Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




1.  The Question

    Science fiction is not a widely influential field, and it shows no real sign of becoming widely influential in the future.  Science fiction is considered minor stuff, not major.  It is writing that is sneered at, most usually by those who haven't read it, but simply know.
    If science fiction is minor, and I think it probably is, it is not because it is essentially trivial, like the endless number of locked-room mysteries, not because it is bound forever to repeat a single form, like the sonnet or Greek drama, and not even because most of its practitioners are second-rate or worse, though most of them are.
    Even the best science fiction is minor to the extent that most people are not prepared intellectually or emotionally to accept it.  I know people myself who are intelligent and educated, but to whom the difference between a planet and a star is simply tiresome if not incomprehensible.  I know many people who can, perhaps, look at tomorrow, but to whom the day after that is a frightening thing, not to be thought about.  Facts and a concern with change are the stuff that science fiction is made of; science fiction that ignores facts and change can be made less frightening and more popular, but inasmuch as it is superficial, stupid, false-to-fact, timid, foolish or, dull, it is minor in another and more important way, and it is certainly bad as science fiction.
    This is a book about the science fiction writing of Robert Heinlein, a man who has written almost nothing but science fiction.  Assuming that my estimate of the minor position of science fiction is correct, what is the sense in talking about a science fiction writer at all?  The narrator of "Man Overboard," a very good story by John Collier, says of himself:  "Though I may lack wealth and grace and charm, I do so in a special and superior way."  Both science fiction as a field and Robert Heinlein as a writer have their deficiencies, but both have virtues that make them worth cultivating in spite of any failings.
    I both write and read science fiction.  For me, its attraction lies not only in its ability to prepare us for what is to come, and by this I mean the one certain thing -- change -- but in the unique opportunity it offers for placing familiar things in unfamiliar contexts and unfamiliar things in familiar contexts, thereby yielding fresh insight and perspective.  The unfamiliar seen against the unfamiliar is all too apt to seem chaotic or irrelevant.  The familiar seen with the familiar is . . . merely familiar, the same thing seen for the thousandth time.  But the familiar seen with the unfamiliar illuminates.
    Ask the question seriously: what if a spaceship full of men with not a woman aboard were to return from the first human trip to the stars and find the Earth destroyed?  How would they react?  Ask the question seriously, as Poul Anderson has,* and you ask something about the basic elements of the human spirit.
    Say that to prevent the exploitation of a newly discovered species, a man were to father a child on a female of the species, and then kill the child in order to force the courts to decide whether or not it was murder.  The question is, what makes a man?  As done by Vercors,** this story was quiet and effective; I don't see how the question could have been posed as effectively -- or possibly even posed at all -- as something other than science fiction.

    Within the field of science fiction, Robert Heinlein is a major figure and has been almost from the time he began to write.  In 1941, only two years after his first story was published, he was invited to be Guest of Honor at the Third World Science Fiction Convention, held in Denver.  In L. Sprague de Camp's Science-Fiction Handbook, published in 1953, the eighteen leading writers of imaginative fiction at the time were asked to list the authors who had influenced their writings.  Only ten authors were mentioned by more than one of the eighteen, and of these ten, Robert Heinlein was the only modern writer.  In more recent years, the Hugo awards, named for Hugo Gernsback, were instituted to honor the best science fiction published each year.  Four Heinlein novels have won the prize, an unmatched record.
    Murray Leinster has been writing science fiction since 1919.  Theodore Sturgeon has been writing meaningful science fiction for as long as Heinlein.  However, no science fiction writer begins to approach Heinlein in volume, quality, popularity and influence over an equivalent period of time.
    This book is a personal reaction to Heinlein's writing.  I don't believe in the possibility of objective criticism.  To speak of objective criticism at all implies that there are eternal standards by which literature can be judged and that these can be known and applied.  Those things treated as facts in this book are, to the best of my knowledge, actually facts.  Those things which are not clearly intended as facts are my own prejudiced opinions.  Even though I may omit an "I think" from time to time, its existence is implied.  There are no final, settled judgments in this book, unchallengeable and sacrosanct.  There are only my opinions, subject to change, and justified as best I can manage.
    I have a great deal of respect for Heinlein's writing and I think it deserves to be examined.  Heinlein is beyond any question a writer of intelligence, skill, and depth.  To a great extent, I have taken the tack that his good points are clear and go without saying, and have tried to find his weak points and deficiencies as a writer instead.  This may lead to an imbalance, but it strikes me that it is better to be too harsh with someone that you admire than to be too gentle.
    In this book I have tried to examine Heinlein's individual stories, the general course of his career, and the individual elements and attitudes that make his voice his own.  I hope, too, that in the course of my discussion I can begin to make clear some of the reasons Heinlein could say of science fiction as he did in a lecture*** given at the University of Chicago in 1957:  "It is the only fictional medium capable of interpreting the changing, head-long rush of modern life."  His interest in this sort of possibility goes a long way toward explaining Heinlein's writing.

2. Robert Heinlein

     Before beginning the discussion of Heinlein's fiction, however, I'd like first to outline the bare facts of Heinlein's life.  In truth, this is all that anyone can do since Heinlein is a man who treasures his privacy.  I'm not at all certain of the relation of the private man to his writing, but for whatever perspective it lends, I think a general outline of his life should be given.
    Whatever else can be said about him, it is certain that Heinlein is a paradoxical man -- that is, if you can consider a political change from Roosevelt liberalism to Goldwater conservatism a paradoxical one.  Heinlein is a man of considerable personal charm and a man who has chosen to write and expose his ideas publicly, and at the same time a man who shuns the public and resents discussions of his writing.
    Heinlein is forcefully intelligent and strongly opinionated, and cannot stand to be disagreed with, even to the point of discarding friendships.  He has also been described by friends as sincere, kind and understanding.
    He is about five feet eleven inches tall with brown hair and brown eyes.  He is solidly built and carries himself with an erect, almost military bearing.  He has worn a trim mustache for years and is reputedly the sort of man who would always dress for dinner, even in the jungle.  Quite a while ago, L. Sprague de Camp described Heinlein as "theatrically handsome"; and if his weight is a little greater today and his hair much thinner, he is still distinguished in appearance.  He speaks fluently and precisely.  His voice is a strong, very even, somewhat nasal baritone with a good bit of Missouri left in it.
    Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri on July 7, 1907.  Butler is a small county seat about sixty-five miles south of Kansas City and Heinlein relatives remain there today.  The Heinlein family is of German, Irish and French extraction and has lived in America since 1750.
    Heinlein was one of seven children.  When he was quite young his family moved north to Kansas City.  He was educated in the Kansas City schools, and graduated from Central High School in Kansas City.  After a year at the University of Missouri, Heinlein received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.  At the academy he majored in naval science and was a champion swordsman.  He graduated in June 1929, standing twentieth in a class of 243, and apparently would have stood even higher except for a natural resistance to military discipline.
    From 1929 until August 1934, Heinlein served on active duty in the Navy.  He served as a line officer in destroyers and aircraft carriers, the latter having been recently introduced into the service.  While in the Navy, Heinlein married Leslyn McDonald (whose last name coupled with his own middle name later formed the basis of his principal pseudonym, Anson MacDonald).  In 1934, Heinlein retired from the Navy with the rank of lieutenant (jg) after he had developed tuberculosis
    Almost immediately, Heinlein entered UCLA to study mathematics and physics on the graduate level, but his health failed again and he dropped out of school.  He then spent about a year in Colorado recuperating.
    In the period from 1934 to 1939, Heinlein worked in silver mining in Colorado, sold real estate, dabbled in architecture, and worked in California politics, even running unsuccessfully for office.  Some of his experiences during the period were interesting: he has written that he once failed to sell a mine he owned because the man who was to buy it was tommy-gunned before the deal was closed.

    Heinlein had been a science fiction reader for a good many years.  In 1939, at a time when money was particularly short for him, he saw a story contest with a prize of $50 announced in one of the science fiction magazines.  Heinlein had a technical background, if no writing experience, and the thought of writing science fiction appealed to him.  He wrote a story in four days, and when it was done it looked good enough to him that he decided not to send it in to the contest, but to try it at better markets.  The story, "Life-Line," was taken by Astounding Science Fiction for $70, and Heinlein saw that as a sign and kept on writing.  By the time the United States became involved in World War II, Heinlein was probably the foremost science fiction writer in terms of production and popularity.
    As soon as the United States entered World War II, Heinlein stopped writing, though stories of his continued to appear through 1942.  From 1942 until 1945, he worked as a civilian engineer in the Materials Laboratory of the Naval Air Material Center at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  Two other science fiction writers, L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov, also worked there, the interviews that got them their jobs being arranged by Heinlein.  Heinlein has said that at first he was in charge of a high altitude laboratory in which work was later done in developing pressure suits.  The bulk of Heinlein's work during the war, however, involved projects in the test and design of naval aircraft materials, parts and accessories.
    After the end of the war, Heinlein returned to California where he began to write again.  It was at this time that he was divorced from his first wife.
    Before the war, Heinlein's writing had appeared in nothing but the science fiction pulp magazines.  After the war, he developed a number of new markets: the slick magazines, the juvenile book trade, and movies and television. Healy and McComas, in the introduction to the second edition of Adventures in Time and Space, made the statement that Heinlein was responsible for the invention of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, the strongest of the science fiction television series for children that were so common in the early 1950's -- unlike Captain Video, the show did not rely on action portions clipped from old Western movies to fill out its time.  Heinlein was also responsible for Destination Moon, a movie loosely based on Rocket Ship Galileo, one of his juvenile novels.  It was a beautiful movie, almost docu­mentary in style, with striking special effects that won it an Academy Award.  Heinlein both contributed technical advice and had a hand in the screenplay.  He was later involved in another movie, Project Moonbase, that was far less successful.
    Heinlein was married for the second time in October 1948, to Virginia Gerstenfeld, a WAVE officer, test engineer, and chemist, who had also worked in the Philadelphia Navy Yard during the Second World War.  Around 1950, Heinlein and his wife moved to Colorado Springs where Heinlein built a self-designed, futuristic house in the Broadmoor section.  The house was small but complete, even containing a private fallout shelter.  In 1966, family illness caused Heinlein to remove again to California.
    In recent years, Heinlein has limited himself to writing a single book a year and has spent his time in traveling.  He and his wife were in Kazakstan at the time that our U-2 plane was shot down.  In 1961, Heinlein was again the Guest of Honor at a World Science Fiction Convention -- the Nineteenth, held in Seattle.
    In addition to his science fiction writing, Heinlein has written mysteries, and stories for teenage girls, both of these under unrevealed pen names, but this has been a minor part of his production.  He has said that he finds ordinary fiction no pleasure to write compared with the fun and challenge of doing speculative fiction.

3. Heinlein's Career

    Aside from his commercial success, which has been considerable, perhaps the most important fact of Heinlein's career is his professionalism.  Heinlein has all three of the hallmarks of the professional: volume, consistency, and quality.
    When Heinlein began to write, he had talent, energy, and a wide range of knowledge, but he was lacking all the most elementary tools of writing, from story construction to even knowing how to run a typewriter.  Looking over Heinlein's early stories, it is possible to see an increasing grasp of technique.
    In an interview published in the January 1963 issue of Author and Journalist, Heinlein gave some details of his present work habits.  Perhaps the most interesting was his statement that he ordinarily only works three months in a year.  Only a professional could do that and still make a living.  It is partly the result of having worked steadily for twenty-five years and having an accumulation of material that continues to bring in income.  More centrally, however, it is a result of Heinlein's work habits: he begins in the afternoon and continues writing until he has a minimum of four pages of final copy, no matter how long it takes him.  Done day in and day out, this produces a book in three months.  I hope it doesn't sound easy.  It is incredibly difficult: it means working whether or not one feels like working, working whether or not one is sick, or whether company drops in, or the sink stops, or the cat has kittens.  It means professional discipline.
    Heinlein's professionalism is important not just in itself, or for what it reveals about Heinlein as an individual, but because it is the core of most that is good about Heinlein's writing.  In view of the central importance of his professionalism to him, Heinlein's partial abandonment of it in his third period becomes particularly interesting and significant.

    The course of Heinlein's writing career can be divided into three distinct periods:
    1939 through 1942:  This was the period of Heinlein's writing apprenticeship, and, strangely, also the period of his greatest influence as a writer.  This first period is very clearly separated from Heinlein's later work by World War II.
    1947 through 1958:  This was the period of Heinlein's best work.  Heinlein began the period in full mastery of his tools, and ended it with one of his best stories.
    1959 to the present:  This period has been a period of decline and of increasing alienation.  I mark the point of departure with the short story " 'All You Zombies--' " in the March 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
    The next three chapters deal in detail with each of Heinlein's periods.  The chapters that follow deal with Heinlein's methods of construction, his style, and the content of his fiction.

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*After Doomsday, Ballantine Books, New York, 1962.  [ Back ]
**You Shall Know Them, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1953.  [ Back ]
***Reprinted in The Science Fiction Novel, by Basil Davenport et al.  [ Back ]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee