Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

When the Quest Ended

As a youngster, I was a great fan of the stories of Robert Heinlein. I read them over and over again. My particular favorites were Have Spacesuit -- Will Travel and Beyond This Horizon. Eventually, I became the author of Heinlein in Dimension, not only the first critical study of Heinlein's fiction, but the very first book on the work of any modem science fiction writer.

I loved what was noblest and best in Heinlein as well as anyone, and more than most. Consequently, watching the solipsistic self-devouring vampire that Heinlein became in his later years was particularly painful for me to watch.

It hurt me to hear of him as a Worldcon Guest of Honor delivering yet another warning against imminent atomic doom (as late as 1976!) and being booed from the balcony by people who had once admired him. It hurt to observe him from a distance as an old man whose interactions with readers and fans had become contingent upon their making blood bank donations, as though this were their only possible relevance for him. And it hurt to see Heinlein taking all of his earlier work and redefining it, not as various parts of a common Future History, as he had when he was a young writer, but rather as aspects of a state of being in which Robert Heinlein and his various clones and avatars -- including the villainous Black Beast, Mellrooney -- were the only reality acknowledged to exist.

All of that hurt.

In the days of Heinlein’s decline, struck by the immense disparity between the man that Heinlein might have become and should have become and the horror story he did become, I scrawled a line on a scrap of paper and threw it into the drawer where odd thoughts live. It said:

the agony of a solipsist living in a world he neither likes nor understands

That was as far as I could go toward empathizing with the wreck and forgiving Heinlein.

But it still didn't answer the question that nagged me most. How could a man so knowledgeable, so perceptive, so influential and so well-loved, even to the day he died, ever have ended so badly? I puzzled over that for years and years and years.

I should tell you frankly that Heinlein didn't love me as well as I loved him. What were the reasons? That was one more part of the puzzle.

Well, I offended the man -- no doubt many more times than once. The crucial one was this:

More than twenty-five years ago, while I was researching Heinlein in Dimension, the widow of a friend of Heinlein’s wrote to tell me of the existence of correspondence between Heinlein and her husband, and asked me if I wanted to have a look at Heinlein’s letters. I accepted her offer, but didn't find anything there that seemed relevant to the critical examination of his fiction that I was writing. Presuming I had done nothing improper, I made no secret of the fact that I had seen those letters. But when Heinlein was told of it, his immediate reaction -- before checking the facts, before reading what I had written -- was to accuse Advent, my publisher, of bad faith and threaten them with a lawsuit, and to terminate his friendship with Earl Kemp, one of the SF fans who ran Advent, on whose couch Heinlein was used to sleeping when he visited Chicago.

I met Heinlein for the first and only time on a public occasion in New York ten years later, and by a substantial margin it was the oddest meeting I've ever had with another writer. First, while Heinlein was busy autographing books, I introduced myself to Mrs. Heinlein. She gave me the cut direct, turning her back on me and walking away. I know that nobody does that anymore, but, by golly, she did it.

Then, when I had the opportunity, I introduced myself at last to the man who had been a stimulus, a model, and a hero to my younger self. Heinlein stood. His face turned dark red and a vein throbbed in his temple. (The simulation of extreme rage was a mode Heinlein could assume at will, and which he was proud enough of to recommend to others as a device for getting one’s own way.) In a tone that brooked no compromise, he said, "'Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail'" and pointed the way to the door.

It was a surreal moment, completely out of proportion to any offense that I -- a non-gentleman, perhaps, like all scholarly readers of other people’s letters, but one who had never meant Heinlein any harm and never done him any -- might have unintentionally committed a decade earlier. And all the odder it seems, too, when you stop to think that Heinlein was quoting Henry Stimson, the Secretary of State who, when the U.S. cracked Japan’s most secret code in the days before World War II, had wanted to hear no more about it. Did he think he was playing the role of Stimson or of Japan, or somehow both at once?

So continuingly unforgiving (and skittish) was Heinlein where I was concerned that another dozen years later he would refuse to read through the relevant pages of The World Beyond the Hill before publication -- but via Mrs. Heinlein would threaten the publisher, Tarcher of Los Angeles, with a lawsuit should there turn out to be anything in our book to which he took exception.

Two different publishers threatened with lawsuit. Two books published anyway. And no actual lawsuits ... nor reason for any. It is enough to set you wondering what Heinlein thought he was trying to accomplish, and why.

If it was to attempt to affect what was said about him and his work it would not have been the first time. Perhaps the most blatant example of this I know of happened to Sam Moskowitz back in the days when he was writing the earliest formal portrait of Heinlein and his work, which would later appear in expanded form as a chapter in his book Seekers of Tomorrow. As the climax of his research, Moskowitz sent Heinlein fifteen questions. And Heinlein was good enough to answer them all in a letter that was fully as long as Moskowitz’s eventual essay. However, Heinlein then added the proviso that of course Moskowitz wouldn't use anything he’d been told. Caught in the monkey trap of wanting to be considered a gentleman, Sam was effectively prevented from saying even those things he had previously known. What’s more, Sam actually admired Heinlein for this ploy. He thought it was a "clever trick."

There was a price to be paid by anyone who did transgress the rules Heinlein made, or who even disagreed with him. This was to become an un-person. Even before it happened to me, it was disconcerting to my younger self, as I was handed along by friends of Heinlein to closer friends of Heinlein, to run into more than one dead end and a story that went like this: "It’s true that Bob Heinlein and I used to be good friends. But then we had a disagreement, and as a result -- through his choice and not mine -- we no longer see each other.”

I have an image of a tactically enraged Heinlein ever and again pointing the way to the door.

It is clear now that hiding behind various kinds of barriers, manipulation of what was to be known and said about him, and threats of extreme displeasure toward all dissenters were a regular pattern of conduct for Robert Heinlein long before he was plagued by the uncomfortable notoriety brought his way by the success of Stranger in at Strange Land. But why did he come to resort to all of this anticipatory dodging for cover, clever trickery and roaring thunder? What could it have been that he was so determined never to permit himself to hear?

Was it what Admiral Caleb Laning ultimately did say to him?

Cal Laning was the dedicatee (together with his wife and children) of Beyond This Horizon, Robert Heinlein’s first published and most frankly philosophical adult novel. Laning and Heinlein went way back together -- all the way to their earliest days at the Naval Academy. They’d done everything together then, from chasing girls to making a private compact between them to keep on searching for the meaning of life. They called this aim "the Quest."

Eventually, however, when Heinlein had become an old man of vast and easily offended dignity whose mail was screened and who lived behind fences no hippie could penetrate, he and Laning would fall out in a confrontation that had Heinlein thumping his cane, glaring at Laning, and saying, "How dare you speak to me that way, sir!"

Now what in the world could Cal Laning have said to Bob Heinlein that could have gotten him that upset? I didn't get the answer to that one from the person who heard this story from Laning and then told it to me. But I've wondered about it. I have wondered.

After all, it is one thing for Heinlein to have brushed aside an importunate young fan critic like me, or to have brought a relatively recent friendship with a Colorado Springs mystery writer to an abrupt end. But the relationship with Laning went back to the days before the money, before the fame, before the dignity, even before the SF writing. And how could you get miffed at this late date with the kind of running buddy you once attempted to join the Jesuits with when you both were young and foolish? The guy you sent a keeper copy of your first (and to this day still unpublished) long Future History manuscript?

What might Caleb Laning have said to him that Heinlein couldn't laugh off but had to defend against with furious thumpings and glares and how-dare-you-sirs? It must have been something devastating.

But I was told one opinion of Admiral Laning’s that might fit the bill and be the heart-striking truth that Heinlein secretly feared to face -- like that revelation of his ineradicable second-ratedness which so devastates the strike leader in Heinlein’s early story, "The Roads Must Roll.”

It was Admiral Laning’s feeling that Heinlein had abandoned the Quest after Beyond This Horizon. If he hadn't said so, and hadn't said so, and hadn't said so, and then at last he said so, it seems possible that it could have burst upon Heinlein as an affront. And all the more intolerable because it happened to be true.

There is evidence of its truth in Heinlein’s own letters. I mean by this, of course, the ones published after his death under the title Grumbles from the Grave.

As readers will already be aware -- that is, all those readers who eagerly picked up this book for the same reason that I accepted a look at those Heinlein letters twenty-five years ago: the hope that his correspondence might shed some light upon the stories and upon the man -- this collection of Heinlein’s business letters, selected, edited and arranged by Mrs. Heinlein, is generally unrevealing.

There is one major exception to this, however. For whatever reason, the early letters between Heinlein and John Campbell that are printed here have been left relatively complete and unimproved by editorial handling, and now and again remarks are made that not only do give us some indication of who Heinlein thought he was and what he thought he was doing, but go a long way toward answering my puzzlement about how and why Heinlein came to go so wrong.

In Admiral Laning’s language, you could very well say that in these letters is recorded the moment when Heinlein abandoned the Quest. And admitted as much, at least one time.

The Robert Heinlein who first vaulted over the heads of all other writers to become the brightest star of the pre-war Campbell Astounding was a desperate, driven, frustrated and unhappy man.

Through the Twenties and Thirties, he had pressed his Quest in every direction. He had studied engineering and mathematics. He had looked into Masonry and witchcraft. He had pushed beyond the miraculous into new dimensions of being with the writings of P. D. Ouspensky, and he had played around with the occult masters of Mt. Shasta. He had taken seminars in General Semantics with Alfred Korzybski, and he had even met his early hero, H. G. Wells, and asked him to autograph his cherished copy of When the Sleeper Wakes.

But none of these had provided him with the solution to the mystery of life that he was seeking. The nearest had been Wells. Heinlein’s first answer to the challenge of the Quest had been to try to become a man of competence, an operator and director of society, a Wellsian Samurai. And he had identified this superior calling with his appointment to the Naval Academy and his commissioning as an officer.     

But worldly power and recognition cannot be a complete and sufficient answer to the goals of the Quest -- or else Genghis Khan and Hitler would be remembered today as sages rather than Chuang-Tzu and Jalaludin Rumi. And during the Thirties, the limitations of his first answer were demonstrated to Heinlein over and over again.   

Heinlein was as competent a man as he could make himself -- and where he wasn't all that competent he could puff and blow and fake his way through. But again and again he had tried to be a Big Time Operator, and time and again he had failed.  

He hadn't risen in the Navy. Instead he had been retired when he was still in his twenties after developing tuberculosis. What a blow that had been!

He hadn't succeeded in graduate school and an academic career -- again he had gotten sick and had to drop out.

He hadn't succeeded in mining or in real estate. In fact, he’d been a flop, and maybe even a fool.

Most recently, he had been rejected by California voters in a party primary election for a seat in the state legislature.

In the realm of action and obvious result, Heinlein was a total bust.

So what should he do? What were his brains and talents for? He had so much to ofter, and yet he just couldn't seem to get anywhere at all. What was his life about?  

It was at this point that Heinlein took up science fiction writing. It was an act fraught with ambivalence from the beginning.

From the moment that he had first discovered this limit-testing literature as a psychically-oppressed kid in Kansas City, Heinlein had read SF assiduously. It has been highly influential upon him -- particularly Wells. SF had given him a basis by which to lever himself out of the limitations of his Bible-thumping surroundings and become a seeker of truth. And that both he and Cal Laning read science fiction in a society and a Navy which generally did not was a major bond between them.

At the same time, in contemporary America science fiction was not only looked at askance for its content, it was a pulp magazine literature, and the pulps were déclassé. No matter how well-qualified Heinlein might be to become an SF writer, telling stories for the pulps was nothing at all like any goal he had ever set for himself.

Heinlein backed himself into doing it, however. He had the debt that he had incurred in his unsuccessful bid for office to pay off. It was hardly as much as a thousand dollars, but he told himself that discharging the debt as soon as possible was a matter of honor, and that writing stories seemed a way for a smart, science-fiction-savvy, but half·invalid fellow like himself to generate the money he needed.

That there was something disjointed about his taking up SF writing, however, something that he wasn't later able to look at quite squarely, is apparent in the tale Heinlein would persist in telling about how it came about. He would say that he wrote his first short story, "Life-Line,” in response to a story contest in Thrilling Wonder Stories, the prize for which was $50. When he was done, however, the story had seemed too good for a pulp, so he had submitted it to the slick magazine Collier’s. When they returned it, he’d noticed that the pay rate at Astounding of a penny a word would earn him more than first prize at Thrilling Wonder, so he had sent it to Campbell who bought "Life-Line" for $70. A clear win for Robert Heinlein.

The only trouble is that Heinlein didn't write "Life-Line” until the contest in Thrilling Wonder Stories was over and done with, and the winning story, Alfred Bester’s "The Broken Axiom,” had already been published. What is more, Collier's was never a market for science fiction stories, no matter how contemporary in setting or how well-written. It would seem that beneath all the misdirection and self-congratulation with which Heinlein came to lacquer the event, writing for John Campbell’s magazines was what he had actually had in mind when he sat down to turn out his first short story.

And after a very brief apprenticeship, Heinlein found Campbell’s range so well that he was able to sell him everything he wrote. All of Heinlein’s searching, all of his knowledge, all of his frustration, and all of his pent-up energy, he poured out in science fiction form. The Quest was written large in those early stories. Over and over they ask, what does the man of competence and truthseeking do? And what kind of society will allow him to do it?

At the same time, these stories themselves were highly frustrated. Again and again, they looked for an answer to the Quest at the level of the Samurai, the responsible caretaker of lesser men, and again and again they concluded with failure, breakdown, loss of nerve, even death. Heinlein would think of these stories as tragedies.

However, as successful with Campbell and the readers of Astounding as his stories were -- particularly after the publication of a chart which Heinlein had been keeping on his wall revealed that all of the stories published under his own name were placed against a common background of future development -- Heinlein himself continued to be of two minds about what he was doing.

Oh, the ambivalence he felt! Here he was, writing his passionate, powerful, questioning, revolutionary, and highly autobiographical stories. Story after story after story, as fast as he could get them down on paper. And yet at the same time he was ready to tell Anthony Boucher that he was only writing because it was an easy way of making money that he had happened to fall into, and that he planned to quit as soon as his debt was paid off.

Only, of course, he didn't quit after the debt was paid off. He kept on writing feverishly.

The ambivalence was written large in Grumbles from the Grave. For instance, Heinlein would regularly bad-mouth his own stories to Campbell. He suggested that "If This Goes On--,” his first serial, was hack. And he said that "By His Bootstraps," his brilliantly original time travel story, was hackwork, too. When Campbell protested that it wasn't, Heinlein insisted yet again that yes it was. "Cotton candy,” he said.

At the same time, of course, this did not stop Heinlein from demanding Campbell’s top dollar for his work, and declaring that if he got anything less he would cease to write: "As long as you pay anyone a cent and a half, I want it. If my stuff starts slipping and is no longer worth top rates, I prefer to quit rather than start the downgrade.”

And Heinlein actually would quit after Campbell rejected his story "Goldfish Bowl” in the summer of 1941. In a letter dated September 6, Heinlein told Campbell his reasons. And these were typically ambivalent, too.

For one thing, Heinlein said that he had grander, better paying and more ambitious writing to do. There was a book on monetary theory that he wanted to write, and another on General Semantics. He was going to write at least one non-SF novel, maybe. And he had thoughts of writing for the slicks.

But then, in almost the next breath Heinlein said that he was tuckered out. In fact, writing all those SF stories hadn't actually been as casual and effortless a proposition as he sometimes made out: "Frankly, the strain is wearing on me. I can still write, but it is a terrific grind to try each week to be more clever than I was the week before."

And, in between, Heinlein protested that he had the Quest to attend to: "I want to be able to stop, sit down and 'invite my soul' for an hour, a day, or a week, if feel the need for it. I don't know yet what my principal task in this world is, if I have one, but I do know that I won't find it through too much hurrying and striving ..."

What was he actually going to do? That wasn't clear. What was clear was that now he wasn't going to write any more SF stories -- especially if John Campbell was going to reject them.

Heinlein’s quitting didn't last long. Campbell backed down in pretty short order, not wishing to lose his star writer, and bought "Goldfish Bowl” even though he really didn't want it. And just that quick, Heinlein relented. By September 25, not even three weeks after he had given up SF writing so firmly and finally, he was back talking to Campbell in these enthusiastic terms about an idea he had for a new SF story:

I think I've got it. Darned if I don't think so. The serial, I mean -- the one I've been looking for. Like this -- for some time I've been wandering around in a blue fog, trying to get a theme, a major conflict suitable for a novel-length S-F story. I wanted it to be fully mature, adult, dramatic in its possibilities -- and not used before.

The idea itself was this: “In a world that is all peace-and-prosperity, what will men and women have left to struggle for?”

In this idea, Heinlein would find the nucleus of Beyond This Horizon, his longest pre-war effort.

For the next five or six weeks, Heinlein worked at getting the pieces of the story to fall into place solidly enough for him to start writing. He kept Campbell posted on his progress.

At one early point, Heinlein wrote to say: "I've continued research every day and have a stack of notes that high. I’m going to like this serial, I think." Ten days later, he was having to take a barbiturate to get to sleep at night because of worry about the story, but saying, "The idea is grand, wonderful, and I see more interesting angles to it every day." And another dozen days thereafter, he was telling Campbell, "I want this story to be high tragedy rather than horse opera -- full of gore and action as a Greek tragedy, but tragedy in the Greek sense."

Here is enthusiasm, serious purpose, and high ambition. Yet as we might expect by now, when Heinlein actually got down to writing his dramatic, mature, and original SF story, he quickly took refuge behind his usual pose that he didn't altogether care about what he was doing, and wasn't really trying anyway.

In sending Campbell the first forty pages on November 9, Heinlein invoked a comic catchphrase of the moment (still echoing on today in old Warner Bros. cartoons): "Confidentially, it stinks." And when he mailed off the second portion on November 13, he wrote, "Here is another hunk of hack."  

A hunk of hack? On pumpernickel? The very same story that aspired to be Greek tragedy in science fiction form?

In fact, Beyond This Horizon came out somewhere in between the two.

It wasn't anything as mediocre and many-times-envisioned as hackwork. But it was written too fast -- in little more than a month. And it was awkwardly structured, straining to include pulp action and then lurching on determinedly after the pulp action ran out because Heinlein still had things that he wanted to get in.

Nor was the story anywhere near as concentrated and painful and Fate-determined as a proper Greek tragedy. And yet it was no negligible undertaking. It was both highly innovative as science fiction and Heinlein’s purest presentation of his Quest. More explicitly than any other story in the whole corpus of science fiction, Beyond this Horizon would ask the purpose of human life: What should a man do? What is human life for? What action or knowledge can justify living and continuing life?

Heinlein’s protagonist, Hamilton Felix, is a man of uncommon ability in a future society in which all material wants are satisfied. He is swift and smart and sure. However, his lack of one crucial talent, a perfect memory, disqualifies Hamilton from becoming an encyclopedic synthesist -- one of "the men who knew everything" who direct this society.

Heinlein had first publicly proposed the work of synthesist in his Guest-of-Honor speech given at the Third World Science Fiction Convention in Denver in July. Heinlein had described synthesists then as "men who make it their business to find out what it is the specialists have learned and then relay it to the rest of us in consolidated form so that we can have, if not the details of the picture, at least the broad outlines of the enormous, incredibly enormous, mass of data that the human race has gathered." As a pioneer in this line of work, Heinlein named H. G. Wells -- "so far as I know the only writer who has ever lived who has tried to draw for the rest of us a full picture of the whole world, past and future, everything about us, so we can stand off and get a look at ourselves."

When Heinlein had set forth his plans to write about monetary theory and semantics to Campbell in early September, no doubt it had been with this image of the synthesist in mind. By the time he wrote Beyond This Horizon, however, his original portrait of the synthesist as someone who learns and integrates relevant knowledge and then presents it to others for their own preparation and guidance had become conflated with his earlier image of the Samurai, the Man in Charge.  

And if Hamilton Felix cannot be one of these masterful persons, what work is worth doing for someone of his talent and energy in this brave new future world? All that he can find to occupy himself is to design flashy trashy gambling games -- " 'silly games for idle people' "  -- and live comfortably. But Hamilton is a radically alienated man.

Various solutions to this situation are tried out in the course of Beyond This Horizon.

One is for Hamilton Felix to look out for himself and do only that which pleases him or makes his life easier. It is in this vein that he describes himself as " 'indifferent honest.' " Or, as Heinlein-the-narrator puts it: "His morals were strictly pragmatic, and conformed to accepted code as closely as they did only through a shrewd and imaginative self-interest."

Another answer briefly proffered is solipsism. In a trippy passage after Heinlein’s characters have been rendered unconscious by a potentially deadly gas, there is a suggestion that this world is all an illusion, a crooked game: "It was always a little hard to remember which position Himself had played, forgetting that he had played all the parts."

This might be an intimation of Heinlein-the-author sitting up late at night after drinking too much coffee and taking too many pep pills, trying to force his story onward and grinning at himself in the mirror. But within the story, it is a strange and unsettling line of thought for Hamilton Felix to entertain, especially since only some of the persons of the story are acknowledged to have even quasi-reality. Of the rest, it is said: "That piece was an automatic, some of the pieces had to be."

But this view is only the conceit of a moment. It flashes upon the page and is gone.

Rather more space within the story is devoted to the hugger-mugger of a revolt against the masters of society by conspirators who would enlist Hamilton Felix and give him a place of power and prominence in the new order. Instead, however, Hamilton recognizes these men for the resentful mediocrities they are, and actively works to subvert the revolution and see it put down.

And then, and then ... after the almost-revolution has come and gone, in a portion of the story in which much time passes by in comparatively little space, the philosopher-kings of Heinlein’s society resolve to address Hamilton Felix’s question, "What is the meaning of life?", and to include him as an active participant in this "Great Research" into the unsolved mysteries. He may not be a synthesist or a mover-and-shaker, but he can still live a fruitful life pursuing the Quest.

Here, a little forced, a little less than fully imagined, is an answer that is at least a half-step beyond anything Heinlein had previously proposed: To use the Quest itself as a Way and find meaning in the continuing search for meaning. And to make that search a fundamental societal project.

However, this answer -- or its this-worldly equivalent -- wasn't Heinlein’s personal answer. He still was not ready to surrender his old desire to be among the special few who are privileged to guide and direct less able men and women.

That this was so was made manifest soon after Heinlein finished writing Beyond This Horizon. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii designed to wipe out the U.S. Pacific Fleet in a single blow, and the United States was suddenly an active participant in World War II.

Heinlein had been watching the war closely since it started in Europe in September 1939. And in his Worldcon speech in Denver, he had said: "I don't suppose I’ll be writing very much longer. Things shaping up the way they are, I’ll probably have other things that I’ll have to do, a lot of us here will have other things that we’re going to have to do, whether we like it or not; and I may not come back to it ..."

Now on December 9, two days after Pearl Harbor, Heinlein wrote the following to John Campbell:

For the last eighteen months I have often been gay and frequently much interested in what I was doing, but I have not been happy. There has been with me, night and day, a gnawing doubt as to the course I was following. I felt that there was something that I ought to be doing. I rationalized it, not too successfully, by reminding myself that the navy knew where I was, knew my abilities, and had the legal power to call on me if they wanted me. But I felt like a heel. This country has been very good to me, and the taxpayers have supported me for many years. I knew when I was sworn in, sixteen years ago, that my services and if necessary my life were at the disposal of the country; no amount of rationalization, no amount of reassurance from my friends, could still my private belief that I ought to be up and doing at this time.

Heinlein wanted to be of service to his country. He wanted a ship under his feet, men to command, and a war to fight. That’s what he’d always craved.

On December 7, as soon as Heinlein heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, he leaped up to call the Navy to tell them where he was and that he was available. (And next he called John Campbell.)

First thing the following morning, December 8, Heinlein presented himself at San Pedro Naval Base and demanded a physical. He was rejected both for his history of tuberculosis and for his eyesight. The Navy couldn't use him.

He persisted, however. He wouldn't take no for an answer. He tried one approach after another. He’d even tell Campbell, "I have been circulating around the offices of local naval activities, trying to find someone who wants me bad enough to send a dispatch asking for me. No luck so far."

For some weeks or even a month thereafter he would continue to speak of his expectation of "sea orders." But the hope would seem increasingly forced.

In fact, the last word had been spoken on December 8. The Navy didn't want him. And for all his pulling of strings, and prowling from office to office, and wishful words, Heinlein must have known it early.

What a bitter pill that was.

All these months of carefully maintained ambivalence, all these months of pouring his heart out in fiction while telling others that his stories were only hackwork and cotton candy, had been his way of maintaining his grip on his dream that the oncoming war would redeem all the wasted years and wrong turns and fulfill his training, fulfill his love of the Navy, and fulfill his Wellsian Samurai self-image. And now it was all ended. He was never going to be what he most desired to be. He wasn't good enough.

How humiliating! How painful! In this moment of failure, rejection and self-loathing, Heinlein’s feelings threatened to overwhelm him. It hurt so damned much that in order to make it stop hurting, he determined he wasn't going to care.

He turned against both the Samurai ideal and the Quest which he identified with it, and in the most secret part of his heart, he resolved that henceforth -- like Hamilton Felix in his initial phase of alienation -- he was going to make his own whim and will his first concern. He would just please himself.

This negative dedication, this embrace of selfishness, found its expression in a letter to John Campbell dated December 21, 1941 -- just two weeks to the day after Pearl Harbor. Here Heinlein would acknowledge that Hamilton Felix’s problem was in fact his own personal problem. Hamilton Felix can't be a synthesist -- the one really important job in society. What does he do? But then Heinlein made it clear that he had arrived at a different solution for himself than he had for his imagined alter ego.

Forget all that he had just said about service and sacrifice. Forget about ambition. Forget about effort. Henceforth, Robert Heinlein was going to spend his life having fun.

Here are his words:

Some of Hamilton Felix’s point of view is autobiographical. I would like to have been a synthesist, but I am acutely aware that many of my characteristics are second-rate. I haven't quite got the memory, nor the integrating ability, nor the physical strength, nor the strength of character to do the job. I am not depressed about it, but I know my own shortcomings. I am sufficiently brilliant and sufficiently imaginative to realize acutely just how superficial my acquaintance with the world is and to know that I have not the health, ambition, nor years remaining to me to accomplish what I would like to accomplish. Don't discount this as false modesty...

I have just sufficient touch of genius to know that I am not a proper genius -- and I am not much interested in second prize. In the meantime, I expect to have quite a lot of fun and do somewhat less constructive work than I might, if I tried as hard as I could. That last is not quite correct. I simply don't have the ambition to try as hard as I might, nor quite the health. But I do have fun!

The liar! The poltroon! The dastard!

Pardon me, but I just can't help myself. I have too much respect for the Heinlein who was my teacher and too much love for the Heinlein who was my inspiration to have either patience or sympathy with the lesser man who reveals himself in these paragraphs. Here we can see all the ambivalence of the previous months suddenly crystalizing into a future commitment to a lifetime of having fun and sliding by. Here is the Quest abandoned, and the first decisive step taken toward the critic-avoiding, anger-simulating, friendship-trashing, bombshelter-building, doom-warning, solipsistic old sybarite that Heinlein eventually became.

You say that I’m making too much out of this? One wormy, craven, self-indulgent, self-excusing passage in a letter written while in the grip of a severe disappointment in the midst of a dark December all those years ago couldn't possibly be so decisive, so final, and so irrevocable an act as to blight and corrupt the course of a whole subsequent lifetime, could it? Because if it could, then what might you and I have done to ourselves yesterday without quite noticing that we were doing it?

And l answer you -- you and I had better watch our step, my friends. A devil’s bargain is a devil’s bargain at any time you strike one.

If you doubt that one was struck, imagine a different Heinlein, one who instead of resenting the bitter pill he was handed to swallow and reacting against it by determining to pick up his marbles and go home, had taken it like a man and drawn a lesson from it. He might have suddenly seen, in a way that he had never seen before, that being an officially designated Big Cheese didn't necessarily have anything to do with the Quest. And he might have resolved then and there that he was never never going to rest until his society accepted the validity of his question, "What is the meaning of life?", and put him to work addressing it.

Or he might even have concluded that there was no point at all in looking to society for validation and approval, but just buckled down to the task of asking relevant questions and seeing where they led. What a truly interesting and admirable Robert Heinlein we might have had then!

At the very least, we could have had a science fiction writer who really tried, who didn't boast of working only three months a year, and who kept pursuing the Quest. This humbler yet more ambitious Heinlein, perceiving his work not as mere silly games for idle people, but rather as the contemporary equivalent of Hamilton Felix’s participation in the Great Research, might have been capable of writing the truly adult, truly probing, truly mature SF that the Heinlein we know once dreamed of writing, but then never did.

Beyond that, however, if Heinlein had lived up to all that he had proposed or claimed for himself in the course of 1941, we might have had a true cultural treasure, a human being as original, useful and funky as H. G. Wells. Like Wells, Heinlein could have started as a failure and a tubercular case, and made his initial mark writing attention-catching SF stories. And then gone on from there to invent a career for himself. He could have written his book on monetary theory. And his other book on General Semantics. And many more.

Heinlein could have been so persistent, so resourceful, and so imaginative in posing his questions about the meaning of life that our society finally had to sigh, surrender, and admit them into its sphere of attention. That’s the kind of work that a synthesist might do, and it could easily have been Heinlein’s work.

And what a benefit it would be now to our presently disoriented and devalued society if it had as a resource the questions that Heinlein once posed and then dropped about human meaning and human goals rather than the bloated solipsistic fantasies that he did go on to write!

It is true that in his letter to Campbell of December 21, Heinlein protested that while he would have liked to have been a synthesist, he just didn't have the knowledge, the memory, the integrative ability, the character, or the quality of genius necessary to do it. And that he wasn't interested in competing for second prize.

But this has to be Heinlein’s greatest copout. His model of a synthesist was H. G. Wells, and Wells was no one with any obvious advantages over Heinlein. He was a person who had conspicuous limitations in background, health, stamina, education, personal appearance and character. He was even given to speaking of himself as a man with a very ordinary brain.

Wells was no Wellsian Samurai. He never had official recognition or a position that would allow him the right to shape society or to order men about. He just saw a job of work to be done of a nature that no one else saw, and did it. And the force of his agenda, the power of his questions, and his persistence in posing them made him a social force to be reckoned with in the early Twentieth Century.

Heinlein could have done the same -- or, rather, as well. He had the questions, he had the ability (do you doubt it?), and he had a vision of the job of synthesist. And it is these things that are crucial -- not some self-pitying phony baloney about perfect memory.

In the area of creative synthesis -- completely self-nominated work for which there is no precedent, no job description, no qualifying exam, and, of course, no recognition -- there can't be prizes, no first place or second. The work is all. And the fact is that Heinlein had the work in mind, but then elected not to do it.

Instead, however, he determined to hijack his gifts and his talents -- which were neither good enough for the Navy nor sufficient for him to be a synthesist, but were quite good enough to ease his way through life -- and then make a lifetime of pleasure for himself, erected on the firm foundation of his own second-ratedness!

What a burden to walk around with. No wonder Heinlein had to build his fences so high.

And no wonder, either, that Admiral Laning could have pegged Heinlein’s abandonment of the Quest to this very hour.

As an indication that Heinlein not only had made a wrong decision and knew it in his heart, but also felt that he had said too much, there is the evidence of his next letter to John Campbell in Grumbles from the Grave, dated January 4, 1942. Here Heinlein went out of his way to pick a fight with Campbell that was both so bitter and so falsely founded that if it did not completely end their friendship then and there, did such damage to their relationship that it would never again recover its former closeness.

Campbell’s offense was questioning the competence of the Navy high command in permitting the Pacific Fleet to be attacked in port and all but completely destroyed -- a matter about which good men entertain their doubts even to this day. Campbell also suggested that Heinlein’s thinking was compartmentalized, that while he could be thoughtfully critical about most subjects, he apparently could not be so about this one.

Heinlein’s answer to this was to wave the flag, to accuse Campbell of attempting to induce doubt in him, and to threaten him with the authority and power of the law. He wrote:

As an intelligent and educated man, you have a responsibility to your less gifted fellow citizens to be a steady and morale-building influence at this time. Your letters do not indicate that you are being such....  It may not have occurred to you that I am a member of the armed forces of the United States at the present moment awaiting orders, for sea duty I hope. Such comments as you have made to me might very well damage the morale of a member of the armed forces by shaking confidence in his superior officers. There happens to be a federal law forbidding any talk in wartime to a member of the armed forces which might tend to destroy morale in just that fashion -- a law passed by Congress and not just a departmental regulation. It so happens that I am sufficiently hardheaded, tough-minded, and conceited not to be much influenced by your opinion of the high command. I think I know more about the high command than you do. Nevertheless, you were not entitled to take the chance of shaking my confidence, my willingness to fight. And you should guard your talk in the future. It might, firsthand, secondhand, or thirdhand, influence some enlisted man who had not the armoring to his morale that years of indoctrination gives me.

l’ll stop there because you have the idea. Heinlein didn't stop, however. He continued in this vein.

Compartmentalized thinking? Yes -- to put it kindly. Cant? Yes. Bluster? You bet.

But then you have to ask why Heinlein might be afraid that his confidence and willingness to fight could be shakable. And why he was so adamant that the competence of the Navy high command should not be called into question.

Heinlein’s sea orders never did arrive. He never fought in the war. And it never actually made any difference to anybody’s willingness to fight that John W. Campbell and half of America thought the Navy brass had screwed up at Pearl Harbor.

Heinlein spent the war cooling his heels in Philadelphia, working at a job as a civilian engineer at the Navy Yard which his old service friends had arranged for him and bullying a young lsaac Asimov, whom he’d convinced to work there, too.

After the war, for lack of anything better to do, Heinlein took up science fiction writing again. But he didn't submit work to John Campbell. And the stories that he did write were not about the Quest, as before, but about lesser matters like performance of duty, the recovery of lost nerve, and dying with a song on one’s lips.

From there, he continued along the path he had laid out for himself in December 1941, until he became what he ultimately did become.

What an almost-great man that man was! And what a mellrooney he managed to make of himself.

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Published in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Number 38, October 1991.
Admiral Laning's manuscript copy of Heinlein's first novel, For Us, The Living was published as a book in 2004.

Background courtesy of Eos Development