Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

The Death of Science Fiction: A Dream

        Part 4

At the least, it must be clear that science fiction is not the same now as it was when it was young and modern and realistic, and no problems lay beyond its practical methods and all-competent self-confidence.

The problem with mid-Twentieth Century modern science fiction is that it is the product of mid-Twentieth Century beliefs, mid-Twentieth Century attitudes, mid-Twentieth Century science, and mid-Twentieth Century world conditions. And that is all. This was an essential strength at mid-century, but now it is a fatal disease. Modern science fiction must die of it in the late Twentieth Century, with its very different beliefs and attitudes, its different standards of knowledge, and its very different problems which we see so excruciatingly presented in contemporary SF novels.

Each era produces its own form of mythic literature—its own SF—in which the dreams, the thoughts, the hopes and the fears of the culture are written in the largest possible letters so that everyone may see them. SF is sacred drama. It takes different forms in different times and places, altering as the times alter.

Modern science fiction leaped into being at the end of the Thirties—at exactly one of those moments when the times were altering and one fundamental vision of the ordering of society and the universe was giving way to another. Modern science fiction was the epitomal expression of the new mid-Twentieth Century American vision, rational and pragmatic and pluralistic, that was precipitated by the experiences of the Great Depression.

Every era has its own special vision of the laws that underlie and harmonize all the multiplicity and fragmentation that apparently surrounds us. Each such vision is a paradigm, an elaborate construction of fact and belief that makes it possible to do certain things and perceive certain things, and impossible to see and do others.

The era that was passing then was the Age of Invention, the period from the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 to the outbreak of World War II in late 1939. This was the tophat-and-tails late-Victorian and early-Twentieth Century world of Thomas Edison and H. G. Wells. the same world that is on display in Upstairs, Downstairs, the British series about declining aristocrats and their upwardly-mobile servants before, during and after World War I.

According to the late-Victorian vision, the order of the world was this: The laws of nature were rigid and deterministic and made no special provision for mankind. The universe was driven by inexorable historical and evolutionary forces of growth and decay. There was only one possible history, only one predetermined future, only one line of development for humans and non-humans alike. And there was an innate hierarchy of superiority based on positions in that development.

If you weren't where you belonged, you clawed and scratched to get where you did belong. And if anyone else tried to scramble up onto your rung of the ladder, you kicked him off again. Likewise, however, given the chance, someone higher up the ladder would do the same for you.

The Victorian vision can be seen in full mythic form in the classic scientific romances of H. G. Wells, written at the end of the Nineteenth Century. The Time Machine took leap upon leap of ever-increasing size into the future, and found there, inevitably and inexorably waiting, the prospect of human extinction and the guttering out of the sun. The War of the Worlds offered an intimation of how the human end might come, at the hands of superiorly-evolved creatures sweeping down on us from out of the cosmic void.

The Victorian order was very hard on people, particularly those without power. The Social Darwinism of the era expected men to struggle to show their fitness to survive. This viewpoint led to the competitive assembling of great colonial empires by the European nations, and from there, almost inevitably, to the immense historical contention of World War I. Victorian attitudes could send millions of men over the trench-tops to be indifferently gunned down or gassed. And they were the excuse for widespread indifference to massive economic suffering at the outset of the Great Depression.

In the first part of the late-Victorian era, in its period of empirebuilding expansiveness and relative optimism, a great deal of SF was written, particularly in England and in Europe. But after the seeming confirmation of Wells' dark prophecies in World War I, European SF writers could not bear to continue writing mythic visions. In the course of the Thirties, European SF writing and publishing became all but extinct.

SF was not much better off in Britain after World War I. At the beginning of the Thirties, what England could offer in the way of SF was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men. Huxley foresaw an awful, automated, drug-sodden, genetically-programed, all-for-your-own-good, hierarchical hell. Stapledon. who carried the historical and evolutionary themes of the Victorian vision to their furthest extent, dreamed of man's future as no less than eighteen evolutionary metamorphoses, the last of these being winged beings living on Neptune. But there Stapledon's vision faltered. He could not imagine man making the leap to the stars, but saw him as inexorably doomed to extinction.

The one place that SF survived in the latter part of the late-Victorian era was in the American pulp scientifiction magazines. These magazines were organized around the principle of envisioning the wonders of man's future progress, specifically future technology. One of these dreams was travel to the stars in spaceships.

In 1930 or 1935, it was not yet possible to deny the Victorian vision of mankind's ultimate evolutionary decline. But it was possible to ignore it and concentrate on the nearer future—those centuries of exploration and adventure before racial senility set in.

To any properly grave and judicious Victorian eye, scientifiction—this peculiarly American form of imaginative literature—must have seemed a crude and juvenile sort of fantasy. Pure wish-fulfillment in the face of the true cold hard facts of life. However, in appropriate Victorian fashion, scientifiction was a survivor. At the very same moment that European writers were dropping SF, that Huxley was blanching at the future, and Stapledon was balking at the stars, American writers of juvenile scientifiction fantasy like E. E. Smith and Edmond Hamilton were dreaming dreams of intergalactic adventure.

It was out of this special line of imaginative literature—three frail American pulp magazines, sometimes more but usually three, irregularly published, storm-tossed by the Depression—that modern science fiction emerged at the end of the Thirties. The new vision of which modern science fiction was the mythic expression, came into place in American society during the period 1937 to 1939, as a reaction to the rigidity and fatalism that had led to the disasters of World War I and the Depression.

Never again. There must be new ways and new thoughts. And so there were.

In the mid-Twentieth Century American vision, the only eternal "laws of nature" were the simple rules of physical science, like E = mc2. In this new view, there were no great cosmic fiats that man was helpless to evade. Instead, natural laws were seen as the building-blocks of the universe, those rules of form and function that man could manipulate to his own advantage.

A good description of the attitude of the new mid-Twentieth Century order is given near the end of "The Number of the Beast—". Jubal Harshaw is dictating a story, and says:
"As I once heard Andrew—that's my disappearing brother—say: 'Life consists in accommodating oneself to the Universe.' Although the rest of our family has never taken that view. We believe in forcing the Universe to accommodate itself to us. It's all a question of which is to be master."
This vision is an inherently pluralistic and contentious point of view. By this ordering of value, what matters is competence, command of fact, and getting the job done. In this world, knowledge of physical law and the way things work is the ultimate source of power, and not your parents' social standing.

The metaphors for expressing this new vision in mythic terms, the bits and pieces out of which modern science fiction would be assembled, were all developed within the context of the late-Victorian scientifiction of the Thirties: multiple worlds, alien creatures to play with, and limitless scientific power.

In the great space epics written by E. E. Smith and the young John W. Campbell, Jr. at the beginning of the Thirties, men went forth in giant spaceships—inconceivably vast technological constructions—armed with blasters and ray guns, ready to zap even evolutionarily-superior aliens, if need be. And these ships discovered a plurality of worlds. In Stanley Weinbaum's stories of planetary treks written during the mid-Thirties, humans were to demonstrate that the alien inhabitants of other worlds need not be hostile and superior, but merely different. And in the stories that he published during the later Thirties under the name "Don A. Stuart," John W. Campbell deliberately set out to attack the givens of Victorian SF in a scientific manner, armed with the principles of the new probabilistic physics he had studied in college and an emerging sense of the values of the coming vision.

But we should bear in mind that these ancestral stories of modern science fiction were not altogether typical of Thirties' scientifiction. Far more common were stories of invasions of Earth by hostile aliens, stories of scientist-inventors and their beautiful daughters, and fanciful satires of the Victorian vision that criticized the Victorian world without offering an alternative. There were stories of excursions into misty dimensions of another order than our own, and stories in which the Earth proved to be the egg of some evolutionarily advanced space-dwelling creature, and hatched. In Thirties' SF, travel to other worlds was far more commonly achieved by dimensional warp, or matter transmitter, or astral projection, than by spaceship.

At best, the new imaginary universe of interplanetary adventure posited by Smith and Campbell, Weinbaum and Williamson was some special case that might be partially exempt from the old dictatorial laws of the Victorian cosmos. But it still remained for the new principles developed in these stories to be recognized as universally applicable, the basis for a new vision capable of superseding the exhausted and discredited Victorian mythos that was no longer worthy of being believed in.

Then, as if it were fated, in September 1937, John W. Campbell. the young critic of the Victorian vision, became the editor of Astounding Stories, one of the three scientifiction magazines then in existence and the only monthly. Almost the first thing that Campbell did was to change the name of the magazine to Astounding Science-Fiction. A sign of intent. And the times were with him. in the spring of 1938, F. Orlin Tremaine, who was Campbell's predecessor as editor of Astounding and his overseer in his new job, left the publishing company and Campbell was given leave to do with the magazine what he wished. He was free to turn it into the first magazine of modern science fiction.

But one more piece was necessary, the key to the essential change in vision. And Campbell found it. In the August 1938 issue of Astounding, Campbell published the climactic story in his series of Don A. Stuart experiments—"Who Goes There?", the first story of modern science fiction.

In "Who Goes There?" a powerful, superior, shape-shifting alien monster is discovered frozen in the Antarctic ice, a horror straight out of H. G. Wells and H. P. Lovecraft that humans instinctively fear and loathe. This creature can take on the appearance of men. If it escapes, it can take over the whole world.

The problem is an essentially Victorian problem. But the answer to it is the mid-Twentieth Century solution. What defeats this horrendous being is not fortuitous accident, like the disease that suddenly overcomes the Martian invaders in The War of the Worlds. It is rather a calm faith in scientific law and its universal applicability: whatever higher powers this alien may possess, it is still vulnerable to detection and defeat by the simple physical facts of its own biochemistry and native environment.

Here was the insight necessary to take all the scattered new ideas and notions and inklings of the day and turn them into a new vision of order and purpose. The new prime rule was command of fact and knowledge of scientific law. Anyone armed with that rule had a grip on the real world and was competent to write real genuine science fiction as opposed to old-fashioned fantasy-tinged scientifiction.

Anyone who shared Campbell's new vision was welcome within the pages of Astounding, but all the writers who didn't were invited to leave. There was useful work to be done—the basic engineering job of converting the old symbols and assumptions of Victorian SF into the terms of the new vision.

In the spring of 1939, Campbell started a second magazine, Unknown, the magazine of rational fantasy. Unknown was a companion to Astounding and largely shared a common audience with it.

In one sense, the magazine was intended to serve as a contrast to AstoundingUnknown's fantasy serving to set off all the more clearly the disciplined realism of the modern science fiction of Astounding. But, in another sense, Unknown was the complement and partner to Astounding in the good work of turning the materials of former imaginative literature into the new mid-Twentieth Century terms. The classic Unknown short novel was generally a story of an aw-shucks American manipulating rules of logic or laws of magic to travel into a storybook dimension and back.

In 1938 and 1939, Campbell gathered around him the new writers—mostly engineers, and newspapermen, and trade journalists, and science fiction fans—who would write for the reborn Astounding and Unknown. By the end of 1939, Campbell had published stories by Lester del Rey, L. Sprague de Camp, Clifford Simak, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, A. E. van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein. Theodore Sturgeon and Fritz Leiber. As fast as modern science fiction was born, the Golden Age was on!

The good work that these new writers of the Golden Age were launched upon was the translation of Victorian SF into modern science fiction, and the presentation of a new ordering of the universe. The universe as perceived by the new practical-minded mid-Twentieth Century generation was an assemblage of disparate pieces, each with its own nature and purposes.

By this view, unlike the Victorian, objects and beings might interact with one another in complex ways—like the particles of atomic physics—but they were not caught up and bound together in a single, shared destiny. In this new view, history was not a deterministic evolutionary unfolding, but rather the record of separate, local social processes. Evolutionary fitness was no longer to be understood as all-around superiority, but rather as those particular, specialized qualities that might enable an individual creature to survive.

There was a key, however—a common denominator—to resolve all this individuality, specialization and fragmentation. It was the insight arrived at by "Don A. Stuart" in "Who Goes There?": the universal applicability of simple, rationally comprehensible physical laws. The fundamental underlying assumption of modern science fiction has been that no matter how complex and subtle the behavioral patterns of living creatures and societies may appear, it is possible to cut through all that complexity to the basic simple facts of mechanical process and bodily survival. The genuinely superior being is the man (or alien creature) who is ready to recognize the true facts and willing to apply them.

As Heinlein has it in "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long" in Time Enough for Love:
What are the facts? Again and again and again—what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget "what the stars foretell," avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable "verdict of history"—what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!
The three writers who were most useful to John Campbell in the task of converting previous imaginative fiction into these new terms were Isaac Asimov, A. E. van Vogt, and Robert Heinlein. If these three have been the major figures of modern science fiction, it is precisely because they performed the most central work. It was they who reconceived the nature of human history, the relationship of man to technology, and the future evolution of mankind in the new mid-Twentieth Century terms.

Isaac Asimov was a precocious young Brooklyn college student and science fiction fan who wanted nothing more in all the world than the opportunity to learn from John Campbell. Campbell recognized Asimov's eagerness to learn, took him under his wing, and set him to his own purposes.

As Asimov puts it today:
Though others still younger came his way later, I don't think that ever in his career did he have an acolyte less worldly and more naive than I was. I believe that amused him and that it pleased him to have so excellent an opportunity to do a bit of molding. At any rate, I have always thought that of all his writers I was his favorite and that he spent more time and effort on me than on anyone else. And I believe that it still shows.
What Campbell got for his investment was an able tool. Asimov has been a living demonstration of what a man given the facts can make of himself, rising from an immigrant child tending his father's candystore in Brooklyn to a Ph.D. in chemistry, and from there to his present position of universal expert in absolutely everything.

Asimov carried out two jobs in particular for Campbell. One was the rationalization of the robot, the other the Foundation series.

In Victorian SF, robots were powerful and inhuman, the embodiments of inexorable evolutionary forces. They were much given to challenging the evolutionary fitness of their makers and attempting to overtopple them. However, the "Laws of Robotics" that Campbell and Asimov worked out together provided a simple, logically-comprehensible basis for the thought-processes of robots. In story after story, Asimov showed that any robotic behavior, no matter how bizarre, hostile or irrational it might seem, could be derived from and altered by these three rules.

Having placed the most sophisticated fruits of man's technology under his control, Asimov turned to the subject of human society in its most sweeping form, the galactic empire. The idea of the galactic empire had first appeared in the SF of the Thirties, representing an attempt to squeeze the new materials of interplanetary adventure into the Victorian schema of historical progress and decay. But after the changeover to modern science fiction, the concept of galactic empires largely dropped out of SF—at least until Asimov wrote his Foundation stories. In these stories, Asimov treated human societies as he had robots, subjecting them to universal "laws"—the mathematical rules of "Psychohistory." As in the old Victorian SF, Asimov's galactic empire might be subject to fall, but under Asirnov's laws, this was given as the inevitable—but purely temporary—result of normal human political balances and interactions, and not as the consequence of irreversible biological decline.

The most singular of the new writers of the Golden Age was A. E. van Vogt, older than Asirnov by eight years. Van Vogt was a journeyman writer, a Canadian, who had read Amazing Stories as a teenager, but dropped it in 1930. He had had nothing to do with scientifiction since, until one day in 1938 when he casually picked up an issue of Astounding on the newsstand and began to look through it. By significant coincidence, the story he picked to read was "Who Goes There?" Van Vogt was hooked. As soon as he had finished reading it, van Vogt wrote off to Campbell with a story idea of his own—not knowing the editor to be the author of the story that had so impressed him. Campbell wrote back to encourage van Vogt, and his career was begun.

If van Vogt was special, it was because he thought and wrote like no one else during the Golden Age. Van Vogt was a man with no sense of the specific, a man with no sensitivity to detail, a man capable of populating the far future with Studebaker cars. Fact and the extrapolation of fact, so central to most modern science fiction, meant nothing to van Vogt at all.

On the other hand, this blindness of van Vogt's was more than offset by his acute sensitivity to general cases and underlying regularities of process, those universal constants that could make the alien monster in "Who Goes There?" vulnerable to men armed with a knowledge of earthly fact. By analogy with the mathematical formulations of physics, Asirnov called these regularities "laws." Van Vogt, who had his own name for everything, called them "thought systems."

The central question to which van Vogt applied his "thought systems" was the Victorian problem of evolutionary superiority. Van Vogt was fascinated by the possibility of superior beings—but was unable to accept the undifferentiated Victorian definition of superiority that said superior is superior, and that's that.

In his first few stories—all directly inspired by "Who Goes There?"—van Vogt presented one alien creature after another far advanced beyond man in terms of physical power, intelligence and ruthlessness, but in each case crippled and limited by an inability to see past personal appetites and a local frame of reference. In van Vogt's first published SF story, "Black Destroyer." for instance, men armed with a knowledge of Oswald Spengler's classic Victorian account of the decay of societies, The Decline of the West, are able to use this thought system, this broader perspective, to set a powerful but decadent Victorian-style ravening monster on his ear.

But van Vogt soon moved on from this to his true major theme superman. man transformed, man beyond man In one story after another, like the novels Slan and The World of Null-A, van Vogt presented men evolved past the level of current humanity—men with an increased capacity for systematic thinking, and men whom systematic thinking has altered.

If Asimov was Campbell's chief disciple, and van Vogt was unique, it was Robert Heinlein, the third major writer of modern science fiction, who was the brilliant star performer of the Golden Age. Heinlein was the one writer of modern science fiction whose version of the new understanding was comparable to John W. Campbell in its scope and completeness.

In his fiction, Heinlein presented an ideal type for the age—the competent man. And Heinlein was the competent man embodied. He had had formal education in science, engineering and mathematics. He was a fencing champion at Annapolis. He had served as an officer in the Navy and commanded men and machines. He had had experience in business, politics and architecture. And not only did he have the encyclopedic grasp of fact of an Asimov and the awareness of system of a van Vogt, he was a practical man, a man of action and a man of the world, which they were not. Heinlein was the man who knew how things worked.

Heinlein's first story, "Life-Line," was written to earn quick money in a story contest sponsored by Thrilling Wonder—the retitled descendant of Hugo Gernsback's Science Wonder Stories. When Heinlein was finished—after only four days—he liked what he had done enough not to submit it to Thrilling Wonder at all. He sent it first to Collier's, a general magazine, and then to Astounding, where his talent was recognized by John W. Campbell. "Life-Line" earned $70 from Astounding, whereas Alfred Bester, the winner of the Thrilling Wonder contest, had to be coached by the editors and earned only $50 for his story. That was competence on display.

There was one other thing that gave Heinlein an advantage over his competitors. In addition to everything else he had going for him. Heinlein knew more about SF than any of the other new writers of modern science fiction. Heinlein had begun to read Victorian SF almost as soon as he could read at all, including books now long forgotten. He had read all types of SF: scientific romance, high fantasy, lost race stories, utopian stories, scientifiction, weird tales. He had read Wells, Gernsback, Burroughs, Merritt, Cabell, Huxley, Lovecraft and Smith. Other writers of the Golden Age, like Asimov, van Vogt and Bester, have testified that they only discovered SF in the later Twenties in the pages of Amazing Stories. None of them could begin to match Heinlein's command of the facts of SF.

More than anyone else, Heinlein was the great summator of the central themes and preoccupations of Victorian SF. Future war, time travel, utopia—one by one (and often alone), Heinlein attacked them all and rewrote them definitively in the new terms of modern science fiction.

And the heart of it all was the Future History. In these stories, with a wealth of integrated imaginative detail sufficient to make an Asimov seem tissue-paper thin and a van Vogt seem to be asleep by comparison, Heinlein took on the central preoccupation of the Victorians—the force of history—and presented it in the new mid-Twentieth Century terms of fact, exact measurement and competence to survive.

However, in the changeover from the Victorian vision to the new mid-Twentieth Century frame of reference there were losses as well as gains, as there always are in a shift of this sort. The new vision succeeded the old because the Victorian order could no longer get the job done—but compared to the grand sweep of the Victorian mythos, the mid-Twentieth Century vision was superficial and shallow.

To see that this might be so, all that is necessary is to set the Future History beside a classic late representation of the Victorian vision like Olaf Stapledon's 1937 masterwork, Star Maker. The Future History is more vigorous, more diverse, and more human. At the same time, the Future History is completely lacking in Star Maker's great scope and majesty. The Future History is an incomplete jumble of stories--a variety of separate facts—involving a few hundreds of years, and no more. Stapledon's book is a unified work overviewing and encompassing a time scale reaching to the death of the last galaxy and beyond.

It is not by accident then that old-time scientifiction fans like Sam Moskowitz could believe that in the transition from scientifiction to modern science fiction the sense of wonder had become mislaid. The sense of wonder—the awe-filled appreciation of the transcendent—is central to myth in every era. If Moskowitz and others were distressed, it was because they felt that without the sense of wonder there was no difference between SF and mundane mimetic fiction.

In Victorian SF, the sense of wonder was triggered by demonstrations of scale, by the presentation of new dimensions and the display of immense vistas. Where was the sense of wonder? It was to be found in the contrast between Wells' Time Traveller sitting at tea in a homey room with all his familiar friends, and the description that he gives to them of his lonely meditations on a dim beach at the end of time. Or it was to be found in E. E. Smith's perky and plucky Skylark voyagers as they take their ship outside our own galaxy and then look back and turn pea-green at their own audacity.

It wouldn't be fair or accurate to say that in modern science fiction the sense of wonder has been altogether missing. No, it has simply been harnessed to fact rather than to demonstrations of scale. Wonder in modern science fiction has lain in the revelation of some new fact, or, more commonly, in the realization of a hidden aspect or application of some known fact.

It is not surprising, then, that science fiction has had a tendency to fall into mundanity. Or, that next to the aching realizations and awe-inspiring spectacles of Victorian SF, the sense of wonder in modern science fiction should seem muted, rare or altogether missing.

The most purely powerful sense-of-wonder stories that modern science fiction has produced were those few grand summational stories of the Golden Age that managed to express the old-time sense of wonder and the new simultaneously. In these stories—like Heinlein's "Universe" and Asimov's "Nightfall"—a hidden fact was revealed, and the fact was a fact of relative scale. In both "Universe" and "Nightfall," for instance, the fact revealed was that a world that had imagined itself sufficient was but a pinpoint amongst the immense and myriad stars. Double zappo!—a zinger in both the new terms and the old. More purely fact-oriented later science fiction has few stories with even a fraction of the power of these two.

Again—always as it seems—there were grave potential moral flaws in the mid-Twentieth Century vision. A universe populated by creatures who consider themselves separate colliding particles with no common purpose must be inherently contentious and competitive. Immediate practical results must be the bottom line in a universe in which there are short-term local processes and conditions but no grand design. Longer-range consequences become somebody else's bookkeeping problem.

The mid-Twentieth Century order has not been marked by the incessant social class warfare and the heartless and indifferent brutality of the Victorians, but in its own way it has been just as locked into the question of dominance and subordination. The Victorians struggled to prove who was the innately superior being. Men of the mid-Twentieth Century have pushed and shoved simply to get ahead, competing to command those positions of privilege available to those most adept at marshalling and manipulating fact.

The result has been egotism, aggressiveness, factual one-upsmanship, and constant struggle for power—every man a privateer pursuing his own gain in a universe where some must win and others must lose. Both in private and public life, those in possession of power—special facts, special secrets—have felt justified in using their monopoly to gain advantage over others.

But nobody can have all the real facts all of the time. Sometimes the facts aren't known. Sometimes they are in doubt. And no one--not even a Robert Heinlein or an Isaac Asimov—knows everything.

There is a temptation, then, in the mid-Twentieth Century to clip the facts, to cut corners in the name of immediate practical results. There is a temptation to bluff and pretend to have the facts when the facts aren't really known. There is a temptation to turn lying, cheating and intimidation into a primary mode of dealing with the universe. It seems a practical way of getting along.

In view of all this insincerity, short-sightedness and concern to prevail, it may not be surprising that modern science fiction has been most uncomfortable and dishonest where the question of dominant aliens has been concerned. What does the man whose justification in life is his greater command of fact do when faced by a being with a few million years head start? What does the competent man do when faced by the truly superior being?

Jacob Burroughs, in Heinlein's "The Number of the Beast—" is only expressing the common opinion of most writers of science fiction when he says:
"Supermen or angels would trouble me more than vermin. I know what to do with a 'Black Hat'—kill it! But a superman would make me feel so inferior that I would not want to go on living."
So, from the very outset of modern science fiction, the question of superior aliens with a higher grasp of the facts has been avoided. So marked has this been that when L. Sprague de Camp was asked in Science Fiction Voices #1 whether he had ever had problems with editorial restrictions, he replied:
I have run into some curious little quirks and prejudices. John Campbell, for example, among other things, would not publish a story in which an extra-terrestrial species was portrayed as superior to human beings in a general sense. That is, morally, mentally, and physically better all around. He just didn't like that. And he was somewhat of an old-fashioned imperialist also. He thought that the United States ought to go and conquer all of Latin America. He had some rather curious ideas of that sort.
Isaac Asimov, who had a dominating Victorian father, solved this problem by working around Campbell as he was used to working around his father at home. Not wanting either to cross Campbell or to write stories in which competent human beings kick inferior alien peons around, he wrote in his Foundation stories about a universe in which there were no alien beings at all. Humanity is alone in an empty universe, free to do with it as it wills. But this was a dishonest presentation. Asimov didn't really believe at all that this was the way things would really be.

Heinlein, in his own way, did even worse with the problem. In his classic early stories, his characters—competent in all other circumstances—turn into limp lettuce before superior aliens. They run away. They go mad. They grow gray and old before their time. They turn belly up and die.

At the end of Methuselah's Children, the centerpiece of the Future History, serialized in Astounding in 1941, the Howard families retreat to Earth after two humiliating encounters with superior aliens among the stars. In the expanded version of the story published in book form in 1958, there is a new ending in which Lazarus Long makes a vow to return to the stars and meet the highest aliens, the gods of the Jockaira, once again on more even terms.
"Someday, about a thousand years from now, I intend to march straight into the temple of Kreel, look him in the eye, and say, 'Howdy, bub what do you know that I don't know?'"
Except for the overtones of wise-ass belligerence, this could be a worthy resolve. "What do you know that I don't know?" might be a very good question to ask a superior alien, if asked in the right way.

But that's not what Heinlein represents as having happened in Time Enough for Love, his mammoth 1973 book about Lazarus Long, where the gods of the Jockaira are mentioned again. Lazarus is about to share an anecdote when another character interrupts him:
"He's leading up to how he killed the gods of the Jockaira with nothing but a toy gun and moral superiority. Since that lie is already in his memoirs in four conflicting versions, why should we be burdened with a fifth?"
And Lazarus retorts:
"It was not a toy gun; it was a Mark Nineteen Remington Blaster at full charge, a superior weapon in its day and after I carved them up, the stench was worse than Hormone Hall the morning after payday. And my superiority is never moral; it lies always in doing it first before he does it to me."
This puff of hot air is hardly a fulfillment of the promise to look the gods of the Jockaira in the eye as an equal. Within the terms laid down in Methuselah's Children, it must be a lie. That is, higher beings who were capable in the earlier story of lifting large numbers of human beings through the air no hands, stuffing them into a spaceship, and then directing and controlling the ship to a destination thirty-two light years away, simply aren't plausibly vulnerable to toy guns like the "Mark Nineteen Remington Blaster," crackerjack weapon though it may have been in its day.

Banter, bluster, grossness and lies can't alter that. They only serve to accentuate our awareness of the underlying evasion, hostility, inferiority and fear. If Lazarus Long is not fond of critics—and he puts them down in his "Notebooks" as well as in "The Number of the Beast—"—it may be because he is aware that the lies he tells will not stand up to examination. In any case, he is a typical modern science fiction protagonist. All the heroes of the present period have tended to prefer having an edge to having moral superiority.

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6

Return to the Critics Lounge

Background courtesy of Eos Development