Alexei Panshin's Abyss of Wonder

Reading Heinlein Subjectively
     by Alexei and Cory Panshin


In the first section of this essay, we pointed out that although Robert Heinlein, for his own reasons, has demanded to be read objectively, when he has been, it has led to controversy. And not surprisingly. Heinlein is the author of many strongly-phrased but seemingly objectively inconsistent opinions. We offered as an example a number of Heinlein statements that appear to apply to politics. There does not appear to be objective consistency in these statements. Read subjectively, however, we believe they are consistent and intelligible.

In the second section of this essay, we have presented a simple version of a theory of subjective growth in the human being. We believe this theory indicates the nature, value and subject matter of science fiction and other fantasy stories.

There is much more to be said about Robert Heinlein's subjectivity than we can possibly say here. Throughout his long and prolific writing career, Heinlein has made himself subjectively explicit in his work to a degree unmatched by any other science fiction writer. He has reserved nothing of himself.

Since we cannot be complete, we will concentrate on Heinlein's earliest stories, and, to a lesser extent, his other fiction written before World War II, when Heinlein stopped writing to devote himself to defense work. We will only make small reference to his later stories by way of example.

These early stories do not make an objective whole. They do not make an objective whole even though a conceptual framework -- the "Future History" -- was imposed on many of them.* They do, however, make a subjective whole. They return again and again to the same fundamental questions of Robert Heinlein's relationship to the universe—and, by extension, our own. In this section, we mean to demonstrate the fruitfulness of a subjective reading of these early Heinlein stories, and to show that there is in a subjective reading none of the ambiguity that leads a critic like Mr. Rottensteiner to fire his barrage of negative judgments, or a critic like Damon Knight to throw up his hands in surrender. And, as a by-product of our investigation, we hope to suggest the consistent basis for Heinlein's apparently inconsistent imaginary politics. [* See, by way of argument on the objective inconsistency of the Future History, Heinlein in Dimension, pp. 121-124.]

An early biographical note describes Robert Heinlein's first 32 years:

Born in Butler, Missouri, in 1907, he received his early schooling in the public schools of Kansas City. He learned to play chess before he learned to read, and it is his intention to take up chess again when his eyes play out. Originally the stars were his goal; he planned to be an astronomer. But something slipped and he landed in the U.S. Naval Academy instead. He spent not quite ten years in the Navy, was disabled, and retired. Thereafter he tried a number of things -- silver mining, real estate, politics, and some graduate study in physics and math. Finally, more or less by accident, he wrote a science fiction story, calling it "Life-Line." It sold and was published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1939. He sold his next effort, and, in his own words, he "was hooked, having discovered a pleasant way to live without working."

At the age of 32, Heinlein had negotiated his first two subjective crises successfully. He had made his adolescent decisions. He had passed from adolescence to adulthood. And he had passed again from being a young one-dimensional adult-in-uniform to be a multi-faceted man of many skills and abilities.

In July 1939, when his first story, "Life-Line," was published in Astounding, Heinlein was just turning 32 and entering into his third crisis of adulthood. At that moment, Robert Heinlein must have been in an extremely uncertain state of mind.

The question that he was being asked by circumstance to consider was this: Is it enough to be a competent man among other adult men, or is there more to life? If a man can do anything he sets his hand to in a competent way -- silver mining, real estate, politics, graduate studies -- what, among all the things that he can do or might do competently, is worth the devotion of a lifetime? What occupation or dedication can justify a life?

This is a subjective question. It asks nothing about the facts of the universe. Instead, it is a question of meaning. How can I find meaning in my life? How can I meaningfully relate to the universe around me? Robert Heinlein's fiction was his best attempt to define his problem and to arrive at a solution.

From an objective viewpoint, Heinlein was as lazy and undirected as any adolescent self-locked in his room. Heinlein calls his story writing "a pleasant way to live without working." But of course it was far more than that. Between 1939 and 1942, Heinlein produced a torrent of stories -- meaningful self-questioning.

Heinlein attempted two lines of attack on his problem. On the one hand, he recapitulated his earlier crises in story form. These were models of how crises are successfully negotiated. On the other hand, he projected his present problems and perceptions in symbolic form, and attempted to find theoretical solutions for them. Heinlein's fourth story and first novel, "If This Goes On -- " (Astounding, February-March 1940), was one recapitulation of a past crisis. The personal relevance of this first Heinlein novel is apparent. It was his first work longer than a short story. It was the first of his stories to be told in the first person. And his protagonist, his narrator, quite significantly bears Heinlein's mother's maiden name: Lyle.

The story takes place late in the next century after a rabble-rousing evangelist, Nehemiah Scudder, and his successor "Prophets Incarnate," have assumed control of the United States and run it for generations as a religious-military dictatorship. John Lyle is a member of the personal guard of the current Prophet Incarnate. At birth, he was consecrated by his mother to the Church. He is a West Point graduate who has been assigned to the holiest regiment of the Prophet's hosts, primarily on the basis of top grades in piety. The home of the Prophet is a strange and paranoid palace, filled with intrigue and corruption. Lyle is an innocent. He only becomes alienated from the Prophet through his forbidden desire for one of the Prophet's handmaidens, who are called Virgins. Lyle's eyes then become open to the corruption around him. With the help of friendly outside forces, he escapes from the palace to join the underground that opposes the Prophet.

Lyle is re-educated. He learns to smoke and to unbend a trifle from his state of stiff rectitude. At the climax 0f the story, Lyle directs vital elements of the forces of revolution. But he never directly confronts the Prophet himself. Instead, when the forces of revolution reach the Prophet, they find that the Virgins "had left him barely something to identify at an inquest."

We might analyze this story subjectively as follows: An idealistic young man, who believes in both society and evil, discovers that his own society is corrupt. He recognizes the Other in the form of a band of kindred spirits, dedicated revolutionaries. As one of these, he confronts the Demonic and overcomes its tyranny. He becomes free of his former bondage by his identification with the Other. It is this crisis that is the template for all of Heinlein's many stories of justified revolt against an intolerable domestic tyranny. Examples are Between Planets and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

One of the significant factors in Heinlein's representations of this crisis is that the Demonic is confronted only distantly. That is, Heinlein has declared himself reluctant to write of the model of the Prophet: "I probably never will write the story of Nehemiah Scudder; I dislike him too thoroughly." And although John Lyle is a member of the Prophet's personal guard and the story itself begins directly outside the Prophet's apartments, the only glimpse we are allowed of the Prophet Incarnate is late in the story on television. Even so, Lyle is awestruck:

He turned his head, letting his gaze rove from side to side, then looked right at me, his eyes staring right into mine. I wanted to hide. I gasped and said involuntarily, "You mean we can duplicate that?"

Similarly, Between Planets and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress are both settled by confrontations with the Demonic at arm's length. In the first of these novels, colonial Venus wins its freedom by placing a sphere of force around the Federation capital at Bermuda. But this is not shown. It happens by implication after the novel is over. In the second novel, the Moon wins its freedom from a tyrannical Earth by chucking rocks at the Earth until it gives up.

We take the crisis represented in "lf This Goes On --" to be Heinlein's first, that which comes at the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood, because the objective bases of the major symbols are rooted in the family. The troops of the Prophet are addressed as "Brother." The Virgins are called "Sister." Lyle -- who bears Heinlein's mother's name -- makes frequent emotional reference to his mother, but none whatever to his father. It is his mother who consecrates Lyle to the Church at birth. The Prophet is both a father figure and Demonic. In other words, ‘If This Goes On -- " is most intelligible if read as a symbolic representation of Heinlein's subjective quest which resulted in his escape from the narrow confines of his family.

Heinlein's second story, "Misfit" (Astounding, November 1939), also seems to be a recapitulation of a successfully passed crisis -- Heinlein's second, that which comes during the twenties. lf the question posed in Heinlein's first crisis was: What is an idealistic young man to do when he discovers that the society to which he is committed is corrupt -- the question posed by Heinlein's second crisis was: How does a bright but maladjusted young man manage to find a place in society for himself?

In "Misfit," an asteroid is to be jockeyed into orbit between the Earth and Mars and turned into an emergency space station by a work crew of asocial young men. Heinlein's protagonist, Andrew Jackson Libby, is maladjusted through no fault of his own -- his father, now dead, had rejected society. At exactly the right wrong moment, a ballistic calculator fails. Libby, who is able to do high- order mathematical integrations instantly in his head, fills in for the calculator, thereby establishing his place in society, and earning dinner with the Admiral.

In this crisis, evil is remote -- or at least exterior to society. The concem is to establish a place for the Self within a good society. The Self is an outsider who recognizes society as the Other. He confronts the Demonic in the form of natural forces, as in "Misfit," or in the form of evil enemies of society, as in Starship Troopers. The courage and dedication of the Self are recognized. The Self, in Heinlein stories that reflect this crisis, is often, like Libby, the indispensable man. And, like Libby, is welcomed into society.

Another early Heinlein story, "Coventry" (Astounding, July 1940), draws a neat distinction between the first and second crises. This story takes place some fifty years after "If This Goes Oh-". A good society -- the best society that Heinlein could then imagine -- has been established. But Heinlein's protagonist has rebelled against it. He has violated its canons. He has struck another man who insulted him, and he refuses re-education. In consequence, he is exiled to Coventry where the remnants of the Prophet's hosts, fascists and other evil people live. This is the true Demonic, as David MacKinnon quickly comes to realize. What is more, the Demonic means to break free and conquer the good society. MacKinnon hurries to warn society -- and thereby re-earns his place within it.

And why did MacKinnon make his error of rebellion in the first place? Because he projected onto society his hatred of his father:

Dave's father was one of the nastiest little tyrants that ever dominated a household under the guise of loving-kindness . . . The boy's natural independence, crushed at home, rebelled blindly at every sort of discipline, authority, or criticism which he encountered elsewhere and subconsciously identified with the not-to-be-criticized paternal authority.

Heinlein's most symbolically sophisticated presentation of his second subjective crisis is to be found in the short novel "Waldo." Waldo is a sick misanthropic genius who lives by himself in an artificial satellite. His only contacts with the Earth are via remote-control devices. At the risk of death, Waldo comes to Earth, recognizes a symbol of the Other in the form of an ancient Pennsylvania hex doctor, and as a result solves both society's problems and his own, healing his body and turning himself into a masterful ballet-tap dancer and brain surgeon.

While Heinlein's recapitulations of his earlier crises in "Misfit" and "1f This Goes On --" were of aid in telling him where he had been, they were not solutions to his present crisis. They did not answer the question that can only be asked after Libby has earned his place in society, after Waldo has made himself a dancer and surgeon: ls it enough to be a competent man among other adult men, or is there more to life? What dedication is worth the devotion of a lifetime?

ln order to complete the monomythic journey successfully, a death is indicated -- the death, that is, of the old limited Self. As token of this death, Libby faints in the midst of his calculations. Waldo surrenders himself in all his frailty to the overwhelming gravity of Earth, which may kill him. MacKinnon, in escaping with his warning, dives under a deadly force Barrier, even though to do so may kill him -- and is hurt so badly that he is taken for dead.

However, the thought of the death of the Self with which the 32-year-old Heinlein was faced did not come easily to him. This may have been because he had come near to physical death in the illness -- tuberculosis -- that had ended his Navy career. And it may have been because Heinlein was consciously satisfied with his present familiar Self, as he had not been when he lived under the spell of the tyrant, and again as he had not been when he was an outsider to society.

Of Heinlein's first five published stories, two --"Misfit," his second, and "If This Goes On --", his fourth -- were recapitulations. The other three addressed themselves to this question of the death of the ego.

Heinlein's first story, "Life-Line," poses the question: What sort of man can bear the knowledge of the absolute certainty of his own death? The answer that Heinlein arrives at is: A man not very like the present Robert Heinlein. Some kind of queer, stoical foreigner, perhaps.

In "Life-Line," Hugo Pinero, a gross, fat, white, foreign-born man, appears with a machine that can accurately predict the date of any man's death. We are shown examples of its accuracy -- both a reporter and a young bride die as inevitably as we are told they must. Pinero is opposed by members of the Academy of Science, who refuse to examine the evidence, and opposed by a corrupt insurance industry, which is losing money because of the accuracy of his predictions. The insurance industry has Pinero assassinated. When he is dead, it is discovered that he knew the time of his own death, and that he met death calmly. Those who discover this fact are not as calm. They destroy the sealed envelopes that contain the dates on which they will die. And so the story ends -- inconclusively.

Heinlein's third story, "Requiem" (Astounding, January 1940),  returns to this question again. "Requiem" asks: What conditions would make it possible for a man like me to die'? Answer: You might willingly die to gain your heart's desire, but only when you are very very old, and only if given outside aid in the crucial moment.

"Requiem" is the story of Delos D. Harriman, a man born c. 1907, the year that Heinlein was born. Harriman has wanted all his life to reach the Moon. He has dedicated himself to this end single-mindedly. He is the man who made travel to the Moon possible. But because of a heart condition, he has been forbidden to travel in space.

The story opens at a county fair in Butler, Missouri -- the town where Heinlein was born. Harriman approaches a pair of outcasts from society -- men who have worked in space and then been excluded from it for cause -- and suggests they fit a rocket out and take him to the Moon. Eventually they agree. However, at the crucial moment, Harriman collapses and must be carried on board the spaceship.

But he does gain his heart's desire. He reaches the Moon. The cost is his death.

However, this death is blissful: "He lay back still while a bath of content flowed over him like a tide at flood, and soaked to his very marrow." Though this was but Heinlein's third story, there is no happier moment to be found anywhere in all his fiction. There is a failure of realization in this story. Heinlein does not seem to know that the death in question is not a permanent physical death, but only a death of the old limited Self, followed by rebirth. Such a realization, however, is implicit in Heinlein's fifth story, "'Let There Be Light'" (Super Science, May 1940).

As a story, "'Let There Be Light'" is not totally successful. It is an attempt to strike a light note after the model of Stanley Weinbaum's stories of five years earlier. But the story is over-compressed, even sketchy in crucial detail. And Heinlein is clumsy and heavy-handed in his attempted lightness. It is these defects that account for the story being published in Super Science, a secondary market, rather than in Astounding. However, the story is successful at striking to the heart of Heinlein's greatest problem.

The subjective question the story poses is: How is death-in-life to be achieved? By what means is the Demonic to be faced? The answer: Relax. That is, become as helpless and hopeless as the infant who is in touch with his intuitive knowledge of Oneness. ln "'Let There Be Light'" the central characters are two young scientists, a male physicist and a female biologist, who set out to discover an efficient light source. They discover not only light, but power. They are opposed by corrupt power companies -- much like the corrupt insurance companies which oppose Pinero in "Life-Line." They are faced with law suits, labor troubles, and fire bombing, and are shadowed wherever they go by goons. The young physicist takes to carrying a gun. An end like Pinero's seems imminent.

But then, the biologist asks:

"Archie, do you know the ancient Chinese advice to young ladies about to undergo criminal assault?"
"No, what is it?"
"Just one word: 'Relax.' That's what we've got to do."

She suggests that they should give their secret of light and power to the world-at-large. They do so, and their antagonists are non-plussed. And the story ends with marriage and the prospect of happiness.

The Other in this story is knowledge -- which is, indeed, a higher dedication than mere worldly competence. Knowledge is symbolized as "light" and "power" and it is described in near-mystical terms:

The screen glowed brilliantly, but not dazzlingly, and exhibited a mother-of-pearl iridescence. The room was illuminated by strong white light without noticeable glare.

The symbol of the Demonic is the corrupt power companies. The threat of the Demonic is met by relaxation -- the death of what had seemed to be Self-interest. By giving knowledge away rather than keeping it selfishly, the two young scientists completely defeat the Demonic which had threatened to kill them and suppress their knowledge.

Here is Heinlein's answer to his thirties crisis. However, he was never able to apply this answer again in any more serious fiction than "'Let There Be Light.'" Heinlein had the answer he was seeking in hand, but was not able to trust it.

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