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Robert Heinlein 1907-1988
(Full name Robert Anson Heinlein; wrote under the pseudonyms Anson MacDonald, Lyle Monroe, John Riverside, Caleb Saunder, and Simea York) American short story writer, novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and children's author.
Heinlein is regarded as one of the most influential science fiction writers of the twentieth century. A prolific author, his short stories are characterized by their highly developed and believable futuristic worlds, replete with scientific and technological advances and attention to detail. He is often ranked with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke as a master of the science fiction genre, yet his work has inspired a mixed critical reaction.
Heinlein was born on July 7, 1907, in Butler, Missouri. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929, and did graduate study in physics and mathematics at the University of California in Los Angeles. After leaving school, he worked as an architect, real estate agent, aeronautical engineer, and electronics company official. During World War II, he served as an aviation engineer with the U.S. Navy. He wrote several engineering textbooks during those years. In 1939 Heinlein wrote his first story, “Life-Line,” which was published in Astounding Science Fiction in August 1939. From that time, his stories and novels were published in several periodicals, such as Astounding Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, Saturday Evening Post, Argosy, and Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He authored more than forty-five books, most of which have been published in at least thirty languages. He was the first science fiction writer to appear on a bestseller list. During his long career, he was awarded four Hugo awards, four Best Science Fiction Novel awards from the World Science Fiction Convention, and the first Grand Master Nebula Award, given to Heinlein in 1975 by the Science Fiction Writers of America for his lifelong contribution to the genre. He died of heart failure on May 8, 1988, in Carmel, California.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Heinlein's fiction is characterized by his reliance on a dominant, independent hero and the conflict between individualism and collectivism. In his stories, he emphasized themes of self-reliance, patriotism, and individualism, which often led to criticism of his work as extremely conservative in nature. For example, “Gulf” features a protagonist who is recruited into a secret elite force—a master race—who plans to conquer the Earth through assassination. At first shocked, he soon adopts the group's disdain for democracy and collectivism. Heinlein's best-known collection of short fiction, The Past Through Tomorrow (1967), contains previously published stories and a detailed background chart—known as Future History—that provides the chronology of the major events in the stories, the lifelines of the major characters, and technological, sociological, and political developments. In one of the stories in the collection, “Requiem” (1939), an elderly industrialist, D. D. Harriman, finances and directs the first trip to the moon on a manned rocket. He stands by, frustrated, as others travel to the moon and establish a base. Finally, he makes the journey, knowing it will probably kill him. He dies shortly after his arrival, a happy man.
There has been a polarized critical reaction to Heinlein's career. Many commentators have deemed his fiction as extremely conservative, even fascist; moreover, the perception of him as a Social Darwinist and right-wing author has negatively prejudiced the overall consensus on his work. Defenders of Heinlein's short stories and novels reject this classification of him, asserting that his stories and novels exhibit racial and social tolerance. They contend that he should be categorized as libertarian and iconoclastic. The conflict between individualism and collectivism is considered the dominant theme in Heinlein's work. Critical commentary has also focused on the sexuality in his stories, the role of technology, and his portrayal of alien civilizations. His later work is denigrated by some reviewers as didactic, stylistically monotonous, and solipsist. Yet he has been praised for his attention to detail, and his rendering of imaginative scientific and technological advances and their impact on human civilization. No matter the opinion on Heinlein's work itself, critics do not deny the profound impact his short stories and novels had on the genre of science fiction. In fact, some commentators have compared his influence on the science fiction genre to that of H. G. Wells.
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The Man Who Sold the Moon 1950
Waldo and Magic, Inc. 1950
The Green Hills of Earth 1951
Assignment in Eternity 1953
The Menace from Earth 1959
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag 1959
The Past through Tomorrow: Future History Stories 1966
The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein 1966
The Best of Robert Heinlein: 1939-1959. 2 vols. 1973
Destination Moon 1979
Expanded Universe: More Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein 1980
Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master (edited by Yoji Kondo) 1992
Rocket Ship Galileo (juvenilia) 1947
Beyond This Horizon (novel) 1948
Space Cadet (juvenilia) 1948
Red Planet (juvenilia) 1949
Sixth Column (novel) 1949
Farmer in the Sky (juvenilia) 1950
Between Planets (juvenilia) 1951
The Puppet Masters (novel) 1951
The Rolling Stones (juvenilia) 1952
Revolt in 2100 (novel) 1953
Starman Jones (juvenilia) 1953
Star Beast (juvenilia) 1954
Tunnel in the Sky (juvenilia) 1955
Double Star (novel) 1956
Time for the Stars (juvenilia) 1956
Citizen of the Galaxy (juvenilia) 1957
The Door into Summer (novel) 1957
Have Space Suit—Will Travel (juvenilia) 1958
Methuselah's Children (novella) 1958
Starship Troopers (juvenilia) 1959
Stranger in a Strange Land (novel) 1961
Glory Road (novel) 1963
Podkayne of Mars: Her Life and Times (juvenilia) 1963
Farnham's Freehold (novel) 1964
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (novel) 1966
Time Enough for Love: The Lives of Lazarus Long (novel) 1970
I Will Fear No Evil (novel) 1971
The Number of the Beast (novel) 1980
Friday (novel) 1982
Job: A Comedy of Justice (novel) 1984
The Cat Who Walks through Walls: A Comedy of Manners (novel) 1985
To Sail beyond the Sunset: The Life and Loves of Maureen Johnson, Being the Memoirs of a Somewhat Irregular Lady (novel) 1987
Grumbles from the Grave (correspondence) 1989
Take You're your Government: A Practical Handbook for the Private Citizen Who Wants Democracy to Work (essays) 1992
Tramp Royale (autobiographical fiction) 1992
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SOURCE: Slusser, George Edgar. The Classic Years of Robert A. Heinlein, pp. 9-39. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977.
