Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




     Since the main interest of this book is Robert Heinlein's science fiction, I've made no attempt to discuss his articles, lectures and speeches.  However, it is quite true that a number of them are very interesting and have a certain pertinence to his science fiction, and hence deserve some discussion, if only briefly.

    In recent years, science fiction has been a staple item with the large professional publishing houses, but twenty years ago this was not so.  Science fiction was published by minor houses dedicated to digging out favorite stories from old magazines and putting them into hardcovers.  In 1947, one of these houses, Fantasy Press, asked seven of its authors to contribute short articles to a symposium on science fiction writing.  The book, Of Worlds Beyond, was out of print for years and so scarce that its editor could not even locate an extra copy, until it was recently reprinted by Advent:Publishers.
    Robert Heinlein was one of the contributors to Of Worlds Beyond.  His article was entitled "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction."  Although the title implies a general discussion, Heinlein quickly dismisses the gadget story and limits himself to stories about people.  He says that there are three kinds:  boy-meets-girl, The Little Tailor, and the-man-who-learned-better.  He then discusses each of these.  The first and last classes are self-explanatory; The Little Tailor is the story of the man who succeeds or fails spectacularly.
    The main trouble with these classes, from my point of view, is that they are not exclusive.  It isn't at all difficult to imagine a man learning the error of his ways, winning a girl, and succeeding wildly, all in one story.  It also seems unlikely that a story would ever be conceived of in terms of these categories; they strike me as descriptive rather than prescriptive.
    Heinlein then lists the conditions necessary for the making of a science fiction story:  a respect for facts, a difference from the here-and-now essential to the story, and a human problem arising from the difference or affected by it.  And by and large, this seems a good prescriptive list.
    Heinlein concludes his article by discussing professional work habits and saying that these have more to do with successful speculative fiction than anything he had said before.  This, too, strikes me as sound thinking, since there is nothing quite so fruitless as an unwritten story.

    In 1957, lectures were delivered by Heinlein, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Bloch, and Alfred Bester at the University of Chicago on the role of science fiction as social criticism, and in 1959, Advent:Publishers collected and published these lectures in a volume entitled The Science Fiction Novel, with a well-informed introduction by Basil Davenport.  Heinlein's paper is entitled "Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults and Virtues."
    He begins by discussing the inadequacies of most definitions of science fiction, and accepting one by Reginald Bretnor,* which he summarizes:

    [Science fiction is that sort of literature] in which the author shows awareness of the nature and importance of the human activity known as the scientific method, shows equal awareness of the great body of human knowledge already collected through that activity, and takes into account in his stories the effects and possible future effects on human beings of scientific method and scientific fact.
    I don't care for this definition myself -- I much prefer the prescriptive list Heinlein himself set forth in Of Worlds Beyond.  It seems to me that Bretnor's definition would let in not only Arrowsmith, as Davenport points out in his introduction, but Dr. Kildare, as well, and almost any novel about a laboratory or the new rash of stories written by people who have made a quick trip to Cape Kennedy.
    Heinlein then separates fantasy and science fiction.  Fantasy stories, to Heinlein, are imaginary-but-not-possible, while science fiction is realistic and about the possible.  Science fiction can go contrary to theory, but not to fact -- which to me makes Stranger in a Strange Land clearly not science fiction -- while fantasy is always contrary to fact.
    Heinlein then proposes another short definition of science fiction:
    Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.
    Heinlein says this is a definition of almost all science fiction, and to make it complete we simply need strike out the word "future."
    While this definition strikes me somewhat more favorably than Bretnor's does, it seems to me that Heinlein's qualification puts us back in the lab with Dr. Kildare again, and without the qualification, the definition eliminates stories like Poul Anderson's The High Crusade, Piper's Paratime stories, and all of the many stories that have aliens among us disguised as mail boxes.
    Heinlein then goes on to discuss at length science fiction as it is.  Except by accident it is not prophecy, and Heinlein gives examples from his own work to demonstrate this.  He says that most of it is not very good as literature, partly because it is the most difficult sort of prose to write, and that much of it is not even entertaining -- all points that seem to have a large measure of truth to them.
    On the other hand, Heinlein finds science fiction the most alive, most important, most useful and most comprehensive fiction being written today.  He finds its importance in its attempt to deal with the future, that being the only point of time we can affect at all.  The difficulty in writing science fiction is in the body of knowledge it requires and the amount of directed imagination it takes, but since it does deal with change, the most important fact of our world, it is the only form of fiction that has any chance of interpreting our world.  He concludes by saying that science fiction will never be mass entertainment, but that it should increase in amount and quality.
    I don't fully agree with all these points, but I won't quarrel with them.  My summary, no doubt, is unfairly compact, Heinlein's arguments are interesting and they do explain why he should spend his entire career writing almost nothing but science fiction.  Feeling as he does, he could hardly do otherwise.

    In the November 1952 School Library Association of California Bulletin, Robert Heinlein had an article entitled "Ray Guns and Rocket Ships," the general aim of which is to explain science fiction to the unbelievers.  The first section is a historical summary.  In the second section, Heinlein argues for calling the field "speculative fiction," which, he says, "may be defined negatively as being fiction about things that have not happened."  In my opinion, Heinlein takes too big a mouthful here, since almost all fiction can be defined as being about things that have not happened.  Heinlein goes on to make a case for the necessity of a wide field of knowledge for the writing and for the judging of science fiction.  Finally, Heinlein speaks of children and science fiction.  He says that science fiction for children ought to be of interest to adults, too, since "a book so juvenile that it will insult the intelligence of adults is quite likely to insult the intelligence of the kids," a refreshing stand to take.  He says that his children's sf is marked from his adult fiction in two ways:  "I place a little less emphasis on boy-meets-girl and a little more emphasis on unadulterated science."
    The article is also noteworthy for the following preview of later things:

    You would not expect a Martian to be named Smith.  (Say -- how about a story about a Martian named 'Smith?'  Ought to make a good short.  Hmmm--)
    On two separate occasions -- in the February 1952 issue of Galaxy, and in the April 1956 issue of Amazing -- Robert Heinlein has published articles attempting to predict something of the world of 2000 A.D.  The Amazing article was quite short, the article in Galaxy more detailed.
    The Galaxy article begins with contrasting looks at the world of 1900 and the world of 2000.  Heinlein then says that his predictions -- various gadgets, household nudity, etc. -- are really quite timid, and that in actual fact we can expect changes in the next fifty years that are at least eight times as great as the changes of the past fifty years.
    In light of this contention, Heinlein makes nineteen predictions, none of them particularly timid, justifying his lack of caution by saying that while some of these predictions will be wrong, timid predictions are certain to be wrong.  His predictions include a solution to the housing problem through revolutionary technology by 1967, the disappearance of Communism, controlled gravity, and the discovery of intelligent life on Mars.
    He continues with a list of things we won't have:  travel faster than light, laboratory creation of life, a permanent end to war, and scientific proof of survival after death.  (This last, in particular, seems to reflect one of Heinlein's personal concerns.)
    Heinlein concludes with a brief discussion of new areas of concern in science, and science's greatest crisis:  keeping tabs on the information we do have so that it can be used.
    In 1966, in the collection The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, this article was reprinted under the title "Pandora's Box."  The list of prophecies at the end of the original article was commented upon and brought up to date, and a new foreword to the article was included in which, among other things, Heinlein says, "the science fiction writer -- any fiction writer -- must keep entertainment consciously in mind as his prime purpose," a dictum I wish he had paid closer attention to in recent years.
    The Amazing article is a retrospective look from the year 2000, listing advances.  His predictions include the use of telepathy and clairvoyance for military purposes, acceptance of man's nature as a wild animal and the toughest creature in these parts (a favorite Heinlein notion), and -- reversing the position taken in the earlier article -- a certainty of survival after death.

    In April of 1958, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy ran an ad in a number of newspapers across the country calling on the President to end our testing of nuclear weapons.  On Sunday, April 13, Robert Heinlein and his wife answered it in a full-page ad in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph headlined:

Who Are The Heirs Of Patrick Henry?
Stand Up And Be Counted!

    The ad is laced with the following quotations in boldface:

    Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God!  I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!!
    The Mice Voted to Bell the Cat.
    "Will you walk into my parlor?" said the Spider to the Fly.
    God grants liberty only to those who love it and are always ready to guard and defend it.
    They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
    The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil Constitution, are worth defending at all hazards.
    Heinlein states that whether or not those signing the Sane Committee ad are Communists, the ad itself is the rankest sort of Communist propaganda, and he rejects its three proposals.  Giving up nuclear weapons leaves 170 million of us to stand against 900 million of them.  Other-than-on-the-spot-inspection leaves the Russians free to conduct secret and undetectable underground bomb tests.  And putting missiles under United Nations control is likewise folly.  To Heinlein, the Sane Committee proposals amount to outright surrender to the Communists:  "Those who signed that manifesto have made their choice; consciously or unconsciously they prefer enslavement to death."  He suggests that those who agree with him write to the President calling on Mr. Eisenhower to ignore the Sane Committee proposals -- and he provides a letter for people to copy and sign if they wish.  He also suggests the foundation of "The Patrick Henry League" to prove that the Spirit of '76 is not dead.
    Heinlein's ad, it seems to me, is very definitely related to his fiction, particularly that from his third period.  It reflects his concern with liberty, it couches moral matters in black-and-white terms, and it is clearly polemical.  Its closest fictional relatives are probably The Puppet Masters, Farnham's Freehold, and Starship Troopers.  Starship Troopers, in fact, was the first Heinlein novel to be written after Heinlein's ad and it seems an attempt to make many of the same arguments in fictional form.

    On two occasions, Robert Heinlein has been Guest of Honor at World Science Fiction Conventions -- at the Third Convention, held in Denver in 1941, and at the Nineteenth Convention, held in Seattle twenty years later.  On both of these occasions Heinlein delivered speeches of interest, and the second quite deliberately examines some of the same territory as the first.
    The 1941 speech was a rambling discussion entitled "The Discovery of the Future."  The major portion of it is given up to the importance of being concerned with the future -- not just a few days, but as great a period as can be imagined.  Heinlein labels this "time-binding," a term he credits to Korzybski, and says this concern is the activity that most strongly separates humans from other animals.
    Heinlein then makes predictions for the immediate years ahead:  mass insanity and a series of wars lasting up to fifty years.  The one thing that would serve as self-protection for the human race would be the use of the scientific method -- the only basis for sanity being to distinguish facts and non-facts clearly.
    This concern for facts above all else, of course, has been a distinguishing characteristic of Heinlein's fiction from the very first.
    The 1961 speech was entitled "The Future Revisited," and was extremely rambling and apparently extemporaneous.  It begins with a claim that the mass insanity and wars predicted twenty years earlier have actually transpired.
    Heinlein then divides the possible futures he sees for us into two groups:  an unlikely 10% -- the sun going nova, Khrushchev becoming a Christian, peace in the world -- and a likely 90%.  In this 90%, there are exactly three possibilities:  Russia destroys us in a war; we collapse internally and give up to Russia; or we and Russia destroy each other and China wins.  In any case, no matter which of these possibilities comes to pass, one-third of us die.
    Heinlein's attitude is that since we are going to lose in any case, we might as well go down fighting.  We ought to stock bomb shelters -- something Heinlein himself has done since -- and acquire unregistered weapons, and then die as gloriously as possible.
    The relation of these ideas to Heinlein's fiction -- again particularly that of his third period -- is obvious.  Hugh Farnham of Farnham's Freehold is an example of a character who has followed Heinlein's advice to the letter.
    At this point, Heinlein strikes off on a new tangent, listing three things that are of supreme importance to him -- he says he would not jail anyone, enslave anyone (he includes the draft as a form of slavery), or suppress information.  He states this as his mature opinion since, he says, in his adult lifetime he has commanded conscripts, sent people to jail, and stamped information secret.
    Of the three things vital to him, Heinlein picks one -- free circulation of information -- as one of the reasons for his opposition to Communism, and tells of experiences traveling in Russia that convinced him that the Russians do toy with the truth.  Many of the same anecdotes, by the way, are recounted in an article by Heinlein in the October 1960 issue of the American Mercury, an article worth reading, if for no other reason, for the report of a quizzing in a Kazakstan commissar's office in which Heinlein got thoroughly mad and Mrs. Heinlein started pointing out the location of slave labor camps on the map.
    The major difference between the two speeches as I read one and heard the other is a hardening on Heinlein's part that seems reflected in his fiction.  The 1941 Heinlein is a more tentative, less dogmatic, and more approachable man than the self he shows in his later speech.  The change, I think, has hurt his fiction, and is to be regretted.

Bibliography - Heinlein's Non-Fiction

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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.

*Modern Science Fiction, p. 273.  [Back]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee