Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




4. 1942

    There is always a lag between the time a story is written and the time it is published -- this is a constant bit of uncertainty in a writer's life and a factor I suspect most readers seldom have reason to be aware of.  It may take three months for a single magazine to make up its mind about a story, and five or ten magazines may see a story before it is finally bought.  After a story is accepted, it may take another year for it to be published.  Probably the usual minimum gap between writing and publishing is six months; the maximum, even for good stories, may be several years.  But there is always a lag.
    This explains why Heinlein stories were published in 1942 when he was working at the Naval Air Material Center in Philadelphia and not writing, and why no Heinlein stories were published in 1946 when he very definitely was writing.  The stories published in 1942 were written earlier.  (Incidentally, all of them came out under Heinlein's pen names; none were under his own name.)  And all the Heinlein stories written in 1946 were published later.
    In the case of " 'My Object All Sublime' " (Future, February 1942), I suspect that the lag was a long one.  It reads as though it were one of Heinlein's very earliest efforts, and it may well be that early story of his that he says was rejected thirteen times before it was purchased.
    The story involves an invisibility device explained in this manner:

"The principle is similar to total reflection.  I throw a prolate ellipsoid field about my body.  Light strikes the screen at any point, runs on the surface of the field for a hundred and eighty degrees, and departs at the antipodal point with its direction and intensity unchanged.  In effect, it makes a detour around me."
    This is vague enough to allow of varied interpretation, but, as given, it would seem that objects on the other side of the field would appear reversed.  A friend of mine, John Myers, a student in mathematics and logic who has examined the story, suggests they would be distorted and upside down as well.  But let that go.
    What does the inventor do with this fabulous device?  He uses it to hide himself while he stands on busy street corners and squirts synthetic skunk juice on drivers whose manners offend him. (The quotation-used-as-title is from The Mikado, and until I looked it up it seemed to have nothing to do with the story.  It turns out that the sublime object is "to make the punishment fit the crime."  Heinlein must have something against bad drivers -- in Starship Troopers, a more recent novel, he has them flogged.  Serves 'em right, too, I say.)  Beyond this, the story is told in a curious mixture of the past and present tenses, with changes from one to the other within single sentences.  For clear and obvious reasons the story has never been reprinted.
    In passing, I might add that the story illustration is also bad, more amateurish than anything else.  The artist thereafter gave up art for other pursuits, turning into an author, critic, and anthologist of note.  His name is Damon Knight.

    "Goldfish Bowl" appeared in Astounding in March.  Two waterspouts capped by a cloud appear near Hawaii -- water goes up one spout and down the other.  These curiosities, along with ball lightning, mysterious disappearances, and a number of other strange phenomena, all turn out to be the doing of never-seen atmospheric intelligences as superior to us as we are to fish.  The story is merely a statement of this situation, with the supposedly ironic comparison of us to fish hammered home at the end.  However no resolution of the situation is offered, and 10,000 words seem a lot to spend on a dead irony.  This is more yard goods, the sort of thing that can be turned out by the ream without thinking.  It's readable stuff, but no more than that.

    "Pied Piper" is another never-reprinted Lyle Monroe story, this time from the March 1942 Astonishing, and is another candidate for the Rejected Thirteen Times Sweepstakes.  The most truly astonishing thing about this issue (after a letter from one Isaac Azimov [sic] ) was that it cost only ten cents.  It seems almost incredible in these days when you can't even buy a comic book for that price.
    "Pied Piper" takes place in an undesignated country at an undefined time.  As the solution to a war, an elderly scientist kidnaps all the opposing country's children and when the chief general of his own country objects to a settlement of the war, the scientist disposes of him by shooting him off into another dimension.  It is all very bland and never-neverish.

    These first three stories are all lacking in significance and importance.  On the other hand, Heinlein's last three stories of 1942 not only have meanings that extend beyond the solution of a trivial situation, but are all thoroughly enjoyable reading.  Two of them, "Waldo" and Beyond This Horizon, mark a culmination to Heinlein's first period, being every bit as good as " '--We Also Walk Dogs' " and much longer and more involved, and much more significant.
    Unknown, Astounding's fantasy companion, published something more than forty novels and short novels in the four years of its existence, most of them still readable, and some quite excellent.  Of the whole lot, "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" remains one of my favorites for all that I can see that it is severely flawed.  Not everybody likes it.  P. Schuyler Miller considers it strictly a pot-boiler.  In some ways it is, but it was also written with an amount of involvement that offsets most of its deficiencies.
    Our world, in "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag," is explained as a piece of artwork done by a beginning student.  The "canvas" originally focused on some rather unpleasant creatures known as "the Sons of the Bird," but the teacher of our student found them lacking in appeal.  However, instead of painting them out, the student made the mistake of redoing them in the guise of the ordinary humans he peopled the world with.  Now this piece of artwork is being judged by art critics, appreciating it from the inside as men, who will decide whether or not it is worth preserving.
    This explanation comes as a denouement to the story.  The story proper involves the efforts of a private detective and his wife to find out for Jonathan Hoag exactly how it is that he spends his days.  He does not remember.  All he knows is that from time to time he finds a disturbing brown grime under his fingernails that he is convinced is dried blood.
    The Sons of the Bird, who lurk in that mysterious world behind mirrors, do not know the truth about the way the world was made.  Instead they have an elaborate mythology that says they were cast down and made subordinate in some ways to human beings (who are, according to this myth, their own creations) because of pride and insufficient cruelty.  They do know the grime under Hoag's finger­nails for what it is -- their own blood -- and know Hoag for their enemy, and consequently attempt to keep Randall, the detective, from finding out for Hoag what he wishes to know.
    Hoag is a schizophrenic for fair.  He is one of the art critics.  Part of his time is spent in dealing with the Sons of the Bird, and the rest of his time, unaware that he is anything but a man, unaware of his other activities, he spends in savoring life, in the process gathering the material for his critical other self to make its judgment.
    The frame for the story is a fine one.  The background is very neatly worked out.  The only trouble is that the interior logic of the story is full of holes.  This does not eliminate my liking for the story, but it does temper it.
    In the scene that opens the story, Man-Hoag has apparently been sent by Critic-Hoag to visit a doctor named Potbury, who is one of the Sons.  This is never explicitly said, but can be inferred.  The purpose of this visit is to frighten the Sons of the Bird.  Why it is necessary to frighten the Sons of the Bird is never explained.  The person who is really frightened by the visit is Man-Hoag -- he is frightened enough to consult a private detective when the doctor won't tell him what the grime under his nails is and when he cannot remember what he does with himself during the day.  Since Critic-Hoag can apparently turn Man-Hoag on and off as he pleases, there is no reason for Man-Hoag to be allowed to be frightened except that it suits Heinlein's purposes to bring in Edward Randall and his wife, and he cannot do this unless Hoag is frightened enough to consult a detective.
    Why is Potiphar Potbury, a Son of the Bird, also a doctor?  This is not explained.  More important, why do the Sons of the Bird spend their time persecuting the Randalls, who are doing them no harm, when they really ought to be out persecuting Jonathan Hoag, who is?
    If Heinlein had bothered to spend fifty more pages in tying loose ends and developing his story further, it might have been as good as anything he has ever done.  As it is, it does have several things to recommend it: the Sons of the Bird; the student, his teacher and the art critics; a very nicely developed relationship between Randall and his wife -- one of the very few comfortable inter-sexual relationships Heinlein has ever described; and a nice appreciation of a number of simple pleasures.  Looking back, the story itself has no reason for being -- the Sons of the Bird would logically have been eliminated before the story started.  The story doesn't make any sense at all from that point of view, but it does mean something.
    Damon Knight once wrote:*

It's unhappily true that most current science fiction stories neither make sense nor mean anything; but it occurs to me that as long as we're asking, we may as well ask for what we really want -- the story, now nearly extinct, which does both.
    "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" does mean something -- and unusually for Heinlein, its meaning is on an emotional rather than an intellectual level -- but it does not make any good sense at all.  I wish it did.

    The distinction between fantasy and science fiction is one that is usually made by saying, "Well, you know what I mean," and usually we do.  There are a great number of formulations of the distinction extant, but none of them has ever been generally adopted.  More than that, however, we don't even have a generally accepted definition of what science fiction is before we go into comparisons of it and other things.  (My favorite definition of science fiction, by the way, is "Science fiction means what we point to when we say it," which, of course, is a backhanded way of saying, "Well, you know what I mean.")  What we do have is a great big mess, and the reason we have it is that we insist on slapping labels on things.  Not only do we not have a generally accepted distinction between fantasy and science fiction, I doubt that we ever will.
    The reason for bringing up the topic is an Anson MacDonald story entitled "Waldo" in the August 1942 issue of Astounding.  Beyond the fact that it was originally published in a science fiction magazine, I am certain that this is a science fiction story rather than a fantasy story, but I am very far from certain that I can satisfactorily explain why.
    The basic elements of "Waldo" are four: a Pennsylvania hex doctor who may be well over a hundred years old and whose magic actually works; "deKalb power receptors" that have suddenly ceased to operate properly though nothing seems to be wrong with them; a rising incidence of general myasthenia -- abnormal muscular weakness and fatigue -- in the population; and Waldo, an engineering genius and paranoid misanthrope afflicted by myasthenia gravis** who lives in a satellite home popularly known as "Wheelchair."  Heinlein has managed to tie this all together into a fascinating whole.
    The deKalbs are failing, and their proprietors, North American Power-Air Co., are worried.  They can't lick the problem and are convinced that the only man who might is Waldo.  However, the company once cut Waldo out of some patents that he is convinced should have been his and they are far from sure that he will do any further business with them.
    Dr. Gus Grimes, Waldo's personal physician since childhood and his only friend, is worried by the rise of myasthenia in the population and is convinced that background radiation has something to do with it.  He wants Waldo to take on the problem of the failing deKalbs and not only work out a solution, but find one that will necessitate cutting down the amount of general radiation.
    Waldo's own problem is his sickness and his misanthropy, the misanthropy being a direct result of his sickness.  His success is a matter of over-compensation, and the more successful he is the more alienated he becomes, thus leaving him with that much more to compensate for.
    Gramps Schneider, the Pennsylvania hex doctor, has no problems except that he has no particular love for machines and complicated living.  He is, however, the key to the whole situation.  Waldo takes on NAPA's problem, but then is unable to solve it, let alone in the manner Dr. Grimes would prefer.  For all that he can tell, the machines ought to be working properly.  Gramps Schneider, however, can fix the machines, and he is able to give Waldo the insights by which he solves the problem of the failing deKalbs, the problem of radiation and general myasthenia, and the problem of his own sickness.
    Completely aside from the main problem, Heinlein has included some truly lovely conceits.  The best-known of these are the machines known as "waldoes," devices for remote control manipulation.  Similar machines are in commercial use today, first developed for handling radioactive material, and are generally known as waldoes after those described in the story.  But this is not the only ingenious idea given.  Waldo's satellite home and the behavior of Waldo's pets, a canary and a mastiff, raised from birth in free fall, are particularly well-imagined.  None of this is necessary to the story, but it does add richness to it.
    The reason for my original puzzlement as to how "Waldo" should be categorized -- science fiction or fantasy -- is the nature of the solution to the various given problems.  It turns out that the deKalbs are failing because their operators are thinking negative thoughts.  Gramps Schneider fixes the deKalbs by reaching for power into the "Other World."  And Waldo fixes both himself and the failing deKalbs by leaming to reach for power into the Other World, too.
    More than this, Waldo becomes convinced that the various magical arts are all aborted sciences, abandoned before they had been made clear; that the world has been made what it is by minds thinking it so (the world was flat until geographers decided it was round, and the deKalbs worked because their operators thought they would); that the Other World does exist; and that he, Waldo, can make the Other World what he wants it to be, for all time, by deciding its nature and convincing everybody else of his ideas.
    Throughout much of his fiction, Heinlein has injected bits of mysticism, just as he did here in "Waldo." What keeps "Waldo" and most of the others from being fantasies, it seems to me, is his approach to the mysticism.  "Magic, Inc." is a fantasy because the answers are cut-and-dried.  Magic does work, period.  Do thus-and­such and thus-and-thus will result.  In "Waldo," we only know one thing for certain: there is something out there, call it the "Other World" for convenience, from which power can be siphoned.  All the rest is Waldo's tentative construction of the state of affairs -- he may be right or he may be wrong, but we have no certain way of knowing.  In part, this is Heinlein's way of saying, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy," and that is a far from illegitimate thing for a science fiction story to say.  In part, too, I think this derives from Heinlein's background and training.  As a writer, he remains very much an engineer.  His interest has always been not so much in why things work as in how they work, and as long as he exposits the "how" clearly, he is willing to leave the "why" as a tentative answer.
    If the answers Heinlein were to give were not tentative, if the story said, "And this is exactly what those things in heaven and earth you haven't dreamt of are," and these answers fall outside what we think the world to be like, the story would be a fantasy.  As long as the answers remain tentative, as in "Waldo," the story remains one that I can point to when I say "science fiction," even though the answers may again be ones that fall outside the bounds of what we think the world to be like.

    I have an affection for unified plots, stories in which everything ties together at the end.  I don't mind an intriguing question or two left for the reader to answer, but I do mind questions that arise only because the writer is a sloppy craftsman.  Certainly too many science fiction stories written these days take one single mangy idea and stretch and stretch it, remaining unified out of ennui.  On the other hand, I have almost as much dislike for old A.E. van Vogt stories that were so full of ideas that they leaked out the sides.  Van Vogt used to have a conscious policy of introducing at least one new idea every 800 words.  This gave his stories movement, but it never gave them unity, and it was always possible to fill a wheelbarrow with ideas proposed and then half-used and forgotten.
    Many of Robert Heinlein's early stories were like this.  For example, here is Alva Rogers*** on Methuselah's Children:  "Full of adventure, conflict, romance, and enough casually tossed-off ideas to serve as the basis for a half-dozen other stories."  This is true, but I'm not quite as pleased with the situation as Rogers is.  I wish Heinlein had written those other half-dozen stories and put his ideas to better use.  I think this is one of the things he came to realize during his apprenticeship.
    Beyond This Horizon (Astounding, April and May 1942) probably has as much of a Roman candle plot, shooting off in all directions, as Heinlein ever wrote.  However, in spite of all that I have said about ununified plots, it remains one of my two favorite Heinlein stories.
    The ostensible central theme of Beyond This Horizon concerns a young man who is the end product of four generations of genetic control concentrating on producing a man of all-around competence.  The respects in which he is superior to the majority of men are intended to be eventually conserved in the whole race; the hero, Hamilton Felix, is something of a pilot project.  However, he sees no reason to have children.  In fact, he refuses to unless he can have it demonstrated to him what, if any, purpose there is to human existence.  As one character in the book says when another objects that this is a stupid question:  "He did not ask it stupidly."  And he does not.
    Two things cause him to change his mind.  One is a revolution that he sees from the seamy side.  A group of social misfits attempt to overturn society and put things the way they ought to be with " 'true men -- supermen -- sitting on top (that's themselves) and the rest of the population bred to fit requirements.' "  The second thing that causes him to change his mind is an agreement by his society that it might be worthwhile to investigate philosophical problems on a scientific basis -- including the possibility of survival after death, which Hamilton takes to be the one satisfactory answer to his question.  (Though exactly why he does is not clear to me.  The simple survival of the soul -- the knowledge that you will exist longer than you originally thought you would -- does not strike me as a worthwhile purpose for existence).  But this agreement to investigate does satisfy Hamilton and he becomes willing to father the children his society desires him to have.
    This action covers two-thirds of the book, and several months in time, and was the logical place to stop.  However, Heinlein strings his story out for another five years or so, skimmed over in perhaps 20,000 words.  This covers Hamilton's marriage, his first two children, and an indication that reincarnation, whether or not the research ever demonstrates it, does exist as a fact.
    I said this was the ostensible central theme, because I don't believe that this is what the story is really about.  I think this is another case, rather, of a story about process.  This society is fascinating, and though Hamilton is the central character if anyone is, there is a great deal of switching viewpoints to give us various views of the society in action.  The society is a libertarian one: to be a first-class citizen you must wear a gun, and if you aren't careful about your manners, you must be prepared to use it.  Social conventions are gone into in detail, but beyond this, Heinlein deals with two love stories, eugenics, finance, and even adds a dash of satire with a young man from 1926 found in a newly-opened "level-entropy field" who makes a living for himself by setting up leagues of professional football teams.  The revolution is not the central issue in Beyond This Horizon -- revolutions and high level double-dealing have ruined more science fiction novels than I care to count, but this is not one of them.  The central issue is day-to-day living in a truly strange society.  That this is so is the only reason that Heinlein could get away with writing on as long as he does after his main story line has run out.  That this is so is the only reason that Heinlein could get away with writing about so many different things without having his story fall apart.  Hamilton Felix is an interesting character, but it is his society that is Heinlein's hero and Hamilton is only our guide through it.
    I still retain my affection for unified plots. Beyond This Horizon doesn't have one, but I still find it thoroughly delightful.  Call it an exception.

Bibliography -- Heinlein's First Period

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Note:  The print edition of Heinlein in Dimension is still available from Advent:Publishers, PO Box A3228, Chicago, IL 60690 or (autographed) from me .  $17 for a hardcover copy, $10 for a paperback.  I charge for shipping and handling, Advent doesn't.
    For those who may be interested, the circumstances surrounding the writing of this book are described elsewhere at this site, in The Story of Heinlein in Dimension.

*In Search of Wonder, 2nd ed., p. 130.  [ Back ]
**Encyclopedia Britannica: "There is a progressive increase in the fatigability of the muscular system until death results from inability of the heart muscle to continue its work."  [ Back ]
***A Requiem for Astounding, p. 94.  [ Back ]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee