Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Introduction to Expanded Universe

In the early days of Omni, when Ben Bova was its editor, I was asked by them to review Robert Heinlein’s fat new omnium gatherum, Expanded Universe. This was the first time anyone had asked me to write about Heinlein since Advent had requested a book on his fiction more than fifteen years earlier.

I remember traveling to the editorial offices that Omni shared with its older sibling Penthouse and then waiting in an anteroom dominated by an immense painting of a Roman orgy, based on the 1979 movie Caligula, written by Gore Vidal (and later disowned by him) and produced and co-directed by Penthouse’s publisher, Bob Guccione.

The nucleus of Heinlein’s book was a 1966 paperback collection of five previously ungathered stories assembled by Ace Books editor, Donald A. Wollheim.  He called it The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein.

The subtitle of Expanded Universe -- a subsequent book that was the idea of later Ace editor, James Baen -- was The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein.  It included not only the same five stories but other non-science fiction stories by Heinlein, including one from a girls’ magazine and another from a detective pulp, plus a number of non-fiction pieces and a long original concluding essay. My review of the book was published in the April 1981 issue of Omni.

But Heinlein didn’t like it.

I mean, he really didn’t like it.

He called up Omni and complained about it so hard that they agreed to a reconsideration.  As a result, Omni published a second review of the book, this one by Jack Williamson, in the June issue.

Now what was it I said?

Expanded Universe

For 40 years Robert A. Heinlein has been the premier writer of modern science fiction.  During the same time he has always been an intensely private man, one who closely guards his personal thoughts, his business, and even the facts of his life.

Expanded Universe is a fascinating collection of Heinlein’s marginalia.  It presents aspects of his writing that we have never before been privileged to see.  Crucial details of Heinlein’s career are placed in perspective for the first time.  Most of all, however, Expanded Universe allows us the opportunity to hear Heinlein speaking as directly and personally about his work as he is ever likely to.

Almost half of this hefty book is fiction -- by no means all of it SF -- much of it unreprinted until now.  There are essays and magazine articles, an encyclopedia entry, a tribute to E.E. Smith, an ad, a speech to the U.S. Naval Academy, and a new 30,000 word concluding essay on the state of contemporary American society.  And all of this rare material is presented in chronological order with notes by Heinlein.  If you grew up on Heinlein, if the Future History or the Scribner juveniles or even Stranger in a Strange Land was your basic education, if you are one of those who have followed Heinlein through his entire career, marveling, if you really care about Heinlein, then Expanded Universe is a book that you might save pennies from your lunch money in order to buy.

You might buy it.  But be forewarned:  Expanded Universe is a deeply unhappy book, filled with Heinlein’s most trivial and peripheral work.  Here are to be found failures, unheeded cries of warning, hearty denunciations, and deep and grievous wounds.  Expanded Universe is Heinlein very occasionally at his best, and far more often at his worst.

Heinlein’s best has been his hunger to break free from all the limitations of his turn-of-the-century, Bible Belt Missouri background, his engineer’s pragmatism and exactitude, his naval officer’s dedication and discipline, his willingness to think and rethink, and his readiness to educate the young in necessary survival skills. Heinlein’s bad side has been his arrogance and egotism, his manipulativeness and concern to always have the upper hand, and -- worst of all -- his misplaced morality.

Misplaced morality?  Yes.  In a speech to the midshipmen of Annapolis, Heinlein raises the issue of moral behavior and ties it firmly to survival:

“We have two situations, mutually exclusive: mankind surviving and mankind extinct.  With respect to morality, the second situation is a null class.  An extinct breed has no behavior, moral or otherwise.  Since survival is the sine qua non, I now define moral behavior as ‘behavior that tends toward survival.’

This has to be false.  If morality did lie in mere survival, then the hard-shelled defensiveness of the clam, the sharp-toothed aggressiveness of the shark, and the playacting of the opossum -- survivors all -- would be moral models for mankind, as they so often are models for Heinlein in this book. What have been rational and pragmatic survival behaviors to Heinlein must seem to us like actions and attitudes unworthy of such an able and superior man.

In the interest of survival, Heinlein has sought dominance:  “I don’t like servility any more than the next American -- but if there is any groveling to be done, it won’t be by me.”

He has used pressure and manipulation for personal advantage, as he recalls doing with the great editor of Astounding, John W. Campbell:  “I’ll send you a story from time to time ... until the day comes when you bounce one.  At that point we’re through.  Now that I know you personally, having a story rejected by you would be too traumatic.”

He has used veiled threat:  “... the record shows that it is not healthy to hate me.”

And when subtler tactics have not worked, he has been willing to pound on his chest and swell to three times his normal size:  “In a bully-boy society often nothing but bullying will work....  Shake your finger... simulate extreme rage... model your behavior after the worst temper tantrums you have seen Khrushchev pull on television.”

In a fact-minded period, Heinlein has been the supreme master of fact, offering his own special talents, attitudes, skills and priorities as a model for all of us -- the one road to survival.  But, perhaps put off by Heinlein’s overbearing manner, we haven’t always listened.  This has been frustrating for Heinlein.  Failure to heed him means failure to survive.  How can we be so willfully immoral?

But all of the problems that Heinlein enumerates in Expanded Universe -- from lack of defense against the ultimate weapon to loss of cultural nerve -- remain as unresolved for him at the end of the book as at the beginning.  And his refusal to be dominated, his superior competence, his 40 years of effort, his shouts, and his turning purple have not changed this.

Frustrating.  To Heinlein, we ordinary folk have seemed morons, stinkers, boobs, marks, parasites, grinning apes, fat, dumb and happy yahoos, fools, poltroons, peasants, animals, and zombies.  At his most egotistical and despairing, Heinlein has been willing to turn his back on us altogether: “the probability (by a formula I just now derived) that either I or this soi-disant civilization will be extinct by A.D. 2000 approaches 99.92-plus percent.  But do not assume that I will be the one extinct.”

Heinlein underestimates the effect that he has had on us.  He does not seem to understand that the modern world, which he abhors, is in any part the natural result of the methods and values he has propounded.  He does not recognize his intimate involvement with all that he both dislikes and rejects. But for both good and bad, and whether he likes it or not, he is an active participant in the present moment of change and transition.

The world moves on, and there is a moral path to be followed.  The moral choice is not between extinction and survival.  The moral choice is evolution.

Heinlein is mistaken when he says that the most basic thing about Tyrannosaurus rex is that he is “dead, gone, extinct.”  The most important fact about the dinosaurs is that they sprouted feathers and grew wings and became birds.

But if we are to evolve we must shed our self-protectiveness, our bullying behavior, our egotism -- and our solipsistic belief that we alone are real, that we alone count.  If we are to surmount the problems that so haunt Heinlein, we must surrender mere survival behavior, all join hands, and leap together.

That goes for Robert A. Heinlein, too, the man who first inspired so many of us to learn and to alter ourselves.  That is, it does if he wants to come along with the rest of us grinning apes, us monkey folk, in our next step toward true humanity.

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