Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




1. Speculation

    I'd like to draw a distinction I think is useful between extrapolation and speculation.  Ordinarily the terms are used more or less as equivalents and to a certain extent they necessarily overlap.  I think they can be used, however, to distinguish between two different things that go on in science fiction.  One is the closely reasoned inferential process.  This is extrapolation, an account of the operation of known processes.  The other is the less confined concern with how and of what the world is made.  This is speculation, an account of the essential nature of things.
    There are science fiction stories that obviously lay emphasis chiefly on one or the other of these.  Clement's Mission of Gravity, for instance, is basically extrapolative.  Blish's The Triumph of Time, with its human-directed rebirth of the universe, is basically speculative.
    Heinlein, of course, is best known as an extrapolator.  Nonetheless, he has written speculative stories -- "Waldo," for instance -- and included bits of mysticism in many more.
    There is also a deeper and less obvious sort of speculation in any author's stories.  Basically, it could be called the author's attitude toward life, or his conception of the world.
    Almost any story has an obvious surface meaning revealed in action.  Hamlet, for instance, is a prince whose uncle has him murdered when the uncle discovers that his crimes have been found out, except that Hamlet is able to take all the bad guys with him when he goes.  Beneath the surface of Hamlet, however, are other meanings, both reasonably accessible and hidden, and it is these that give the story, and other complex fiction, more interest for a reader than is held by, say, a Nancy Drew thriller or the Bobbsey Twins.  These additional meanings illuminate the obvious surface.  The bodies on the stage at the end of Hamlet are more than just a way of keeping score so that the spectator can see which side came out ahead.  A writer's attitude toward life, as much as it can be determined, helps in the same way to illuminate the obvious surface of his fiction.
    Meaning that was consciously intended by the writer generally is accessible on one or two readings.  A character named Gradgrind points a direction.  So does the color of a white whale.  The determination of unconscious meanings and of attitudes is more difficult and much less certain.  These are never absolutely "provable"; at best they are tentative constructions, useful only to the extent to which they do illuminate -- and this may vary from reader to reader.  The only method that I know of arriving at these meanings and attitudes is through an examination of those symbols, themes and ideas that a writer chooses to keep repeating beyond any outside necessity.
    In this chapter, I intend to discuss two repeated Heinlein themes and a repeated character and then to tie them together.  The themes are liberty and libertarianism, and the unreality of the world.  The character is the Heinlein Individual.

2. Liberty

    From the very beginning of his writing career, liberty has been a favorite Heinlein subject.  "If This Goes On--," his first novel, is about a revolution fought against an authoritarian government.  His second novel, Sixth Column, is about a revolution against an authoritarian invader.  Heinlein has written at least five other novels about colonies winning their freedom and about wars fought to defend freedom against implacable invaders.  The theme is a constant one.
    Beyond this, however, Heinlein's stories are filled with strongly worded statements in favor of free-wheeling, far-reaching personal freedom:

    "It's neither your business, nor the business of this damn paternalistic government, to tell a man not to risk his life doing what he really wants to do."  ("Requiem.")

   "The private life and free action of every individual must be scrupulously respected."  (Beyond This Horizon.)

    "The price of freedom is the willingness to do sudden battle, anywhere, any time and with utter recklessness.  (The Puppet Masters.)
    Most Heinlein stories yield similar statements -- in his early stories in the statements of his characters, in his recent fiction in blunt, like-it-or-lump-it editorial opinion, as well.  As can be seen from the quotations given above, Heinlein's idea of liberty is wolfish and thoroughgoing.  To a certain extent Heinlein has always been at war with himself as to which aspect of his libertarianism would predominate.  Liberty for the sharp-toothed or liberty for all?  One example, particularly interesting for the manner in which Heinlein has reversed himself, can be found in "If This Goes On--."
    In the original version of the story, the narrator writes:
    If we could capture New Jerusalem, there would then be time and opportunity to change the psychological conditioning of the people and make them aware that they really had been saved from a tyranny which had ruled by keeping them in ignorance, their minds chained.
    The plan concocted by Colonel Novak and Zebadiah provided for readjusting the people to freedom of thought and freedom of action.  They planned nothing less than mass reorientation under hypnosis.  The technique was simple, as simple as works of genius usually are.  They had prepared a film which was a mixture of history, theological criticism, simple course in general science, exposition of the philosophy of the scientific viewpoint and frame of mind, and so forth.  Taken consciously, it was too much to soak up in one dose, but they planned to use it on subjects in a state of light hypnosis.
    Here, of course, the wolfishness predominates -- like Deacon Mushrat of Pogo, who means to have peace even if he has to ram it down people's bloodthirsty throats, Heinlein's people are going to dispense liberty even if they have to brainwash people into accepting it.
    In the revised and expanded version of the story, however, Heinlein brings all his heavy guns to bear on his former position and destroys it completely.  The movie is still present in the story in an even more convincing and overwhelming form, but this time around Novak and Zeb Jones, both sympathetic characters, are not responsible for it.
    In this version, it was put together by an unsympathetic, eager-beaver underling against Novak's recommendation.  Heinlein intensifies the original situation by having the eager-beaver say happily:
    ". . . this film, used with the preparatory technique and possibly in some cases with a light dose of one of the hypnotic drugs, can be depended on to produce an optimum political temperament in 83% of the populace."
    But Heinlein then destroys the position. An elderly man whom the narrator likens in appearance to Mark Twain stands up and begins to speak:
    "I have a brother, as good a man as I am, but we haven't spoken in many years -- because he is honestly devout in the established faith and he suspects me of heresy.  Now this cub, with his bulging forehead and his whirling lights, would 'condition' my brother to make him 'politically reliable.' " . . .
    "Free men aren't 'conditioned!'  Free men are free because they are ornery and cussed and prefer to arrive at their own prejudices in their own way -- not have them spoonfed by a self-appointed mind tinkerer!  We haven't fought, our brethren haven't bled and died, just to change bosses, no matter how sweet their motives."
    And then to add punctuation, Heinlein has this old man drop dead just before the vote is taken on whether or not to use the film.  The vote, of course, is not to use it.
    Heinlein not only has a taste for free men, but for free societies as well.  In Beyond This Horizon and in "Coventry" he presents two specifically libertarian societies, the sort of contexts in which every man can operate as freely as one can imagine under any government.  Neither is perfect, or even perfectly imagined -- not surprising when you consider the complexity and internal contradictions present in modern society -- but both are very interesting.
    There is a strong element of wolfishness present again in Beyond This Horizon.  The social insurance of mutual respect of rights is the necessity to defend one's conduct with a gun.  Theoretically, this means that the ordinary person will be polite and mind his own business lest he be challenged for his behavior.  The flaw, of course, is that the man with a fast finger on the trigger would be forgiven conduct that another man would be held to account for.  On the other hand, I'm not completely sure that Heinlein would regard this as a flaw.
    In the world of "Coventry," social insurance is the Covenant.  The judge who sentences the protagonist to Coventry gives a full account of what the Covenant is:
    "The Covenant is not a superstition, but a simple temporal contract entered into by those same revolutionists for pragmatic reasons.  They wished to insure the maximum possible liberty for every person.
    "You yourself have enjoyed that liberty.  No possible act, nor mode of conduct, was forbidden to you, as long as your action did not damage another. . . .
    "You complain that our way of living is dull and unromantic, and imply that we have deprived you of excitement to which you feel entitled.  You are free to hold and express your esthetic opinion of our way of living, but you must not expect us to live to suit your tastes.  You are free to seek danger and adventure if you wish -- there is danger still in experimental laboratories; there is hardship in the mountains of the Moon, and death in the jungles of Venus -- but you are not free to expose us to the violence of your nature."
    Granted that we have a very exact idea of what constitutes damaging another person -- and the ultimate definition might include simple breathing -- this seems at least a fair statement of the aims of a libertarian society.

    It seems to me that there are three ways in which a character with freedom of action can operate.  He can operate within the framework of society, whether or not he is in full accord with it.  He can reject society and strike out on his own.  Or he can arbitrarily run society to suit himself.  Heinlein has written of characters who do each of these things. 
    The hero of Beyond This Horizon is a perfect example of the first mode.  He is a strong man, dissatisfied with both himself and his society, but when it is suggested to him that he join a revolution and change things to suit himself, he doesn't even consider the idea for a moment.  He is too much a part of his society to reject it.  Instead he achieves his aims by getting the society to agree to try things his way.  The hero of Double Star, who becomes a professional politician, is another example, and so even is Harriman (the man who finances the first two trips to the Moon) who, though he may come within a hairsbreadth of illegality, always plays by the rules of society.  In the same way, the hero of Tunnel in the Sky helps to found a society and then is treated shabbily by it, but nonetheless resists the suggestion of leaving the society and striking out on his own.
    Heinlein has written three times of the man who finds his freedom in rejecting society, in "Waldo," in "Coventry" and in Farnham's Freehold.  In the first two cases Heinlein's point is that the central characters are wrong in rejecting society.
    Waldo, if you will recall, is a genius affected by a degenerative muscle disease who lives in a satellite home popularly known as "Wheelchair."  That isn't Waldo's own name for it.  He calls it "Freehold," and fondly thinks that while he is there he is not involved in what happens on Earth:  " 'I have no interest in such troubles; I'm independent of such things.' "  His mentor goes to considerable length to point out to him that he is not independent, that "Freehold" would not exist at all without society and society's technology.  And Waldo ultimately forsakes his "independence" in order to take a place in normal society.
    The point of "Coventry," too, is that the rugged individualist is not quite so much his own man as he believes that he is.  Heinlein points this out directly.  He says:

    The steel tortoise gave MacKinnon a feeling of Crusoe-like independence.  It did not occur to him his chattel was the end product of the cumulative effort and intelligent co-operation of hundreds of thousands of men, living and dead.
And Heinlein spends more than a page elaborating this moral.
    Perhaps one measure of the change in Heinlein in recent years is that Farnham's Freehold seriously sets forth the point of view that "Waldo" and "Coventry" reject.  Hugh Farnham, as far as we can see, does not and will not function within modem society; the reaction of this competent man is to dig a competent hole in the ground to hide in.  And then just as Waldo had his "Freehold," Farnham has his, kept independent of the rest of the world by mines, wire, and rifle bullets.  It is an odd sort of freedom.
    The third category is illustrated by two stories, "Lost Legacy" and "Gulf," in which Heinlein's characters make decisions for society by themselves and then enforce their decisions.  In "Lost Legacy," the "enemy" are:
    . . . the antagonists of human liberty, of human dignity -- the racketeers, the crooked political figures, the shysters, the dealers in phony religions, the sweat-shoppers, the petty authoritarians, all of the key figures among the traffickers in human misery and human oppression, themselves somewhat adept in the arts of the mind, and acutely aware of the danger of free knowledge -- all of this unholy breed.
    The good guys save society by deciding who the bad guys are and disposing of them.
    In "Gulf," the sides are just as clearly drawn.
    "Some one must be on guard if the race is to live; there is no one but us.  To guard effectively we New Men must be organized, must never fumble any crisis like this -- and must increase our numbers.  We are few now, Joe; as the crises increase, we must increase to meet them.  Eventually -- and it's a dead race with time -- we must take over and make certain that baby never plays with matches. . . .
    "I confess to that same affection for democracy, Joe.  But it's like yearning for the Santa Claus you believed in as a child.  For a hundred and fifty years or so democracy, or something like it, could flourish safely.  The issues were such as to be settled without disaster by the votes of common men, befogged and ignorant as they were.  But now, if the race is simply to stay alive, political decisions depend on real knowledge of such things as nuclear physics, planetary ecology, genetic theory, even system mechanics.  They aren't up to it, Joe.  With goodness and more will than they possess less than one in a thousand could stay awake over one page of nuclear physics; they can't learn what they must know."
The answer is clear as to what course the "New Men" must take:
    "Joe, didn't you ever feel a yen to wipe out some evil, obscene, rotten jerk who infected everything he touched, yet was immune to legal action?  We treat them as cancers; we excise them from the body social.  We keep a 'Better Dead' list; when a man is clearly morally bankrupt we close his account at the first opportunity."
    This again is a wolfish sort of freedom.

    It is passages such as these from "Lost Legacy" and "Gulf" that caused me to think for a time that Heinlein was an authoritarian, but he is not.  His characters ask no one to follow and obey them except from choice.  Even the subordinates in Heinlein's military stories are always volunteers.
    The judge in "Coventry" says to David MacKinnon:

    ". . . but your psychometrical tests show that you believe yourself capable of judging morally your fellow citizens and feel justified in personally correcting and punishing their lapses. . . .  From a social standpoint, your delusion makes you mad as the March Hare."
    If you allow the possibility of doubt as to their inborn rightness, the characters of "Gulf" and "Lost Legacy" are not sane.  But they are not authoritarians.
    Heinlein's characters are not democrats, either, as witness the quotation above from "Gulf," or the following passage from Glory Road:
    "Democracy can't work.  Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, that's all there is -- so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work.  Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group."
    Since Heinlein writes about the wisest and most competent men that he can imagine, he doesn't even expect them to be democrats and I can't think of any who are.  Double Star, for instance, the most democratic of Heinlein's stories, ends on a paternalistic, God-bless-the-little-people note:
    But there is solemn satisfaction in doing the best you can for eight billion people.  Perhaps their lives have no cosmic significance, but they have feelings.  They can hurt.
    What Heinlein is, of course, is an elitist.  Not only are his central characters Heinlein Individuals, and hence special, but Heinlein most often assigns his lead characters uncommon talents that set them even further apart.  The hero of The Puppet Masters has a camera eye; the hero of Citizen of the Galaxy has an eidetic memory; the hero of Glory Road can unfailingly orient himself; the heroes of "Misfit" and Starman Jones are lightning calculators; the hero of Time for the Stars is a telepath; the hero of Stranger in a Strange Land can do almost anything with mind alone.  Heinlein's elite is one of competence rather than of money or blood, and these special talents, by increasing competence, are added reason for the existence of the elite.  In "Lost Legacy," these super powers are the single characteristic of the elite.
    And of course, when the case for the right of the elite to rule is made, it is generally, as in "Gulf," made on the basis of competence.  Competence proves itself.
    Heinlein carries his elitism beyond individual characters to Man as an animal.  He has a set piece -- Man is "the most ravenous, intolerant, deadly, and successful of the animals in the explored universe" -- that he has presented as a given at least five times:  in The Puppet Masters, Tunnel in the Sky, Starman Jones, Starship Troopers, and in his prophecy article in the April 1956 Amazing where it is stated as an idea that will eventually be generally accepted.
    In Starship Troopers the notion is editorially presented as a problem in morality.  Does Man have the right to breed his way across the universe, filling it to the brim?  The answer is that we will find out.  If we get slapped down, then we didn't have the right.  In other words, what can be gotten away with is "right."  Following the same thought, the female lead in Glory Road is head of the Twenty Universes just as long as her competence keeps her alive; until then her decisions are right. They are automatically carried out because she is acknowledged to be more competent than everybody else.  Someday she will be assassinated and then, because she is dead, she will be wrong, just as Man will be wrong if some other race knocks him off.  This elitism, then, is the source of Heinlein's wolfishness.  The fast-gun morality of Beyond This Horizon is acceptable -- no, desirable -- because it allows competence the chance to demonstrate itself.
    Being four-square for liberty is a very easy and comfortable thing in the abstract.  But in practice, there arise two other questions:  "Liberty for whom?" and "Liberty to do what?"  Heinlein's stories are varied enough so that neither question can be given a final answer that does not allow an exception to be produced.  However, it is my feeling that the importance of liberty to Heinlein comes in relation to his competent men; they require freedom to become fully themselves.  Freedom for the man who cannot stay awake over a page of nuclear physics is less important than for the man with the quick mind and the quick gun simply because the first man is less capable of doing anything with freedom were he to have it.  In other words, freedom is the Heinlein Individual's right to do as he pleases, to make of himself what he can.

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Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee