Alexei Panshin's Abyss of Wonder

Reading Heinlein Subjectively
     by Alexei and Cory Panshin


When Robert Heinlein’s science fiction stories are read objectively -- that is, as though they had primary relevance and reference to existing things and extrapolations of existing things -- difficulties and contradictions arise. Heinlein becomes a controversial figure.

Immediately there are those who denounce him. An Austrian named Franz Rottensteiner has written an analysis of Heinlein entitled "Chewing Gum for the Vulgar." It describes Heinlein as naive, a fascist, a narcissist, a suppressed homosexual, an authoritarian and a savage.

Rottensteiner says:

When an author makes a trivial error, such as writing of a Mars with a breathable air, almost all SF critics will jump at him (for that is something that any schoolboy knows), but blunders in more complex fields such as history, psychology, morals or politics will most  likely remain unpunished.

This is the sort of pronunciamento that an objective reading of  Heinlein brings out in a man. People argue heatedly over the meaning of his work. Imagine the argument when one of the apparent number who try to live by Stranger in a Strange Land encounters Mr. Rottensteiner who knows Stranger to be "a megalomaniac fascist fantasy."

Readers who take one of Heinlein’s books as a bible must find others of his books bewildering. There are libertarians who have been persuaded to take The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as an accurate map of the objective world. What happens to one such when he reads I Will Fear No Evil?

Critics faced with Heinlein throw up their hands, either because they have been psyched-out by the man, or because the objective contradictions are too much for them. We say psyched-out, because Heinlein has asked, demanded and pressured to be considered objectively.

Damon Knight’s famous chapter on Heinlein in In Search of Wonder, "One Sane Man: Robert A. Heinlein," excuses Knight’s inability to get a firm objective grip on Heinlein as a result of the supposed real multiplicity of Heinlein:

Robert A. Heinlein has that attribute which the mathematician Hermann Weyl calls "the inexhaustibility of real things": whatever you say about him, I find, turns out to be only partly true.

That is the sound of a psyched-out critic.

Writing some years after Knight, with the advantage of acquaintance with a later and more blatant Heinlein, James Blish comments:

Much of his major work gives the impression of being a vehicle for highly personal political and economic opinions, so that a critic who disagrees with these views may find himself reacting to the lectures rather than the fiction. A related danger is taking a firm stand on what Heinlein actually believes, for many of the apparent propaganda threads turn out to be in contradiction with one another. But it is precisely the lectures that Heinlein wants his critics to react to. And inevitably the weighers of merit of argument bog down in discussions of the feasibility of the politics of Starship Troopers or the religion of Stranger in a Strange Land. Earnest people contend earnestly over Heinlein, and that is the way Heinlein wants it.

In a lecture delivered at the University of Chicago in 1957 and reprinted in The Science Fiction Novel, Heinlein defines science fiction several times. These definitions are Heinlein’s self-estimate. They are the yardsticks by which Heinlein wishes his fiction to be judged.

First, Heinlein summarizes a definition by Reginald Bretnor which Heinlein calls "the most thoughtful, best reasoned, and most useful definition of science fiction." Science fiction, he says, 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.

Heinlein then asks, "If all fiction is imaginary, how is realistic fiction to be distinguished from fantasy?" And he answers,

When I say "fantasy fiction" I shall mean "imaginary-and-not-possible" in the world as we know it; conversely all fiction which I regard as "imaginary-but-possible" I shall refer to as "realistic fiction," i.e. imaginary but could be real so far as we know the real universe. Science fiction is in the latter class. It is not fantasy.

Heinlein’s argument is that science fiction is fiction that takes science and the facts into account. Science fiction is imaginary-but-possible. It is realistic fiction.
Heinlein then emphasizes his point. He draws up parallel tables:

1. Historical Fiction
2. Contemporary-Scene Fiction
3. Realistic Future-Scene Fiction

I. Fantasy laid in the past
II. Fantasy laid in the present
III. Fantasy laid in the future

And he says,

Class 3 contains only science fiction; a small amount of science fiction may also be found in class 1 and class 2. In the second division, good fantasy, consciously written and skillfully executed, may be found in all three classes. But a great quantity of fake "science" fiction, actually pseudo-scientific fantasy, will be found there also, especially in class III, which is choked with it.

But the most significant fact shining out from the above method of classifying is that class 3, realistic future-scene fiction, contains nothing which is not science fiction and contains at least 90% of all science fiction in print. A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: 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.
It becomes clear that Heinlein is confident of his ability to know the real world, past and present, adequately enough to write science fiction, realistic fiction of the future. And he separates his work, true science fiction, from the work of poseurs, who only pretend to know about the world and who write "pseudo-scientific fantasy," class III.

And, Heinlein further argues, the past is dead, the present fleetingly gone; only the future may be affected. Therefore, Heinlein says, "l must assert that speculative fiction is much more realistic than is most historical and contemporary-scene fiction and is superior to them both."

Quite plainly, Heinlein wishes to be taken as writing about factual objective matters. One of his book jacket photos shows him seated behind his typewriter working a slide rule, astronomical globe at his elbow. Damon Knight, speaking on Heinlein’s behalf in the introduction to Heinlein’s collected "Future History" stories, says,

Far more of Heinlein’s work comes out of his own experience than most people realize. When he doesn't know something himself, he is too conscientious a workman to guess at it: he goes and finds out. His stories are full of precisely right details, the product of painstaking research.

Heinlein has declared himself willing to contradict theory, but not fact, and in his science fiction he has clearly stuck as close to the facts as he could. He has not hurled galaxies around like "Doc" Smith. He hasn’t created galactic empires 50,000 years in the future like Isaac Asimov. He hasn't been an only child in an Art Deco city a billion years from now, like Arthur C. Clarke. He hasn't flown naked in space like A.E. van Vogt.

Heinlein hasn't displayed unheard-of powers to us, nor shown us incomprehensible alien creatures. He has only ventured as far afield as the lost starship in "Universe," and as far into the future as the empty palace 20,000 years from now in "By His Bootstraps." By the imaginative standards of the period in which Heinlein has been dean of the college of science fiction, Heinlein has been conservative.

However, in spite of Heinlein's arguments, science fiction is a form of fantasy. It is an act of the imagination. It deliberately projects itself outside the world of present existence.

It seems clear that if Heinlein really wanted to write about facts, about reality, about present existence, he would do so. Instead, he chooses to write imaginary projections that are studded with references to fact, with citations of authority, and with close analogy to present existence. His science fiction stories are none the less imaginary.
Realistic fiction speaks of the universe outside the human skin, about objectivity. Fantasy is subjective fiction. Imaginary settings, such as those found in science fiction, are representations of inner space, the country of dreams. For all Heinlein's claims of realism, Heinlein's fiction makes infinitely greater sense when taken subjectively than it does when taken objectively.
Heinlein has asked to be taken objectively. But taken objectively, Heinlein is ambiguous and contradictory. Heinlein has resisted subjective readings of his work. On two occasions he has withdrawn his gaze from informal magazines circulating among science fiction writers when the meaning of his work has come under discussion. And on yet another occasion, he did his best to discourage publication of a critical study of his work, not for its particular argument, but because it existed.

Nonetheless, it seems that Heinlein is responded to subjectively by the science fiction audience, which chiefly reads subjectively, to leam about itself, not about the world at large. Heinlein has always commanded an audience of science fiction readers exclusive of the special audiences, large and small, won for him by Stranger in a Strange Land or The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. This constant audience, in the midst of hot objective argument, has given Heinlein the best novel of the year Hugo Awards for Double Star, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. What consistency of objective opinion can encompass these books?
Double Star: An actor is co-opted into the political process, assumes the place of a fallen statesman and watches paternally over the painful fortunes of common folk:
But there is solemn satisfaction in doing the best you can for eight billion people.

Perhaps their lives have no cosmic significance, but they have feelings. They can hurt.

Starship Troopers: War against an implacable group-minded alien race in a future in which only veterans of military service are qualified to hold office, to vote, and to teach courses in History and Moral Philosophy:

A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not.

Stranger in a Strange Land: A young man raised by Martians returns to Earth to turn things topsy-turvy, in particular founding a new religion. He is martyred and takes over responsibility for us in his new role as God's favorite son.

In this story, Jubal Harshaw, the philosophical fount of the novel, says:

"My dear, I used to think I was serving humanity . . . and I pleasured in the thought. Then I discovered that humanity does not want to be served; on the contrary it resents any attempt to serve it. So now I do what pleases Jubal Harshaw."
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress: A former penal colony on the Moon establishes its independence from an overpopulated sinkhole Earth. The novel culminates with a speech by the philosopher of the revolution:

He stopped for cheers, then went on, "But that lies in the future. Today---  Oh, happy day! At last the world acknowledges Luna's sovereignty. Free! You have won your freedom--- "

And he drops dead.

What consistent politics can encompass these books?

Add this small treasury of Heinlein, always speaking with evident conviction:

"It's neither your business, nor the business of this damn paternalistic government, to tell a man not to risk his life doing what he really wants to do."

When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, "This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know," the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives.

    Those who refuse to support and defend a state have no claim to protection by that state. Killing an anarchist or a pacifist should not be defined as "murder" in a legalistic sense. The offense against the state, if any, should be "Using deadly weapons inside city limits," or "Creating a traffic hazard," or "Endangering bystanders," or other misdemeanor.
    However, the state may reasonably place a closed season on these exotic asocial animals whenever they are in danger of becoming extinct. An authentic buck pacifist has rarely been seen off Earth, and it is doubtful that any have survived the trouble there . . . regrettable, as they had the biggest mouths and the smallest brains of any of the primates.
    The small-mouthed variety of anarchist has spread through the Galaxy at the very wave front of the Diaspora; there is no need to protect them. But they often shoot back.

". . .But your psychometrical tests show that you believe yourself capable of judging morally your fellow citizens and feel justified in personally correcting and punishing their lapses . . .  From a social standpoint, your delusion makes you mad as the March Hare."

"Democracy can't work. Mathematicians, peasants and animals, that's all there is -- so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work. Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group."

"The private life and free action of every individual must be scrupulously respected."

What objective reality can make these sentiments into a consistency? None that we know of. Taken subjectively, however, the apparent inconsistencies of Heinlein's fiction fall into intelligible order. Heinlein's fiction forms an emotional, not a logical whole.

In one unguarded moment, Robert Heinlein described the subjective basis of his stories. This was in an essay entitled "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction" in a small 1947 symposium of early and naive science fiction criticism entitled Of Worlds Beyond. In this essay, Heinlein defined both "story" and the kind of story that he wished to write. "A story," he said, "is an account which is not necessarily true but which is interesting to read." And he said:

A story of the sort l want to write is still further limited to this recipe: a man finds himself in circumstances which create a problem for him. In coping with this problem, the man is changed in some fashion inside himself. The story is over when the inner change is complete -- the external incidents may go on indefinitely.
It is precisely that which Heinlein calls the "recipe" of his fiction that we take to be the key to subjective readings of science fiction. That is, we believe that all stories are about growth experiences. Mimetic fiction -- what Heinlein calls "realistic fiction" -- describes how growth experiences are acted out in our society. Fantasy, including science fiction, presents literal actings out of the objectively hidden inner processes of the act of growth. Fantasy stories are subjective models -- which is why adolescent readers are so notoriously fond of science fiction. They read it for subjective guidance.

A science fiction writer sets forth a theoretical growth problem. This consists of a set of invented circumstances which provide a character, a nation, a planet, or the universe with a problem.
This problem is "not necessarily true." In fact, it is imaginary. But it is interesting. The reason that it is interesting is that it is a symbolization of human growth experiences, and growth is the natural personal business of the human being. Animals are fixed in their individual growth and grow chiefly as species. Humans are distinguished from animals precisely by the fact that we are never arrested in personal development and may evolve all our lives. Whenever we say that something is interesting or entertaining, we are, more precisely, saying that it has relevance to our chief business: personal growth, evolution, higher development, self-improvement, inner refinement.

Science fiction proposes symbolic problems. These problems are either solved or not solved. In the successes and failures symbolized in science fiction stories, the reader finds lessons in the means of changing himself.

Heinlein says of the stories he would write: "In coping with this problem, the man is changed in some fashion inside himself."

But the change is not the result of coping with the problem. The change is the means of coping with the problem. Science fiction stories act out lessons in how it feels to change, and how one must feel in order to change.

Our premise is that the imaginary problems that Robert Heinlein poses, the solutions that he envisions, the facts he invents, and the models he presents in his fiction, that all these reveal more about Heinlein's subjectivity, his personal relationship with the universe, than they do about the objective realistic factual universe that Heinlein lays claim to writing about. If we look at Heinlein's imaginary problems and solutions, we will learn what Heinlein believes the universe to be like. Read subjectively, Heinlein is consistent. However, before we look more closely at Heinlein's fiction, we must establish a basis for subjective understanding of science fiction.

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