Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Heinlein and the Golden Age

Part 2

We should clearly understand that beyond its areas of conspicuous brilliance and innovation, "'If This Goes On--'" was still in many ways an awkward and sketchy early effort.  But very shortly, in other, increasingly confident stories, Heinlein would begin to apply some of the lessons of the breakthrough he had made.

The story that Heinlein produced immediately was "Requiem," a wish-fulfillment written in the light of his new insight that social progress and technological progress might operate independent of each other.

Heinlein's oldest and fondest dream had been to travel to the Moon.  But space travel had always seemed a remote possibility, as in his story "Misfit."  It was something that was going to have to wait until a better day when society had advanced enough to value and support it and permit it to happen.

But if technological accomplishment wasn't dependent on social progress, then it might be possible for men to actually reach the Moon within Heinlein's own lifetime.  One determined man, working in spite of the non-comprehension of society and the resistance of those closest to him, might be enough to make it all possible.  And if that man was so old and frail by the time he made space travel happen that society still wouldn't permit him to have his most cherished dream, why maybe he might step outside the rules of society--the "Space Precautionary Act"--and find a way to go to the Moon anyway.

"Requiem" would take place in a late Twentieth Century America that is still relatively familiar.  It would begin with old D.D. Harriman looking over a former Moon rocket at a county fair in Bates County, Missouri--that is, in Butler, the very town that Heinlein was born in.  And it would end with Harriman dying a blissful death on the Moon:

"At long last, there was peace in his heart.  His hurts had ceased to pain him.  He was where he had longed to be--he had followed his need.  . . . He was on the Moon!"

In Heinlein's next futuristic story, "The Roads Must Roll" (Astounding, June 1940), he would go a step beyond the mere fulfillment of a long-cherished dream.  He would employ his new techniques of extrapolation and the recombination of factors to envision a whole new social pattern--but this time projected just thirty years into the future.

One of these factors, shrewdly extrapolated by Heinlein, was the inevitable eventual shortage of petroleum, and the effect that this might have on the existence of the private automobile.

Another factor was the notion of moving roadways.  This idea had been used as striking incidental detail by H.G. Wells in two related dystopian stories, the short novel "A Story of the Days to Come" (1897) and the novel When the Sleeper Wakes (1899).  And when the first of these stories was reprinted in Amazing in April 1928, Frank R. Paul had made one of these multiple-beltway systems the subject of a memorable bedsheet-sized full-page illustration.  Heinlein would imagine rolling roads like these as the successor to the obsolescent automobile.

The third vital factor in the conception of this new future situation was the "Douglas-Martin Solar Reception Screens" that we saw in the process of being invented in "'Let There Be Light,'" Heinlein's risqué third story.  They would serve as the power source for the rolling roads.

Putting these factors together, Heinlein envisioned a radically altered American society in the year 1970, living strung out along the length of the rolling roads.  This wasn't exactly societal progress.  But it was a whole new age, with a very different orientation.  It has its own slang, its own new jobs, customs and expectations, and its own new problems.

But only thirty years away!

During the Techno Age, society had been seen as innately unified, fixed and stable.  It had seemed that only the impact of powerful external forces could produce social change.  Hence, on the one hand, the  preoccupation of Techno Age SF with invasions and catastrophes, and on the other, its fears of social stagnation and decadence.

Heinlein's new stories suggested something very different: that social change is a constant, the natural result of the interaction of the various elements of society and the universe.  Change--Heinlein was suggesting--does occur, must occur, and most certainly will occur, and maybe a whole lot sooner than you might think.  It doesn't have to be imposed from outside by invading aliens, or even by a Martin Padway--the time-traveling hero of L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall, who reshapes ancient Rome to head off the Dark Ages.  Change is an inevitability.

Heinlein would say this explicitly one year later in "The Discovery of the Future," his guest-of-honor speech at the Third World Science Fiction Convention, held in Denver in July 1941.  Heinlein would declare:
There won't always be an England--nor a Germany, nor a United States, nor a Baptist Church, nor monogamy, nor the Democratic Party, nor the modesty tabu, nor the superiority of the white race, nor aeroplanes--they will go--nor automobiles--they'll be gone, we'll see them go.  Any custom, technique, institution, belief, or social structure that we see around us today will change, will pass, and most of them we will see change and pass.
With his next story after "The Roads Must Roll," Heinlein would begin to play games with his new-found ability to envision future change and difference.  "Coventry" (Astounding, July 1940) takes place some years after the revolution of "'If This Goes On--.'"  A new libertarian society has been established that aims to ensure the maximum possible freedom of action for every person: "Citizens were forbidden by the Covenant to damage another.  Any act not leading to damage, physical or economic, to some particular person, they declared to be lawful."

Social misfits who refuse to abide by this Covenant and who will not accept psychological readjustment--like Heinlein's protagonist, who has gone so far as to punch someone in the nose--are sent to a restricted area known as Coventry that is surrounded by an impenetrable barrier.  And inside Coventry, there are no less than three further societies: one of these is made up of still-faithful followers of the Prophet; one is a fascistic dictatorship; and one is a nominally democratic petty bossdom not unlike Heinlein's boyhood Kansas City.

In this story, in the most direct way possible, Heinlein showed that the future need not be monolithic at all, but might assume a variety of different guises.

There would be further demonstrations of this in Heinlein's next story, "Blowups Happen" (Astounding, Sept 1940).  This was an exactingly researched and imagined account of dedicated engineers striving to cope with conditions of intolerable psychological stress in an atomic power plant.  And just like "The Roads Must Roll," it would be indicated to be taking place about thirty years in the future.

But is this an alternative future in which solar power was never invented?  Not at all.  By casual cross-references in "Blowups Happen," Heinlein would tie this story to "The Roads Must Roll" and to "'Let There Be Light--'" and to "Requiem," and make the point that even the near future might have a multiplicity of newness to display to us.

To keep straight this multiplex future of sun-power screens, rolling roads and space rockets that he was evolving, Heinlein even worked up a chart of the next fifty years and hung it on his wall.  He would later say, "This was an idea I had gotten from Mr. Sinclair Lewis, who is alleged to maintain charts, files, notes and even very detailed maps of his fictional state of Winnemac and its leading city, Zenith."

Moreover, as a striking confirmation that factors indeed may change and new relationships result, immediately after Heinlein wrote "Blowups Happen," the balance of power between him and John Campbell began to alter radically.

By that time, early in 1940, Campbell had come to recognize what a uniquely capable and innovative writer he had found in Heinlein.  He was now eager to get his hands on any new piece of work that Heinlein turned out.

However, it was at precisely this moment that Heinlein succeeded in paying off the mortgage that had caused him to take up writing in the first place, and threw a mortgage-burning party to celebrate.  He no longer felt obligated to write SF.  He was now master of his own options.

If Heinlein did choose to continue to write for a little longer, perhaps to the end of the year, well, that was only because he saw some convenience in it.  He could certainly use a newer car, and a few other things.  He had it in mind to take a trip to New York, among other reasons because he wanted to finally meet John Campbell face to face.  And he did have a bunch of stories already worked out and needing to be written.

But there was this vital difference.  Up until now, Heinlein had felt it necessary to please Campbell, to play along with the editor and accede to all his requests and suggestions.  But no longer.  Now, if he were to continue to write SF, it would be on his own terms or not at all.

The immediate test of this would be "Magic, Inc," Heinlein's first post-mortgage story.  Just as he had done before with very little success, Heinlein took large chunks of personally meaningful material and put them into another strange speculative story.  In this fantasy short novel, he would once more express his horrified fascination with American business and political corruption, his strong conviction that the ordinary reality of present social consensus is not the only possible reality, and his accumulated knowledge of a forbidden area of study--in this case, magic and witchcraft.

However, this time, with something between a glint and a twinkle in his eye, Heinlein would combine these factors with the very elements that Campbell had been asking for in his science fiction stories for Astounding: plausible argument, universal operating principles, and more fiction about the future.  There would be no chance that this story would come across as vague or flabby.  Every trick of plausible presentation that Heinlein had worked up for his science fiction stories, he would employ in this not-altogether-serious fantasy.

For example, in all his recent science fiction stories, Heinlein had snatched the reader into the ongoingness of a different future reality by starting with some urgent, intriguing line of dialog.  "'Who makes the roads roll?'" a leader of dissatisfied technicians demands.  Or "'Put down that wrench!'" a psychiatrist says to an atomic engineer.

In very much the same way, but even more provocatively, "Magic, Inc." would begin with the impertinent question: "'Whose spells are you using, buddy?'"

It is a cheap thug who asks.  And coolly, the narrator, a building-materials dealer named Archie Fraser, answers back: "'Various of the local licensed practitioners of thaumaturgy.'"

This may not be very helpful to the thug, who is here to put pressure on Fraser to change the source of supply of one of the more important elements in his business, but it certainly tells us a great deal about the world we are entering.

In fact, once again we are in an altered society thirty years in the future--just like "The Roads Must Roll" and "Blowups Happen."  But in this logical if not necessarily possible 1970, it is magic that is the key fact of change.

It is assumed that around 1950, magic was placed on a regular and socially accepted basis with mastery of "the arcane laws."  And after a further twenty years, it has become a major facet of daily American life, regulated by law and contract and custom.  As Archie Fraser's good friend, cloak-and-suiter Joe Jedson says, speaking at a small city Chamber of Commerce luncheon:
"We all use it.  I use it for textiles.  Hank Manning here uses nothing else for cleaning and pressing, and probably uses it for some of his dye jobs, too.  Wally Haight's Maple Shop uses it to assemble and finish fine furniture.  Stan Robertson will tell you that Le Bon Marché's slick window displays are thrown together with spells, as well as two thirds of the merchandise of his store, especially in the kids' toy department."
Archie Fraser helps us to accept this magical future society.  He's a hardheaded Scot, a practical weigh-and-measure man, so conventional in his cast of mind that when he explains to us that racketeers are moving in to gain an illegal monopoly in magic so that they can raise prices, it's only natural for him to compare it with the price-rigging that was once attempted locally in the Portland cement trade.  At the same time, however, he is a native of this odd future, perfectly ready to take its every strangeness in stride.

Indeed, such is the spin that Heinlein puts on things that ultimately we can no longer be quite sure what is really strange and what isn't.  When Archie and his more magically gifted friends figure out that it is a demon who is behind the racketeering in magic and track him down in "the Half-World," all we can do is laugh as a lesser demon rushes up to lend them a crucial hand--and then reveals himself to be an FBI agent working out of the antimonopoly division on undercover assignment.  It seems only fitting.

"Magic, Inc." was a deadpan spoof, all in good fun, but it was also a bold experiment.  Heinlein had become increasingly slick at slipping necessary information into his science fiction stories in such a way that it seemed only natural.  In this story, however, he outdid himself.  Nothing at all was given directly.  All the background information that Heinlein had to impart, he wove into the fabric of his story.  It was demonstrated, or it was given in the attitudes of his characters, or it was thrown away in dialog, or it was dropped in an incidental narrative comment serving some other apparent purpose.

And the result of this technique was that the reader who wanted to know where he was and what was going on here was obliged to become an active and trusting participant in "Magic, Inc."  Without benefit of any obvious direct exposition, he had to gather scattered hints and references and implications and fit the overall pattern together for himself.

In years to come, showing-without-telling and asking the reader to fill in the blank spots of a pattern would become standard methods for presenting strange future societies.  And Robert Heinlein would always be the supreme master of this kind of indirect presentation.  But it was in "Magic, Inc." that he first brought the trick off.

When John Campbell was allowed to see this whacky, innovative story, he loved it, of course.  An out-and-out fantasy that was written with the techniques of leading-edge modern science fiction was just the thing for him.  He hurried "Magic, Inc." into the September 1940 Unknown, pausing only to change the title to "The Devil Makes the Law" to avoid any clash with Pratt's and de Camp's second Harold Shea story, "The Mathematics of Magic," published in the August issue.

On the check for this story, Heinlein traveled east.  And when he got to New York, he tested Campbell again, a little harder this time.  He handed the editor a short story he had written on the way, the frankly solipsistic "They," in which the familiar modern world is revealed to be no more than an elaborate stage setting designed to keep the protagonist distracted from remembering his true identity and power.  Campbell bought that one, too--although he would be a good bit slower about putting it in print, sticking it at last without special notice into the April 1941 Unknown.

In this first meeting between the great editor and his most able new writer, there was obvious respect, geniality, and good-fellowship.  Beneath the surface, however, this encounter between Heinlein and Campbell was an all-out war, a struggle between two titans for dominance and control.  And it was Heinlein who emerged the winner, as he had fully intended to do when he set off for the east.

Oh, Campbell did come away with a certain number of concessions: Heinlein agreed to write more of his new line of futuristic science fiction for Astounding, something he hadn't done for almost six months.  What is more, to provide a home for his stranger notions, Heinlein would create a Don A. Stuart-type alter ego, Anson MacDonald--a pseudonym cobbled together out of Heinlein's middle name and his wife's maiden name.  And Heinlein was even willing to initiate this new name by turning an old plot of Campbell's into a quick serial novel to fill a hole in the magazine.

In actuality, however, it was Heinlein who established all of his points: He wouldn't write to command or to deadline.  He would write what he wanted, when he wanted, and the way he wanted.  For exactly as long as he wanted.

Immediately, yes, he would agree to write Campbell's serial for him; he could use the money just now for a new car.  But in the long term, it was necessary for Campbell to understand that if the time should come when the editor rejected another of his stories, that was the end of it.  Heinlein wouldn't send him anything further.  And that--sweetly, charmingly phrased, of course--was The Word.

Campbell being Campbell, he would never completely give up trying to prompt and adjust and direct Heinlein, but the edge was no longer his.  His need for Heinlein was greater than Heinlein's need for him--and Heinlein had let him know it.

It was in this new phase in their relationship that Campbell would tell his young fellow editor, Fred Pohl:
The trouble with Bob Heinlein is that he doesn't need to write.  When I want a story from him, the first thing I have to do is think up something he would like to have, like a swimming pool.  The second thing is to sell him on the idea of having it.  The third thing is to convince him he should write a story to get the money to pay for it, instead of building it himself.
The real situation, of course, was rather more complex than that.  Heinlein may have done a good job of convincing Campbell that he was a gentleman of independent means and thought who really didn't have to write at all, but only did it because he happened to find it amusing and convenient to play around with SF for a time.  But it wasn't strictly true.

For that matter, Heinlein may have convinced himself that he had backed into science fiction writing completely by accident, and had only continued it for sound pragmatic reasons.  He was willing to tell his friends that he "was just a chap who needed money and happened to discover that pulp writing offered an easy way to grab some without stealing and without honest work."  But that wasn't strictly true, either.

In fact, Heinlein did need to write.

In one year, from a standing start, Heinlein had turned out a truly prodigious amount of work--three short novels, four novelets, and seven short stories.  And he had thought of at least a dozen stories more that he might write.  He was just bubbling over with SF ideas.

The stories Heinlein had written contained all sorts of formal knowledge and conscious cerebration, but they were also the most intensely personal body of work any SF writer had ever produced.  As we've seen, they were full of long-cherished Heinlein dreams, and private references, and a great deal of autobiography, both disguised and overt.

These were highly immediate stories.  Previous science fiction stories of the future had either been brief visits or else were one-dimensional accounts.  Heinlein, however, had put incredible effort into working out techniques that would allow the imagined future to feel plausible and lived-in.

Finally, these were urgent stories, Again and again, they concerned dedicated men--overseers of society--who are plagued by nightmares and unspoken doubts and are on the very verge of cracking up under the awesome weight of their responsibilities.  In "Blowups Happen," for instance, he had written of his atomic engineers:
They were selected not alone for their intelligence and technical training, but quite as much for their characters and sense of social responsibility.  Sensitive men were needed--men who could fully appreciate the importance of the charge entrusted to them; no other sort would do.  But the burden of responsibility was too great to be borne indefinitely by a sensitive man.  It was, of necessity, a psychologically unstable condition.  Insanity was an occupational disease.
And in "The Roads Must Roll," he had written of his main character, the Chief Engineer of the Diego-Reno Roadtown: "He had carried too long the superhuman burden of kingship--which no sane mind can carry light-heartedly--and was at this moment perilously close to the frame of mind which sends captains down with their ships."

But, of course, as we have also seen, in one early Heinlein story after another, society's major institutions--business, politics, religion--are indicted as short-sighted, greedy, corrupt, dishonest, dangerous, and possibly outright evil.  Common folk--the sort of little people who go "'ridey-ridey home to their dinners'" via the rolling roads--are seen as easily duped, mesmerized by the moment, lost in the trivial and superficial aspects of life, oblivious to higher concerns.  And when people of real knowledge do attempt to share their experience with society, ordinary citizens are apt to pay no attention, while the corrupt are likely to try to silence or kill them.

It was a complex tangle of thought and feeling that Heinlein was being driven to try to sort out in these urgent, immediate, intense personal stories.  He yearned to be an effective man of higher dedication, but he felt thwarted.  He longed for a society deserving of his service, but saw instead a society of unworthiness and corruption.  He wondered whether it was possible to be a Wellsian Samurai or something like it without being struck down for his pride or breaking under the strain.  And he couldn't make it all come out even.

Some of the time, Heinlein might reassert the duty to society of the man of superior knowledge and ability.  At other times, he might suggest the necessity for a revolution that would make society more worthy of its best men.  And, in yet other moods--say, after a visit to his old boyhood surroundings in Kansas City--he might say to hell with society, and once again doubt the reality of anything and everything but himself.

Science fiction allowed Heinlein a way to express all the different facets of this dilemma, and actually to get away with it.  Who cared what sort of accusations or hypothetical possibilities or personal fantasies or outright heresies were uttered in stories in some pulp science fiction magazine?  Now that Heinlein had both learned to write for Campbell and presented Campbell with his terms for continuing to write, there wasn't anything he wanted to say that he couldn't say as science fiction.

What is more, science fiction stories offered Heinlein a means of working his way through his problem.  As a boy reading Hugo Gernsback's magazines, Heinlein had pinned his fondest hopes and expectations on a future that would be different from his present.  And in growing up, he had found exactly that--a mid-Twentieth Century America that was not the same as the early Twentieth Century America into which he had been born.

Western society had been undergoing an accelerating pace of change since the Age of Reason.  But it was only now, with the transition to the new Atomic Age, that the pace had become rapid enough and insistent enough that it was possible for one man to point to the evidences of difference and say, "This is what change is.  This is how it works."

Robert Heinlein was that rare individual.  He knew that society was constantly undergoing outward and inward change.  And he had the files of clippings he had been accumulating for the past ten years to prove it.

The way that Heinlein found to deal with his great problem of matching his ambition, his talent and his energy to the needs of society was to combine his dilemma with his conviction of ongoing change and future difference.  The new, mutable multiplex future that Heinlein had been working out for himself in stories like "'If This Goes On--,'" "The Roads Must Roll," and "Magic, Inc." allowed him the possibility of imagining what worthy work might be for the man of superior intelligence, training, character and responsibility, and also to imagine what kind of society might support and not oppose him in doing it.

And yet, Heinlein's right hand was not aware of what his left hand was up to.  On the conscious level of his mind, Heinlein could say that he was just doing it for the money, or for a limited period of time, and believe that was the truth.

As a demonstration to Campbell and to himself that he was a strict pragmatist, Heinlein turned out the serial novel that Campbell immediately needed while he was still on his trip to the East Coast: Sixth Column, by Anson MacDonald (Astounding, Jan-Mar 1941).  And it was a considerable testament to his skills that he was able to take Campbell's old-fashioned plot about Oriental invaders combatted by American super-science and write it in such a way that it could pass for modern science fiction.

But Heinlein's heart would not really be involved in this mere job of work, and Sixth Column would be the only story idea he would ever accept from Campbell.  Whether or not he consciously realized it, Heinlein needed to write the stories he had been writing and it was imperative for him to continue.

He would find this out when the time came that he actually attempted to quit.  In the summer of 1941, Campbell challenged the new order Heinlein had established by going so far as to reject a Heinlein story.  And so, just as he had promised he would do, Heinlein set his science fiction aside and turned to other things.

He would recall:
I promptly retired--put in a new irrigation system--built a garden terrace--resumed serious photography, etc.  This went on for about a month when I found that I was beginning to be vaguely ill: poor appetite, loss of weight, insomnia, jittery, absent-minded--much like the early symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis, and I thought, "Damn it, am I going to have still a third attack?"
But, in fact, it didn't turn out to be tuberculosis yet again.  Just as soon as Heinlein had made it evident to Campbell that his threat to quit was a serious one, and Campbell had unrejected the story in question, Heinlein went back to the typewriter.  And instantly his symptoms disappeared.

Heinlein was hooked--not just for now, but for a lifetime.  He would write SF until the United States entered World War II and he got caught up in war work.  And after the war, against his expectations, he would go back to science fiction writing--though mostly for other and better-paying markets than the Campbell Astounding.  Heinlein would be a dominating figure in SF for the next forty years and more.

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