Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




2.  1940

    Heinlein had seven stories published in 1940, including his first novel.  "Requiem," his third story, appeared in the January 1940 issue of Astounding.  In common with his first two stories, the central character is a man of more than common strength and ability.  He is D.D. Harriman, the financier who made the first trip to the moon possible, and aimed all along to go there himself.  He goes at last in this story, knowing as he does that the trip will almost certainly kill him.  "Requiem" takes on extra interest because ten years later in "The Man Who Sold the Moon" Heinlein wrote an account of the process by which Harriman had made that first trip to the moon possible.

    In several cases, Starship Troopers and Farnham's Freehold, for instance, the versions of Heinlein's novels that have appeared in serialization have been severely cut.  The book versions have been closer to Heinlein's intention.  Since it makes no sense to discuss an author in terms of the fragments that an editor is willing to print when we have something more complete, by and large when I talk about Heinlein's novels, I will discuss the book rather than the magazine version.
    However, the novels from Heinlein's first period were handled in a very different manner.  In these cases, what was originally published in the magazines was once considered complete in itself.  It was only after the war that Heinlein rewrote these stories for book publication, giving his afterthoughts, as it were.  With a story like this, it seems to me that both original and revised versions are interesting and worth discussing.  I want to make a comparison of this sort with Heinlein's first novel, "If This Goes On--," published originally in Astounding in February and March 1940.
    In his contribution to the symposium Of Worlds Beyond, published in 1947, Heinlein said that he knew of three general patterns for stories that were people centered: 1) boy-meets-girl, 2) The Little Tailor (that is, the man who succeeds against great odds, or its converse, the great man brought low), and 3) the-man-who-learns-better.  "If This Goes On--" manages to be all three of these at once, but it is mainly the story of a man who learns better.
    John Lyle, the narrator, is a legate (read "lieutenant") in the U.S. Army of the next century, serving in the personal guard of the Prophet Incarnate, head of a religious/military dictatorship that rules the United States.  Lyle falls in love with the wrong woman, one of the Prophet's handmaidens, who are known as Virgins.  (In the magazine version they probably deserve the name; in the book they don't.  In fact, in the book it is young Sister Judith's approaching loss of virginity that prompts Lyle's opposition to the Prophet.)  Because of the complications arising from this, Lyle joins an underground movement called the Cabal, opposed to the government.  He is found out, put to torture, and then helped to escape.  Lyle manages to make his way to the headquarters of the Cabal (located in a gigantic and unknown cave in southern Arizona), and takes part in the revolution that throws the Prophet out.
    There are two ways of narrating stories, generally speaking.  The first person is natural, easy to write, and convincing.  Its disadvantages are that the survival of the narrator to tell the tale is assured, thereby compromising the suspense of the story somewhat; the "I" of one story by an author is likely to sound like the "I" of his next; and, most important, the scope of the story is limited to exactly what the narrator knows or thinks, and that may be a very small range indeed.  The third-person narrative takes much more skill to handle and is less limited.  Its main disadvantage, particularly for the beginning writer, is simply that it does take more skill to handle, exactly what the beginner is lacking.
    It seems to be some sort of accepted notion that beginning writers do tend to use the first person, and writing manuals discourage it.  However, I suspect that the notion is wrong.  I think it is simply more likely that a beginning writer will sell his first-person stories and not his third-person stories.  Heinlein's first three stories were not told in the first person, but he chose to use it when he came to write his first extended story.  Damon Knight once drew an analogy for me between learning to write and learning to ride a bicycle.  These days, they have bicycles for beginners to learn on that are almost impossible to tip over.  You might say, to adapt Knight's analogy, that for his first long ride Heinlein used a learner bicycle.
    What I've told of the story so far may make it seem very romantic, and it is, particularly in the magazine version.  I think this is because in spite of many interesting and well-imagined touches, most of the basic situations are both melodramatic and innocent.  The book version is nearly twice as long as the original and most of the additions are simply a matter of fleshing out the story to make it less innocent and to tone down some of the melodrama.  The matter of the Virgins referred to above is one example.
    In the magazine version, John Lyle sees Sister Judith for exactly ten minutes on one single occasion before he decides true love has struck.  The next time they meet they fall into each other's arms.  (Then, less than halfway through the story, Judith is mislaid until she turns up again in the very last paragraph.)
    In the book, this is recognized as romantic.  John Lyle sees her twice, not once, before they decide they are in love, thus making the affair a little less sudden.  When Lyle in the magazine says, "Tell her I am hers to command!" -- exclamation point and all -- Lyle in the book adds, "It seems flamboyant in recollection."  In the book, when Judith is smuggled away to safety, it is in disguise as a load of gum boots, and when she is in safety in Mexico and separated from Lyle, sweet thing that she is -- sexual and brainless -- she finds another man and sends Lyle the standard letter saying so.  The love affair is handled in a far more objective and reasonable manner.
    As another example, in the early version of the story, Lyle, a lieutenant taking part in the final battle, sees that the commanding general is wounded and out of action, arbitrarily decides the officer next in command is too rigid to make the proper decisions, and usurps command.  He makes what he thinks are the proper decisions, and then and only then turns command over.  In the book, Lyle is a colonel at the time of the final battle and the over-rigidity of the next-in-command has been quite amply demonstrated.
    In both versions, Lyle is shatteringly naive, but the additional material in the book makes his naiveté more believable, and puts it to good story use rather than just letting it be there as a great lump of indigestible material.
    The story, for all the additions, remains melodramatic since the melodrama is too firmly imbedded in the story to be removed.  I suspect this is a result of make-it-up-as-you-go-along plotting.  I can't see any other reason for the coincidences and improbabilities of plot that exist all through the story.  Both here and in "Misfit," Heinlein has important characters who appear several times in central contexts before having names hung on them -- a sure sign of spear carriers who have been promoted to more important roles, and plotting-while-writing.  In other words, until he got there, Heinlein had no clear idea that he was going to use these people for the purposes he did.  In the longer version, Heinlein had his plot turns all set out before him when he started, so he could spend his time tying threads left dangling his first time through, something he was only partly successful in doing.
    With all the criticism I have made, it is possible to overlook the fact that "If This Goes On--" is interesting, even exciting, and thoroughly entertaining.  The story moves, it is about important things -- particularly the winning of liberty -- and it contains some very interesting notions.  It also reflects again Heinlein's continuing interest in how things are made -- power structures, revolutions, social situations, and machines.

    In May, Heinlein's first story outside Astounding was published.  It was entitled " 'Let There Be Light' " -- Heinlein has always been reasonably fond of quotations used as titles -- and was by "Lyle Monroe," a pseudonym Heinlein used on those five stories he had published outside of Astounding and Unknown, the Street and Smith magazines edited by John Campbell, during his first period and on one last story published in 1947.
    " 'Let There Be Light' " is the story of the invention of cold light -- light that wastes no energy by radiating heat -- and the discovery of an efficient way of using solar power.  The technical thinking is interesting and the pace of the story is exciting, but again the plotting is not first-rate.  Again, this is a case of starting with no more than an end in mind and writing until that end is reached, never mind how.  I would say that most probably this story was written in 1939 and kicked around a number of markets before finding a buyer, and this may explain why it is no advance on the stories that were published before it.
    On the other hand, "The Roads Must Roll," published in Astounding in June, is a definite improvement.  The viewpoint is again diffuse, changing fairly often in a short space, but the problem is a social/technical one -- combatting a transportation strike­ -- rather than boy-meets-girl, Little Tailor, or man-who-learns-better, and for this sort of problem a diffuse viewpoint is no real handicap.  The same sort of thing can be said for "Blowups Happen," from the September Astounding, which is concerned with psychoses in an atomic plant.  This kind of story might even be called the-problem-as-hero, and considering Heinlein's interest in process, he might well have been stuck doing these exclusively.  Fortunately, he moved on.

    "The Devil Makes the Law" was the lead novel in the September issue of Unknown, the fantasy companion to Astounding.  It was originally entitled "Magic, Inc.," and when it appeared in book form in 1950 was called that.  The reason for the title change was that the previous month's lead story in Unknown had had the word "magic" in the title, too, and the editor felt variety was called for.
    There are several ways of handling magic in a story.  One is to build a complete new world to contain it, as Jack Vance did brilliantly in The Dying Earth.  Another is to treat it as a strange element in our own world, something foreign to be coped with.  Heinlein chose a third method, that of integration of magic with our own familiar world.  In this treatment, sorcerers become licensed, and members of the Rotary Club, and magic becomes just another element of the economy.
    "Magic, Inc." is a professional piece of work -- high quality yard goods.  Though the characters are well-enough drawn, the process of dealing with magic in business and politics is central here.  The story is probably the most entertaining of Heinlein's first year, but it is no deeper than P.G. Wodehouse.

    "Coventry," in Astounding in July, is, by contrast, probably Heinlein's most important story from his first year of writing.  It is directly connected with "If This Goes On--," picking up the United States just about twenty-five years after the revolution that concludes the earlier story.
    The aim of the revolution was to provide a truly free society.  To that end, a society-wide hands-off treaty called "The Covenant" has been drawn up.  Those people who can't abide a free society are literally sent to Coventry -- in this case, a great enclosed reservation -- to work things out for themselves.  "Coventry" tells how a romantic, hyper-libertarian, rugged individualist chooses exile rather than mental treatment, and then slowly comes to realize his dependence on society.
    The only fault of the story is that this individual's story is interwoven with a melodramatic bit of counter-revolution and this obscures the main point sufficiently that when the counter-revolution is shown not to be quite the threat we were led to believe that it was, and we do at last clearly see the main point, there is some feeling of let-down.  Without the melodrama the story would have been stronger, but even so it remains a good piece of work.
    "Coventry" is interesting not just for itself, or because its point is the strongest that Heinlein had yet written on, but because the issue of liberty and libertarianism is one that Heinlein has returned to again and again through his years of writing.  In Chapter Seven there is a discussion of the evolution of Heinlein's thinking on the point.

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