Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



12.  1957

    That science fiction is particularly difficult to write well has been recognized by almost every critic of the field.  Note that I said "to write well."  Bad science fiction is very easy to write, which might be why there is so much more of it around.  Heinlein himself has gone so far as to say that speculative fiction is the most difficult of all prose forms, and to explain why.  John W. Campbell, in his introduction to Heinlein's collection, The Man Who Sold the Moon, has also explained why, succinctly and accurately:

    Briefly stated, the science-fiction author must put over to the reader (1), the mores and patterns of the cultural background, (2), interwoven with that -- stemming from it. and in turn forcing it into existence -- the technological background and then, finally, the characters.  He may not use long descriptive passages for any of this necessary material.
    These requirements mean that most good science fiction short stories are going to depend on trick endings and gimmicks for their effect.  It is difficult enough, God knows, to do the things Campbell is talking about in a novel.  In a short story they are almost impossible to do -- that is why so many sf shorts depend on stock backgrounds, Galactic Empires and such -- and suffer because of it.
    I raise the point not for its own interest, but because it throws an interesting light on Heinlein's short story, "The Menace from Earth" (F&SF, August 1957).  Having given up the short story for the most part, presumably to take advantage of the added room in a novel, Heinlein here returned to it and did a truly brilliant job of presenting a strange background with strange mores -- combined with a stock slick fiction plot.  Quite the opposite of what you might expect.
    The menace of the title is a beautiful third-rate actress in her middle thirties who comes as a tourist to the Moon and temporarily dazzles the boyfriend of Holly Jones, the bright but completely humorless fifteen-year-old narrator of the story.  Forget the plot.  Luna City is real, that's what is important.  The jewel of the piece, however, is the account of flying in the city air storage tank, an underground volcanic bubble two miles across.  Flying is made possible by air at normal pressure combined with one-sixth normal gravitation.  All the trappings are here: wing design (including brand name snobbery for sauce), how the flying works, beginners' areas, rules of the road.  The idea is brilliant and believable.

    "The Elephant Circuit" (Saturn, October 1957) is a mistake, a sloppy, sentimental fantasy that I suspect was written at the very beginning of Heinlein's career and then went without a buyer until 1957.  It is about a fat, fatuous, fair-loving retired salesman who spends his time in traveling, attending his beloved fairs.  As an excuse to travel, he purports to sell elephants.  He is killed in a bus wreck and goes to Heaven to find it a super-fair.  His dear dead wife Martha is there, and so is his dear dead dog Bindlestiff, who "had been called away, shortly after Martha."  And the salesman is hailed by one and all -- at the close he is leading the parade in an elephant-drawn carriage with wife and dog beside him.  In the language of the story, you might say that he has Passed On to his Great Reward.

    Citizen of the Galaxy (Astounding, September, October, November and December) is another of Heinlein's adult juveniles. It is the longest and the last Heinlein story to appear in Astounding.
    The story is about many things, among them these: slavery seen from the inside, the slave trade, begging, education, spying, anthropology, trading, life in the military, and corporate business.  The scale of the story is broad, too:  there is the Terran Hegemony, a loose federation three thousand light-years in circumference; and outside this many human and non-human worlds at every level of civilization.
    There are properly four parts to Citizen of the Galaxy.  In the first, Thorby, a small, scared, dirty and sore-covered little boy, is sold as a slave to a one-eyed, one-legged beggar in the city of Jubbulpore, capital of the Nine Worlds, a notorious and repressive little empire outside the Hegemony.  Baslim, the beggar, is unusual.  During the day he sits at his usual place in the Plaza of Liberty and begs for alms.  In his warren at night, he puts on an expensive artificial leg.  Over the years he gives the boy a thorough education.  He is engaged in some sort of illegal activity, and he sets Thorby to running messages for him, though to what purpose Thorby is not sure.  Then Baslim is caught by the Sargon's police and "shortened," and Thorby has to run for cover. He has a set of messages memorized in languages he doesn't understand for delivery to any one of a number of trading ship captains -- one of these is in port at the moment and Thorby delivers his message.
    The second part of the story takes place aboard the Free Trader "Sisu" and is the longest part of the book.  Baslim's message asks, for the sake of the debt owed to him, that the captain take Thorby aboard the ship and treat him as his own until the boy can be delivered to a ship of the Hegemonic Guard, since Baslim has reason to believe that the boy originally came from a planet of the Hegemony.  The traders have a very rigid, heavily-stratified society with no place in it for an outsider, so Thorby is accepted with reluctance, and adopted.
    Almost as soon as he has succeeded in making a place for himself in the Trader society, however, opportunity and necessity conspire and Thorby is handed on to a ship of the Hegemonic Guard.  They have no place for him, either, short of adoption, so he is duly enlisted.  At this point, Thorby learns that Baslim was a high officer in the Hegemonic Guard who had gone into the Nine Worlds to report on the slave trade, which the Guard views as pernicious and intolerable.  Baslim was allowed to go in only because he could get messages out by way of the Free Traders who owed him a debt for saving some of their people in the same action that had cost him his leg and eye.  The begging was his own idea.
    As soon as he arrives, the Guard attempts to find out who Thorby is, and eventually succeeds.  He turns out to be heir to both a vast fortune and a manufacturing empire on Earth, and accordingly, off Thorby goes again.  It takes him some time to discover himself for the fourth time, but finally he succeeds and then is left with a very difficult job to keep him busy.
    If this sounds disunited, in some ways it is.  Two threads tie it together.  The lesser is the process of Thorby's finding a solid and final place where he fits -- it seems to be his fate to be always a stranger in a strange land, always out of place, always naive.  At the end he does have some understanding of himself and what he is doing, and that is a resolution.  The second theme is even more solid, as well as typical of Heinlein: freedom and slavery.  One of Baslim's conclusions before he lost his head was that one of the largest manufacturers in the Terran Hegemony was abetting the slave trade in the worlds outside.  Thorby becomes more and more certain as he learns about Rudbek, the great holding company he has inherited, that this manufacturer is Rudbek itself, and this is one of the reasons he is willing to involve himself in a struggle for corporate power when his inclinations are to chuck the whole thing and go back to the Guard.  The company is such a vast amalgam of enterprises that only a few employees in appropriate positions have to be aware of the business the company is involved in.  And there is strong reason to believe that Thorby and his parents were originally disposed of because his father, on an inspection trip, was beginning to come too close to the truth.  At the end, Thorby is assisting the Guard in developing weapons to make it uneconomical for raiders to attack vessels for slaves and loot, and planning to comb out the lice from Rudbek.
    The traders are, if anything, an ironical comment on the problem of freedom.  They, the most free in movement, are the least free personally of almost any people, since, in order to live as they do, their society must be very restrictive.
    I have some minor bones to pick with the story. It seems an incredible coincidence that Thorby -- the lost heir to Rudbek -- should ever encounter Baslim.  And why does Baslim buy Thorby at all?  This happens so early in the story that the reader cannot really assess it, but looking back the question remains unanswered.  And finally, the book is clearly disunified -- the wrenches from one place to another are almost as severe for the reader as they are for Thorby.  However, the book is so successful on so many other counts that these points remain minor.
    Citizen of the Galaxy, if not the most successful of Heinlein's juveniles, is certainly the most ambitious.  The point of view is an omniscient one -- the interest is not just in Thorby or in what Thorby sees, but in Thorby in a context, and the reader sees far more than Thorby does, or any of the characters for that matter.  This lifts the book far out of the simple adventure category.
    Out of all that is rich and good about Citizen of the Galaxy, I want to pick out just two things to mention briefly.  One is the elaborate social system of the Free Traders with its moieties, its involved family relationships, its inbred self-satisfaction, its rigidity, and its adoptions of superior talent into the line of command.  The other is Heinlein's restraint with Baslim.  When you see the character directly, you don't know enough about him and his activities to appreciate him.  Appreciation only comes later, and then the character is seen as a man who has been doing a dirty, nasty, difficult job.  Heinlein doesn't try to make him glamorous or dashing, and that is admirable restraint.

13. 1958

    Heinlein published only two stories in 1958, both juveniles.  "Tenderfoot in Space" was a serial in Boys' Life; like "Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon" in 1949, it was written directly for the magazine and has never been reprinted in book form.  The other story was Have Space Suit--Will Travel, which for all its title is a fine book and in my opinion ranks with Beyond This Horizon as Heinlein's best work.  It is probably the most beautifully constructed story he's ever done.
    Although "Tenderfoot in Space" ran for three months in Boys' Life, it is no longer than an ordinary novelette of the sort that run two or three to an issue in adult science fiction magazines.  The story is about a young Boy Scout and his dog on Venus.  The dog is the hero and about a fifth of the story is told from its point of view.

    From time to time, almost everybody who reads science fiction finds himself asked by someone who doesn't to recommend a story so that they "can find out what this science fiction stuff is all about."  On one hand, you may proudly hand over a story that is completely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't speak the language, and on the other hand, you can be too careful and hand over something that looks enough like the stories he is used to reading -- "It's Great to Be Back," for instance -- that the new reader can't see any difference.
    My idea of what makes science fiction worth reading is that it prepares people to accept change, to think in terms of change being both natural and inevitable, and that it allows us to look at familiar things from new angles.  My choice of a science fiction story to hand a non-reader would be one that combines the unique virtues of science fiction with a comprehensible, attractive, entertaining plot.  I give them Robert Heinlein's last novel for Scribner's: Have Space Suit--Will Travel.
    The novel starts gently enough for anyone unfamiliar with science fiction:  there is an eighteen-year-old boy who wants to go to the Moon, and who aims to get there by entering a soap slogan contest with a trip to the Moon as first prize.  What he wins is a stripped-down space suit.  That isn't quite what he wanted, but he spends a summer putting it into working order in his spare time.  Heinlein tells you how he does it and in the process you learn what space suits are like -- the account makes the description of space suits in Rocket Ship Galileo or any other story you ever read seem elementary -- and it is all interesting, all pertinent.
    Heinlein's greatest weakness has probably been his story construction.  His very earliest stories were badly engineered -- an odd criticism to make of an engineer -- and even in Citizen of the Galaxy you have an example of a story whose parts don't hang together closely.  On the other hand, Have Space Suit--Will Travel is put together amazingly well.  It is pure magic.
    Once you have accepted the space suit, the story opens a little:  you are taken to the Moon.  Once you have accepted the Moon -- and Heinlein makes it painfully real; the Moon is his old stomping ground -- the story opens again.  And then again.  First the Moon, then Pluto, then a planet of the star Vega, then the Lesser Magellanic Cloud.  Each new place arises out of the last, each new thing implicit in what has gone before.  Then the story closes together and comes full circle, back home again.
    The difference between this and Citizen of the Galaxy is that Thorby becomes a part of each new culture so that it is a wrench to leave it before all the possibilities are explored; the roots of Have Space Suit--Will Travel remain on Earth.  The traveling simply demonstrates that the world is bigger than it once seemed to be.  If you want, you can take it as a guide to acceptance of the whole universe.
    It is fun to read. The three main characters are all fine:  Kip Russell, the boy with the space suit; Peewee, an exasperating eleven-year-old girl who is smarter than anybody; and the Mother Thing, an alien who is small, furry, warm and protective, like the ultimate Security Blanket, but who is a lot more than that.
    For frosting, the story turns a number of science fictional clichés this way and that, as though to show there is a lot of delightful mileage left in them -- flying saucers, bug-eyed monsters, the Galactic Council where Earthmen Are Judged -- and it has a fine old time in the process.  I like to look at the story as the ultimate in fairy tales: the knight errant rides forth to save the fair maiden from the all-time champion dragon -- and so what if the damsel is only eleven? 
    The story is an entertainment, but not a mere entertainment.  It has something to say about the value of brains, perseverance, and courage.  They aren't lectured about -- they are demonstrated and present by implication.  They are there if you look.  The story is multi-leveled enough to be enjoyed by almost anyone, and it bears re-reading.
    Only a misanthrope could dislike Have Space Suit--Will Travel.  It marks a good end to Heinlein's most productive period.

Bibliography -- Heinlein's Second Period

back   |  home   |  next

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.

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee