Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



3. The Heinlein Individual 

     To an extent, the chief characters of any writer are likely to resemble their creator.  As the character is the child of his creator, he resembles him.  As a writer assigns his own opinions, attitudes and interests to a sympathetic character, so the character is likely to sound like him.  This does not happen in the case of every man who writes, but it isn't uncommon in the case of a writer like Heinlein who has a distinct point of view to sell, and it is to this extent that I believe the Heinlein Individual resembles Heinlein himself. 
    The Heinlein Individual has three central characteristics: his strength, his singularity, and his ability to teach himself. 
    All three stages of the Heinlein Individual are strong and competent.  The youngest stage may be ignorant and naive but that is an accident of youth and not a character deficiency.  Young Andrew Jackson Libby, the protagonist of Heinlein's second story, "Misfit," is an example:  he is innocent and ignorant, but at the same time he is bright, has a special talent (lightning calculation), and is both eager to learn and eager to please. 
    The naiveté of the first-stage Heinlein Individual leads him into error from which he is commonly extracted by his competence after he learns what he has to know.  This makes him ripe for a "Man-Who-Leaned-Better" situation.  John Lyle, who learns that the Prophet is not above question in "If This Goes On--," is one example and so is Don Harvey, the young hero of Between Planets who learns that there are times when political neutrality is not possible. 
    Since the first-stage Heinlein Individual is so often a sheep ripe for shearing, Heinlein has almost always provided him with a mentor in the form of an older Heinlein Individual.  Michael Smith of Stranger in a Strange Land might well serve as an example of the supreme innocent -- he has been brought up by Martians and knows nothing about human ways -- and he has Jubal Harshaw, a man who is a doctor, a lawyer, and a popular writer, in short a man who knows all the essential things about human ways, to serve as his tutor.  In the same way, Don Harvey falls under the wing of cynical old Dr. Jefferson, a Thorby has his Colonel Baslim, and John Lyle has Zeb Jones. 
    Zeb Jones, "the wiseacre without whom no Heinlein story is complete," to quote Damon Knight,* is an archetypical second-stage Heinlein Individual, the competent man in full bloom.  This stage is less eager, more cynical, more likely to make a wisecrack than to rush out to save the world.  The cynicism, no doubt, is the result of the destroyed past illusions of a former first-stage Heinlein Individual.  Jones himself is a master psychologist, master fencer, master of palace politics; he knows everything that his protégé, Lyle, needs to learn. 
    In the same way, in Starman Jones, young Jones is taken in hand by Sam Anderson who wipes his nose, gets Jones' appearance changed, procures false papers for them both, tutors Jones and sneaks him aboard a starship.  And Anderson knows his way around a starship well enough to keep Jones from suffering for his ignorance.  Anderson even dies while rescuing Jones from trouble he has fallen into. 
    Perhaps the best description of the abilities of the second-stage Heinlein Individual comes from Beyond This Horizon:

    "I could set you down on an island peopled by howling savages and dangerous animals -- in two weeks you would own the place. . . .  You've got the physique and the mentality and the temperament."
    The third-stage Heinlein Individual, perhaps because he has lost his energy, perhaps simply because he has lived longer, is even more cynical: 
    "My dear, I used to think I was serving humanity . . . and I pleasured in the thought.  Then I discovered that humanity does not want to be served; on the contrary it resents any attempt to serve it.  So now I do what pleases Jubal Harshaw."
    The major difference, however, between a Zeb Jones and a Colonel Dubois is that a Jones knows how things work, while a Dubois knows why, as well.  This makes him an even more effective mentor, and this is the role a third-stage Heinlein Individual most often takes.  Jubal Harshaw, the mentor of Michael Smith, the human Martian, is the one human who knows enough to explain things to Smith and, moreover, is the one human who knows enough to "grok the fullness" without knowing Martian. 
    This third stage serves as mentor not only to his young innocent counterpart but to his knowledgeable second-stage self as well.  For instance, the head of the super-secret intelligence organization in The Puppet Masters is both father and mentor to the book's narrator, who is his chief agent.  In "Waldo," Waldo is given advice by old Dr. Grimes, the one person he will listen to. 
    This continuing mentorship even forms a chain in several books, third stage lecturing second stage, and then second stage passing on advice to first stage, like a little girl solemnly telling her dolly to look both ways before crossing.  Beyond This Horizon is one example.  The third stage is Mordan Claude, District Moderator for Genetics and wise old man, who regularly counsels the novel's chief character, Hamilton Felix.  Hamilton (the man with the physique, mentality and temperament to rule that wild island) in turn serves as advisor to his friend, Monroe-Alpha Clifford, who is an innocent for all his competence as an economist, and needs to be kept out of trouble. 
    There are, of course, clear intermediate examples of Heinlein Individuals.  The narrator of Farmer in the Sky is not naive enough to be called a pure stage one, and his friend and sometime-mentor, Hank Jones, is not quite knowing or cynical enough to be a pure stage two.  Roger Stone of The Rolling Stones and Hugh Farnham of Farnham's Freehold seem to fall somewhere between stage two and stage three. 
    More than this, however, in two Heinlein stories we are given a view of a single character at all three stages -- and serving as mentor to himself in full view, besides.  The stories are "By His Bootstraps" and " 'All You Zombies--,' " both time travel stories. 
    In "By His Bootstraps," the hero, Bob Wilson, finds himself counseled by successive older selves, from slightly-more-knowledgeable to wise-old-man-who-knows-both-how-and-why.  Then he himself inevitably acts out the roles he has already witnessed. 
    " 'All You Zombies--' " is more sophisticated and, in fact, very neatly symbolizes all the points we have considered.  The first-stage ego of the story is a young girl, competent and ambitious, but innocent.  The second stage (male) knows how the world wags but not why.  He passes through time to meet his former female self and initiates her sexually, thereby ending her innocence.  (And a more explicit sort of mentorship I can't imagine.)  The third-stage ego, much older, knows why things have happened as they have.  In his role as mentor he makes what has come before possible, including the ending of the innocence of his first self by his second and his own birth. 
    If there is one wish that all men have had at one time or another, it is that they might be able to go back and avoid the mistakes they once made and so save themselves a lot of pain.  Heinlein has the perfect way to do this:  his Individual, no matter the number of different guises he appears in, is one single character who quite conveniently serves as teacher to himself.  In this way the man who has learned better can alert his naive self and save him the cost of his mistakes.  The world may have to be tied into knots to allow the Heinlein Individual to prevail, but that is quite all right since he is the single, solitary real thing in an essentially unreal world.  The world exists for him, not he for the world. 

4. Unreality 

    Sheer continued existence seems to be something that is tremendously important to Heinlein, and a guarantee of it a necessary reassurance.  His character Hamilton Felix in Beyond This Horizon, for instance, takes the promise of life after death in the form of reincarnation as the only thing that gives life any point.  The form of continued existence does vary, however, from one story to the next. 
    The easiest way is for his characters simply not to die.  Suspended animation takes care of this in several of his stories -- in Tunnel in the Sky suspended animation is used to keep a dying man alive long enough for techniques to save him to be developed, and this same suspended animation is brought into several other stories.  Methuselah's Children is about nothing else than length of life:  extension of it first by breeding for longevity and then by purely medical means.  A psychological need for the postponement of death seems to grip the characters in the story to the point of monomania, as though the calm acceptance of death were not possible.  One character, in fact, having lived about two hundred years and feeling death impending, chooses to give up her individuality and become part of a group mind simply to be able to avoid extinction. 
    In "Elsewhen," a Heinlein character says (supplying his own italics),

    "When you die, you won't die all over, no matter how intensely you may claim to expect to.  It is an emotional impossibility for any man to believe in his own death."
    So, admitting the possibility of death of a sort, Heinlein has mitigated it in several ways.  Ghosts are one way -- they linger on and in lingering deny the finality of death.  The only flaw is that the power of the ghost to influence things through his continued existence is severely limited, so when Heinlein has introduced ghosts, they have been Martian ghosts (in Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land) rather than human ones. 
    Another way Heinlein has found of mitigating death is reincarnation, which, of course, does allow for effective action beyond death and so is suitable for Heinlein Individuals.  Heinlein makes reincarnation an important minor thread of Beyond This Horizon, but his use of it in Stranger in a Strange Land is more revealing:  in that story Martians become ghosts but human worthies are reincarnated. 
    As important as this denial of the reality of death is, however, just as important is a denial of the reality of the world, the only thing that can make the first denial meaningful.  It is by his singular ability to transcend the bounds of the world that the Heinlein Individual demonstrates his difference from other humans.  For instance, Waldo, in the story named after him, is able to make the world what he wants it to be by simply thinking it so and forcing his idea on everyone else.  Similarly, in "Elsewhen" it is possible for the story protagonists to leave this world and travel to any number of other aspects of reality by thinking proper thoughts.  It is by success that the Heinlein Individual reveals himself, including success in Heinlein's brand of transcendentalism. 
    With this in mind, it is interesting to look at one of the few quotations from Shakespeare that Heinlein has used in his stories. The quotation is particularly interesting since Heinlein has introduced it no less than four times -- in Between Planets, Double Star, Have Space Suit--Will Travel, and Farnham's Freehold. The speech is from The Tempest and in full goes:  Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
    This, of course, is a flat denial of the reality of the world.  It is interesting, moreover, that for all that Heinlein has quoted from the passage, he has not quoted the last sentence.  In other words, he is quite willing to chalk off the world but people are not quite so easily disposed of.  In fact, at the time of the quotation's use in Have Space Suit--Will Travel, there is a threat that our world will be destroyed:  the story protagonist -- who has just done the quoting -- says, apparently against all logic: 
    "All right, take away our star--  You will if you can and I guess you can.  Go ahead!  We'll make a star!  Then, someday, we'll come back and hunt you down -- all of you!"
In other words, the world may end, but wolfish men will survive. 
    The ultimately "real" Heinlein Individual, however, is the solipsist.  A solipsist is a person who starts as Descartes did, with "I think, therefore I am," and then is unable to go further.  He knows that he is, that he exists, but is not sure that the rest of us think and so is forced to doubt our reality; the world then becomes the conscious or unconscious product of the solipsist himself, the only real thing that exists.  Heinlein played with the notion in Beyond This Horizon (which, remember, also deals with reincarnation).  In this story it is suggested that the world is a game and all the characters of the story pieces in the game, some of them automatic and some not: 
    You locked up your memory, and promised not to look, then played through the part you had picked with just the rules assigned to that player.
    Solipsism forms the core of the short stories "They" and " 'All You Zombies--.' "  In these stories the central point is not just that the main characters are solipsists -- not so strange since many solipsists have lived and died since the world began -- but that their solipsism is justified.  They are, in fact, the points around which all the universe revolves. 
    A quotation from the central character of "They" may serve to sum up the essence of all Heinlein Individuals who outlive their worlds: 
    "Second only to the prime datum of my own existence [I think, therefore I am] is the emotionally convincing certainty of my own continuity.  I may be a closed curve, but, closed or open, I neither have a beginning nor an end.  Self-awareness is not relational; it is absolute, and cannot be reached to be destroyed, or created."
    It does not matter too much how, but the Heinlein Individual always goes on existing. 

5. Import 

    To draw the threads together, then, the Heinlein Individual can be seen as the one real thing in an unreal world, quite naturally seeking to do as he pleases.  You might even say that it is by doing as he pleases that he demonstrates his reality.  Without his liberty, the Heinlein Individual becomes indistinguishable from the other shades and shadows that inhabit the worlds he plays his games in; with it he rules his worlds and survives their passing.  And this is an indication of the basis as well as the limits of both Heinlein's elitism and his libertarianism. 
    Stranger in a Strange Land neatly demonstrates every one of the points that I have made.  All men in this story are not equal.  Some are real and some are not.  The unreal ones are children of this world and perish with it; the real ones live after and added together form the only God there is.  The theme of the book is, "All which groks is God," grokking being the ultimate understanding of why things are as they are, and Jubal Harshaw, the wise-old-man Heinlein Individual, being the ultimate example of one who groks.  If you extrapolate this set to cover all of Heinlein's fiction and understand that the Heinlein Individual, no matter what story he is in, always groks, then the point should be clear. 
    " 'It is an emotional impossibility' " -- Heinlein says -- " 'for any man to believe in his own death.' "  I doubt very strongly that this is true, but I suspect that it is true of Heinlein himself, who has, at the least, much in common with his Heinlein Individual.  I suspect, too, that on an emotional level, Heinlein may be sure of his own abilities and suspicious of the abilities of the ordinary man.  To this extent, I would call him an emotional solipsist.  Intellectually he may still question, but his emotional inclinations, as demonstrated in story after story, are set. 
    In view of this, Farnham's Freehold takes on added interest.  In this story, for all that the Heinlein Individual retains his competence he does not succeed.  He is frustrated at every turn.  Far from transcending the universe, he is subject to its whims, being flicked willy-nilly through time and from situation to situation, through all of which he remains essentially powerless.  The Individual, Hugh Farnham, speaks continually of freedom and liberty, which, as usual, can be taken to mean the opportunity to do as he pleases.  And the story as a whole can be taken as the search on Farnham's part for the simple situation that other Heinlein Individuals have had as a matter of course -- a universe in which to be God.  That universe, when he does find it and surrounds it with mines and barbed wire to keep it inviolate, is such a constricted pea patch as to be almost a symbol of failure.  The story itself may symbolize the failure of Heinlein's longheld belief in the ability of the competent man to prevail eternally.  If that belief has truly been lost, I cannot say for certain what will follow:  perhaps the end of the Heinlein Individual.  The essentially impotent spectator-narrator of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress may perhaps be a sign of this. 

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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. 77  [Back]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee