Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder
Few writers for children are able to command attention fifty years after their books were originally published from the adults those children would grow up to become. But Robert Heinlein is one.
I was perfectly placed to read Heinlein's science fiction stories for children. When the first of them, Rocket Ship Galileo, showed up on the shelves of the East Lansing Public Library, I was seven years old.
In those days, I was exploring the wider world beyond picture books by cruising the shelves of books intended for older kids, scanning titles, checking blurbs, reading sample pages, even daring to take some of them out of the library.
It was on one of those sallies that I noticed a new book called Rocket Ship Galileo. What was that strange word in the title?
I sounded it out to myself as ga-LIL-ee-oh. It would be a few years before I learned better.
The picture on the front of the jacket drew me to the book. It showed a rocket ship blasting off from Earth, heading for the Moon. But I was also intimidated. There was nothing else in the children's collection like that.
So I tested the book the way I tested other books. I even peeked at the ending. And then I put it back on the shelf.
I did that on a number of different occasions. It must have taken six months -- perhaps even a year -- before I was ready to read it.
Scribner's would publish a new Heinlein book annually from 1947 to 1958, twelve of them in all. By a good measure, Rocket Ship Galileo was the simplest and most conventional, but it was more than enough to challenge me.
There might be other stories I read about trips to the Moon or Mars, but they were just kid fantasies. Rocket Ship Galileo felt as though it could almost happen.
However, it stood alone. In the late Forties, very little serious science fiction had been published in book form for either adults or children. It was still thought of as pulp literature, more than a bit dubious in the eyes of old-fashioned small town librarians, and Rocket Ship Galileo was the only one of Heinlein's juveniles the East Lansing library would acquire.
Several years passed before I came upon Heinlein again. Then, in 1950, Satellite Scout, the story of a boy in an overpopulated future Earth who emigrates with his father to Jupiter's moon Ganymede, was serialized in four monthly parts in my older brother's Boy Scout magazine, Boys' Life.
I read the first part and was hooked. I wasn't supposed to read my brother's magazine before he did, but I liked the story so much that I dared my brother's wrath and read each succeeding installment before he got home from school.
Where could I find more science fiction? It occurred to me to look in the State Library in Lansing. And there in the children's stacks I came upon a small stash of Heinlein books.
They didn't have Rocket Ship Galileo. But that was all right, they had the three books that came after it.
There was Space Cadet, with the title lettering upside down and backward on the spine. And there was Red Planet: A Colonial Boy on Mars, with endpapers showing a compass and slide rule and a Percival Lowell map of the Martian canals lying on a background of graph paper on which portentous equations were written. Best of all, there was Farmer in the Sky -- the book version of Satellite Scout, only with a different title and much longer than it had been in the magazine.
Wow! More of it to savor! That would be the book I read first.
All three books were illustrated by Clifford N. Geary, who also drew the covers. There were three or four of his distinctive pictures in each book, sometimes splashing across two pages. Geary's drawings -- often white on black, and strongest in their design -- showed cadets on a space station learning to spacewalk, Martian colonists in individually-decorated breathing masks, and immense globular atomic torchships capable of traveling to Ganymede or even the stars.
For some reason, there was also a copy of Waldo and Magic, Inc., two Heinlein short novels from 1941 and 1940 that Doubleday published as a book for adults in 1950. How that book found its way into a children's library I cannot explain. But it would call for some growing up on my part before I could read it.
I searched the collection, but found no other science fiction there. As far as I could tell, Heinlein was alone in writing seriously about the future and outer space. I thought of his books as a special personal discovery.
Later that year, a new Heinlein book showed up among the others. It was called Between Planets, about a boy who has to determine where his loyalties lie in a colonial war between Earth and Venus. This book was illustrated by Clifford Geary, too, including a picture of a Venerian dragon who calls himself Sir Isaac Newton and is the wisest character in the story.
After that, each time I went to the State Library I'd be hoping to discover a new Heinlein book waiting for me. And, after another year, I'd be rewarded with The Rolling Stones, the story of an extended family named Stone -- a grandmother, her son and his wife, and their four children -- who leave their home on the Moon to travel in their own spaceship to Mars and then on to the asteroids, selling bicycles and Martian flatcats as they go.
In the first six books that he wrote for Scribner's, from Rocket Ship Galileo through The Rolling Stones, Heinlein showed me around the Solar System. He took me to the Moon, to Venus and Mars, to the asteroids, and as far as the Jovian moon Ganymede. And he promised to go even further.
At the conclusion of The Rolling Stones, the Stone family is setting off in their spaceship for Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. The book ends:
The blast cut off her words; the Stone trembled and threw herself outward bound, toward Saturn. In her train followed hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of thousands of restless rolling Stones ... to Saturn ... to Uranus, to Pluto ... rolling on out to the stars ... outward bound to the end of the Universe.After that, however, in spite of all my hoping, it would be two full years before I saw another new Heinlein juvenile.
Partly making up for the absence of new Heinlein was the appearance of other juvenile science fiction books, which finally began to be published in 1952, five years after the publication of Rocket Ship Galileo. Without Heinlein's example, it's doubtful that they would have been either written or published.
There was the "Adventures in Science Fiction" series from Winston, which kicked off with five titles in the spring of 1952 and followed with another five in the fall. They were identifiable on the shelves by their brightly colored jackets and a distinctive little rocket symbol at the base of the spine.
Among them were books by people who didn't usually write science fiction, such as a young Evan Hunter. But some of them were by established science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson and Lester del Rey. These books took me to the depths of the ocean and around the solar system, and looked within a time-vault five hundred years after human disaster.
Also published that year was Starman's Son by children's book writer Andre Norton. It was okay -- an after-the-Bomb story with scary mutants -- but nonetheless I found it a bit disappointing. From the title I'd been hoping for a story about the son of someone who'd been to the stars.
The new science fiction book I liked best was David Starr: Spaceranger by Paul French, a pseudonym of Isaac Asimov. This mystery-adventure set on Mars had some of the same touches of difference-treated-as-normal that made Heinlein fascinating.
However, as exciting as it might be to encounter this small flood of science fiction books, I didn't think that any of them was as good as Heinlein. As far as I was concerned, he set the standard for what this kind of story should be like, and these books didn't do for me what his did.
It wasn't that I couldn't read many of them more than once and enjoy myself. But I liked Heinlein better.
He was my favorite writer. I relished the flavor of his prose, the pithy way he had of putting things and the impression he gave of total self-assurance.
But Heinlein wasn't just fun to read -- he was growth food. I was able to read his books innumerable times and never wear them out. It seemed that each time I re-read a story, I'd find something new I hadn't appreciated before.
So confidently did Heinlein write about the future that he almost might have been there. He could tell me how things worked and how they fit together. It made a big impression on me, a boy living in a world of long distance operators and party lines, when on the second page of Space Cadet the main character is riding down an outdoor slidewalk in Colorado and has to dig into his pouch to answer a call from his father back in Iowa on his own personal portable phone. That was an exhilarating taste of tomorrow.
In Heinlein's stories, things could be radically different from the way they were in the familiar world around me. In Red Planet, for example, Mars is a frontier society and it is normal for kids to carry sidearms. That gave me something to think about. I had to ask myself whether I'd be ready to live up to that order of responsibility.
Heinlein addressed serious subjects that the other SF books I read did not -- economics, revolution, overpopulation -- and introduced me to concepts I hadn't previously encountered, even in the adult books I'd begun to read. I first ran into the word "ecology" in Farmer in the Sky and had to look it up. It would be years before I saw it anywhere else.
At any moment, Heinlein was capable of presenting some startling new perspective in which things I took for granted as normal were cast into doubt, like the assertion of the makeshift nature of the automobile -- "a preposterous collection of mechanical buffoonery" -- which appears in The Rolling Stones. He was convincing about it, too.
It seemed there was nothing that Heinlein didn't have the true scoop on. He certainly knew more than my schoolteachers did. They were only able to teach me what was ordinary and obvious.
I thought of Heinlein as my real teacher. He stretched my understanding in ways that school never did and taught me of the existence of a broader and deeper universe beyond the present, often by including evidences of sentient beings who had come and gone before us.
There was a moral dimension to his work, too, that I valued and tried to apply -- a sense that in the future as much as now life would present us with hard choices and what we chose to do would matter.
In the absence of a new Heinlein juvenile, I finally worked up the nerve to read Waldo and Magic, Inc. Both stories suggested that alternate modes of thought might be valid. "Waldo" was particularly headbending, with its conclusion that existence doesn't have a fixed nature, but shapes itself according to the conception we have of it.
So I shaped a little reality myself. I looked for more science fiction downstairs in the adult collection of the State Library, and by the act of looking for it, brought it into being.
The first thing I did was to look on the fiction shelves under H, but there was no Heinlein there. In fact, I wasn't able to find any SF books at all in the fiction collection.
The next thing I thought to do was to look in the card catalog under "science fiction." But that gave me no help in identifying science fiction novels, as I'd hoped it would and thought it should.
However, there were a number of cards for science fiction collections. And all of them had the same Dewey Decimal number in the corner - 808.2.
So I followed the numbers and tracked these books down in the stacks. 808.2 proved to be the number for all story collections. But I had no trouble identifying the science fiction anthologies. They were the books with "time," "space," or "science fiction" in the title.
Some of them were very fat. I started with the two fattest - Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, which contained 35 stories, and The Best of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin, which contained 40. Both of them had multiple Heinlein stories in them.
I read what I could, not always understanding what I read. It was as though I had to learn a language that was new to me to make sense of these books.
But gradually I worked my way through them all -- The Big Book of Science Fiction, A Treasury of Science Fiction, The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, The Galaxy Reader, The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949, New Tales of Space and Time. These books and the rest of them provided me with my basic education in adult science fiction.
I loved science fiction, even though I wasn't completely sure what it was. I would read every book about it I could lay my hands on -- Science-Fiction Handbook, by L. Sprague de Camp, Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future, edited by Reginald Bretnor, and In Search of Wonder, by Damon Knight -- in an attempt to figure it out.
But even after I'd found my way to adult science fiction -- the real thing -- I would continue to read Heinlein's new juveniles. Other SF for kids might seem watered-down to me now; Heinlein never did.
As he wrote in 1952: "A book so juvenile that it will insult the intelligence of adults is quite likely to insult the intelligence of the kids."
As though to demonstrate how much he thought youngsters could deal with, following The Rolling Stones in 1952, Heinlein's science fiction stories for kids would only grow more challenging. They were longer now, and after one final book illustrated by Clifford Geary, ceased to have illustrations except on the title page.
In his first six books for Scribner's, Heinlein had made his readers at home in the Solar System. In the next six he broadened their frame of reference. These stories would all be set against a background of interstellar travel and have titles like Time for the Stars and Citizen of the Galaxy.
The first one of them I saw, two full years after The Rolling Stones, was The Star Beast. Unlike any of Heinlein's previous juveniles, it was satiric in tone.
John Thomas Stuart XI, like other John Thomas Stuarts before him, is the keeper of an oversized alien creature named Lummox who talks in a childish voice and eats automobiles. The final paragraph of the book would turn all my previous understanding on its head. Here it was revealed that in her own mind, it is long-lived Lummox who regards herself as having been busy raising a series of John Thomas Stuarts as pets.
That wasn't standard kid fare.
I found clues on the back of The Star Beast that filled me in on the Scribner's book I'd missed. It was called Starman Jones. A one-sentence blurb told me that it was about a farm boy who rises to become astrogator on a starship.
As someone who thought of himself as a dedicated Heinlein fan, I would be tireless in seeking out his stories. But it took me another three years before I caught up with Starman Jones.
I finally came across it in the newly-established Okemos branch of the Ingham County Library in the back of a fire station. It was the one Heinlein book they had.
When I read it, I discovered that the farm boy who rises to astrogator -- and even temporary captain -- on a starship comes from an abusive family and lives in a repressive society. In order to join the starship crew, he has to resort to forged documents.
That wasn't the ordinary stuff of kids' books, either.
But again and again, Heinlein would test the limits of what was usual in children's publishing.
Tunnel in the Sky was about survival class students accidentally stranded on an alien planet and forced to survive for real.
Citizen of the Galaxy began with the main character as a slave boy being sold on the auction block to a crippled beggar.
Because he demanded so much of his young readers, Heinlein's juveniles would be of interest to older readers, as well.
Of the later Heinlein juveniles, three would be serialized in adult science fiction magazines. The Star Beast appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as Star Lummox before its publication as a book by Scribner's. I first read Citizen of the Galaxy as a serial in Astounding in 1957, and Have Space Suit--Will Travel the following year in F&SF.
And Time for the Stars would come to me as a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club.
That book had one of my favorite Heinlein touches.
The main character is one of a set of telepathic twins recruited as communicators for an extended voyage of interstellar exploration sponsored by the Long Range Foundation. "... To make the LRF directors light up with enthusiasm you had to suggest something that cost a billion or more and probably wouldn't show results for ten generations, if ever...."
But the price of participating in this project is that the narrator grows radically out of touch with the society he left behind. He expresses his culture shock this way after his return from the stars:
... The changes had been more than I had bargained for. Take female styles, for example -- look, I'm no Puritan, but they didn't dress, if you want to call it that, this way when I was a kid. Girls running around without a thing on their heads, not even on top . . . heads bare-naked, like an animal.The narrator's no Puritan. He'd like you to know that. But he also wants you to understand that some things -- like the sight of a female with her head bare-naked like an animal -- might be difficult for a man to get used to.
I loved that. One of the things I valued most about science fiction was the insight into cultural imprinting and human psychology that its strange situations and skewed perspectives gave me. And the flavor was so Heinlein.
I was eighteen when Have Space Suit--Will Travel, Heinlein's final book for Scribner's, was published.
I'd grown up on Heinlein. I'd read his books all my life. I'd raised myself reading his stories. I considered myself his number one fan, since no one could possibly enjoy his writing more than I did.
And Have Space Suit--Will Travel was a fitting climax to the series of Scribner's juveniles. It was all the preceding books rolled into one.
Kip Russell, who tells the story, begins by refurbishing a used space suit he's won in a contest. The story then takes him from his back yard to the Moon, to Pluto, to a planet of the star Vega, and finally to a planet in another galaxy where the human race is judged. And then back home again.
I remember sitting in the car reading Have Space Suit--Will Travel in F&SF and laughing in pure delight as the kind of trip Heinlein was taking me on dawned on me. I think that moment of recognition was the high point in all my reading of science fiction.
Perhaps because with Have Space Suit Heinlein had completed what he'd set out to do with his SF books for kids, with the next book he wrote, he deliberately sabotaged his relationship with Scribner's and established a new one with Putnam.
It wasn't difficult to convince Scribner's to drop his work. They were an old-fashioned aristocratic house who looked upon publishing as a social responsibility as well as a business.
Starting with those gun-toting kids in Red Planet, Heinlein had tried Scribner's by constantly testing the bounds of what was considered suitable for children. Now he sent them a contract-breaker of a book -- the story of a Mobile Infantry soldier in an interstellar war-to-come -- knowing full well that Scribner's would think its violence and militance was inappropriate for children.
Starship Troopers would be issued instead by Putnam, a publisher who had a policy of courting controversy, as a book for teens, but also as a book for adults. It was serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and won a Hugo Award as Best Novel of the Year. It was the first of a number of heretical Heinlein novels that Putnam would publish.
Heinlein may have moved on as a writer, but the twelve juveniles that he wrote for Scribner's would remain as a unique and valuable body of work.
A whole generation of readers would be introduced to science fiction by these books. They formed thinking, expanded horizons, and influenced lives.
Now, for the benefit of
all of us who were Heinlein's
Children, Joseph Major offers the close examination of these books
long deserved. Joe has read widely, thought much, and knows
Read and enjoy.
Written as an
introduction to Heinlein's Children
by Joseph Major, published in 2006.
courtesy of Boogie
Jack's Pixel River Graphics