twenty years ago this was not so. Science fiction was published
by minor houses dedicated to digging out favorite stories from old magazines
and putting them into hardcovers. In 1947, one of these houses, Fantasy
Press, asked seven of its authors to contribute short articles to a symposium
on science fiction writing. The book,
Of Worlds Beyond,
out of print for years and so scarce that its editor could not even locate
an extra copy, until it was recently reprinted by Advent:Publishers.
1957, lectures were
delivered by Heinlein, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Bloch, and Alfred Bester
at the University of Chicago on the role of science fiction as social criticism,
and in 1959, Advent:Publishers collected and published these lectures in
a volume entitled
The Science Fiction Novel,
with a well-informed
introduction by Basil Davenport. Heinlein's paper is entitled "Science
Fiction: Its Nature, Faults and Virtues."
[Science fiction is that sort of literature] in which the author shows awareness of the nature and importance of the human activity known as the scientific method, shows equal awareness of the great body of human knowledge already collected through that activity, and takes into account in his stories the effects and possible future effects on human beings of scientific method and scientific fact.I don't care for this definition myself -- I much prefer the prescriptive list Heinlein himself set forth in Of Worlds Beyond. It seems to me that Bretnor's definition would let in not only Arrowsmith, as Davenport points out in his introduction, but Dr. Kildare, as well, and almost any novel about a laboratory or the new rash of stories written by people who have made a quick trip to Cape Kennedy.
Heinlein then separates fantasy and science fiction. Fantasy stories, to Heinlein, are imaginary-but-not-possible, while science fiction is realistic and about the possible. Science fiction can go contrary to theory, but not to fact -- which to me makes Stranger in a Strange Land clearly not science fiction -- while fantasy is always contrary to fact.
Heinlein then proposes another short definition of science fiction:
Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.Heinlein says this is a definition of almost all science fiction, and to make it complete we simply need strike out the word "future."
While this definition strikes me somewhat more favorably than Bretnor's does, it seems to me that Heinlein's qualification puts us back in the lab with Dr. Kildare again, and without the qualification, the definition eliminates stories like Poul Anderson's The High Crusade, Piper's Paratime stories, and all of the many stories that have aliens among us disguised as mail boxes.
Heinlein then goes on to discuss at length science fiction as it is. Except by accident it is not prophecy, and Heinlein gives examples from his own work to demonstrate this. He says that most of it is not very good as literature, partly because it is the most difficult sort of prose to write, and that much of it is not even entertaining -- all points that seem to have a large measure of truth to them.
On the other hand, Heinlein finds science fiction the most alive, most important, most useful and most comprehensive fiction being written today. He finds its importance in its attempt to deal with the future, that being the only point of time we can affect at all. The difficulty in writing science fiction is in the body of knowledge it requires and the amount of directed imagination it takes, but since it does deal with change, the most important fact of our world, it is the only form of fiction that has any chance of interpreting our world. He concludes by saying that science fiction will never be mass entertainment, but that it should increase in amount and quality.
I don't fully agree with all these points, but I won't quarrel with them. My summary, no doubt, is unfairly compact, Heinlein's arguments are interesting and they do explain why he should spend his entire career writing almost nothing but science fiction. Feeling as he does, he could hardly do otherwise.
the November 1952
School Library Association of California Bulletin,
had an article entitled "Ray Guns and Rocket Ships," the general aim of
which is to explain science fiction to the unbelievers. The first
section is a historical summary. In the second section, Heinlein
argues for calling the field "speculative fiction," which, he says, "may
be defined negatively as being fiction about things that have not
In my opinion, Heinlein takes too big a mouthful here, since almost all
fiction can be defined as being about things that have not happened.
Heinlein goes on to make a case for the necessity of a wide field of knowledge
for the writing and for the judging of science fiction. Finally,
Heinlein speaks of children and science fiction. He says that science
fiction for children ought to be of interest to adults, too, since "a book
so juvenile that it will insult the intelligence of adults is quite likely
to insult the intelligence of the kids," a refreshing stand to take.
He says that his children's sf is marked from his adult fiction in two
ways: "I place a little less emphasis on boy-meets-girl and a little
more emphasis on unadulterated science."
You would not expect a Martian to be named Smith. (Say -- how about a story about a Martian named 'Smith?' Ought to make a good short. Hmmm--)On two separate occasions -- in the February 1952 issue of Galaxy, and in the April 1956 issue of Amazing -- Robert Heinlein has published articles attempting to predict something of the world of 2000 A.D. The Amazing article was quite short, the article in Galaxy more detailed.
The Galaxy article begins with contrasting looks at the world of 1900 and the world of 2000. Heinlein then says that his predictions -- various gadgets, household nudity, etc. -- are really quite timid, and that in actual fact we can expect changes in the next fifty years that are at least eight times as great as the changes of the past fifty years.
In light of this contention, Heinlein makes nineteen predictions, none of them particularly timid, justifying his lack of caution by saying that while some of these predictions will be wrong, timid predictions are certain to be wrong. His predictions include a solution to the housing problem through revolutionary technology by 1967, the disappearance of Communism, controlled gravity, and the discovery of intelligent life on Mars.
He continues with a list of things we won't have: travel faster than light, laboratory creation of life, a permanent end to war, and scientific proof of survival after death. (This last, in particular, seems to reflect one of Heinlein's personal concerns.)
Heinlein concludes with a brief discussion of new areas of concern in science, and science's greatest crisis: keeping tabs on the information we do have so that it can be used.
In 1966, in the collection The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, this article was reprinted under the title "Pandora's Box." The list of prophecies at the end of the original article was commented upon and brought up to date, and a new foreword to the article was included in which, among other things, Heinlein says, "the science fiction writer -- any fiction writer -- must keep entertainment consciously in mind as his prime purpose," a dictum I wish he had paid closer attention to in recent years.
The Amazing article is a retrospective look from the year 2000, listing advances. His predictions include the use of telepathy and clairvoyance for military purposes, acceptance of man's nature as a wild animal and the toughest creature in these parts (a favorite Heinlein notion), and -- reversing the position taken in the earlier article -- a certainty of survival after death.
April of 1958, the Committee
for a Sane Nuclear Policy ran an ad in a number of newspapers across the
country calling on the President to end our testing of nuclear weapons.
On Sunday, April 13, Robert Heinlein and his wife answered it in a full-page
ad in the Colorado Springs
Who Are The Heirs Of Patrick Henry?
Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!!
The Mice Voted to Bell the Cat.
"Will you walk into my parlor?" said the Spider to the Fly.
God grants liberty only to those who love it and are always ready to guard and defend it.
They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil Constitution, are worth defending at all hazards.Heinlein states that whether or not those signing the Sane Committee ad are Communists, the ad itself is the rankest sort of Communist propaganda, and he rejects its three proposals. Giving up nuclear weapons leaves 170 million of us to stand against 900 million of them. Other-than-on-the-spot-inspection leaves the Russians free to conduct secret and undetectable underground bomb tests. And putting missiles under United Nations control is likewise folly. To Heinlein, the Sane Committee proposals amount to outright surrender to the Communists: "Those who signed that manifesto have made their choice; consciously or unconsciously they prefer enslavement to death." He suggests that those who agree with him write to the President calling on Mr. Eisenhower to ignore the Sane Committee proposals -- and he provides a letter for people to copy and sign if they wish. He also suggests the foundation of "The Patrick Henry League" to prove that the Spirit of '76 is not dead.
Heinlein's ad, it seems to me, is very definitely related to his fiction, particularly that from his third period. It reflects his concern with liberty, it couches moral matters in black-and-white terms, and it is clearly polemical. Its closest fictional relatives are probably The Puppet Masters, Farnham's Freehold, and Starship Troopers. Starship Troopers, in fact, was the first Heinlein novel to be written after Heinlein's ad and it seems an attempt to make many of the same arguments in fictional form.
two occasions, Robert
Heinlein has been Guest of Honor at World Science Fiction Conventions --
at the Third Convention, held in Denver in 1941, and at the Nineteenth
Convention, held in Seattle twenty years later. On both of these
occasions Heinlein delivered speeches of interest, and the second quite
deliberately examines some of the same territory as the first.
Note: The print edition of
Heinlein in Dimension
is still available from Advent:Publishers, PO Box A3228, Chicago, IL 60690
$17 for a hardcover copy, $10 for a paperback. I charge for shipping
and handling, Advent doesn't.
*Modern Science Fiction,
p. 273. [Back]
Border courtesy of The Humble Bee