Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



6. 1951

    Clearly, 1951 was the watershed year in Heinlein's change of emphasis from short stories to novels.  In that year, he published two novels and no short stories.  In 1952, there was one short and in 1953 two more, but after that there were none until 1957.  The advantages of the novel length for science fiction are plain.  One is the same for all fiction:  all a short story can ever be is a bon mot, a glimpse of a situation, a snapshot, but a novel can be the mot juste, the situation as it gathers, joins, and shatters, pictures that change.  More important, however, is that science fiction almost always involves settings and situations that cannot be indicated with a word as can the desert, the city, the jungle, or the Pentagon, settings that have to be built carefully and demonstrated in action, something almost impossible to do in the length of a short story.
    On the other hand, the novel length in science fiction is far from exclusively used, again for obvious reasons: discipline, time and risk.  It takes far more discipline to spend months or even years writing one long story than it does to throw off a few magazine pieces.  It also takes more time, not just in writing, but in financial return.  A short story may be sold a week after it is written, and the check cashed, but a novel may not be published, even after acceptance, for six months or a year, and advances cannot be indefinitely extended.  Finally, banking all on a long story that might fail is a risky business.  An unsold short story is only four thousand wasted words, but a novel that isn't published or that sells poorly is a disaster.  By 1951, Heinlein apparently felt he could afford to take the risk and concentrate on writing novels.
    Heinlein's novels in 1951 were The Puppet Masters, his first adult novel since 1942, and Between Planets, the first of his novels for Scribner's to be serialized in an adult magazine* before book publication.

    Donald Harvey, the hero of Between Planets, like John Lyle of "If This Goes On--" and Larry Smith in Heinlein's 1956 novel Double Star, is an apolitical fellow who gets into politics up to his neck.  Lyle gets involved for the love of a fair maid, Smith for love of eating regularly.  Harvey becomes involved for the most likely reason of all: he simply has no other choice.
    In the world of Between Planets, humans have colonies on both Mars and Venus.  The Martians are an old and dying race, the Venerians -- long-lived "dragons" -- are a lively, intelligent race fully on a par with our own.  Over a period of two centuries the government of Earth has been growing more repressive, both with its colonies and at home.  The colony on Venus is on the point of revolt.  Don Harvey could not be less involved.  He was born in orbit between Luna and Ganymede, his mother a Venus national, his father a citizen of Earth.  Harvey, a schoolboy of seventeen or so, has no fixed political ideas, no national allegiance.
    This situation is the author's way of setting his hero up for the kill. Take a nice, fresh young boy wrapped in his own concerns and then put him in a situation where he has to worry about his liberty.  If somebody treats you as an enemy and simply won't go away and leave you alone, then, whether you like it or not, you are involved.
    That is exactly what happens to Don Harvey.
    As the story opens, Harvey is in school in New Mexico.  There is war in the air.  Suddenly Don gets a message from his parents, distinguished scientists doing work in the small human community on Mars, telling him to drop out of school now, in the middle of the term, and come to Mars.  And he is to see a Dr. Jefferson, a friend of his parents, before he comes.
    Heinlein thoroughly demonstrates the repressive nature of the Earth government, thoroughly enough that when Don gets to the space station around Earth and finds that a raiding party from the Venus colony has come to blow it up, seizing his ship for Mars at the same time, he opts to head for Venus rather than back to Earth.  However he is still apolitical -- his interest is in getting to Mars, not in fighting for Venus. It takes a landing on Venus by Earth troops, butchery, and Don's grasping of the idea that he is very definitely wanted by the security police for a ring that Dr. Jefferson gave him to take to his parents for Don to definitely decide that there is a time to start fighting.
    The ring turns out to be the key to the whole story.  There has been an interplanetary brotherhood of scientists trying to keep information free and circulating in spite of the government.  Dr. Jefferson, Don's parents, and most of the people Don makes friends with throughout the story all belong.  The ring contains one-half the information needed to end the war.  The information was meant to be assembled on Mars, but the war has caused both fragments to wind up on Venus, except that no one has known that Don Harvey, a last minute choice as an unknowing courier, has the information or that he is on Venus.  The information is eventually assembled and adds up to a souped-up space drive and a force field at a minimum.  As usual, Heinlein takes an engineering attitude to this -- his interest is in what it does rather than in how it works -- but at the same time he avoids super-science doubletalk in explanation and the production of inventions in ten minutes.  In other words, he has an engineer's respect for science.  The new discoveries are enough to end the war, since all that is necessary to bring Earth to its knees is a lid over a few of its most important cities.
    There is a certain amount of melodrama inherent in a plot like this, but to Heinlein's credit, the melodrama only occasionally becomes overwhelming, as in lines like, "Don held the knife with the relaxed thumb-and-two-finger grip of those who understand steel."  (I understand that everybody at US Steel holds his knife in this manner.)  The Venus setting is very well done, and so is the feeling of an uncertain, unstable time.  Again, however, as in Farmer in the Sky, I have the feeling that something is missing, that after a certain point Heinlein is simply trying to tie things together and end the story.

    The Puppet Masters (Galaxy, September, October, November 1951) is the most ambitious of the three specifically adult novels that Heinlein wrote between Beyond This Horizon in 1942 and Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961.  As a story it is both typical and atypical of Heinlein.  It shares with Between Planets the very common Heinlein theme of preserving liberty.  However, it is one of the very few Heinlein stories that are aimed at the viscera rather than at the intellect.  The liberty that Heinlein aims to preserve is freedom to use one's own mind, and he means us to feel his case as well as merely understand it.
    The basic theme of The Puppet Masters is, I'm told, an old one. Boucher and McComas, for instance, in reviewing The Puppet Masters in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction said:

    In The Puppet Masters he's chosen a theme which old-line aficionados will consider tired and even tiresome: the invasion of earth by interplanetary parasites who fasten upon men and convert them into soulless zombies.**
    I can believe that this is an ancient idea -- it is so compelling, so frightening, so elemental that it is bound to be -- but the actual incidence of its appearance in modern science fiction is quite small.  And Heinlein's handling of the theme, as Boucher and McComas went on to point out, is tremendously effective.
    The parasites are slugs from Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons.  Their vehicles are flying saucers, one of the earliest and most effective fictional uses of them that I can recall.  The slugs attach themselves to the backs of humans and turn them into automatons.  In abstract this is bad enough, but Heinlein has his narrator, a tough, smart, and, of course, competent security agent, ridden for a time by the slugs so that you know and feel what it is like.  It is not a pleasant thing to read about.
    The slugs are well on their way to taking over the country before we can begin to mobilize.  The situation eventually stabilizes precariously with the slugs in possession of the middle third of the United States, and probably in control of Russia.  Then it is discovered that the slugs are susceptible to a Venerian disease that kills humans in nine days, slugs in less.  Animals are inoculated with the disease and sent into the possessed areas, to infect any slug that rides them.  The slugs communicate by direct contact, which involves exchange of body material, so that soon all the slugs in the United States have the disease.  Teams are then sent in with antidotes to save the humans before they, too, die.  The story ends with a human ship bound for Titan to give the slugs hell.
    The story makes greater emotional than logical sense.  For instance, at one point the hero is captured by the slugs and then recaptured later by his own people.  The slug on his back turns out to be the only one they have, though there are a good number of slug-ridden people in the city.  More important, though, is that if the titans are susceptible to disease, and disease can kill them when they exchange body material, how have they survived to this point?
    One of the most chilling things in the story is the degeneration of people under the control of the slugs.  They don't bathe, shave, eat, go to the bathroom, or do anything else unless the slugs let them, and much of the time the slugs don't let them.  A real point is made of this: " '. . . a little guy called "Jake" who was washroom attendant, but he had to be disposed of later -- his master would not let him take time out for necessities.' "
    This seems self-defeating for the slugs.  They have command of the knowledge of the people they ride -- why wouldn't they pamper us as we pamper the animals that we live off?  The answer, of course, is that the degeneration is meaningful as emotion and as a symbol of what happens to people who have lost their independence, something that genuinely affects Heinlein at his deepest level.
    There are many similarities between The Puppet Masters and Heinlein's 1959 prize-winning novel, Starship Troopers.  The nature of the enemy is much the same:  implacable and sharing a common mind. The nature of the fight is the same:  all-or-nothing, total defeat or total victory.  And, as George Price has pointed out, the nature of the solution is the same:  man is the hairiest fighting animal in this end of the universe -- tackle him at your own peril.  The final words of The Puppet Masters are, "I feel exhilarated.  Puppet masters -- the free men are coming to kill you! Death and Destruction!"   Given the premises of the two stories, this is Heinlein's answer.  I think The Puppet Masters states problem and solution better, and is definitely the more successful book.
    I myself don't place this book among Heinlein's very best, though I think it is a good one and as disturbing a book as I have ever read.  I can, however, see the case for anyone who wants to nominate it for one of Heinlein's best.

7. 1952

    It seems to me that fiction generally has to suppose the existence of free will -- if a story's end is determined before the story begins, it is hardly necessary to read it to find out what happens.  That is oversimple, of course, but I do prefer stories that are about human problems solved by human beings.  Anything else is more a statement of a situation than a story.
    "The Year of the Jackpot," a novelette in the March 1952 Galaxy, is nothing but the statement of a situation.  There is a human problem:  everybody is acting unsanely.  There is no human solution, however.  The reason given for our actions is that we are caught in the grip of cycles -- cycles in fashions, cycles in economics, cycles in everything.  As the statistician protagonist of the story, who has been charting all of the cycles, says, we are lemmings.  We can't help ourselves.  The jackpot year of the title is the one in which all the good cycles are at their lowest and all of the bad ones are at their peaks.  The story ends with the sun blowing up, the culmination of one final cycle.
    Still, in spite of the story being no more than the statement of a situation, I do like "The Year of the Jackpot."  Perhaps it is because the main characters remain interesting and attractive, for all their helplessness, right until the end.

    Heinlein's novel for Scribner's in 1952 was The Rolling Stones, entitled Tramp Space Ship when it was serialized in Boys' Life.  It may have been written directly for Boys' Life.  Certainly its simple, uncomplicated plot is likely to appeal to boys a year or two younger than those that would enjoy Between Planets or some of Heinlein's other juveniles.  A change in the nature of Heinlein's juvenile protagonists can be seen from his earliest books.  In all those up through The Rolling Stones, with the exception of Between Planets, we have heroes who are essentially dependent on their parents or other adults.  In all the books after The Rolling Stones, with the exception of Podkayne of Mars (which is not a Scribner's book and falls in a different period), we are presented with heroes who are not dependent on adults in the same way, but who make their own way in the world.  An important change, it seems to me.
    The Rolling Stones is constructed in the simplest manner possible.  Start, and then add "ands" until the story has gone on long enough and you decide to end it.  The "ands" are additional episodes.  It is an uncomplicated way of telling a story, tedious if done badly, easy to enjoy if done well.
    The Stones are a family.  Roger, ex-mayor of Luna City, engineer, and author of the video serial The Scourge of the Spaceways, is the head of the family.  Hazel Stone, his mother, is a fresh, lively oldster, one of the original citizens of the Moon, and an engineer herself.  She takes over writing the video serial soon after the story begins.  Edith Stone, Roger's wife, is a doctor and a sculptress.  Their children are Lowell, four years old but able to beat Hazel at chess, use a slide rule and Lord knows what-all-else; Meade, a bright but somewhat undefined girl of something less than twenty; and Castor and Pollux, fifteen-year-old twins, inventors of a "frostproof rebreather valve" from which they have realized a considerable amount of money, budding young businessmen, general hell-raisers, and story protagonists.
    The Scourge of the Spaceways and the unlimited nature of the various skills spread through the family make it financially possible for them to buy a spaceship and simply leave home on a Wanderjahr.  The original impetus for the journey is the goading of the twins, who were in mind to do it all by themselves, but the whole family finds itself in favor.  The Stones travel from the Moon to Mars, and when Mars palls they push on to the site of a mining strike in the Asteroids.  At the end, they are bound on to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.  And on from there to who knows where.
    As punctuation there is Heinlein's usual wealth of detail and a number of little adventures -- epidemic on board another ship, jettisoning and recovering cargo, a lost space-scooter with Hazel and Lowell aboard -- that are underplayed enough to seem just exactly the sort of thing that might happen to normal people like the Stones rather than to idiot-adventure heroes like the Scourge of the Spaceways.
    Before I leave this story, I would like to point out one last thing that I particularly liked.  Writing is not completely unlike juggling and it is difficult to do everything at once.  Scenes with one or two characters are not at all hard to write, but every extra character you add and use makes the scene that much more difficult.  To approach a scene with five living, breathing, thinking characters in it takes a deep breath and rolling up one's sleeves.  Several times, however, in The Rolling Stones, including the first chapter, Heinlein has all seven members of the Stone family on stage at once, all talking, all going on at cross-purposes.  I respect him for even trying it, but he brings it off beautifully. 

8. 1953

    "Project Nightmare" (Amazing, April 1953) is smoothly written, but crude.  It is quite obvious that if you make the proper premises you can force almost any conclusion as "right" and "inevitable."  Heinlein's premises in this story are that the military have located people with wild talents of a sophisticated order, and that the Russians try to blackmail us into capitulation by planting atomic devices in thirty-eight of our major cities.  The spectacular crudeness of this story can be seen in that Russia's announcement comes on the very day that the ESPers prove that they can mentally set off atomic weapons.  It turns out that they can damp them, too, and they hold the bombs from going off in thirty-seven of the thirty-eight cities until they can be located and disposed of.  At the end, the ESPers are prepared to set off all of Russia's stockpiled nuclear weapons.
    "Sky Lift" (Imagination, November 1953) is simpler but much more impressive. A small scientific community on Pluto has been struck by a degenerative blood disease and they need a blood bank.  Getting it to them involves two men blasting at a constant three and one-half gravities for more than nine days.  Two hundred and seventy people are saved, but the cost is one man dead and the other turned into a moron.
    The issues of "Project Nightmare" are artificial ones.  Those of "Sky Lift" are real, immediate and important.  That is the difference between a story that means something and one that doesn't.

    Starman Jones is one of Heinlein's most effective books.  It shows a young man in a situation where anything he does is bound to put him in the wrong.  That is a nice, difficult sort of problem, the sort that fiction really ought to be concerned with.  Heinlein's solution is the most viable one that I can imagine:  when all your choices are "wrong" ones, you pick the one you like best and live with its consequences.
    In Starman Jones the Earth is crowded and jobs are at a premium.  For this reason, the best jobs are held by inheritance, passed down through a restrictive guild system.  If you don't like what you have inherited, presuming that you have inherited something, it takes money and trading to get something else.  If you have no money and no guild job, you are just out of luck.
    Max Jones is a hill boy whose uncle belonged to the Astrogators' Guild, but who died before he could nominate Max.  Max wants nothing more than to serve on a starship, but without the nomination he doesn't stand a chance.  Not only does the Guild deny Max the chance he thought he had in space, but it takes his uncle's books from him (the secret mathematics of the Guild which outsiders mustn't see) and gives him pennies in compensation.  With the only other alternative to return home to a fatuous stepmother and her new husband, a thorough-going scoundrel, Max joins a dubious acquaintance and with the aid of false papers the two sneak their way into menial starship jobs, Max figuring this is better than nothing.
    Max has going for him the fact that his uncle was known and respected, and his own mathematical ability and photographic memory.  He knows those "secret" mathematical tables, and he has the brains to learn how to use them.  Against him is the fact that eventually he will be found out.  He plans to jump ship before it returns to Earth, but some of his uncle's old associates and a notation on his phony records that he has once struck for the job of chartsman -- a starplotter in the control room -- get him another shot at the job.  His demonstrated abilities earn him a try at the job of astrogator, exactly what he has always wanted -- in spite of the restrictions of the Guild there are hardly enough people around with the requisite abilities to fill the jobs open.  (That, by the way, causes me to wonder if astrogators' jobs would ever be handed around by a guild system.  Plumbing and trucking jobs, yes, but jobs involving advanced mathematics?)  In any case, a death, a senile breakdown, and a case of paranoia leave Max with the job of bringing the ship home when she gets lost.  The consequences that Max has to live with are a reprimand and a stiff fine, but at the end he is ready to ship out again as an astrogator.
    Starman Jones demonstrates the advantages in having an older protagonist.  First, the world he can move in is much wider, and second, a Max Jones bringing the ship home is credible while a Pollux Stone bringing the ship home would not be.  This is a long book, over 300 pages, and a rich one.  It is a solid, detailed, fascinating piece of work.

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*Blue Book, Sept., Oct. 1951, under the title Planets in Combat. [ Back ]
**February, 1952.  [ Back ]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee