Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Sympathy for the Devil


16.  Nothing Can Be Believed

    We’re left with an enigma.  If on examination, each and every one of the various attempts to take “Solution Unsatisfactory” at face value proves to have been partial at best -- deliberately misleading, an unsatisfactory solution, the perception of one particular moment, or just a bogeyman -- what makes this story so hard to pin down?  What did the author intend by it?

     Let's begin by recognizing that “Solution Unsatisfactory” is not on the level.  It may have a believable surface, filled with the promise of testimony from someone who ought to know.  And it may be told in a confident manner, with authoritative-sounding detail buttressed by historical references and some true scoop.  But that's all window dressing.

    As we’ve seen, the teller of this tale is a liar.  Beneath his presentation of himself as an ordinary man who just happens to have been a conveniently-placed witness to important historical events, DeFries is in fact nothing less than Manning’s chief henchman.

    And the story he has to tell is about a man who can't be trusted.  Manning betrays everyone he deals with.  If he isn't actually the Father of Lies, he's a master of deceit.  He's able to lie six different ways in a single breath.  We’ve seen him do it.

    But it's not only the narrative voice and the central character of “Solution Unsatisfactory” that are deceptive.  False speaking is built into the very bones of this story as a principle of its construction.  It opens with that flurry of lies about Dr. Karst.  It closes with an assurance of Manning’s personal regret we have no reason to believe and every reason to doubt.  In between it’s filled with one untruth after another.

    One tipoff to the consciously fraudulent nature of “Solution Unsatisfactory” is the series of job promotions that enable Manning to do his dirty work.  Each is unlikely, and every one of them is accomplished by a wave of the hand.

    Reluctantly, Congressman Manning has command of the atomic weapons program thrust upon him:  “But it was possible, and Manning agreed to it, after the Chief of Staff presented his case.”

    Col. Manning morphs into Secretary of Dust:  “By this time Manning was an unofficial member of the Cabinet...."

    The completely unauthorized yet unaccountably powerful Manning is made the initial member of the World Safety Commission:  "…Colonel Manning became Mr. Commissioner Manning."

    And Commissioner Manning becomes undisputed military dictator of the world:  "...for practical purposes, that's all there was to the coup d'etat."

    All it takes is a wink and a nod and he's on to the next higher station of power.

    In a similar fashion, the key facts and crucial persuasive statements in “Solution Unsatisfactory” are hidden away behind gloss-over phrases that assume the existence of some improbable result without bothering to tell us how such a thing could ever happen.

    The King of England speaks to the British people and advises them to surrender:  “In this greatest crisis in his reign, his voice was clear and unlabored; it sold the idea to England and a national coalition government was formed.”

    New York is duped into evacuating itself:  “And then, there was the plague scare.  I don’t know how or when Manning could have started that – it certainly did not go through my notebook – but I simply do not believe that it was accidental that a completely unfounded rumor of bubonic plague caused New York City to be semi-deserted at the time the E.U. bombers struck.”

    And the Cabinet Officers give in to Manning's desire to run the world:  “They came around.”

    “Solution Unsatisfactory” is a series of straight-faced whoppers covered over by a plausible line of misdirective patter.  It’s made out of contradictions, unlikelihoods and impossibilities, exaggerations for effect, sleights of hand and bait-and-switch, with new lies standing on the shoulders of the lies that came before.

    Could it really be possible for a freshman congressman to be instantly transformed into a colonel, be placed in charge of an urgent weapon development program, and then be left to his own devices with no limit on funds and no supervision?

    If we’re supposed to believe that nuclear weapons are so esoteric that Manning can be billed as the only person in the United States capable of developing them, how is it that the Eurasian Union manages to have huge quantities of the dust at the same time the Americans do, and that everyone else is going to have it within three months?  If it was all that obvious and inevitable, why wasn't poor Manning just left in peace in Congress?

    How about an army colonel walking into the Oval Office on an urgent appointment made at a day's notice for a half hour alone with the President, and then emerging two-and-a-half hours later with a glassy-eyed President ready to atomically sterilize Berlin to end a war the US isn't fighting?

    Is it likely that a King of England would ever pay a petitionary visit to a US Army captain seated atop a throne of canisters in a secret underground airplane hangar and strike a bargain with him there to surrender British sovereignty to the United States in exchange for sufficient Devil Dust to take out the city of Berlin?

    And just imagine an army officer with no official standing except his concurrent status as a Congressional Representative assuming control of a Cabinet meeting after the President has introduced this unknown person with a flash of his trademark grin and the announcement, 
This is Clyde Manning, everybody.  Clyde is my new Secretary of Dust.  I want you to give a listen to him.  He can be very persuasive.  With the colonel then proceeding to insist that the Constitution be trashed and a military dictatorship imposed on the world.

    Would the Cabinet really fall in line behind Manning and this new policy?

    Isn't that a whopper?  I hope it is.

    And could it really be possible for the wording of a pamphlet to be so compelling that a country like Japan would surrender without a fight rather than permit its citizens to read it?

    How ever so much better the dropping of that kind of pamphlet on Germany would have been than dropping the dust.  We have to wonder why pamphlets like that aren’t written all the time as a substitute for war and as a sufficient answer to the existence of the likes of Clyde Manning.

    There is a name for stories which have a superficial appearance of plausibility but an underlying content that begs to be doubted.  I think “Solution Unsatisfactory” was a hoax, a deliberate attempt to trick the reader and trick the reader again.

    This is a story that doesn't mean what it seems to say.  It isn't sincere about its lies, either.

    The truth it has to tell is hidden.

17.  The Truth That Could Not Be Spoken

    Was Robert Heinlein really capable of playing mindgames of this kind?

    At the time, it wouldn't have seemed likely.  Except for one short story in Astounding
And He Built a Crooked House, a bit of foolery in which a California hillside house folds into a fourth-dimensional shape after an earthquake, and another story in Unknown entitled They, in which ordinary reality is a falsity constructed to keep the protagonist distracted, the pre-war Robert Heinlein had an air of being a very solid and reliable writer.  He was the author of interconnected Future History stories for Astounding -- fiction that was sincere and straightforward.

    The actuality was a bit different, however.     

    Robert Heinlein, writer of dependable stories, was not only responsible for the work of Anson MacDonald as well, but of even stranger writers for Campbell.

    He was capable of many things that could not be contained within the bounds of the Future History.  Over the course of his career, he would write some very unstraightforward stories:

    There was Heinlein's final story for John Campbell before
joining the war effort, the 1942 John Riverside fantasy short novel, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, in which our world is suggested to be a promising but flawed piece of art destined for dismantling -- but we will never find out for certain because the story ends first.
    In 1958, there would be the Moebius-strip short story, 
All You Zombies, in which a person is both mother and father to her/himself and the existence of the rest of us is a matter of doubt.

    And in Heinlein's longest work of fiction, The Number of the Beast (1980), the book is full of anagrams and puzzles, the realms of the imagination are countless, and the author is ultimately revealed as a persistent intruder in his own story, a mysterious figure who keeps causing turmoil for the four central characters.

    For someone with a head full of ideas like these, it was perfectly possible to craft a pseudo-realistic story that concealed a hoax which served to divert attention from the unspoken ending of the story, all in order to obscure a truth he wasn't willing to speak directly.

    The inevitable ending of the story from which DeFries's lies distract us is that all of Manning's actions have been dedicated to bringing ultimate catastrophe into being and making it happen.  When his work on earth is through at last and he finally dies -- which could happen just as soon as DeFries finishes speaking  and we're done feeling sympathy for poor Manning -- all hell is going to break loose.

    If Manning's long-term goals are fulfilled, three-quarters of humanity will perish with him and for those who survive, life will be much more simple.

    Alteration in American foreign policy can't avert this.  A monopoly on the weapon counts for nothing.  Elite international peace patrolmen aren't sufficient to prevent it.  Nor will one tough-minded man keeping watch over mankind guard us from harm.  It will happen.

    Manning's culminating evil act, after first conjuring up the means for disaster to occur and demonstrating its awfulness, and then seizing dominion over the world, will take place at the proper dramatic moment.  Then his hands will uncup and like the opening of a new Pandora's box unleash the irrevocable power of death upon you and me, our neighbors, every human, every animal, and every living thing.

    That's what's going to happen because that is what has been set up to happen.

    Like every other crucial turn in this story, however, we won't read about it when it does.  The Devil Dust will begin to drop only after the music for Manning has stopped playing and the curtain has fallen.

    That's a bitter conclusion to hide.  But it's the way this story really goes -- though the story being what it is, it will probably be played out in terms of a free-for-all among nations paying off old scores and scrabbling for power using the dust they've been cooking up all this time in the secret labs the Peace Patrol was never able to find while there still was a Peace Patrol.

    But why tell this implicit story under cover of a narrative that doesn't mean what it says and isn't willing to say what it does mean?

    An epigraph from George Bernard Shaw in Heinlein's next-to-last novel, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, declares: 
 The truth is the one thing nobody will believe.

    As though in illustration of this, 
Universe,written just prior to Solution Unsatisfactory and published under Heinlein's square writing name in the May 1941 Astounding, was about a man who attempts to tell the truth to his society and is sentenced to death for doing it.

    Robert Heinlein had been keeping clipping files of news stories on technological change and social behavior since 1930.  After doing this for ten years, I think he believed himself to be in possession of a truth that John Campbell and the readers of Astounding wouldn't want to hear.  It was so contrary to the mythos of the magazine that if by chance they did take in what he really had to say, he thought he would be made to pay for having spoken.

    The unacceptable truth he saw was that the ability of society to produce new and ever more powerful technology had already reached a point that tested the capacity of fallible human beings to deal with.  And sooner or later devices of our own making that were too much for us were going to escape our control and come back to haunt us.

    During the course of 1940 he'd pointed to this fatal human weakness in 
The Roads Must Roll and Blowups Happen-- stories which had pull-the-punch endings in which human frailty is overset and control is re-established, but unconvincingly.

The Roads Must Roll, a striking work force deliberately brings a moving highway to an abrupt stop causing horrendous casualties.  When the man in charge of the road tries to cope with the emergency, he comes very near to cracking:

 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.

    The answer ultimately found to the clash between advanced technology and human vulnerability pointed to by the story is pure whistling-in-the-dark: 
 Supervision and inspection, check and re-check was the answer.

    Supervision and inspection, check and re-check would be the starting condition in 
Blowups Happen.  Psychiatrists keep ordinary workers in the world's only atomic plant under close observation at all times, watching for any signs of unusual thought or behavior.

    This time, instead of moving roadways adapted from the stories of H.G. Wells, the future technology involved would be something to which Heinlein gave serious credence and that genuinely unsettled him.  

Blowups Happen, it's suggested that the Moon is the sterile ball we see today because of an atomic disaster long ago.  If the atomic plant in this story should explode, the same thing could happen to Earth.

    And in this story, someone in authority -- one of the psychiatric observers -- does flip out under the strain of the situation and deliberately try to induce the disaster himself.  But the catastrophe is averted by physically overpowering him at the last moment.  An answer of a kind is then found in shutting down the plant and moving its operation into earth orbit.

    But this was no solution, either.  Check and re-check might not be a sufficient answer to the underlying problem of human-monkey cleverness producing technology which even superior people aren't able to deal with without going down with their ship or blowing up -- but out of sight, out of mind was no improvement.  Human frailty remains.

    It was in the wake of the publication of 
Blowups Happen in the September 1940 issue of Astounding that Heinlein wrote Universe, a story about the difficulty of trying to convey truth to an audience that wasn't disposed to receive it.

    Then he took a deep breath and wrote 
Solution Unsatisfactory, in which he finally did let out the truth he saw, or something closer to it.  But he did it under the protective cover of every straight-faced lie he could tell.

    The problem Heinlein perceived is given in the first lines of 
Solution Unsatisfactory before the lies begin: the invention of the airplane in 1903, followed by the splitting of the atom in 1938.

    Heinlein thought of himself as someone who could look out of a moving train, see another train coming the other way on the same track and predict a collision.  And it was his conclusion that the combination of airplane and atom must inevitably lead to the  delivery of atomic weapons from afar.  In the worst case scenario so cheerfully set forth in passing by DeFries, county-flattening A-Bombs would be sent by rocket -- American, by preference.

Solution Unsatisfactory can be said to be truly prescient about anything, it is nuclear proliferation.  Heinlein imagined a coming world like a saloon full of drunken cowboys packing sixshooters.  All offense and no defense, as Manning says to DeFries.

    That was the situation Heinlein foresaw in 1940.  And almost seventy years later, this scenario has yet to be played out to its conclusion.

    The character of Manning was just Heinlein's device for dramatically foreshortening the coming state and then getting out of the story clean with plausible deniability before the moment when everything goes to hell.

    And even so, in order to indicate his dark truth at all, Heinlein had to bury the bone deep:

     He placed a false title on the piece.  He disguised it as a memoir told years later.  He phrased it as a bunch of lies.  He threw in misdirection at the beginning and the end.  He set up the collapse of civilization to happen and then closed things down fast before it did.  And then he published the story under a pseudonym.

18.  John Campbell's Response

    We can say it again -- no wonder the editor of Astounding chose to call Heinlein's novelet 
Solution Unsatisfactory.

    John W. Campbell, Jr. was a man with insight into the nature and meaning of the stories that he published in his magazines.  He didn't say everything he thought, a good many of the things that he did say were for effect, and, as the preface to The Best of Science Fiction demonstrates, he was perfectly capable of putting forth more than one idea about 
Solution Unsatisfactory at a time.

    I think he understood more of the story's true nature than he was ready to admit.

    So why, then, did he buy and publish a story like this that came to him with a deliberately misleading title, that didn't satisfactorily resolve the situation it presented, and that was full of lies to boot?

    The most obvious reason was that he had to.

    In order to fill the pages of his magazines every month, the editor needed at least one professional writer he paid at a better rate in order to guarantee himself a regular supply of copy.  L. Ron Hubbard, who would eventually found Scientology but who was then an all-purpose pulp story writer, was the first to serve this role.  And Hubbard did an adequate job of it for three years until he joined the Naval Reserve and then was called to active duty in 1941.

    During the summer of 1940, Campbell came to a similar professional understanding with Robert Heinlein.  Heinlein was the most able and reliable of the new writers he'd drawn to Astounding and Unknown, far better at playing the editor's game than the man he would replace.

    But while Heinlein may have been the logical candidate for the job, the arrangement would be an insecure one from the outset.

    With the check for 
Blowups Happen, Heinlein had paid off his mortgage, the reason he gave for having taken up story writing in the first place.  So when Campbell offered to buy all the work he could supply at his best rate, he agreed – but with a proviso.  He would turn out copy only as long as the editor accepted everything that he sent him.  If Campbell should ever reject one of his stories, Heinlein was through.

    Consequently Campbell didn't have much choice when Heinlein sent him 
Foreign Policy. He had to buy it whether he liked it or not if he wanted Heinlein to continue to write for him.

    And there were a number of things about the story the editor didn't like.  The title didn't work.  And he wasn't satisfied with the abrupt ending.  In the ordinary way of things, he'd have returned a story like that to the writer and asked him to finish it properly -- except he wasn't able to do it.

    And he also couldn't help but notice that it was full of deliberate lies.

 Foreign Policy must have seemed like a test of their relative power by Heinlein, a deliberate attempt to use his new-found leverage on the editor and see how much he could get away with.

    However, during the Golden Age, John Campbell was highly creative.  And he didn't choose to contend with Heinlein.  That would come later.

    Instead, like the dervish who picked up a coconut a monkey threw at him, drank the milk, ate the meat, and shaped what remained into a bowl, he found things to do with this story.

    Heinlein may have been intentionally acting as a devil's advocate in writing 
Foreign Policy and forcing it on him.  But the editor didn't have to take it negatively.  In order for modern science fiction to address future problems, future problems had to be identified.

    So Campbell changed the title of Heinlein's story from 
Foreign Policyto Solution Unsatisfactory, and by doing it redefined the novelet as a problem in need of an answer.  He altered the fact that it wasn't satisfactorily resolved from an intolerable omission into the focus of the story.

    Then, as the last item to go in the April issue of Astounding he'd completed and was about to hand to the printer – the 
In Times to Come spot – he spelled out explicitly for his readers that Solution Unsatisfactory,the Anson MacDonald story which would be appearing the following month, was incomplete and invited them to do what the author hadn't been able to do.  He wrote:

 Read the yarn, and let's have your suggestions as to how to get a satisfactory solution that does not involve either, (a), a dictatorship and a super-police force of the most ruthless and autocratic kind imaginable to preserve any remnant of civilization as we know it, or, (b), a chaos ending only when the simplest industrial facilities – even the one-man shop – have been wiped out.

    The editor would print two responses to his challenge, one in the July 1941 issue, the other in November, both from the same reader, L.M. Jensen of Cowley, Wyoming.

    In his first letter, Jensen said, 
Every person must believe beyond any possibility of doubt they are being watched and curbed continually by a superbeing.

   In other words, 
 God help us all!

    In his second letter, Jensen said, 
It will be a race to determine whether society can advance to the point where it can take care of itself before such a weapon is invented.

    There was one more thing that Campbell would do.

    Two days before Christmas, 1940, he had a writing conference with his young storywriting apprentice Isaac Asimov.  At that point, Asimov had only managed to sell to him three times, most recently 
Reason, a story about an uppity robot he was running in the April issue.

    The editor had been giving thought to this story, and he wasn't comfortable with the idea of a rebellious robot.  That was a prime example of human technology out of control.

    Now Asimov, having sold him one robot story, had the idea for another.  How about a robot that was telepathic?

    Campbell answered by setting forth the fruit of his thinking -- three laws of robotics he wanted Asimov to consider:  First, a robot must not cause harm to humans or allow them to be harmed.  Second, it must follow human orders.  After that, but only after that, a robot must preserve its own existence.

    If fallible human beings weren't up to the job of guarding themselves against their own technology, then build the technology to do the job for them.

    The editor asked Asimov to imagine what a telepathic robot bound by these rules might find it necessary to tell lies about, and asked what would happen if it did lie, and sent Asimov home to write a story.

    So when Campbell came to assemble the May issue of Astounding it would be no accident but more in the nature of a covert editorial comment when in between Heinlein's two novelets – one about the perils of knowing the truth and revealing it and the other which told the truth in a way the author pretended he didn't mean – he placed a story called 
    Though Asimov had no way of knowing it, his story would serve as a response to 
Solution Unsatisfactory twice over – once calling it for the lies it told and again addressing the problem of uncontrolled technology it didn't resolve.

    But Campbell wasn't done.  Fourteen months after the publication of Heinlein's novelet, he published a second fictional reaction to it by A.E. van Vogt, the most visionary of his new contributors and Heinlein's successor as his contract writer, as the lead story in the July 1942 issue of Astounding.

    The editor would call no attention to what he was doing except for the title of van Vogt's story, which echoed the title Campbell had placed on Heinlein's novelet.

    Just like 
Solution Unsatisfactory, Secret Unattainable took place during the current war and had a realistic form.  But instead of being a memoir, it was presented as a file of documents captured from the Germans after the war is over.

    These documents detail the promising beginning and the catastrophic outcome of a super-scientific project designed by a scientist named Kenrube – the building of a machine to bridge hyper-space and produce limitless quantities of raw materials to fuel the German war effort.

    But when the full-scale version of the machine is demonstrated, it behaves contrary to expectation and there's a disaster.  Many people are killed and the Fuehrer himself barely escapes with his life.

    Professor Kenrube anticipated that something like this would happen, and counted on it to happen.  He explains:

 My invention does not fit into our civilization.  It's the next, the coming age of man.  Just as modern science could not develop in ancient Egypt because the whole mental, emotional and physical attitude was wrong, so my machine cannot be used until the thought structure of man changes.

    Kenrube appears mysteriously at the scene of the catastrophe as it is unfolding even while being held a prisoner elsewhere.  Here he reveals that his machine will only do unanticipatible, incomprehensible and undesirable things for the Germans:

 It is not that the machine has will.  It reacts to laws, which you must learn, and in the learning it will reshape your minds, your outlook on life.  It will change the world.

    The answer offered by van Vogt to the problem of coping with the dangers of technological advance set forth by Heinlein in 
 The Roads Must Roll, Blowups Happenand Solution Unsatisfactory was that the time has come for us to move on to the next age of man, and the catalyst for this will be nothing other than our own advanced technology and the problems it poses.  

    In a new era, when people have learned to think, feel and act differently, Devil Dust and rolling roads will become as irrelevant and outmoded as chariots, mummies and pyramids, and be left behind.

    But if Kenrube's actual purpose is to stimulate this kind of change, we're offered reason to think again about Clyde Manning.  

    It's true that Manning in 
Solution Unsatisfactory deliberately presents people with science-beyond-science that causes catastrophe – but that's also what Kenrube does in Secret Unattainable.  Kenrube doesn't even claim that what he's doing has to be done to end the war.  He's certain that the Nazis are going to lose in any event because of the way they think and act.

    And if it's true that Manning is a traitor, so also is Kenrube.  Any distinction between them is only a matter of partisanship and point of view.  Professor Kenrube has our sympathy because he betrays the Nazis, the bad guys of World War II, while we're more ready to point a finger at Colonel Manning because it's the United States of America that he turns on.

    But both of these men are traitors to their national governments, and both men cause disasters with super-science.  The difference is that Manning is deadly serious about what he's doing and is willing to kill three-quarters of humanity to see it done, while Kenrube is out to make a point and sow a seed for tomorrow.

   However, if Kenrube is ultimately to be applauded for what he does because his underlying motive is to change the way people think and stimulate a transition to a new age of man, then Manning may be entitled to the same benefit of the doubt.

    If what Manning is doing isn't merely sparking a change from one era to the next, but providing the necessary provocation for an even more radical transformation in the human condition to take place, then perhaps he might not merely be a mad dog, or the Devil in disguise, or the living representative of the dangerous consequences of modern technology after all, but actually be the misunderstood genius that DeFries claims him to be.

    It all depends on what he is aiming for.

    We might consider this:  In the last story that he contributed to Astounding before becoming editor of the magazine, John Campbell himself pointed to the sort of human development that might be sufficient to justify a Manning and earn him forgiveness for what he does.

Forgetfulness (Astounding, June 1937), an expedition of aliens not too different from ourselves lands on a far future Earth after an interstellar voyage that has taken them six years.  Here they discover abandoned crystalline cities with machines they can't understand, but which they recognize as the work of the godlike beings who long ago brought them fire.

    Nearby, they find the descendants of these city builders living simple lives in domed houses set amongst the trees.  They no longer recall how the cities and machines were made.  Atomic power means nothing to them.

    The invaders determine to move these fallen creatures out of the way, take possession of the cities and recover the lost secrets of the machines.

    But in fact our descendants are not degenerate; they've moved on.  Humanity abandoned the cities and machines because it no longer had need of them.

    Anything they have to do now they're able to do with mind.  And by mental power alone they're able to instantly send the invaders back where they came from.
    One invader explains to the others:

 Seun is not a decadent son of the city builders.  His people never forgot the dream that built the city. But it was a dream of childhood, and his people were children then.  Like a child with his broomstick horse, the mind alone was not enough for thought; the city builders, just as ourselves, needed something of a solid metal and crystal, to make their dreams tangible.

    John Campbell's ultimate answer to the threat posed to our existence by our own artefacts was that mankind needs to grow up and leave its crude childhood toys behind.  Growing up is the only satisfactory solution to Heinlein's nightmare of self-induced human disaster there can be.

    Whether we will be able to do it has yet to be seen.


19.  After the Bomb

    Robert Heinlein wouldn't go back to writing for Astounding after World War II.  Instead, he sought to break free of the confines of the pulps and working for John Campbell to find less specialized and better paying markets for what he wrote.  Sometimes he would be successful, sometimes not.

    One thing he did in the immediate aftermath of the war was to produce one article after another – by his own count as many as nine – warning of the dangers of a nuclear world and how they might be survived.  But he wasn't able to sell any of them.

    In two of these articles eventually included in Expanded Universe, Heinlein recommended that people leave the large population centers and head for the hills.  Heeding his own advice, he moved from California to the mountain town of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

    However, in due time he would be followed to Colorado Springs by the North American Air Defense Command which located itself inside Cheyenne Mountain immediately next door.  The place he had selected as a refuge from the Bomb became the number one nuclear target in the United States.

    Heinlein would respond by building and stocking a fallout shelter.   He recommended that others do the same.

–  March 2008

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

Return to the Critics Lounge

[Note:  The full story "Solution Unsatisfactory" can be read here.]

Background courtesy of Artsy Fartsy