|Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of
by Alexei and Cory Panshin
The unfortunate one is he who averts his head from this door.
For he will not find another door.
--Saadi of Shiraz
l. Time Enough for Love
We have just seen an announcement that a new Robert Heinlein novel is to be published in May , his first book since I Will Fear No Evil in 1970. That's an event that calls for comment. The book is to be called Time Enough for Love: The Lives of Lazarus Long. The publishers have been quoted as calling it "a profound and prophetic story that ranges over twenty-three centuries and countless light years of space." It is to be 640 pages long, half again as long as Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein's previous scale-breaker.
We know no more of the book than this.
Time Enough for Love may prove to be a greater embarrassment than I Will Fear No Evil. On the other hand, it might be the true masterpiece that Heinlein has never written. A true sf masterpiece is going to be written soon--this year, next year--and it would be appropriate if Heinlein wrote it. He has always followed a secret star. He has earned the right to grasp it. Whether or not it is successful, Time Enough for Love unquestionably must be his best attempt.
Robert Heinlein is an uncomfortable subject for many people nowadays. Damon Knight has called Heinlein "the nearest thing to a great writer the science fiction field has yet produced," and James Blish has written that Heinlein is "plainly the best all-around science-fiction writer of the modern (post-1926) era." Both of the statements are true beyond argument. The problem is to maintain our respect in view of the dismaying public spectacle Heinlein has made of himself from "'All You Zombies'" and Starship Troopers on. lt's all the worse from a man so dignified, so private, and so self-conscious. It's like watching a Supreme Court Justice spit up on himself.
Heinlein's public breakdown has been so bizarre and dangerous that we have each found our own reasons not to look. Heinlein has been wrestling with demons and he has been bent in the struggle. He has uttered perniciousness. Like Philoctetes, Heinlein has oozed from poisoned wounds, and the stink has been unbearable. But to look away from the agony is to refuse to treat Heinlein with the respect he has earned and earned and earned again. lf we are to judge Time Enough for Love with anything that approaches true justice, we need to reconsider science fiction and Robert Heinlein's place in its development.
2. The Meaning of Science Fiction
Fiction is an analog of life. This is obviously true of mimetic fiction like the Bobbsey Twins and The Naked and the Dead. But it is even more true of science fiction.
Mimetic fiction presents a universe that is totally known. In mimetic fiction, chairs behave like chairs, Tibet behaves like East Overshoe, Massachusetts, and humans do what humans have always done. And those to whom everything is always different are mad, and are locked up until they see the world like everyone else.
Science fiction presents a universe that is partly known and partly unknown. Because the unknown is unknown, science fiction represents it with symbols like nothing any of us has ever seen: powers that can trisect the atom; unpredictable sentient robots; alien beings like clouds or firestorms or pure intelligence; worlds beyond.
Science fiction presents a truer analog of life. For much in our world is unknown to us. Our American reality begins to seem a parochial consensus. Modern technology upsets balances it knows not of. Gross expensive atom smashers flail at invisible motes with less and less result. If it is the mad who reject the social consensus, we are all secret madmen. Drugs and mysticism tell us of alternatives unknown to our educators and public oracles. Our vaunted world history proves to be a partial account of the public relations announcements of the latest fraction of human existence--5000 years out of 100,000? 5000 years out of 1,000,000? What do we know of ourselves? We live, as science fiction tells us, on a dirt speck traveling around a commonplace sun in the suburbs of a commonplace galaxy in an unbelievably vast hall of matter.
Science fiction isn't queerer than that. Science fiction is just exactly as queer as that.
Anything science fiction can tell us, anything, is no less than an analog of the truly true.
All fiction is nothing less than a dramatic presentation of one lesson. Fiction demonstrates over and over that it is possible to solve seemingly insurmountable problems, problems that could not be solved by any pattern of conduct within a person's previous range. These problems are solved not by direct attack, but by change within the person that makes his problem no longer a problem.
A mimetic writer, an author of paperback Westerns, gave out one version of the lesson in an article in Writer's Yearbook, and they did up a poster version for the back cover of the magazine: "A strong character struggles against overwhelming odds to achieve a worthwhile goal."
In a science fiction story, a character comes to face a totally unknown aspect of the universe, both frightening and desirable. If the character does not surmount fear and desire, he will be wounded or even eaten alive by monsters. But if he is able to surrender attachments to his accustomed behaviors, if he meets the unknown with courage, love and unselfish purpose, then he will receive a necessary new power from the universe and be such a one as never was before. This is the true pattern of human growth. Anyone who has owned a cat must know that when it is a kitten it can learn a variety of responses to the world, but that when it grows up, it is, to a heart-breaking extent, condemned to the small range of behaviors it learned while it was free. We humans have a tendency to do the same. Few of us are as flexible as adults as we were as children. But still it is possible for us to evolve in a way not known to other animals.
Over and over through our adult lives, we are called upon to face the unknown squarely, surrender attachments and become new people. One of these moments comes at 17 or so, when we are called upon to put our childhoods behind us and become apprentices: college students, brides, privates, hod carriers--all these being what we could not be before.
Another common moment comes in the mid-twenties, when we have learned our tools well enough to practice a craft and become journeymen. Students graduate. Wives become mothers. Privates become sergeants. People become known by their occupation. It takes personal evolution to live as a journeyman. It takes personal evolution to become more than a journeyman. Another crisis of identity commonly comes in the early thirties. This is a crisis of dedication, a crisis of prodigious evolutions. Mere journeyman skill is no longer enough. Abilities must be applied to a higher end. The journeyman must become a master.
At 17 or 19, the child finally saw himself as an "adult," that mysterious state of being he had been growing to become. And at last he has become a man among children. At 25, he realized that he could stop practicing and fulfill an adult role. He became a man among men. During his twenties, he has inventoried his abilities in one occupation or in a variety of occupations. Now, however, mere journeyman skill is no longer enough. Abilities must be applied to a higher end. The journeyman must become a master. Masters do not produce their work as their ends, but as means to higher ends. They produce byproduct rather than product. This is the difference between masters and journeymen.
At the crisis of dedication, Jesus ceased to be a carpenter and became something more. Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Albert Schweitzer, who had been a musician and theologian, began the study of medicine so as to apply his music and theology to the world.
This is the age when people like Robert Heinlein and Ursula Le Guin turned to writing science fiction. And it is the age when other writers like Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg and Poul Anderson, who in their twenties wrote and sold every story they thought of, took pause to discover which stories were worth writing. The results of the questionings of these men were respectively entitled The Man in the High Castle, A Time of Changes and The Man Who Counts. Mimetic fiction represents the exterior of adult growth experiences. It shows how people do one thing or another, how people become one thing or another. It is a report of behavior and the behavior all looks much the same.
But mimetic representations must omit the unknown interior of the personal adventure of growth. That which is truly humanly unknown cannot be represented in mimetic fiction. Powerful extra-terrestrials, for instance, are not part of the vocabulary of mimetic fiction. ln mimetic fiction, those who encounter alien beings are mad or drunk.
Science fiction reveals the heart, the interior of the private adventure. Monomythic quests into unknown outer space are the truest way that exists of representing the experiences we undergo in inner space.
How far we each evolve and what we become in the course of our evolution depends on the purposes we bring with us into the unknown and the courage with which we pursue them. Or, as Tom Lehrer once said: "Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it." Life is like life. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.
If Heinlein's life were the subject of a mimetic novel, all that would be revealed would be behavior--the life of another writer. But Heinlein has given us a truer record of his life in his science fiction stories and it has been a magnificent and harrowing adventure.
No sf writer has left a clearer record of his quest than Heinlein. As the nearest thing to a true master that sf has produced, his work has been his adventure, and his stories the byproduct of his search. He has left a permanent record of his questions and his answers. lf we are willing to look, he has laid himself bare.
3. Heinlein at 32
The August 1939 issue of Astounding containing Robert Heinlein's first story, "Life-Line," came into his hands in early July, just in time for his thirty-second birthday. Judged by the common yardstick of society, he was overdue to find himself. In his twenties, he had been a naval officer, an engineer who had graduated high in his class at Annapolis. Then he caught tuberculosis, at that time still an often fatal disease, and retired from the Navy. He had been an invalid, a graduate student, a mine-owner, a real estate salesman, an architect and a losing politician. He explored the bounds of low life: he has said that he knew a number of murderers socially and once failed to sell a silver mine because the prospective buyer was tommy-gunned the night before. lt may be rumor or it may be truth, but there are stories that he shilled in a carnival and that he flacked for an L.A. holy man. He was five years into a first [actually second] marriage. But he had no dedication.
Suddenly, instantly, he became a science fiction writer. Suddenly, instantly, he became the best science fiction writer in Astounding, the best science fiction magazine in America. It was a sudden complete transformation, as dramatic as any evolutionary leap.
Heinlein began with a charming verbal facility, a natural narrative instinct, and the wide-ranging knowledge he had acquired as a journeyman. But at the outset he was a clumsy and untutored writer. Most of his stories were badly made. To this day, the largest number of Heinlein's stories are badly made. Heinlein has not succeeded on his skills as a craftsman. His education and goals were never in fiction writing. Nonetheless, since 1939, Robert Heinlein has been the best science fiction writer in the business and he has been well-rewarded for his work. Two years after Heinlein began to write, he was Guest of Honor at the Third World Science Fiction Convention in Denver. His novels have won more awards than his wife has patience to give houseroom. He has made good, steady money. More recently, he has made big money.
The reason for Heinlein's instant and continuing success as a writer lies elsewhere than skill, a head for ideas, a nose for the trends of the moment, a hunger for money, for fame, for Being a Writer. Heinlein was successful as a writer to a degree undreamed by other science fiction writers in 1939 and never approached by anyone in the years since precisely because science fiction writing was never his primary object.
In 1939, Robert Heinlein was the most able and competent man he knew. And life was a puzzle to him. He did not know what his ability and competence were for. He wanted to know the meaning of life. He wanted to know why Robert Heinlein existed.
This is the stuff of a life crisis. These are the questions that everybody asks himself, though we may not phrase them exactly this way. We answer them as best we can, and we become the answer we give. lf Heinlein had concluded that the meaning of life was to be a science fiction writer, after great struggle he would have become a science fiction writer somewhat better than Randall Garrett but perhaps not as good as Robert Silverberg. But Heinlein could not see any satisfactory answer anywhere. He read widely beyond the fringes of respectable knowledge. He entertained his wildest thoughts. And the conclusion that he came to was this: For social respectability, he would pass himself off as a science fiction writer, but he would not commit himself to a true new identity. He would wear one as a cloak. And he would write science fiction stories.
Yes, he would write science fiction stories, but for his own purposes. Heinlein realized that he could use science fiction stories to ask his questions and test his answers, and that he could earn a living doing it. Science fiction was a means to Heinlein from the first. It is not altogether surprising that he has considered discussion of his stories an invasion of privacy.
Robert Heinlein has passed himself off as a science fiction writer for more than half his life. And because his true purposes have been ultimately serious, his byproduct has been recognized as the True Stuff, sought out, identified with, loved, hated, bought and read. Success as a science fiction writer has never been a problem to Heinlein because he has never recognized succeeding as an sf writer to be a problem to be taken seriously. That isn't true for other sf writers, except now for a few like Ursula K. Le Guin and R.A. Lafferty. And neither of these, nor nobody else, has been as reckless or as ruthless in his pursuit of the riddle of life as Heinlein has.
His search is announced in the title of his first story, "Life-Line." The life-line is the shadow of mortality we carry in the flesh of our palms. What is existence for? ln Heinlein's story, the inventor of a machine that accurately measures the length of any man's life foresees his own murder. He knows his mortality and is helpless before it. Without the life-line of a certain knowledge of meaningfulness, life is a pointless dead end. And nobody throws a life-line to Pinero the inventor. He dies, and other men burn the records of their deaths-to-come without looking at them.
The quest begins with an averting of the eyes.
4. The Future History
Heinlein published two short stories in Astounding in 1939 and a third in the January 1940 issue: "Life-Line," "Misfit," and "Requiem." These were all superficially conventional neo-Gernsbackian stories of the near future. "Misfit" proved that a bright and competent boy can make a place for himself in society if he calculates fast enough, a point of which Heinlein has always been certain. But "Requiem" said that if you try to reach for the moon, you will be prevented, and if you grasp the moon, you will die.
Then Heinlein's first novel was serialized. His 32-year piece. The novel was short, awkward, and fuzzily romantic. It was entitled "'If This Goes On--'", a clutch of words that imply the greatest hopes and the greatest fears, grand prospects and no prospects at all. As much as his other early stories, "'If This Goes On--'" was typical of sf as Heinlein found it. There was, at the time, a dichotomy between stories of invention and adventure in a future not radically strange, and stories of farther futures and distant places without connection to now. Stories of the farther future on Earth were all set in a single place--a misty nebulous thing called The Future, recognizable by its medieval feel. Heinlein's first three short stories fall into the first category. "'If This Goes On--'", just as clearly, is set in a palace in The Future.
Clumsy though it was, "'If This Goes On--'" was second in popularity and impact only to Slan among the stories published in Astounding in 1940. (Or perhaps third to L. Ron Hubbard's nightmare of eternal World War II, Final Blackout, which made a great impact at the time and is almost unreadable now.) The reason is clear--the high degree of involvement in Heinlein's story.
His main character, John Lyle, wears Heinlein's mother's maiden name. He is bright and able and serves loyally in the home of the Prophet who rules America. But he has not been Told All. He has been duped and deluded. When he discovers the truth, he rebels. And in a crucial moment in the climactic battle, he, a lieutenant, assumes control of the forces of rebellion and sweeps the Prophet aside.
If there is a major flaw in this story, it is not that it is concerned with an evolutionary moment that comes early in life when it is discovered that the father does not know all there is to be known. The flaw is that Heinlein proposes this answer, which he knew by experience was partial, for a character in his mid-twenties. And the Prophet is a poor excuse for an unknown. He has no strange power except the ability to cast shadows over other people's minds and he is lightly put down.
Heinlein published five more stories in 1940, three of them near-future stories of invention, one a short sequel to "'If This Goes On--'", and the last a light fantasy entitled "The Devil Makes the Law" in Unknown.
In the February 1941 issue of Astounding, John Campbell said:
I'd like to mention something that may or may not have been noticed by the regular readers of Astounding; all Heinlein's science-fiction is laid against a common background of a proposed future history of the world and of the United States. Heinlein's worked the thing out in detail that grows with each story; he has an outlined and graphed history of the future with characters, dates of major discoveries, et cetera, plotted in. I'm trying to get him to let me have a photostat of that history chart; if I lay hands on it, I'm going to publish it.
Campbell did publish the chart in the May issue, and it demonstrates the prodigious investment Heinlein was making in his stories as a vehicle for his search. His imaginary future is described by dates, by stories, by the space in time his story characters occupy, by the modes of power, communication and travel at different times to come, by inventions, by social data, and by general remarks.
In his initial conception, "'If This Goes On--'" must have assumed a central position. Opposite it on the page, standing alone, is the final social datum: THE FIRST HUMAN CIVILIZATION.
Heinlein's conception of Future History was a major event in the development of science fiction. It imposed structure on the future universe and united near-future stories of adventure and invention with stories of The Future. No more could stories take place outside time and change. When pinpointed in time, "'If This Goes On--'", romantic and medieval, proved to take place in the year 2070.
If science fiction fruitfully combines the known and the unknown, Heinlein's Future History chart was significant for bringing the unknown into common scale with the known, for rendering the unknown world accessible. Heinlein's Future History chart made stories like those he had been writing obsolete. That is, no longer was it necessary either to write constipated stories of the near and known or to write wild romances of the distant unknown. Now the two could be combined--known and unknown together in the same story.
At the time the chart was published, not all the stories it proposed had been written. There was one group of stories of the relatively near--1950-1990. And there were two stories set after 2070. Actually, three, for the chart proved to show that "Misfit" with its neo-CCC--the "Cosmic Construction Corps"--was set fifty years after "'If This Goes On--'".
Heinlein had not then written the stories set in the gap from 1990 to 2070--the stories between "Requiem" and the death of Harriman on the moon, and the fall of the Prophet in "'If This Goes On--'". He had not written the stories of the rise of the Prophet that reconciled the two worlds--the known or knowable, and the unknown.
These proposed stories--"The Sound of His Wings," "Eclipse," and "The Stone Pillow" -- must have been difficult for Heinlein to consider. Stories of the most awful bondage. Heinlein once wrote: "I probably never will write the story of Nehemiah Scudder; I dislike him too thoroughly." In a sense, the publication of the chart rendered these stories unnecessary, or avoidable, and Heinlein never did write them.
In fact, by the time the Future History chart was published, Heinlein was seemingly nearly ready to abandon the project as having served its purpose. After World War II, before Heinlein prepared the series for book publication, he added a handful of Saturday Evening Post stories to the near future before 1990. But before the war--and specifically in 1941--Heinlein published just four Future History stories. Afterthoughts.
There was, first, a novelet called "Logic of Empire," Heinlein's token gesture at filling the hole in his chart. "Logic of Empire" is set on an exploited colonial Venus around 2000. An heir again learns--like John Lyle--that his inheritance of known fact is tainted. Distant rumor only is made of Nehemiah Scudder, the rabble-rousing political preacher who became the First Prophet.
The other three stories are set later than "'If This Goes On--'". Heinlein had realized that there was more yet to come in the search for meaning. And a more mature seeker was required than John Lyle.
One was presented in the novel Methuselah's Children, which was serialized in Astounding in the summer of 1941. The seeker is a man who has chosen the name Lazarus Long, though he was born Woodrow Wilson Smith about the time that Heinlein was born. He is an immortal, or if he isn't, he doesn't know the fact. He is the heart of the Future History, for he binds the chart together. He was born before it starts. Pinero failed to see the end of his life-line. And Lazarus Long still lives when the Future History chart ends. We must be particularly interested in Methuselah's Children because Lazarus Long is the central character of Time Enough for Love, Heinlein's new novel. And it is a very interesting book because it is highly inconclusive.
In this story, some humans have been carefully bred for longevity, beginning at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Some time after the setting aside of the Prophet and the establishment of "The First Human Civilization," ordinary men discover the existence of the long-lived Families. Their rage for the secret of long life knows no bounds. The Families are forced to hijack a starship, and flee.
They find a pleasant planet elsewhere to settle on. But this planet is ruled by creatures far more advanced than we. They call the leader of the ship for examination. He goes into "the temple of Kreel" while Lazarus Long waits outside. A veil is drawn over the confrontation. The confrontation is failed. These god-like creatures cannot be rid of the Earthmen too fast. They lift them through the air and into space. They stuff them into their ship. They hurl the ship away from them--thirty-two light years away to a specific destination. The new planet the ship reaches is ruled by a group mind.
Here is Heinlein's commentary:
The hegira of the Families had been a mistake. lt would have been a more human, a more mature and manly thing, to have stayed and fought for their rights, even if they had died insisting on them. Instead they had fled across half a universe (Lazarus was reckless about his magnitudes) looking for a place to light. They had found one, a good one--but already occupied by beings so superior as to make them intolerable for man ... yet so supremely indifferent in their superiority to men that they had not even bothered to wipe them out, but had whisked them away to this--this overmanicured country club.
And that in itself was the unbearable humiliation. The New Frontiers was the culmination of five hundred years of human scientific research, the best that men could do--but it had been flicked across the depths of space as casually as a man might restore a baby bird to its nest.
The Little People did not seem to want to kick them out but the Little People, in their own way, were as demoralizing to men as were the gods of the Jockaira. One at a time they might be morons but taken as groups each rapport group was a genius that threw the best minds that men could offer into the shade... Human beings could not hope to compete with that type of organization any more than a back-room shop could compete with an automated cybernated factory. Yet to form any such group identities, even if they could which he doubted, would be, Lazarus felt very sure, to give up whatever it was that made them men.
And Lazarus muses to himself: "'What shall it profit a man...'" That is, what shall it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?
And, immediately, important things happen. Word is brought to Lazarus that Mary Sperling, the chief female character of the book, has joined the group mind.
"She's gone over to the Little People. 'Married' into one of their groups."
"What? But that's impossible!"
Lazarus was wrong. There was no faint possibility of interbreeding between Earthmen and natives but there was no barrier, if sympathy existed, to a human merging into one of their rapport groups, drowning his personality in the ego of the many.
Mary Sperling, moved by conviction of her own impending death, saw in the deathless group egos a way out. Faced with the eternal problem of life and death, she had escaped the problem by choosing neither ... selflessness. She had found a group willing to receive her, she had crossed over ....
A short distance outside the camp he ran across a native. He skidded to a stop.
"Where is Mary Sperling?"
"... I am Mary Sperling ..."
"For the love of-- You can't be."
"... I am Mary Sperling and Mary Sperling is myself ... do you not know me, Lazarus? ... I know you ..."
That is the first important happening. The second is that a human baby has been born which has been "improved" by the Little People. The Families cannot accept the prospect of merger into the group mind. They cannot accept the prospect of alterations in the human body-as-it-is. They flee back to Earth.
When they arrive, they discover that the normal human beings of Heinlein's "First Human Civilization" whom they have left behind have themselves achieved great longevity through self-confidence and vitamins, so that they, too, may have all the time they need to find their answers to the purpose of life. In the margin of his Future History chart, Heinlein remarks: "Civil disorder, followed by the end of human adolescence, and beginning of first mature culture."
But has true maturity been won in this story? Not at all. At the outset, the long-lived people run from known problems into the unknown. There they encounter wonders and marvels that they are not prepared to deal with. Lazarus Long, Heinlein's surrogate self, stands on the sidelines throughout. He is on the outside when another man enters the temple of Kreel. He is on the outside when Mary Sperling joins the group mind. His great importance is that he proposes the retreat to Earth. When they arrive on Earth, they discover their original problem has evaporated. The final note is Lazarus Long's intention to look up a chili house in Dallas--that is, the hope that things have not been changed by his adventure.
This is a very strange and meaningful story.
The final contribution that Heinlein made to his Future History in those days before World War II was a pair of connected novelets,"Universe" and "Common Sense." These stories are even more strange and meaningful than Methuselah's Children. These were the sort of stories that Heinlein had remade science fiction in order to be able to write. One proposes the problem of life in very explicit terms, and the other offers a solution. The story that proposes the problem is brilliant. The story that proposes the solution is both longer and less convincing.
Though "Universe" and "Common Sense" are nominally set in the Future History universe, they are completely separated from the rest of the series. They take place long after the other stories, in 2600, on a starship that is a twin of the ship in Methuselah's Children, lost somewhere in the galaxy. Any solutions these stories offer cannot be applied to the rest of the Future History.
In "Universe"--Heinlein has never been coy about his preoccupations--a bright, able young man discovers that he has been lied to. The universe (the starship he lives in) is not what his teachers have taught him that it is. It is not what his society has thought. In fact, the world of his experience is but a pebble in the void, a speck in a larger universe that he is permitted to glimpse, a ship that has lost its way on its voyage and forgotten its purposes. Like the ship of history, like Heinlein. Heinlein's seeker after truth discovers his vision from freakish outcasts of society--a dwarf and a two-headed man--whom he has served as something between a slave and a disciple. The seeker is energized. He is confident that if he reports the true state of affairs to society, they will quickly set to work to remember their true nature and the destination of the ship. But when he tries to speak of his knowledge, he is called a mad heretic who would destroy society. He has not reckoned with the blindness of men committed to trivial purposes and petty games of advantage and disadvantage, men too attached to their limited natures to evolve.
In "Common Sense," Heinlein's seeker is betrayed by one who pretended to be convinced of the truth. He must flee the universe of society. He sets out with a few companions in a little ship and by virtue of what Heinlein says no less than ten times is luck, they land on the paradise of a planet:
Our own planet, under our feet, is of the "There ain't no such animal!" variety. It is a ridiculous improbability.
Hugh's luck was a ridiculous improbability.
Luck is not the way the search is successfully concluded, but it is all that Heinlein can think of.
One more story is listed on the Future History chart after "Universe" and "Common Sense." Its title is "Da Capo," a musical term for a theme to be repeated.
Rebirth and a new evolutionary quest? Or merely one more time around the park?
Heinlein has never written the story.
Background courtesy of Eos Development