Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Heinlein and the Golden Age

Part 3

The crucial intuitive leap of integration that first established Heinlein as a dominating figure in SF was made in the late summer of 1940, just as soon as he had finished proving to Campbell and himself what a rational, competent, controlled fellow he really was by grinding out Sixth Column for the money to buy a car when he got home.

With the check in his pocket, Heinlein set out for California.  But along the way he stopped off in Jackson, Michigan to meet the last SF writing hero of his youth, Doc Smith.  And it proved to be a very happy encounter.  The two men, the old master of science fiction and the new, took an immediate liking to one another.

Back home in Los Angeles, at the informal gatherings of SF writers that met at Heinlein's home on Saturday nights, which he liked to call "the Maņana Literary Society," Heinlein might point out, accurately enough, that the social and cultural dimensions of life were missing from the Lensman stories.  But in the presence of Smith himself, Heinlein felt no inclination to be critical.  He found himself genuinely impressed by the man's largeness of character and by the breadth and depth of his practical skill and knowledge.

So impressed was he, in fact, that on impulse he took Smith up on his offer to road-test and select a used car for him there in Michigan for the price of his Sixth Column check (plus, as it turned out, thirty-five cents in cash).  The '39 Chevy that Smith finally chose Heinlein dubbed Skylark Five.  And so good a car did it prove to be that he was able to keep on driving it for the next dozen years.

For his part, Doc Smith was sufficiently taken with Heinlein that he enrolled him as a member of "the Galactic Roamers," the informal brain trust that read Smith's Lensman stories in manuscript and offered him comment and special advice.  This was a rare honor that had been accorded to no other SF writer of the younger generation.

So, feeling like a member of the Galactic Patrol, Heinlein headed off toward California in Skylark Five.  And on the way to Los Angeles, a momentous thing happened.  Heinlein was struck by a particularly dazzling insight, one that took all of the varied work he had been publishing in Astounding and made a whole of it.

In these stories from his first year of writing--along with "'Let There Be Light--' " by Lyle Monroe--he had projected two separate future backgrounds.

One was the middle-distance future he'd worked out with the overthrow of the rule of the Prophets and the establishment of the Covenant.  This extrapolation of the most tyrannous elements of his childhood into the future, and their utter defeat by the forces of freedom and rationality, was very important to Heinlein.  It was no less than his psychic autobiography.

The other future that he had been evolving for the coming half-century, with its sun-power screens, road-cities and atomic power plants, was less urgently powerful stuff--except for its climax with the death of old D.D. Harriman on the Moon.  But it was much more detailed and plausible and varied.

In fact, so much had Heinlein's SF skill and insight grown during the last year that this near-range future was starting to make his other future of "'If This Goes On--,' " "Coventry" and "Misfit" seem fuzzy, static and remote.  It now seemed a much less likely development from the present.  It was old-fashioned, utopian and romantic.

Could it be possible to apply the new tricks and techniques of presentation he had been working out in such a way as to give this more distant future greater believability and substance?  In "Magic, Inc." he had managed to make spirit magic and tea-leaf reading and all sorts of other arrant nonsense seem the very stuff of tomorrow.  Why couldn't the Prophets and the Covenant be made as plausible as that?

For that matter, what was to prevent the farther future from being made to seem every bit as immediate, detailed and self-consistent as the short-range future outlined on his wall chart?

All in a flash, then, Heinlein saw that his wall chart could be extended well beyond fifty years; and also that the future waiting there just might be--why not?--the world of "'If This Goes On--.' "  He could actually combine the old future of his historical outline and the new future of his wall chart.  His two futures might be one future!

The wall chart would then have more extension, while the future of the Prophets would take on greater definition; one set of stories would give support and credence to the other.  Not only that, but this new combined future would necessarily be not merely a place of change, but of change after change after change.  Now wouldn't that be something!

Oh, some things would get lost in the process.  He would have to kill off the rolling roads.  There certainly could be no place for road-cities in the world of the Prophets.  Space travel would have to be imagined as starting with Harriman, then stopping for a time, and then starting up again under the Covenant.  And the rule of the Prophets couldn't possibly appear as total, overwhelming and demonic as once it had.  Instead of being the future, it would only be an episode, just one phase in a kaleidoscopic, ever-changing future of multiplicity.

But these losses would be as nothing next to what would be gained: a future that wasn't all of one piece.  This future would have room for rolling roads and for Prophets armed with spears and vortex guns and for the libertarian society of the Covenant.  And more besides.  Almost anything you cared to put in could find its place in the framework.

In order to make his two sets of stories fit together, Heinlein radically reworked and expanded his wall chart when he got home.  In this new form, it covered two hundred years, marked off in decades from 1940 to 2140.  Eight written stories were included, from "Life-Line" in more-or-less the immediate present to "Misfit" in 2105 or thereabouts.

In itself, this chart was a brilliant, multifaceted work of modern science fiction, both plausible and mysterious:

The main body of the chart was divided into a number of different areas presenting biographical, technical, social, economic and historical information.  There were lines measuring off the life-spans of his various characters and the periods of use of different inventions.  There were notations of particular achievements and innovations.  There was one vertical column devoted to sociological notes, and another reserved for general remarks.

Looking at the chart, it was possible to see that Douglas and Martin, the inventors of the sun-power screens, were imagined as dying together around 1985.  The rolling roads existed for about fifty years, from 1955 until just after the beginning of the Twenty-First Century.  And, as Heinlein worked it out, the life of Nehemiah Scudder, the First Prophet, necessarily had to be short.  He was born around 1985 and was dead shortly after 2015.

A large number of facts and events that existed as yet only in Heinlein's imagination, but not in his stories, were noted on the chart: "The 'FALSE DAWN,' 1960-70 . . . the Voorhis financial proposals . . . Revolution in Little America . . . The Travel Unit and the Fighting Unit . . . Parastatic engineering . . . the end of human adolescence and the beginning of first mature culture."  And a great deal more.

Even after Heinlein had finished integrating his further future into his wall chart, however, a considerable problem still existed.  The fit between the two sets of stories really wasn't all that snug.

"Requiem" was the last in time of Heinlein's five near-future stories.  But if old D.D. Harriman had been a reader of the Electrical Experimenter as a boy, there was no way this story could take place much later than 1990.

"'If This Goes On--' " was the earliest in time of Heinlein's three middle-distance stories.  And there we had been told that the era of the Prophets had lasted "for many generations."  The absolute earliest moment that Heinlein dared to place "'If This Goes On--' " was around 2070.

This left a considerable hole--an eighty-year blank spot from 1990 to 2070--right in the center of a two-hundred-year history.  But this gap seemed like no particular problem to Heinlein.  Such was his confidence at this moment that it seemed to him there was nothing he couldn't put in his chart.  He could throw off the most outrageous sort of idea, employ almost any kind of plot, leap anywhere in space and time, and still make it all part of his great schema.

And he set out to demonstrate as much to himself in the next three stories he wrote:

The first of these was "'And He Built a Crooked House' " (Astounding, Feb 1941), a mathematical jape about a contemporary Los Angeles house built in the shape of an unfolded tesseract, or four-dimensional super-cube.  When an earthquake jolts the house into its "normal" configuration, it becomes a place of irrationality, offering doorways into alternate worlds and strange, frightening glimpses of the back of one's own head.

Although this story had no ties to any other Heinlein story, he entered it on his chart anyway, right after "Life-Line."  When the charted stories were published in book form after the war, Heinlein would have second thoughts about including "'And He Built a Crooked House' "--but right now such was his mood that he saw no reason not to put it in.

The next story that Heinlein wrote after his return to Los Angeles was his proof that the gap in the chart could be filled in.  This was a novelet called "Logic of Empire" (Astounding, Mar 1941), set around the year 2010.

Taken as an independent story, "Logic of Empire" was a bit of a mess.  It combined two standard Thirties story formulas--the tale of the man of privilege who gets a taste of what real life is like, and the space opera story about slavery on some other planet--and turned them into something like a lecture in economics:

Heinlein's protagonist, lawyer Humphrey Wingate, begins by doubting that slavery actually exists on Venus, and then learns better at first hand when he signs himself up for a term of service while on a drunken lark.  But when he has escaped from servitude in the swamps of Venus and returns to Earth to try to tell about what he has experienced, nobody really wants to hear it.

It is explained to him by a friend that slavery in the colonies is an old, old story, the inevitable result of expanding free-market economics.  And that ordinary Earth people just seem to find matters like this too difficult and abstract to be bothered with.

The story ends with Wingate asking, "'What can we do about it?' "

And his friend replies: "'Nothing.  Things are bound to get a whole lot worse before they can get any better.  Let's have a drink.' "

Futile, scattered and inconclusive though "Logic of Empire" may have been as a story, it was quite a bit more effective as an element in Heinlein's evolving future.  Not only did it cut twenty years out of the gap in the middle of his chart, but for the first time, it bound Heinlein's two sets of stories together.  "Logic of Empire" was connected to "Requiem" by references to Luna City and the Space Precautionary Act.  And it was linked to "'If This Goes On--' " through several mentions of "a rabble-rousing political preacher" by the name of Nehemiah Scudder.

But it was the third story that Heinlein wrote after his visit to the East Coast that was his ultimate statement of just how far he thought the principle of his chart could be extended, and of how strange and special a story might be and still fit into the whole.  This was "Universe" (Astounding, May 1941), Heinlein's tale of a lost spaceship that has forgotten the existence of the stars.

"Universe"--this utterly unique situation--would take place long after the two-hundred-year time frame of Heinlein's chart.  And yet Heinlein would make provision for it within his schema.  Notations on his chart would indicate that the ship in question was launched about 2120 by the society of the Covenant.

So what was there that wouldn't fit into the chart?

Well, Heinlein had been thinking about a near-future story in which the United States has developed atomic weapons but can't trust anyone else with them, and so, contrary to its inclination, must take over the world.  As he had first conceived it, this was to have been one more story on his chart, set around 1950.

But real-world atomic research was not holding still.  Even in late 1940, a year before active entry of the United States into World War II, and two years before the first sustained fission reaction at the University of Chicago, it had begun to seem likely to Heinlein--and to Campbell, too--that atomic weapons would be developed before the end of this current war.

Heinlein chose to say as much as Anson MacDonald in an extended fiction/essay written completely outside the bounds of his wall chart.  He imagined World War II brought to an end in 1944 by a bombing raid that scatters radioactive dust over Berlin, followed almost immediately by a short, intense struggle for domination between the United States and Russia.

He called this grim novelet "Foreign Policy."  Campbell would retitle it "Solution Unsatisfactory" and publish it, along with "Universe," in the May 1941 Astounding.

Heinlein's next story, "'--We Also Walk Dogs' " (Astounding, July 1941), would also appear as the work of Anson MacDonald.  It may be taken as Heinlein's demonstration to himself that even though almost anything might be fitted into his charted future, he wasn't necessarily bound to that future.

This story concerns a special company, General Services, that will perform any lawful undertaking for an appropriate fee.  They have accepted the task of providing comfortable quarters on Earth for a conference of "'representatives of each intelligent race in this planetary system' "--including Martians, Jovians, Titans and Callistans.

Just now, this story would not be part of Heinlein's charted future--presumably because of all the various local intelligent alien races, who make no appearance in any of his other pre-war stories.  But after the war, Heinlein would apparently once again say, "Why not?" and "'--We Also Walk Dogs' " would assume a place in the official canon, marked in around the year 2000.

It was only at this point, early in 1941, with all this burst of experimentation behind Heinlein, that the first formal notice of his interconnected future was made by John Campbell.  After announcing "Logic of Empire" in the "In Times to Come" column of the February Astounding, the editor went on to say:
I'd like to mention something that may or may not have been noticed by the regular readers of Astounding: all of Heinlein's science-fiction is laid against a common background of a proposed future history of the world and of the United States.  Heinlein's worked the thing out in detail that grows with each story; he has an outline and graphed history of the future with characters, dates of major discoveries, et cetera, plotted in.  I'm trying to get him to let me have a photostat of that history chart; if I lay hands on it, I'm going to publish it.
In this announcement by Campbell, there was, of course, a not altogether untypical element of well-calculated insincerity, or salesmanship.  He knew full well that not all of Heinlein's science fiction was laid against a common background, including the installment of Sixth Column by Anson MacDonald in this very issue.  And prior to the actual publication of "Logic of Empire," which would be the first link between Heinlein's two major sets of stories, no reader of Astounding could reasonably have been expected to see them all as one.

Having been given this tip, or heavy nudge, however, readers could now hardly overlook the cross-connections that did exist in "Logic of Empire."  And that was what the editor was really after.  He wanted Heinlein's future history to be taken note of.

Back in the June 1940 Astounding--an issue featuring on its cover a Rogers' painting of the inner workings of Heinlein's rolling roads--Campbell had suggested in passing in his editorial, "Mapping out a civilization of the future is an essential background to a convincing story of the future."  And now he had his example: a model presentation of just how a multiplex, ever-changing Atomic Age future was to be imagined.

But Campbell was not content merely to have his readers and writers perceive the existence of Heinlein's history of the future.  He wanted them to study the blueprints and see how it fit together.  So he didn't rest until the Future History chart appeared spread across two pages of the May Astounding.

The May 1941 issue of Astounding was the most significant since July 1939, and can be seen as one of the two or three most stellar issues of Campbell's Golden Age.  It contained "Universe" and "Solution Unsatisfactory," and Asimov's second robot story, "Liar!" as well as the concluding installment of L. Sprague de Camp's only pre-war Astounding serial, "The Stolen Dormouse."  But the centerpiece of the issue was Heinlein's Future History chart.

This was recognized in Campbell's editorial which was entitled "History to Come."  Here, Campbell formally redefined science fiction in terms of Heinlein's accomplishment.  He declared, "Fundamentally, science-fiction novels are 'period pieces,' historical novels laid against a background of a history that hasn't happened yet."

Science fiction hadn't been seen in these terms previously.  But the publication of Heinlein's Future History chart would force a general alteration of perception of what science fiction was about and how it was made.

Through the years, other writers of SF had turned out story series aplenty.  But these had always been the adventures of a particular character or group of characters, invariably operating within the bounds of some well-defined formula.  No one had ever thought of reversing figure and ground and writing a story series that had no consistent central character, but rather was concerned with the twists and turns and reversals of social and psychological change to come.

However, not only was this what Heinlein had done, but his chart was incontrovertible proof that he had done it.  The chart took a handful of parts and made a visible whole of them.  It was the most detailed, multifaceted and interconnected picture of the future that anyone had ever produced, so persuasive in appearance that it might almost be a couple of pages ripped out of some history book of tomorrow.

And now that it could be seen clearly as a whole, how wonderfully persuasive and real Heinlein's Future History was, with its picture of a coming world of change and difference!  The future envisioned by Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men might be vaster and grander, yet somehow the immediate two hundred years outlined in the Future History managed to encompass a wider range of human social activity, more mental variety, greater liveliness, and more sheer differentness than all of Stapledon's two billion years put together.  Next to Heinlein's Atomic Age future of change upon change, Stapledon's old-fashioned Techno Age view of the future seemed static and single-noted.

By aiming to break free of determinism and find a future of free will for himself, Heinlein had found the means for all modern science fiction to break out of the extreme constriction in time and space that had been so typical of the Astounding of 1939 and 1940.  Taken in sum, Heinlein's stories--not just the Future History, but also "Magic, Inc." and his futuristic Anson MacDonald stories--proclaimed that the future was waiting to be invented, and that practically anything might be plausibly imagined as happening there.

Heinlein blazed the way for all Atomic Age futures to come, not in detail, but in approach and method.  Because of Heinlein's pre-war experiments, SF writers of the Atomic Age would be able to see the future both as historically connected to the present and as a wide-open playground of the imagination.  On the strength of Heinlein's example, they would feel licensed not only to make up their own alternate future histories, but also to set forth any free-floating future possibility they could imagine.

Prior to the announcement and publication of the Future History chart, Heinlein had been a well-respected new writer, acknowledged as a steady, reliable storyteller.  But he had been the special favorite of only a very few readers.

However, this changed with the revelation that all of Heinlein's separate stories in Astounding were in fact so many fragments in a far larger and more complex pattern.  He was now seen to stand by himself as the most ambitious and inventive writer of modern science fiction.  It was this new, more sizable Robert Heinlein who was asked to be Guest of Honor at the Third World Science Fiction Convention in Denver in July 1941.

In that same month, Methuselah's Children, the longest Future History story yet, began three-part serialization in Astounding.  This story was the culmination of all the work Heinlein had done to knit together a connected but ever-changing future.  It was also the fulfillment of a promise.

One of the more intriguing mysteries of Heinlein's chart as it saw publication was five "Stories-to-be-told," listed in parentheses.  These not only filled out some of the thinner portions of the chart, but intimated Heinlein's power to see more and to tell more of his future:

("Word Edgewise") was penciled in around 1960, between "'Let There Be Light' " and "The Roads Must Roll."

Shortly after "Requiem"--c. 1995--there was ("Fire Down Below!")

Shaving another ten years off the great gap in the center of the chart, there was ("The Sound of His Wings") around 2015, and ("Eclipse") around 2020.

Finally, as the very last entry on the chart, around 2125, twenty years after "Misfit," there was ("While the Evil Days Come Not").

It was this last story that saw publication as Methuselah's Children.  This was not only Heinlein's proof that it was possible for him to redeem his promises, but it showed that he could further extend his vision of future change and difference.

In its very conception, this novel was a striking demonstration of Heinlein's new philosophy of factors in combination and permutation.  To make Methuselah's Children, Heinlein took two originally separate story ideas from his file and ran them together, and then turned the result into a further phase in his Future History.

One of the ideas that went into the pot was for a story called "Shadow of Death," about a group of people selectively bred for long life, and their persecution by ordinary short-lived men.  It was to have been set entirely on Earth.

The other idea--less seriously titled "Peril in the Spaceways . . . or . . . Who Shot the Baby???"--was for a space epic in the grand tradition.  It may be thought of as the kind of answer the young planet-busting John Campbell might have made to the ultimate unsolvable problem of Stapledon's Last and First Men.

In this projected story, our Sun is failing.  A group of human adventurers sets off for the stars in search of a solution.  After encounters with two alien races--"the Rapport People" and "the Dog People"--men find their answer in towing the Earth through interstellar space and placing it in orbit around a friendlier star.

As Heinlein fit these ideas together to make Methuselah's Children, it was the long-lived people of the first projected story who would serve as his space explorers.  And, rather than the threat of yet another cosmic catastrophe, it would be Earthly persecution that would be their reason for traveling to the stars and meeting the Dog People and the Rapport People.

In Methuselah's Children, the Howard Families are a select group of Americans bred for longevity beginning in 1875.  Some two hundred and fifty years later, in the days of the Covenant, there are 100,000 of them.  Among their number are people who can stand up and say, "'I was here when the First Prophet took over the country.  I was here when Harriman launched the first Moon rocket.' "

Oldest of them all is Lazarus Long, Heinlein's central character.  Lazarus may be 213 years old and still counting, but at heart he is another ageless perpetual adolescent, not unlike Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter.

It is Lazarus more than any other single thing that ties the Future History together and makes a whole of it.  He was born before the Future History chart begins and remains alive after it ends.  Long, long ago, Hugo Pinero of "Life-Line" took his reading, and then returned his money.  Andrew Jackson Libby, the boy genius of "Misfit"--who proves to be another Howard Family member--becomes Lazarus's best buddy.  Lazarus embraces the entire Future History from beginning to end; he can vouch for it all.

Because they are different from the ordinary run of mankind, the Howard Families have done their best to remain publicly invisible.  Fifty years after the overthrow of the Prophets, however, they finally feel secure enough to reveal the fact of their existence to society-at-large.

This turns out to be a mistake.  Greedy and powerful men, jealous for longer life, suspend the Covenant and begin to arrest and torture the members of the Howard Families to extract their supposed secret of immortality.

Lazarus isn't really surprised.  He says, "'If there is any one thing I have learned in the past couple of centuries, it's this: These things pass.  Wars and depressions and Prophets and Covenants--they pass.  The trick is to stay alive through them.'"

Back during the difficult years when the Prophets ruled, Lazarus chose to sit things out on Venus.  Now he proposes that the Families pack up and leave Earth until this current wave of hysteria passes.

With the connivance of one responsible short-lived politician, Administrator Slayton Ford, Lazarus steals the giant spaceship New Frontiers--a twin to that in "Universe."  Andy Libby whips up a superior space drive, and the Families, plus Ford, flee to the stars.

Here, however, things do not go well for them.

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