Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




3. 1941

    John W. Campbell, Jr. became editor of Astounding in September 1937 and still edits it today under its present title, Analog. Whatever else may be said about this strange, overwhelming man, whenever he has cared to put his considerable energies into his editing -- some­thing he has never done consistently -- there have been few editors to equal him.  Perhaps his most successful period was in his first years as editor.  He found new writers -- Heinlein, Asimov, de Camp, and Sturgeon -- guided them, and with their aid presented a new, more scientific, more adult science fiction.  Most often, up until then, scientific science fiction had been plain dull and adventure science fiction had been childish.  Campbell pushed for a higher standard.  How much any editor is responsible for the work of his writers is always open to question.  What is unquestionable is that Campbell did offer an opportunity to his writers and did buy good work when he saw it.  That in itself is considerable to take credit for.
    Astounding developed immensely from the time that Campbell became editor until the advent of World War II, which took away most of his best writers.  This period is now looked back on by fond science fiction fans as a Golden Age.  You can tell it was a Golden Age -- many of the stories of the period are still readable.
    This period coincided with Heinlein's finding his own stride.  If 1941 was the peak of the Golden Age in Astounding, part of the reason may be that some twenty per cent or better of the words in Astounding that year were written by Robert Heinlein under three names.
    I said that the stories were readable, and that is all I meant to say.  In terms of the body of science fiction or the body of pulp literature as a whole, perhaps some of these have importance.  In terms of literature as a whole, many of even the best suffer from bad writing and melodramatic thinking.  No matter how good the ideas, no matter how well-presented they are, no matter how well-told the story is, a novel about seven men using super-science to stage a war that throws out 400,000,000 invaders, who are, of course, PanAsians -- the old Yellow Peril again -- is bound to suffer simply because its issues are oversimplified to an incredible degree.  It is easy to read a story like this but very hard to take it seriously.
    The example just given is an actual novel, Sixth Column, serialized in the January, February, and March 1941 issues of Astounding.  The author was given as "Anson MacDonald," but the name was a Heinlein pseudonym.  All of Heinlein's stories in Astounding up to this point had been fitted into a common pattern of "Future History."  He apparently felt -- for the usual wrong reasons -- that he ought to reserve the Heinlein name for those stories that could be fitted into this pattern.
    Using pen names for their own sake usually makes no particular sense.  A writer's name and record is about all that he owns in the way of credentials, and whatever he publishes under pen names is lost opportunity to add to the name and record.  I have used a pen name myself, but would not do it again.
    Charting the course of Heinlein's pen names is a confusing business since he never was very consistent about it.  For all that Emerson had it that "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," there is such a thing as unfoolish consistency.
    The Heinlein pen names I am aware of are Anson MacDonald, Lyle Monroe, Caleb Saunders, John Riverside and Simon York.  The first name derives from his first wife's maiden name and his own middle name.  The "Lyle" of Lyle Monroe was his mother's maiden name.  Caleb was the first name of a good friend of Heinlein's at Annapolis, Caleb Laning, with whom he collaborated on a 1947 Collier's article and to whom he dedicated Beyond This Horizon.  "Riverside" comes from Riverside, California.  I have no idea where Simon York comes from -- in fact, I have no idea of the stories the name was used on except that they were not science fiction.
    By and large, Heinlein used his own name on Future History stories in Astounding, and on stories in Unknown.  "Anson MacDonald" was used on non-Future History stories in Astounding.  "Lyle Monroe" was used on stories that appeared outside of Astounding and Unknown.
    However, the Heinlein name was used on the story " 'And He Built a Crooked House,' " originally fitted into the Future History, but not included when all the stories of the series were eventually collected.  And " '--We Also Walk Dogs' " by Anson MacDonald was included in the Future History.
    Who Anson MacDonald and Lyle Monroe actually were was not kept a very close secret.  Anson MacDonald was exposed when the upcoming story "By His Bootstraps" was announced one month as being by Heinlein, and then appeared under the MacDonald name.  Lyle Monroe, that writer for second-rate magazines, was exposed in May 1941, when John Campbell printed a list of the Future History stories to date and included " 'Let There Be Light.' "
    Anson  MacDonald was Heinlein's pen name for non-Future History stories in Astounding, but in September 1941, John Campbell printed a story there by "Caleb Saunders" entitled "Elsewhere."  In a letter to me, Campbell said simply that this was the name that Heinlein placed on the manuscript without explanation to him.
    Heinlein also had a novel in Unknown Worlds (formerly Unknown) in 1942 under the name of John Riverside, a name that he planned to use on fantasy stories from then on, the war and the demise of Unknown Worlds interfering.
    In the end, then, the Riverside and Saunders names were each used just once.  I'm not certain of the Simon York name, but I suspect that it may have been used on the mystery stories Heinlein was writing in the 1940's.
    I hope this has been even slightly clear.  If it has not been, take it as further evidence that the use of numerous pen names is a dead end.  In any case, Heinlein dropped his pen names after the war, which has made things much simpler.

    " 'And He Built a Crooked House' " -- Astounding, February 1941 -- is a bit of mathematical foolery about the building of a house in the shape of an unfolded tesseract -- a super-cube.  An earthquake jolts it into its "normal" shape, and it is hide-and-seek in the fourth dimension from then on.  This brings me to a point about Heinlein's writing.  " 'And He Built a Crooked House' " is good fun, but it is not funny.  This is true of most, if not all, Heinlein stories.
    This seems to be the time for minor points, so perhaps I should mention another, a constant minor irritation noticeable in early Heinlein stories.  This is his habit of achieving "realistic" dialogue by the use of contorted spellings, mental lapses, and slang.  Graduate architects who are made to say things like "Huh?  Wha' d'ju say?" make my flesh crawl.  This may well be a carry-over from pulp magazine conventions, and even a little of it is an intrusion and a distraction.
    "Logic of Empire," in the March Astounding, is, like "Coventry," a pure example of the man who learns better.  In this case, the man is a lawyer who doubts that there is slavery on Venus and then has his nose rubbed in the fact.
    "Beyond Doubt" -- Astonishing, April 1941 -- was a collaboration between Lyle Monroe and Elma Wentz.  It explains the Easter Island monoliths as political caricatures in Mu.  The story, Heinlein's only fictional collaboration, is tedious and trivial and of interest only to Atlantis and Lemuria fans.  The collaboration, I suspect, was done as a favor, and the story has not been reprinted in any Heinlein collection.
    "Solution Unsatisfactory" in the May Astounding, is about atomic war and is more dramatized essay than story.  Heinlein had the benefit of knowing Dr. Robert Cornog, a physicist who was later part of the Manhattan Project, and who helped draw Heinlein's attention to some of the possibilities of atomic power.  The story was somewhat in advance of its time, but as a work of fiction it isn't at all important.

    I sometimes think that all writers have something of the solipsist about them, particularly science fiction writers.  Certainly it takes a touch of strange for a man to spend his time creating his own worlds.  Beyond this, however, Heinlein has always shown an interest in solipsism as a theme.  This, too, is discussed at some length in Chapter Seven.
    "They," Heinlein's second story in Unknown, published in April 1941, is about a man in an insane asylum who is either suffering from delusions of persecution or is an immortal being about whom the universe centers, his attention being distracted from this fact by a set of antagonists.  The second of these turns out to be the case.  This story has been a staple item for horror anthologists, but I am not at all sure why.  The situation is an uncomfortable one, but in an odd way it is a reassuring one at the same time.  The central character has both purpose and importance, something that most of us are less than certain of, and he is in no danger of suffering physical harm.  He suffers only from being distracted.
    This story and " '--We Also Walk Dogs' " (Astounding, July) are the two most important stories in Heinlein's second year of writing.  "They" is important because of its theme and because it is a good story; " '--We Also Walk Dogs' " is important because it is a very successful story.  It is a story of a process rather than of people, but the story is short, the process is clearly defined, and the story was obviously plotted before it was written.  Since it combines intelligent thinking, interest, meaning and plot, I think it can stand as a demonstration that Heinlein had by this time learned most of the technical skills that he was lacking when he first began to write.
    The idea for the story is a good one -- a business, "General Services," that will do anything, with an emphasis on an ability to find answers for difficult situations.  Heinlein begins the story by showing how the company handles a standard problem -- a rich, useless woman torn between a dinner party and being at the bedside of her son who has broken his leg half a continent away playing polo.  Then he presents the company with a real problem to solve: arranging physical circumstances so that representatives of every intelligent race in the Solar System can be comfortable at a conference on Earth.  If this were all, the story would be trivial, but the solution is given not in terms of licking the physical problem, but in terms of getting people to be willing to lick the problem, a different thing altogether.

    It may sound obvious, but stories have to be judged in terms of what they are, not in terms of what we wish they might have been.  A short story simply cannot be judged on the same terms as a novel.  Though "Universe" and "Common Sense" (Astounding, May and October) are about as closely connected as two stories can be, though the second story develops from the first rather than merely ringing changes on it, though the stories have recently been published together under a common title (Orphans of the Sky, Putnam, 1964), they do not add up to a novel.  In fact, they make a book only by courtesy of large type and wide margins; the book runs 187 pages and 45,000 words -- by contrast, Heinlein's 1941 novel Methuselah's Children, published in revised and expanded form by Gnome Press in 1958, contains close to 70,000 words in 188 pages, a much more normal length.  If the two stories together made a novel, it would be an extremely weak one.  Instead, what we have is one strong novelette, and another interesting but incredible one.
    "Universe," the first and stronger story, was reprinted in 1951 as part of an abortive line of ten-cent paperbacks that Dell was trying to establish.  The stories are about a ship to the stars that has taken the long way there.  Originally the ship was meant to arrive after the people in it had lived for several generations, since at the time it was launched no method had been found for exceeding the speed of light, but the original purposes have been lost sight of, and are remembered now only as allegory.
    "Common Sense" has a good deal of melodramatic hugger-mugger culminating in three men and their women leaving the giant ship and landing on a planet that conveniently happens to be close at hand.  Heinlein concludes with a catalog of the bits of luck that enable them to be successful.  The catalog is three pages long.  This is not excusable.  Life may be full of luck, but literature requires closer causal connections than life does, and a list of lucky happenings that goes on for three pages is just too much to accept.  "Universe" is much better.  It is simply the story of one man finding out the real nature of the ship, being disbelieved, and then demonstrating that nature to another.  That is a real story.  The background and even the plot of this story have been used by any number of writers since Heinlein first set it down.  It is too bad that "Common Sense" was ever written -- its very existence diminishes "Universe."

    Methuselah's Children, serialized in Astounding in July, August, and September, involves a sister ship to the one in Orphans of the Sky.  Both stories are set against the common background of the Future History.  However, the crew of this particular ship is less susceptible to forgetting its purposes than the crew in Orphans of the Sky since all its members are extremely long-lived, are fleeing from persecution, and have the benefit of a far more efficient propulsion system whipped up in a spare moment by Andrew Jackson Libby, the young genius from "Misfit," now grown up.
    This story was originally to be called While the Evil Days Come Not.  In his discussion of Heinlein's Future History that appeared in the May 1941 Astounding, John Campbell mentioned the novel under this title and said the title would probably be changed before the story was published.  The tentative title stems from a quotation from Ecclesiastes used as a password on the second page of the story.  The final title does seem better.
    These children of Methuselah are a group of families who, starting in 1874, have been interbred to produce descendants who live up to three times as long as most people.  They make the mistake of letting their presence in the population be known, and the Covenant -- remember that? -- is suspended for an all-out hunting season on them.  The general reaction seems to be, "The rats!  They won't tell us their secret.  Kill!"  The poor long-lived people, who have no secret, see nothing to do but run.  They grab a ship that is being readied for an interstellar expedition, spend time among the stars, and then come home to find that the normal people have discovered the secret that never existed and have solved the problem of aging for everybody.
    There are a number of small changes from magazine to book, mostly a matter of detail and name changes.  One of these turns an important female character's name from Risling to Sperling.  George Price of Advent suggests that this was done to avoid association with Rhysling, the blind singer in Heinlein's later story "The Green Hills of Earth," and this seems likely to me.
    In many ways this is an important book.  For one, its main theme, the problem of escaping death, is one that keeps cropping up in Heinlein stories, and for another, an amazing number of brilliant ideas are tossed out along the way.  Still, for some reason, as often as I have read the story I cannot feel close to it.  I suspect that the reason is that the story belongs to 100,000 people as a group, not to any individual, and I cannot identify with a nation.  What happens is interesting but lacks all personal meaning.

    Heinlein's last three stories of 1941 are all less worthwhile, not because they aren't entertaining, but because they aren't about anything important.  Setting forth artificial problems and then inventing artificial solutions to them is not what makes science fiction worth reading.
    "By His Bootstraps" (Astounding, October) is convincing evidence that Heinlein had mastered the art of planning his stories.  It is an intricate bit of foolery involving a man's meeting himself half a dozen times along the path from Time A to Time B.  It is an amusing set piece, logical and beautifully worked out.
    "Elsewhere" (Astounding, September) also involves traveling in time.  This is a mystical story in which traveling to any time or any possibility is simply a matter of thinking properly.  This is a truly vapid story and I'm surprised that Heinlein wrote it, and even more surprised that John Campbell bought and printed it.
    A Heinlein character once said:*

    "Did you ever eat that cotton candy they sell at fairs?  Well, philosophy is like that -- it looks as if it were really something, and it's awful pretty, and it tastes sweet, but when you go to bite it you can't get your teeth into it, and when you try to swallow, there isn't anything there.  Philosophy is word-chasing, as significant as a puppy chasing its tail."
    She might have been talking instead about these last two stories.  The difference between them is that "By His Bootstraps" is tightly constructed, as intricate as a bit of musical comedy choreography, and arrives at a destination, while "Elsewhere" slops every which way and simply ends.  Neither has anything to get your teeth into.
    The title "Lost Legion" (Super Science, November) has nothing obvious to do with the story to which it is attached, which has some nice young people developing super powers under the tutelage of Ambrose Bierce.  Heinlein later included it in one of his collections under the title "Lost Legacy," which is more apt.  The reason for the earlier title seems to have been nothing more than editorial idiocy.
    The story has much to recommend it.  It is interesting and entertaining, and the people in it do things for recognizable reasons.  Still, I am not satisfied for two reasons.  The story conflict is given by Heinlein as being a struggle between pure good and pure evil, and I can't feel comfortable with that, even in a slight bit of popular fiction.  Secondly, this is a parapsychology story where the conflict is solved by parapsychology.  The other side thinks evil thoughts and does evil deeds, so we blast them down mentally, as much as if to say, "Look, Ma, no hands."  A story like this in which parapsychology is everything -- meat, dressing, salad, and dessert -- is an artificial business artificially resolved, like a snipe hunt in which the hunter comes back with a snipe in his bag.

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*"Lost Legacy."  Assignment in Eternity, Fantasy Press ed., p. 140.  [ Back ]

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