Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



4. 1949

    In 1949, Heinlein published another handful of short stories, one of his best books, and a very odd short novel that is still considered controversial. This flurry of short stories was Heinlein's last -- he has had very few shorts published since then. Science fiction, because of its strangeness, needs room for development, and Robert Heinlein's strength has always been in his ability to develop backgrounds -- two reasons, perhaps, why Heinlein has never been at his most effective in the short story form. I don't propose to spend much space on Heinlein's shorts, but I do want to talk at some length about his juvenile novel Red Planet and his short novel "Gulf."
    "Our Fair City" is a fantasy, an amiable trifle involving a corrupt city government, a crusading reporter, and a sentient whirlwind named Kitten.  Judging from the tone of the story, I suspect that it was written originally for Unknown Worlds and only wound up in the January 1949 issue of Weird Tales by default.
    "Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon" ran as a two-part serial in Boys' Life in April and May, but it is actually only about 13,000 words long.  It was written directly for Boys' Life and has neither been reprinted in a Heinlein collection nor anthologized.  The story is about a young Eagle Scout moving to Venus with his family, with a stopover on the Moon.  The boy's ambition is to become the first Triple Eagle in history and he has to use every moment of his three weeks on the Moon in order to qualify as a Moon-type Eagle.  He succeeds, but only after getting into trouble in company with another boy through mutual overconfidence, and then getting out again.
    "Delilah and the Space-Rigger" (Blue Book, December) is a smoothly-written but empty little bit of nothing about women breaking into previously all-male space jobs.  The ending is a foregone conclusion:  Gloria wins her job.
    "The Long Watch" was published in the December 1949 American Legion Magazine, and is long on glory.  There seem to be signs in these last two stories that Heinlein was growing tired of writing simple, slick shorts and was making them more and more perfunctory.  In this case, there is a grab for power by military officers stationed on the Moon, forestalled by another young officer who disobeys orders, dismantles all the bombs and destroys them, saving the Earth and getting himself killed by radioactivity in the process.  The story derives from a few sentences in Space Cadet -- which leads to some interesting conclusions as to the nature of the Future History, a subject that will be discussed in a later chapter.  Probably the American Legion Magazine was the perfect place for this story.  I have no doubt the hero of this story is the model of the American Legion image.

    If Space Cadet was an advance over Rocket Ship Galileo, Heinlein's third juvenile, Red Planet, marked another and far greater advance.  It is primarily a boy's book rather than a book for both adults and youngsters like so many of Heinlein's later "juveniles," but it is a superlatively good boy's book.  It is more tightly plotted than his two earlier juvenile novels, and far more original.  The Nazis of Rocket Ship Galileo make it seem terribly dated.  Space Cadet, for all its virtues, is a very obvious story.  Red Planet is neither dated nor obvious.
    The backgrounds of Heinlein's earlier Scribner's books were conventional ones:  middle-class boys off on a toot to the Moon, and a boy passing through a military academy.  In the case of Red Planet, however, I think Heinlein started from an entirely different angle -- first he worked out social, economic and physical conditions, and then planned a story that might arise from them.  In many ways this is the most effective way of writing a science fiction story.  Backgrounds are always more difficult to invent than plots.  Once worked out, any detailed background can provide room for a number of plots, characters, and situations that are completely independent of each other, and any story that is set against such a detailed background automatically has a solid base.  On the other hand, stories in which backgrounds are constructed to suit plot vagaries often seem makeshift and hollow.
    For Red Planet, Heinlein began by accepting the "canals" of Dr. Percival Lowell -- one of Lowell's maps is even reproduced as an end paper in the book.  Heinlein then worked out a migratory pattern of life for human colonists in which, to avoid the one-hundred-below-zero Martian winter, they use ice scooters and boats to transport themselves from pole to pole and back again each year via the canals.  He worked out respiratory masks and suits with which to brave the climate.  He set forth the circumstances of life:  Mars is under the control of an Earth-based company with whom the colonists have contracts; various projects are under way to make Mars livable, including the major one of unlocking oxygen from the Martian sands.  Most important, he worked out the nature of the Martians the colonists have to deal with.  All of these things are central, and antecedent to the plot of the story.
    The story proper is actually composed of two interlocking lines.  One is the relations of the colonists with the proprietary company.  Things go awry partly because the people who control the company are back on Earth and have little conception of the actual conditions on Mars, and partly because in spite of the non-profit nature of the company, those who represent it on the spot are to a large extent merely pocket-fillers.  Because of ignorance and cupidity the attempt is made to halt the regular migrations, make the colonists sit tight through the winter, and import more colonists to take advantage of the unused buildings at the other pole.  The colonists learn about this before things have gone too far, rebel against the company and proclaim their independence so as not to have something similar happen again.
    The other major plot line is the relations of the colonists with the native Martians.  Though the colonists have been on Mars for some good while, the Martians are an enigma to them.  Before things are straightened out, the Martians are about to throw all humans off the planet in reaction to the wrong-headed actions of the proprietary company.  This is settled, too, but not before there seems a distinct possibility that the Martians may cut the Gordian knot -- by exterminating every human on Mars.
    It should be apparent that this plot is one that an adult novel could easily use.  Red Planet is a boy's book not because it is something less than good, but because we are for the most part given strictly a boy's-eye view of the revolution, and because the same boy is the first to discover that the Martians are much more complicated creatures than had been hitherto thought.
    In almost every one of Heinlein's juveniles, as in so many of his other stories, there are small seasonings of mysticism, perhaps included simply for flavor, perhaps to remind us again that there are more things in heaven and earth than can be explained by The World Book Encyclopedia.  In Rocket Ship Galileo the salt is evidence of long-extinct Lunarians; in Space Cadet it is an intimation that the asteroids were a self-destroyed fifth planet.  Mysticism, of course, can easily get out of control and ruin a story, but the only cases in which this has happened to Heinlein that I can think of are three early pieces -- "Beyond Doubt," his collaborative story set in Mu, "Elsewhen" and "Lost Legacy" -- and a fourth story we will come to a little later in this chapter, "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants."  In all four of these stories mysticism has been not just added value for your penny, but all that the penny buys. More often, though, as in "Waldo," Space Cadet, Red Planet, or any number of others, Heinlein has let his mysticism be an added value, with much greater success.  In Red Planet, the mysticism is the question of whether or not the Martian elders are ghosts, a notion that Heinlein expanded on considerably in his more recent novel, Stranger in a Strange Land.

    The November 1949 issue of Astounding was an odd one.  One year earlier, in the letter column of the November 1948 issue, a reader named Richard Hoen had written to criticize the articles and stories in the 1949 November issue.  John Campbell not only printed the letter, but purely for the fun of it did his best to make the actual issue identical to the one Hoen had written about.  Among the stories that had been discussed was a serial, "Gulf," by Anson MacDonald.
    "Gulf" did appear in the November 1949 issue, but since Heinlein had long since given up the MacDonald pen name the story came out under his own name.  It did appear as a serial, too, but only by courtesy since the story was really a short novel, comparable in length to "Waldo" and "Coventry" and "By His Bootstraps."  The story marked Heinlein's first appearance in Astounding since 1942.
    I have a very marked distaste for "Gulf."  It is a superficially exciting story and a continuously interesting one and this hides somewhat its sloppy construction, but I have the feeling that it was written in a hurry in order to be included in the surprise issue and the result was that first answers were used when better ones might have been arrived at.  As it is, it is shoddy not only in construction but in basic thinking.  If it had been written during Heinlein's period of apprenticeship, it could be dismissed in a short paragraph along with some of his other trial efforts, but coming as it does among his mature stories, it can't be set aside quite so easily.

    The gulf of the title is the narrow but distinct gap between ordinary men and a set of self-identified supermen.  The supermen do none of the silly things that the comic strip character or A.E. van Vogt's creations do -- they differ only in their ability to think.  Heinlein makes a very good case for this and I accept his reasoning.  However, I don't think he has demonstrated his case in action.
    The plot is as follows:  the hero, a security agent, is bringing back microfilmed plans and pictures of an ultimate weapon, "the nova effect," from the Moon.  He changes his appearance and identity on the way.  A bellhop approaches him and solicits him to stay at the New Age Hotel, a super-posh establishment.  The agent agrees, but then minutes later catches the bellhop's hand on his wallet, and is forced to dismiss him.
    Soon after, however, the agent discovers that the bellhop switched his wallet for a replica identical in cards and pictures, even down to a scratch and an inkstain.  The agent assumes he has been found out and that he had better get rid of the films while he can.  He mails them after disposing of several people who try to stop him, and then goes on to the New Age Hotel.  He is captured there by fake policemen, knocked out, and put into a cell with a solitaire-playing helicopter salesman called "Kettle Belly" Baldwin.  He and Baldwin find a way to communicate using the red cards of the two decks Baldwin is playing with.  Then the agent is taken out and briefly interrogated by an evil and wealthy old woman named Mrs. Keithley.  When the agent is returned to the cell, he and Baldwin conspire to escape and manage to get away without much trouble.
    Once free, the agent checks in with the home office only to find that the all-important films never arrived, and that he is suspected of having sold out to the enemy.  The agent flees, calls Baldwin, and is flown by one of Baldwin's men to a ranch.  Baldwin turns out to be top dog in an organization of supermen, and seems to think that the agent might qualify to join.  Moreover, he has the lost films, which he destroys.
    When the agent's new training is complete, Baldwin informs him that Mrs. Keithley has obtained one of the other copies of the nova effect films, has installed the world-destroying bomb in the New Age Hotel, and has the bomb set up to be triggered from the Moon.  The agent and another superman, female model, go to the Moon, are hired by Mrs. Keithley as servants, kill her, and then disarm the bomb trigger by blowing it to pieces. The agent is killed in the explosion and his companion is killed by guards.  A plaque to their memory is placed on the spot.
    It takes thirty-six pages and about one day in time to get the hero to the ranch.  This is thoroughly exciting.  It takes another thirty-six pages and about six months in time to explain the supermen and to train the hero.  This is thoroughly interesting.  It then takes a final four pages, and one day, to dispose of Mrs. Keithley and end the story.  The excitement and interest that the story generates are enough to thoroughly entertain, but only if the story is not examined closely.
    Why are films of this importance given to one single agent to carry, rather than to an armed team?  Why did the agent stop over at a hotel instead of proceeding directly to his home office?  Why on Earth did Mrs. Keithley's people switch his wallet, an action that merely serves to alert and alarm him, and how did they manage to make such an exact copy of it?  After all that has happened to him, why does the agent not suspect that the New Age Hotel might be a trap?  Why does Mrs. Keithley -- who knows enough about the agent to penetrate his disguises and duplicate his wallet -- swallow Baldwin as a fellow security agent, and why should she put them together in the same room?
    The communication with cards is simply not credible, particularly since they are pretending to play a card game at the same time they are stacking all these red and black cards to form messages.  Try to stack 104 cards, pass messages, and pretend to play a card game at the same time -- two to one you drop the cards on the floor.
    Why didn't the agent that our hero's bureau set to watch him after he arrived from the Moon not see the altercation with the bellhop or the two people that the hero left writhing on the pavement on his way to the post office?  Why, in view of all the hero's stupidities, is he ever accepted in the organization of supermen?  Why, in view of all their stupidities (Baldwin is responsible for the nova effect -- he wanted to prove it couldn't be done), does our hero accept the organization as the supermen they claim to be?
    Why is it that Mrs. Keithley's new-made bomb and the ending of our hero's training coincide so remarkably?  Why is a beginner given the job of disposing of her, particularly since any slip means the end of the world?  If our hero is so smart, couldn't he find a better way of solving the problem than getting himself blown up?  If the organization of supermen is so good, couldn't they find a better way of solving the problem than sacrificing an agent they have just spent six months training?  Unless, of course, they were simply picking the easiest way to get rid of someone who just didn't work out.
    More important than these considerations of plot, however, are some of the careless notions of which Heinlein delivers himself in the course of the story.  His supermen are not only good people-- all of the evil people in the world are on the other side -- but anything they do is justified.  In a long conversation, Baldwin tells our hero who and what the supermen are.  The agent says, "You chaps sound like a bunch of stinkers, Kettle Belly."  Baldwin terms this "monkey talk" and says that the agent will come around after he sees how things really are. He does come around, but the supermen still sound like a bunch of megalomaniac stinkers.
    Heinlein says of a girl tortured by Mrs. Keithley:  "She stood, swaying and staring stupidly at her poor hands, forever damaged even for the futile purposes to which she had been capable of putting them."  All his hero had done is order beer from her, but on that little evidence, he is willing to slap the label "clearly not bright" on her.  The girl is defined, both by Heinlein and his hero, as stupid and futile, but she isn't shown to be.  Do genuine supermen have magic marks on their foreheads by which they can be known?
    The ending, too, with its deaths and its memorial plaque, is an attempt to force sentiment. I can't help asking myself if the sentiment and glory were made inevitable by the things that came before, and I can only say that they seem gratuitous.
    But if all you want is excitement . . .

