Alexei Panshin's Abyss of Wonder

Reading Heinlein Subjectively
     by Alexei and Cory Panshin

Heinlein had lost his faith in society, but was not able to perceive a new Other to which he could commit himself. If he and his protagonists were all right, their surroundings clearly were not. Society may once have seemed good and right and sufficient to Heinlein. But in "Life-Line," society is infected by the evil of corrupt life insurance companies. In "Requiem," society does all that it can to prevent D.D. Harriman from doing what he most wants to do. And in "'Let There Be Light,'" society is corrupted by self-seeking power companies.

In these stories, society as a whole is not evil -- as in “If This Goes On--."   But the society that Heinlein had once seen as good and right was no longer so. He no longer perceived it as the Other -- but rather as the society of multiplicity, dominated by the short-sighted interests of businessmen, bureaucrats and unionists. There was in society a susceptibility to corruption and disintegration. Since the appearance of Heinlein's first story, World War II had begun. Under the cracking of society, there lurked the Demonic. With no new perception by Heinlein of the Other -- no higher dedication to knowledge, to mankind, to the ends of evolution, or some other love with which to replace the failed dedication t0 society -- he could see nothing to prevent the onslaught of the Demonic.

These were the perceptions 0f four further Heinlein stories published in 1940 and 1941, which attempted to preserve the dedication to society. These four stories were "The Roads Must Roll" (Astounding, June 1940), "Blowups Happen" (Astounding, September 1940), "Logic of Empire" (Astounding, March 1941), and "Solution Unsatisfactory" (Astounding, May 1941).

"The Roads Must Roll" asks: How can a socially dedicated man avert ultimate social catastrophe?

"The Roads Must Roll" postulates a 1965 America in which the American economy is totally dependent on moving roadways -- strips that move at speeds from five to one hundred miles an hour between large cities. Factories and businesses line the roads. The bulk of the population lives in the countryside beyond.

The system is incredibly vulnerable because any disruption means social disaster. No breakdowns must occur. No strikes may be permitted.

The roads are so vital that the men who run them, the transport engineers, are a semi-military officer corps, graduated from the United States Academy of Transport.

We try to turn out graduate engineers imbued with the same loyalty, the same iron self-discipline, and determination to perform their duty to the community at any cost, that Annapolis and West Point and Goddard are so successful in inculcating in their graduates.

The weak spot is the common workers on the roadways, the technicians. They lack the dedication to society of the engineers. And even though they "are indoctrinated constantly with the idea that their job is a sacred trust," as the story opens they are being led out on strike by a renegade engineer with an inferiority complex. Gaines, Heinlein's protagonist, is Chief Engineer of the roadway that is struck. He is an unhappy, pain-wracked man. His emotions are "a torturing storm of self reproach." He is "heartsick." And we are told: "He had carried too long the superhuman burden of king ship -- which no sane mind can carry light-heartedly . . ."

When the strike occurs, Gaines faces his renegade subordinate and destroys his rebellion by telling him that people are aware of his inferiority. Gaines is taught a lesson by his experience:

Supervision and inspection, check and re-check, was the answer. It would be cumbersome and inefficient, but it seemed that adequate safeguards always involved some loss of efficiency.

And "The Roads Must Roll" ends with Gaines whistling "Anywhere you go, you are bound to know, that your roadways are rolling along!"

Heinlein has declared that he wants to write stories of men who are changed in the course of coping with a problem. However, Gaines is not changed in the course of coping with his problem. Instead, he re-dedicates himself to society. But "check and re-check" is not "the answer." At the conclusion of the story society remains as vulnerable, as susceptible to corruption and disintegration as at the beginning. The Demonic still lurks. If Gaines breaks down under "the superhuman burden of kingship" or a traitor with greater will reveals himself, the result will be social disaster.

In "Blowups Happen," society is again at ransom. This story, too, is projected to occur around the year 1965. The sunscreens that power the rolling roads are not sufficient to the needs of society. We are dependent on a single gigantic atomic power plant, vital to society. The plant -- called "the bomb" -- is delicate and requires constant tuning. It is "a self-perpetuating sequence of nuclear splitting, just under the level of complete explosion."

The strains of duty are unbearably intense:

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.

There are six central characters in this story. Three are young engineers -- men yet to pass through their second crisis. Three are older, more competent men. The experiences of the story provide opportunities for growth to all six characters. The three young characters all grow -- like Libby, they act as indispensable men when they are needed and bind themselves to society. But the three older characters do not grow. One cracks under the strain and tries deliberately to explode the Demonic bomb. The other two come to the very edge of cracking.

And the solution of the story is no solution. The bomb is thrust away into space. But it remains as Demonic at the end as at the beginning. It will still drive men crazy -- just fewer of them. And it is still as certain to explode. The effects of the explosion will merely affect the peripheries of society rather than the heart of society. But society remains vulnerable.

By his own standards, Heinlein set himself a fair problem in "The Roads Must Roll" and again in "Blowups Happen." But in both stories, the dedication to society -- re-asserted -- is merely enough to inhibit the Demonic. The problems Heinlein sets are not solved but rather postponed or thrust away.

In "Logic of Empire," Heinlein tried a new tack. In this story, he recapitulated both of his first two crises, and then drew an extrapolation, as though he felt that by telling coherently where he had been, he could determine where he was to go. But all that Heinlein is able to do is to carry his character smoothly through two crises and then run him into a brick wall.

Humphrey Wingate, Heinlein's protagonist, finds himself an abused slave on Venus, working in the swamps and drowning his miseries in a soporific drink. He rebels against the tyranny and faces the prospect of a worse fate. Instead, he is given aid to escape the power of his owner. Thus a recapitulation 0f Heinlein's first crisis. Wingate then finds himself in a perfect society of free men ruled in an off-hand manner by a competent man. Wingate takes his place in this society by filling an indispensable function -- he operates the radio and improves the radio system. Thus a recapitulation of Heinlein's second crisis.

But then abruptly Wingate is rescued from Venus. He returns to Earth and writes a book telling of his experiences. But no one will listen. The last note in the story is a mention of Nehemiah Scudder, soon to become the First Prophet of America. There is no way, we are told, to change the slavery that Heinlein hates. And there is no way, we know, to prevent the Demonic Nehemiah Scudder from overwhelming society.

The story ends;

"What can we do about it?"

"Nothing. Things are bound to get a whole lot worse before they can get any better. Let's have a drink."

"Solution Unsatisfactory" was Heinlein's last attempt to retain his societal dedication. It provides evidence that Heinlein was perceiving society as disintegrating around him. "Solution Unsatisfactory" does not take place in 1965, like "The Roads Must Roll" and "Blowups Happen." This story, published in 1941, is an account of the development of a deadly atomic weapon during World War II, and it is projected as taking place in 1943, 1944, and immediately thereafter. This ultimate weapon is described as ending World War II. But it is so horrible and final that it cannot be allowed to be used again. As in "The Roads Must Roll" and "Blowups Happen," we have a situation in which supreme dedication and vigilance is necessary if society is to be preserved from the Demonic.

Heinlein describes his dedicated man as a "liberal." But this dedicated man, Col. Manning, decides that the only way to preserve society is to suspend the freedom of everyone. He and a few other dedicated men save society from the Demonic weapon. How? By bullying the nations of the world with a threat to explode the Demonic weapon.

Col. Manning, the competent man, can trust himself, but he cannot trust society. But Col. Manning has an uncertain heart condition and he may keel over dead tomorrow.

The narrator concludes:

For myself, I can't be happy in a world where any man, or group of men, has the power of death over you and me, our neighbors, every human, every animal, every living thing. I don't like anyone to have that kind of power.

And neither does Manning.

But Heinlein cannot see any alternative to the inevitable disintegration of the society to which he has dedicated himself. The story is clearly titled "Solution Unsatisfactory?

And it is an unsatisfactory solution in Heinlein's own terms. Once again, a character has not changed. Once again, a problem has not been solved.

After this, Heinlein began to look beyond society for his answers. For instance, in the story "They" (Unknown, April 1941), our familiar societal multiplicity is doubted and called an insanity:

I saw all around me this enormous plant, cities, farms, factories, churches, schools, homes, railroads, luggage, roller coasters, trees, saxophones, libraries, people and animals. People that looked like me and who should have felt very much like me, if what I was told was the truth. But what did they appear to be doing? ‘They went to work to earn the money to buy the food to get the strength to go to work to earn the money to buy the food to get the strength to go to work to get the strength to buy the food to earn the money to go to—' until they fell over dead. Any slight variation in the basic pattern did not matter, for they always fell over dead. And everybody tried to tell me that I should be doing the same thing. I knew better!

And Heinlein doubted society again in "Universe" (Astounding, May 1941) -- a story published in the same magazine issue as "Solution Unsatisfactory." ln "Universe," society is likened to a starship that has forgotten its purposes, and which now wanders blindly through the galaxy. Those aboard are satisfied with their narrow little game-playing lives. They are oblivious to the wider world outside. Hein1ein's protagonist is a bright and able young man who discovers that his teachers have lied to him in their ignorance. There exists a universe that is larger than society.

In three further stories published in 1941 and 1942, Heinlein searched outside society for the answer to his subjective quest. In these stories, his protagonists approached symbols of the Demonic in the form of strange transcendent creatures. But in each case, his protagonists lacked the recognition of the Other, the new love, the new dedication, that makes a successful confrontation, death, and re-birth possible.

In the first story, Methuselah's Children (Astounding, July-September 1941), Heinlein's protagonist, Lazarus Long, escapes from a disintegrating society, travels to the stars, almost encounters transcendence (he waits outside while another enters), and returns un- changed by his experience, hoping to find society essentially unchanged. In the second story, "By His Bootstraps" (Astounding, October 1941), Heinlein's protagonist -- like Heinlein named Bob -- leaves American society of 1942 without regret, travels to the future where he rules a placid society, becomes bored, and searches for transcendence. He finds it, but a mere glimpse is enough to age him prematurely, to kill his curiosity and to ruin his sleep. ln the third story, "Goldfish Bowl" (Astounding, March 1942), two scientists follow their curiosity beyond contemporary society, up giant anomalous pillars of water, into the clouds, where they are captured by strange transcendent intelligences. But the scientists have nothing to say to their captors. The intelligences are never seen. All that Heinlein can think to do is to return the dead bodies of the scientists to society bearing messages of warning.

This is not the end of Heinlein's subjective progress. It has continued -- always intelligible -- from 1941 and 1942 until the present, including Heinlein's most recent novel, Time Enough for Love. We have not space to follow this progress further, but the distance we have traveled is sufficient to establish the viability of subjective readings of Heinlein and science fiction.

We have also traveled far enough to make sense of Heinlein's objectively inconsistent "politics." Read subjectively, the inconsistency vanishes.

Essentially, Heinlein's political statements fall into three kinds, corresponding to his first three crises. Statements endorsing liberty at all costs derive from Heinlein's first crisis. Statements endorsing society derive from Heinlein's second crisis. Statements in which society is found wanting, but not evil, derive from Heinlein's third crisis.

Thus, for instance, these statements apply to Heinlein's first crisis attitudes:

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." ["If This Goes On -- "]


"Today -- Oh, happy day! At last the world acknowledges Luna's sovereignty. Free! You have won your freedom -- " [The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress]

These apply to Heinlein's second crisis;

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. [Double Star]


". . . 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." ["Coventry"]

And these apply to Heinlein's third crisis attitudes:

 "My dear, I used to think I was serving humanity . . . andl 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." [Stranger in a Strange Land]


 "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." [Glory Road]

Objectivity cannot encompass these statements.

Only Heinlein's subjectivity can.

     -- June 1973

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