Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


    It isn't true that Robert A. Heinlein is anything as simple or as complicated as a newly revealed, authoritarian exponent of free love.

    The evidence for the opinion that this is Heinlein is based on his three most recent novels: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and Glory Road.  However, Heinlein's odd sexual notions may be found in different form much earlier than in these works.  Heinlein's gift for oversimplification, his belief in the imposition of panaceas by the man who knows better -- his belief that there are panaceas, that there are men who know better, and who have a consequent right to do things to people for their own good -- all these things go back to Heinlein's very earliest works.  These attitudes simply haven't been as apparent heretofore, that is all.

    Since Heinlein's authoritarianism requires less digging and less examination than does his attitude toward sex, I want to skip over it lightly, simply mentioning some places where it appears.  In his early story "Lost Legacy" (originally "Lost Legion", 1941), and in his later story "Gulf" (1949) Heinlein has self-appointed flying squads of justice, parapsychs in the first case and geniuses in the second, who kill all the evil people in black hats.  In his University of Chicago lecture reprinted in The Science Fiction Novel, Robert Bloch points out the easy acceptance of revenge as an instrument in The Door into Summer: anything being all right for the man who knows better. The Puppet Masters is permeated with authoritarianism.  We need not mention some of Heinlein's published statements, his Patrick Henry League, and whatnot.

    The difficulty with Heinlein on sex is that at first glance all the evidence prior to Stranger in a Strange Land seems negative.  I think, however, that on reflection a pattern is apparent.  Heinlein's first novel was "If This Goes On -- " a two-part serial beginning in the February 1940 Astounding.  Damon Knight calls the love interest in this work a "story-book romance," and it surely was: an affair between a pure heroine and a naive hero.  This has been typical Heinlein all the way along: no sex without marriage, even when it would logically occur, and naive heroes whenever possible, as insurance.

    Example One:  Citizen of the Galaxy.  A young man, presumably heterosexual, a former slave raised in a gutter environment, who is completely blind on the subject of sex, is being pursued, completely unaware, by two different, attractive and nubile girls.  This situation seems so unlikely that you wonder why Heinlein even raised the subject.

    Example Two:  Tunnel in the Sky.  The hero here, too, is pure and ignorant.  The people around him are getting married and having children but he can't even recognize a girl as a girl when he meets her.  Again, this is Heinlein's own choice:  it is not imposed by story necessities or even by the fact that the book is a juvenile.  Heinlein raises the subject and then walks around it.

    Example Three:  The Puppet Masters.  This story is not a juvenile, the hero is not a juvenile, and the hero is not naive.  However, when the hero is invited to the heroine's apartment overnight and the prospect of sex is definitely mentioned -- this in a culture where sex is supposedly more casual than it is today -- nothing happens.  The hero sleeps in the living room.  Sex waits till, at the hero's insistence, they get firmly, tightly married, so unusually firmly that the marriage clerk finds it necessary to comment on it.

    It might be said that Heinlein was bowing to magazine conventions, but this doesn't hold because Heinlein could have liberalized his attitudes when the novels appeared in book form.  The sexual conventions are one thing he didn't change in the hardcover Puppet Masters so it can be assumed that this is what Heinlein wanted to say.

    In the case of "If This Goes On -- " Heinlein completely rewrote the story and lengthened it considerably.  He realized how much bushwah his story-book romance was, so he tossed it out the window.  He didn't toss out his hero's unbelievable innocence, however.  Even at a nude swimming party where others are ... no, no sex.  Even when the heroine (a very experienced girl) offers her fair body on a sleep-in basis, apparently no sex.  John Lyle, True Hero, holds out for marriage and gets it.  No matter how unlikely all this might be under those circumstances this is the way Heinlein wanted things, and that's the way he wrote them.

    I think it is clear that every example I have cited is the result of a romantic, that is to say, puritan attitude.  "Romance" in this sense is the result of repression; it is an internalized thing.  The authoritarianism, the oversimplification, the panaceas, the good guys vs. bad guys are all part and parcel of the same romantic attitudes.

    As I said, Stranger in a Strange Land and Glory Road seem to be exceptions.  They are not.

    Somewhere along the line, it seems obvious, Robert A. Heinlein discovered that there was a discrepancy between what people did in the real world and the cultural ideal he had accepted so wholeheartedly.  He is obviously an intelligent man and he would notice a thing like that.

    The supreme example of romantic idealism in our culture is probably the Boy Scout.  As an ex-Boy Scout of long standing, I can remember that more time was spent on Boy Scout camping trips in telling dirty jokes than in any other single pastime.  In the last decade I haven't heard one-tenth of the filthy stories that I heard and told in two years of Boy Scout activity.

    It's a normal reaction or over-reaction.  It's a way of saying that you're really grown up, that you're a man.  It's a way of saying that you really know what's going on even when you're a Boy Scout.  And it's daring.  That's why dirty jokes are told.

    The one element common to every dirty joke I can think of is impossible exaggeration: that is, unlikelihood.  In 1959 Heinlein made up a dirty joke, and a really good one: "All You Zombies..."  Moreover, he got it printed, and reprinted too.  It was fun, it was daring, and it showed the world that he really knew what was going on.  So he told another at tedious length:  Stranger in a Strange Land.  And did it again in Glory Road.  And they were simply shocking, in the same way that a 15-year-old kid is shocking when he says "shit" to his parents.

    But the attittude is as superficial in Heinlein as in any Boy Scout.  His mask slips regularly in Glory Road to show the old romantic underneath.  Oscar, the hero, will go to bed with anybody -- only not with those Vietnamese 'cause they seem childlike. (Does Madame Nhu strike anybody here as childlike?)  Oscar will go to bed with anybody -- only not with the old girl friend who sent him off to the wars in the traditional way, not because she is married, but 'cause he doesn't feel like it.  And Oscar's wife-or-whatever, the Queen of the Universe (what she is actually, for real, called in the book is even more ridiculous than that:  She is the Empress of the Twenty Universes, if you please), she will go to bed with anybody, only when it comes to the test, see, she has this wound in her side and she just isn't up to it.

    Isn't that odd?

    Oscar Gordon is as naive as any Heinlein hero ever was, any statement in the book to the contrary notwithstanding.  It might not even be simple ignorance in this case; it might be claimed that he isn't even half-bright (on other evidence than his sexual oddities).  He, too, insists on marriage before he will submit sexually to his True Love, even though she is perfectly willing and suggests they use the nearest convenient clump of grass and even though marriage here is not customary.

    Isn't that odd?

    The point is, Stranger in a Strange Land and Glory Road have in common with the garden-variety dirty joke these characteristics:

    Improbability compounded: (a) Social.  Would people actually act like this?  Think, for instance, of the Oneida community.  Everybody diddling everybody is just plain unlikely.  (b) Personal.  The dream of beautiful naked women chasing me is now and always was plain fantasy.

    Obsession: Sex is only a small part of life, yet without it these two novels would be pamphlets and pretty slim ones at that.  This is not balanced.  It is on a level with bedroom historical novels.

    There is a third similarity as well.  In dirty jokes, sex is never fun or interesting.  It is a function, something one does in the same manner as one goes to the toilet.  In the two Heinlein novels, sex is treated in the same way.  Actual relations are never described in detail -- they are talked about (at great length) and done.  That is all.  If Heinlein is so damned concerned with "good sex," he does an almighty incompetent job of selling it.  In these novels, sex becomes the business at hand, to be done because it must be, and it comes out as a pretty grim business.  Not interesting, not pleasant, not fun.

    I think it can be said that the apparent difference between the Old Good Heinlein and the New Nasty Heinlein does not exist.  Heinlein is now what Heinlein has been: a 56-year-old adolescent.

    Writers of this sort are not rare.  Adolescent attitudes toward power and sex are the meat of Burroughs, Spillane, Fleming, a good percentage of paperback novels, comic books, and Norman Mailer.  Heinlein happens to be a better writer than most of these, or at least was until recently, which is the reason his last three major novels are regrettable.  He has let his adolescent, romantic, or anti-romantic side loose and I suspect the desire to "shock" and to show he is more of a man than any other kid on the block will continue to rule Heinlein from now on.  Don't expect to see anything new and adult.  Heinlein's ideas are not going to change at this late date.

    The Stranger is a romantic boy who can't tell the difference between the real and the unreal.  The glory road is no road at all; it is a path of an Uncle Wiggily game.

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