5. 1950

    Of Heinlein's three stories about first trips to the Moon, all unconnected, two were first published in 1950.  Heinlein has not been one for repeating his stories, though he has returned to a number of themes, and it is certainly legitimate to wonder when two stories on the same subject turn up in one year.  However, the point of view and handling of the stories are different enough that the question of repetition doesn't really occur.  If anything, these stories are complementary.
    The first is "The Man Who Sold the Moon," a Future History story.  The central character of "Requiem," Heinlein's third published story, was D.D. Harriman, the man who made space travel possible, whose dream was always to go to the Moon himself, but who was never able to go.  This story tells how he did make space travel possible.
    The other story is "Destination Moon," which was based on Heinlein's screenplay, and appeared in Short Stories Magazine in September 1950, just about the same time as the release of the movie.
    The stories are complementary to the extent that "The Man Who Sold the Moon" is concerned with how the first trip to the Moon -- actually, the first two trips -- might be arranged and financed, while "Destination Moon" is concerned solely with the first trip itself. Both stories also have in common the premise that the first trip to the Moon will be made by private business rather than by a government.
    "Destination Moon" hews close to the line of the movie, but it begins at a later point than the movie does, just twenty-one hours before the ship takes off.  The trip is successful in that the ship does reach the Moon, but everything that can possibly go awry does go wrong and it is by no means certain at the end that the ship will successfully return to Earth.  As Jim Harmon pointed out in reviewing the story in Shangri-L'Affaires,* most of the problems solved are handled by the commanding officer of the ship yelling at everybody else until somebody gets around to putting things right.  The story is a skeleton, worth a glance but not much more.
    "The Man Who Sold the Moon" is much more interesting.  In many ways it is every bit as unlikely as "Destination Moon," but it is fascinating to watch old D.D. Harriman juggling, conniving, pushing, arguing and dealing to get a ship off the Earth.  When somebody wants something that badly and is willing to do that much fighting to get it, things are bound to be interesting.  At the end of "Destination Moon" it isn't clear whether or not the ship will make it back home.  The problem, unfortunately, is more intellectual than emotional -- the characters are so lightly sketched that it is difficult to care whether or not they get home.  Not so with "The Man Who Sold the Moon."  At the end of that story, it is shown that Harriman cannot go to the Moon -- if he were to be killed, the whole project, precariously put together, would fall apart.  He can't have the one thing he most wants, and unlike the ending of "Gulf," this conclusion does arise from what has gone before it.  The finance of the story may be old-fashioned and the solutions of the problems of the story not always the most likely, but the story is a human one.  It can be felt.

    A large portion of Farmer in the Sky appeared as a four-part serial in Boys' Life under the title Satellite Scout.  As in "Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon," Heinlein's first story for Boys' Life, Scouting is a major concern of the story, but in this case Scouting is not all that the story is concerned with.
    Heinlein seems to have a particular fondness for Ganymede:  one of the young fellows in Space Cadet was a Ganymedean colonist, the hero of Between Planets was born in a ship that was on its way to Ganymede; Farmer in the Sky is about the settling of Ganymede.  Ganymede, one of the four major satellites of Jupiter, is a moon three thousand miles in diameter with a gravity one-third Earth normal.  In Farmer in the Sky, a heat trap that holds heat and light has been set up to give the moon a livable climate.  The whole place is nothing but rock, and it has to be turned into a farming world.
    The narrator of the story is Bill Lermer, a boy of about fifteen.  He emigrates from an over-crowded Earth with his engineer father, and his new stepmother and stepsister.  The main portions of the story are the trip to Ganymede, finding that things aren't as rosy as they had been promised, going ahead and carving out a good life anyway, living through an earthquake that knocks out the heat trap and kills two-thirds of the population, and a final side-jaunt in which traces of past inhabitants of Ganymede are found.
    The novel is very impressive in many ways.  Until the day that we do have an actual colony on Ganymede, I can't imagine a more likely account of what things will be like.  The story is real and the technical thinking that went into it is overwhelming.  On the other hand, the telling of the story is diffuse, particularly toward the end when we are given the sort of synopsis that might be found in a diary kept by a not-too-conscientious person, six months covered in a paragraph.  For instance, though Bill reports a considerable interest in a girl named Gretchen who is mentioned with fair regularity, Heinlein only sets down two words ("Suit yourself") that she says in all the time Bill is involved with her.  I could multiply my examples, but the point is that enough is left out and told rather than shown that I have the feeling of missing something.  What we are given is good, but I wish there were more.

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*No. 68, 1964.  [ Back ]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee