Of all the writers of the early 1940s who did John Campbell's work in creating modern science fiction and the Golden Age of Astounding, it was Robert Heinlein who was most useful to him.
When Heinlein turned to pulp magazine story writing in 1939 as a man of nearly 32, he not only had a wide variety of worldly experience--mostly unsuccessful--to draw upon, but also the broadest reading knowledge of earlier SF of anyone who had ever attempted to write science fiction. In 1941, just two years after he began, he would be chosen Guest of Honor of the Third World Science Fiction Convention, held in Denver, Colorado.
Robert Anson Heinlein was born in the rural county seat of Butler, Missouri on July 7, 1907, the third of what would ultimately be seven children. Shortly after he was born, his father moved the family north to Kansas City in search of greater opportunity.
Young Robert was a bright, intense and private boy, the odd man out in a family where life was a scuffle. When someone had to sleep on a mattress on the floor rather than a bed, he'd be the one chosen. He was an avid reader, considered the class grind by his classmates. Though he wasn't without athletic ability, he had no taste for team sports. His real love was for science, and he told everyone that he aimed to be an astronomer when he grew up, though what he really dreamed of doing was traveling to the moon.
At the same time, the young Heinlein was troubled by overwhelming doubts that he could share with no one. His family and the immediate society around him were locked in turn-of-the-century Bible Belt Fundamentalism, narrow, bigoted and reactionary. Even as a child, Robert was acutely aware that there were contradictions between what he was reading and observing, and what he was informed was the literal word of God. He would have moments in which he doubted the sanity of ordinary adult life, doubted the reality of society, doubted the existence of everything and everyone but himself.
These feelings would surface from time to time in stories written throughout Heinlein's long career. In reference to the first of them--"They" (Unknown, Apr 1941)--Heinlein would note:
Idea is based on the feeling I had as a kid that everything as I saw it was a deliberate plot to deceive me, that people didn't do the things I saw them do when I wasn't watching them. . . . The world consists of two parts, the ego--unique and utterly alone--(how is it that I am inside--that is the most startling fact we deal with)--and the outside, strange, incomprehensible, and possibly hostile.If the boy Robert had a love for science, it was because science seemed to offer the possibility of verifiable truth. It was a road that promised to lead beyond his own limitations and the restrictions of his present situation.
In Heinlein's third published story, "Requiem" (Astounding, Jan 1940), D.D. Harriman--the now-aged financier who made space travel possible, but who himself has never been permitted to travel to the moon--recalls the scientific dreams of his youth. Clearly speaking for Heinlein, too, he says:
"I wasn't unusual; there were lots of boys like me--radio hams, they were, and telescope builders, and airplane amateurs. We had science clubs, and basement laboratories, and science-fiction leagues--the kind of boys who thought there was more romance in one issue of the Electrical Experimenter than in all the books Dumas ever wrote. We didn't want to be one of Horatio Alger's get-rich heroes, either; we wanted to build spaceships."At the age of 13, Heinlein managed to resolve the unutterable tension he felt between the dictates of the King James Bible, literally interpreted, and his secret desire to build spaceships and travel to other worlds. It was then that he read Darwin's Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, and recognized that he was no Christian true believer at all, but rather a scientific freethinker.
Science and skepticism became the young Heinlein's chosen methods for dealing with the conflict between his immediate social surroundings and his sense of truth. He resolved that he was going to doubt everything that could be doubted, test everything that could be tested, look at anything and everything, and make up his mind for himself.
In high school, he became captain of the Negative Debate Team. He used Will Durant as a key to philosophy; Heinlein says, "He first introduced me to a wide range of philosophers; and I read 'em all; I gobbled 'em all." Heinlein sought out and avidly consumed the sassiest mockers and doubters the skeptical Twenties could offer him: before anyone, his fellow Missourian Mark Twain; the author of The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce; the provocative playwright George Bernard Shaw; and the reigning iconoclast of the day, H.L. Mencken. He read forbidden literature of all kinds in search of whatever it might be that he wasn't supposed to know.
Most of all, however, Heinlein took his clues from SF. He relished every scrap of transcendent literature he could find. Until he began to write it himself, reading SF was a favorite spare-time activity.
He started reading fantastic literature at a young age and persisted despite parental disapproval. A whole generation of science fiction writers, from Jack Williamson to Isaac Asimov, would discover SF in the pages of Amazing Stories. Alone among them, Heinlein was reading it much earlier and soaking up a somewhat different set of influences.
He was a reader of Hugo Gernsback's popular science magazines, Electrical Experimenter, and then Science and Invention. He read tattered old copies of the Frank Reade, Jr. dime novels, and he read the new Tom Swift boys' books as they were issued. He read All-Story and he read Argosy. And when Weird Tales came along in the early Twenties, he read that, too.
In those days before the advent of Amazing, a would-be reader of SF was still obliged to define and invent the literature for himself. But young Robert's reach was especially broad. He found his way to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, but also to Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum. He read Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs, but also James Branch Cabell and H.P. Lovecraft.
And much as he might love science, in SF as Robert Heinlein was constructing it for himself the science-based story would be only one possible form among many. In years to come, he would even make the explicit suggestion that "it would be more nearly correctly descriptive to call the whole field 'speculative fiction' and to limit the name 'science fiction' to a sub-class. . . ."
Of all the writers of speculative fiction that he read, it was H.G. Wells who influenced him the most. Wells dealt in radically changed futures and in improved alternate societies, and Robert, the boy who entertained doubts about the reasonableness and the reality of the social world around him, liked that. Moreover, Wells offered the highly attractive ideal of a dedicated scientific elite assuming control of society--from the Samurai of A Modern Utopia (1905) to the self-selected membership of The Open Conspiracy (1928)--and Robert could mentally enlist himself in their ranks.
In high school, Heinlein was a superior student, a school politician, and Major of the junior ROTC unit. But his classmates did have some inklings of his true nature. By his name in the 1924 Central High School Yearbook, they wrote, "He thinks in terms of the fifth dimension, never stopping at the fourth."
Robert spent his last year in high school writing letters and pulling political strings in a campaign to win himself an appointment to one of the military academies (he wasn't particular which) from Missouri Senator James Reed, a creature of the notorious Boss Pendergast machine. He was initially turned down, but after an interim year spent cooling his heels at the recently established Kansas City Junior College, his persistence was finally rewarded with an appointment to Annapolis.
At the Naval Academy, Heinlein found himself in heaven, one of a chosen elite of intelligent, dedicated and able young men, and he thrived there. The Academy took a bright bumpkin from Missouri and made a gentleman of him. He stood twentieth in the class of 1929, and he might have graduated as high as fifth if he hadn't been caught off-limits too many times. Serving in the Navy permitted Heinlein to live for six weeks in an apartment in Greenwich Village, and it also gave him an opportunity to see the world. He served in a battleship, and in destroyers, and as a gunnery officer aboard the early aircraft carrier USS Lexington.
But by no means had he lost his outsider's eye. As early as 1930, he began to keep the first of an expanding number of files of newspaper and magazine clippings on trends in society and the eccentricities of American social behavior. And he continued to read every odd thing he could find--including, of course, the new science fiction magazines, the post-Gernsback Amazing, and Wonder Stories, and Astounding Stories of Super-Science.
In 1934, however, his paradise came to an end. He pressed duty too hard, and came down with tuberculosis, a disease with an uncertain prognosis. And almost overnight, he found himself out of the Navy, retired on full disability pension at the age of 27.
Heinlein made a quick recovery, and decided to try graduate study at UCLA in mathematics and physics. But again he pushed himself too hard, and he suffered a severe relapse. This time he had to drop out of school and go off to Colorado to get well.
This was a very difficult and frustrating period for Robert Heinlein. He was young and tall and handsome. He was extremely bright and able, and seemingly there wasn't anything he couldn't master if he put his mind to it. He could build a radio. He could set stone. He could plot a ballistic. He could command troops. He could design and erect a house, performing all the various construction work himself, if need be. He could get along with working stiffs and roughnecks, but at a formal dinner party he knew which was the proper fork to use. He could talk philosophy, economics, psychology, or semantics. He knew a thousand different things.
But now, through a nasty caprice of fate and the failure of his body, his hard-won knowledge, his wide variety of skills and his sense of dedication were all rendered irrelevant. If he wasn't going to be able to be a Wellsian Samurai, what was he to do with himself? What was second best?
He tried his hand at one thing and another, including mining silver and selling real estate, but none of it came to anything. As someone who thought of himself as a "pragmatic socialist," he involved himself heavily in Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California campaign for governor in 1936. When that was unsuccessful, he tried for a political career of his own. In the summer of 1938 he ran in a Democratic primary in Los Angeles in an effort to unseat an incumbent state representative, but finished second.
Losing this election left Heinlein broke and with a mortgage to pay. It was then that he saw an ad in the October 1938 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories which presented itself as an amateur story contest with a prize of $50. In actual fact it was an attempt to encourage new submissions to the magazine. And Heinlein was tempted.
At that moment, this looked like a very attractive and useful sum of money. The more that he thought about it, the more it seemed to him that if he were seriously to attempt to write science fiction, he could do it. He'd read it practically forever. He saw no reason why he couldn't produce a perfectly good speculative story if he were to try.
However, when Heinlein sat down at the typewriter, he aimed higher than Thrilling Wonder Stories. He didn't just try to write an ordinary pulp magazine story. Instead, he aimed to follow the model of H.G. Wells and produce a serious utopian novel.
He would call it For Us, the Living and center it around the radical economic ideas that he hadn't been able to express politically. The subtitle, A Comedy of Customs, invoking the spirit of James Branch Cabell, suggested that he intended it to be socially edgy.
But Heinlein was a beginning writer and the day of utopian novels had passed. His novel was dry and talky, as utopian novels were wont to be, and did not find a publisher. It would only be published in 2004 long after Heinlein was dead.
Heinlein was still in need money. And he continued to believe he could write SF. So, in April 1939, he tried again, this time setting his sights a little lower.
In four days he turned out a story entitled "Life-Line." This was about Hugo Pinero, a man who has invented a machine that can accurately foretell the length of any person's life, and the opposition he and his machine arouse among the entrenched interests of society. It opens not with the invention of the machine, but with Pinero attempting to justify his already-invented machine to a hostile and skeptical Academy of Science. And it ends with the inventor dead--eliminated--at the very moment he himself has predicted.
In many ways, including its determinism, this was an old-fashioned story. But in presentation, it was very new. "Life-Line" was brisk, snappy, self-confident, and knowledgeable about the workings of society--more like a slick magazine story than anything ordinarily to be found in the science fiction pulp magazines of the late Thirties.
When Heinlein looked over what he had written, it struck him that it was much too good for Thrilling Wonder Stories. So acting boldly, he sent it off to John Campbell, the new editor of Astounding.
Campbell had not only announced a program of systematic change in the magazine but gone Thrilling Wonder one better by declaring the existence of a permanent open contest at Astounding, all comers welcome. Since the magazine paid a penny a word, this meant that a 7000-word story like Heinlein's might earn $70 there.
So Heinlein sent his story off to Astounding--and Campbell not only accepted it, but paid for it immediately. Having found something that worked this well, Heinlein tried it again. He wrote a second science fiction story--"Misfit," the tale of Andrew Jackson Libby, a young mathematical genius who is discovered among a space station construction gang. And Campbell bought that one, too.
But it wouldn't continue to be quite this easy. Heinlein began his career with a simple, clean-cut, modern style, a background in science fiction, a wide range of knowledge, experience and developed opinion, and a fascination with human social behavior--just the qualities that John Campbell was looking for in 1938 and 1939. But Heinlein had not yet arrived at a sense of universal operating principles, and he would have to pick that up. And he would also have to learn which subjects and attitudes Campbell would accept and which he wouldn't.
As an example, Heinlein was a sophisticated adult, which for the most part readers of pulp science fiction magazines in 1939 were not. Heinlein's, third story, "'Let There Be Light,'" concerned the invention of cheap and efficient solar receptors by a scientific team--Archie Douglas, a physicist, and Mary Lou Martin, a "biochemist and ecologist"--and the threat they encounter from the powerbrokers until they find a way out by deciding to donate their discovery to the public. This was a perfectly satisfactory neo-Gernsbackian story, but it was also full of mild sexual banter. Campbell wouldn't have that--and sure enough, when it was published under the pseudonym Lyle Monroe in the May 1940 issue of Fred Pohl's Super Science Stories, there were readers who did protest what they perceived as smut.
However, the most significant point of contention between Campbell and Heinlein was this:
Heinlein's sense of SF had been formed back in the Teens and Twenties, and included speculative notions of every kind. The first three stories that Heinlein wrote were all relatively tame and plausible neo-Gernsbackian projections, their one real point of novelty being the degree of their concern for social context. After that, however, Heinlein was ready to try some queerer speculations.
The next story he wrote was called "Elsewhen." Here a professor of "speculative metaphysics" and his students transfer themselves by means of "hypnosis and suggestion" into a variety of alternate worlds that correspond to their respective natures. However, except for flittings-about from one world to another, nothing much really happens. By comparison with Heinlein's earlier efforts, this story was vague and flabby.
Another of his 1939 attempts--and his own immediate favorite--was a short novel called "Lost Legacy." In this one, a young doctor and a male-female team of parapsychologists join forces with mystical masters who reside on California's Mt. Shasta--including the arch-doubter Ambrose Bierce, usually thought to have vanished in Mexico in 1914 at the age of 72. Together, scientists and mystics (and the Boy Scouts, too!) wage psychic war against the vilest and most regressive elements of society, the "antagonists of human liberty, of human dignity--the racketeers, the crooked political figures, the shysters, the dealers in phony religions, the sweat-shoppers, the petty authoritarians, all of the key figures among the traffickers in human misery and human oppression, themselves somewhat adept in the arts of the mind, and acutely aware of the dangers of free knowledge--all of this unholy breed. . . ."
Quite clearly, from the beginning Heinlein wanted to declare his long-held belief that there is a difference between real truth and what society takes to be true. He wanted to write stories in which the defects and corruptions of society are overcome and freedom is won. He wanted to give utterance to all the heresies and strange thoughts he'd kept locked inside him ever since he was a boy. And he was ready to employ any means that the broad-based SF he'd put together for himself could offer to express what he wanted to express.
But John Campbell was both more limited than this and more of a purist. He had no use for flabby occult nonsense in Astounding--or in his new fantasy magazine Unknown, either. He was trying diligently to eliminate such stuff from his magazines. So he was prompt to bounce both of these stories, and several more squidgy or trivial attempts by Heinlein.
In fact, after the easy immediate success of "Life-Line" and "Misfit," Campbell rejected four consecutive Heinlein stories. Young Fred Pohl would imagine this to be a major lapse on the editor's part, snap up several of these stories for his own magazines, and count himself lucky to have them. But Campbell was quite sure that he knew what he was doing. He was in the process of creating modern science fiction, and he was determined that he would have plausible argument and universal operating principles from Heinlein, and nothing less.
In background and training and dedication, and even in their prejudices, these two men--Campbell and Heinlein--had more than a little in common. They were two highly dominant, self-willed Atomic Age engineers, so perhaps it was inevitable that they should wrestle to handle and adjust each other and to push each other's buttons. Campbell was prepared to align and direct writers to get just what he wanted from them. But Heinlein in his own right was a well-practiced people manipulator, too. Consequently, even at their moment of greatest mutual regard, with Heinlein at one end of the continent and Campbell at the other, their relationship would never be a completely easy one.
In this early moment, however, the leverage was all with Campbell. Heinlein not only had a mortgage, but the notion of paying it off by writing science fiction stories, and Campbell held the purse strings of the best and most reliable science fiction market.
So it was Heinlein who gave way. He altered what he was writing, adapting it to the shape of John Campbell's rejections and suggestions. Where he was soft, he hardened up. Where he was fuzzy, he tightened his focus. His control of plausibility became more consistent and far more subtle and clever. And he picked right up on the idea of universal operating principles.
It had taken Isaac Asimov two and a half years of regular visits to Campbell before the penny finally dropped and he caught on to the trick of writing for the editor. By comparison, Robert Heinlein was so immediately adept, so uniquely well-prepared to write science fiction, and so generally attuned to the same wavelength as Campbell that he was able to sell the editor four (and later a fifth) of his first ten stories. By the end of 1939, only nine months after Heinlein first sat down to write, he was so well-zeroed-in on his chosen target that he could sell Campbell every story he wrote.
The pivotal sale for Heinlein was his third, which didn't come until his seventh story, four months after "Misfit." This was the short novel "'If This Goes On--.'"
It was with this story, a rewriting into pulp fiction form of a portion of the background of For Us, the Living--the idea of a religious dictatorship to come--that Heinlein made the happy discovery that it might be possible both to do the things that Campbell wanted done and also to scratch his own itches. If he wrote a story of universal operating principles at work in the future, it could also be a story of secret heresy and rebellion. And if he included enough plausible detail to satisfy John Campbell, he could also put in a substantial dollop of occultism for himself.
The result of this combination of aims was that "'If This Goes On--'" takes place in a curiously mixed future unlike any previously presented in SF. Things in this world are very different from now, but also oddly familiar.
The story opens with a young officer, the highly idealistic John Lyle, standing guard outside the apartments of the religious dictator of a latter-day United States. This citizen of the future (whose last name is the same as Heinlein's mother's maiden name) begins by telling us something about himself. And within the context of science fiction as it existed then, what he has to say and how he says it came across as wonderful and wild and weird.
I was young then--a legate newly graduated from West Point, and a guardsman in the Angels of the Lord, the personal guard of the Prophet Incarnate.Wow! In these few paragraphs, we can see Heinlein's major early SF influences gathered and integrated--the scientific advances beloved by Hugo Gernsback, the alternate societies of H.G. Wells, and the juicy anachronisms and narrative immediacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Heinlein combines all of these here to express--as science fiction--something of what it had felt like to grow up under the rule of Fundamentalist Christianity and then break free.
And what a strange mixed-up world it is that he shows us! Imagine a United States of the future so radically altered as to be ruled by a Prophet Incarnate! And yet this world is still in many ways the same as the one we know. West Point continues to be the national military academy. Cincinnati and Kansas City remain the cities they were. Even the New York Times continues to be published and read.
There is paradox and humor in what Heinlein writes--like the presentation of theology, mob psychology and "basic miracles" as taken-for-granted elements of a proper military education, every bit as appropriate as strategy or tactics. And there are head-bending juxtapositions, like those archaic words "spear and buckler" that appear sandwiched between the futuristic "Rocket Patrol" and "vortex pistol," but which are rendered plausible for us by the casual additional word "ritualistic."
Somehow, out of the apparently artless narrative voice, the right wrong details, and even the cockeyed relationship of one word or phrase to the next, a gestalt emerges. We find ourselves not only in a world other than our own, but identifying with a living, breathing individual who is operating within its context, and thinking and acting according to its terms.
It is very apparent that this world is highly advanced in certain ways, but backward in others. And that was also something new.
Through the Techno Age, society had been taken to be an indivisible whole in SF. Social progress and technological progress were seen as inseparable. If society progressed, it all progressed, and if it declined, it went downhill all at once and all over. It fell.
At the outset of his SF writing career, Robert Heinlein had still had it in his head that technological progress and social progress must be related. The space travel of "Misfit," his second story, had been imagined as occurring only at a considerable distance in the future, after the overthrow of the Prophet and the establishment of a better society.
By the time Heinlein wrote "'If This Goes On--,'" however, he had begun to see things somewhat differently. To his new Atomic Age eye, society and the universe now appeared as ever-changing composites made up of many separate elements operating relatively independently and capable of being connected to each other in a variety of different ways. As one character in "Elsewhen" thinks: "There seemed to be no end to the permutations and combinations: either of matter or of mind."
This view is the key to Heinlein's presentation of the future society of "'If This Goes On--.'" As he conceived it, if the elements of our contemporary society were to be extended into the future, some might regress, some might advance, while some might stay the same. And the new combination that resulted from these permutations might be the kind of world presented here, with spears and West Point and the Rocket Patrol, all at once.
The essence of Heinlein's new technique of the selective extension of factors is to be seen in the very title of his story. This method, which would come to be called extrapolation, from a term used in mathematics, would very soon become standard in science fiction.
Even from the first few paragraphs of Heinlein's short novel, it is possible for us to discern that the rule of the Prophet Incarnate over future America is maintained through manipulation of the populace, oppression, and the deliberate inculcation of false belief. And from the narrator's choice of words, we can also see that John Lyle--sympathetic though we may find him--is, or used to be, one of the deluded himself, so much the product of the society in which he has been raised that he doesn't quite realize the true nature of the forces to which he has been given over at birth.
This new use of language within SF for subtle multiple effect was no accident. Heinlein was an early student of Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics, a new linguistic discipline concerned with the true nature, meaning and use of symbols and their change through time. Within "'If This Goes On--'" itself, we are told that the styling of language for effective propaganda purposes has become a mathematical science.
This is explained by Lyle's friend and fellow officer, the older, more worldly wise Zebadiah Jones:
"The emotional connotation of any word is a complex variable function depending on context, age and sex and occupation of the listener, the locale, and a dozen other things. An index is a particular solution of the variable that tells you whether or not a particular word used in a particular fashion to a particular type of listener will affect that listener favorably, unfavorably, or simply leave him cold. Statistical research in this stuff provides us with the means to choose language best suited to play on the emotions."And he adds: "'There is magic in words, if you know how to use it.'"
It is love for one of the Prophet's handmaidens that causes the scales to fall from John Lyle's eyes. At last he begins to perceive something of the true cynical, repressive and exploitative nature of the theocracy. And very soon thereafter, both he and Zeb become members of the Cabal, the revolutionary underground that is seeking to overthrow the reign of the Prophet.
The true identity of the Cabal, this small elite of the undeluded, is most interesting. Though never directly named, through allusions and signs and initiatory phrases it is made clear that these are the Freemasons, the same secret society that played a key role in the American and French Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century.
Ultimately, however, it isn't mystical enlightenment that the revolutionaries count upon to win America over to their cause, but universal operating principles effectively applied. In the good cause of throwing out the theocracy and then establishing a new regime of tolerance and open-mindedness, the rebels are every bit as ready to cozen and manipulate the people at large as the Prophet and his legions whom they oppose so fervently.
The signal to begin the crucial uprising is the faking of a key annual broadcast by the Prophet, which is itself a sham. Each spring, Nehemiah Scudder, the First Prophet, is witnessed to arise out of the form of his current incarnation and confirm the rule of the incumbent. This time, however, a counterfeit broadcast is made, so that Scudder appears as usual, but only to denounce the current Prophet as Satan and bid the populace to destroy him. Through this deception, the simple belief of the people is turned against the Prophet.
What is more, when they gain control, it is the revolutionaries' intention to brainwash people into accepting a new independence of thought:
The plan concocted by Colonel Novak and Zebediah provided for readjusting the people to freedom of thought and freedom of action. They planned nothing less than mass reorientation under hypnosis. The technique was simple, as simple as works of genius usually are. They had prepared a film which was a mixture of history, theological criticism, simple course in general science, exposition of the philosophy of the scientific viewpoint and frame of mind, and so forth. Taken consciously, it was too much to soak up in one dose, but they planned to use it on subjects in a state of light hypnosis.This is certainly Atomic Age pushbutton thinking at its least attractive. And when Heinlein came to revise and expand this story for book publication in the Korean War year of 1953, he would reject this psychological reconditioning of America as a completely unacceptable solution. When it is proposed--not by Zeb Jones or Colonel Novak--Heinlein would have an elderly man described as looking like "an angry Mark Twain" rise and declare:
"Free men aren't 'conditioned!' Free men are free because they are ornery and cussed and prefer to arrive at their own prejudices in their own way--not have them spoonfed by a self-appointed mind tinkerer! We haven't fought, our brethren haven't bled and died, just to change bosses, no matter how sweet their motives."And almost immediately the old man drops dead, just to reinforce the point.
In 1939 and 1940, however, this mental readjustment of the population to the scientific frame of mind could still seem a work of genius, a canny application of leading-edge know-how in a noble cause.
Background by Eos Development