[In the following excerpt, Slusser surveys the plots and major thematic concerns of Heinlein's short fiction.]
Heinlein's short stories belong, essentially, to his early years. From his first published tale, “Life-Line” (August 1939) through 1942, when the war briefly interrupted his writing career, Heinlein worked exclusively in shorter forms, and the medium-length serialized narratives which, in their episodic quality, bear more affinity with the story than the novel. The majority of these early tales appeared in Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction; some were written under pseudonyms (the most famous of which is Anson MacDonald). Among this handful of works is some of the most interesting fiction Heinlein has done. In the years immediately after the war (1947-1949), he resumed writing stories—here, however, is a different kind of tale, for a different audience. Where the earlier sketches were often genuinely allegorical—parables in which a complex world view is acted out rather than simply exposed—these are more didactic. More than a change in Heinlein, perhaps, we have a change in audience—the stories were written for the slicks (especially Saturday Evening Post) rather than the more specialized pulps. A new tone of sentimentality appears. And in almost all of these tales there are concessions to “human interest.” From 1950 on, the short stories diminish. With the exception of a couple of juveniles for Boy's Life, Heinlein returns to the SF magazines.
No matter what their intended audience, all these stories share one structural characteristic—they are loosely episodic. This openness fits Heinlein's purpose admirably. Only in the most external sense does a Heinlein story focus on a crucial moment in the life of a character. His protagonists do not, through some process of self-discovery, come to a climactic recognition of identity or place in the world order. Nor are there “surprise endings” in the classic sense, where an ironic twist of fate reveals a man's character to himself. On the contrary, the heroes of Heinlein's tales seem to know from the start what they must do: they face their destiny, accepting it with a singular lack of resistance or self-searching. But there is more here than “doing one's duty”: the hero seems chosen, compelled by some inner predilection that goes against all reason or common sense. What the narrative invariably examines, as step by step it becomes visible, is the mechanism of election itself. This can take myriad forms—the more involuted the better—but there is always the same underlying pattern. If the story ends with a surprise, it is the wonder of destiny, always fortunate in some higher sense, if not for its immediate agent. Indeed, the final emphasis is not on the disparity between individual aspirations and the whole, but on their harmony. In amazing ways, the two strands unite, the expendable acts of one being spill over into the larger ongoing process of racial destiny, apparently advancing according to a predetermined plan toward some glorious end. Only in the later Heinlein will that end itself become problematical.
The readers of Astounding must have been astounded by Heinlein's first story “Life-Line.” Here is a work directly antipodal to the adventure story and its well-hewn plot. Indeed, the center of this sequence of episodes is less a character than a problem. Pinero is more than a model of how we should act. The man and his machine embody a much more general pattern, not of conduct, but of universal law. Instead of enacting destiny, they literally incarnate it. This tale, then, is clearly allegorical. As such it stands, at the outset of his career, as a microcosm of Heinlein's world.
“Life-Line” begins in the middle of a public debate: Dr. Hugo Pinero is defending his discovery—a machine that predicts the length of each individual life span, furnishing exact dates of death—against the disbelief of the scientific establishment. Such an encounter is a Heinlein prototype, and will be repeated again and again throughout his work. Pinero is the unlikely superior being—short, pot-bellied, with dubious academic credentials. His opponent fits the orthodox mold (“America's Handsomest University President”), but is a colossal non-entity. And Pinero challenges not only the conventions, but also deep-seated economic interests: the machine is an obvious threat to the insurance industry.
The story proceeds step-by-step. The first scene exposes the problem, and sets apart the protagonist and antagonists, who will act out its solution in the flesh. Our sympathies are captured by Pinero's rhetoric, as he reverses the accepted views of heroism, and turns the tables on the power structure. In the second scene, Pinero gives technical explanations, and follows these with practical applications: he predicts the impending death of a reporter. The pivot point of “Life-Line” is Pinero's newspaper ad: the scientist crosses lines, setting himself up in business as a “bioconsultant.” In doing so, he declares war, and seals his own fate. There is a courtroom scene (another Heinlein staple): forensics replace rhetoric, as Pinero outmaneuvers both his scientific detractors and the hostile business interests which manipulate them. Later, Pinero predicts the immediate death of an innocent young couple, and tries in vain to forestall destiny. The machine is bigger than the man. Finally, there is the scene in which Pinero meets his own destiny—the insurance trust has him bumped off—and its coda: the scientists open the box containing the doctor's predictions of their deaths, together with his own. They verify the correctness of his self forecast, then destroy their own predictions (unopened) by fire.
If “Life-Line” is an allegory, what does it signify? The theory behind Pinero's machine is simple: a human life span, like that of the race as a whole, is a material entity. Each of the “pink worms” that form this “vine” can be measured exactly. More importantly, they may be measured before they end. In this purely physical sense, each individual life is pre-determined. The machine gives man foreknowledge. For the majority, however, this knowledge is intolerable: life is livable only in uncertainty. And yet, Pinero proves that struggle and a clear vision of one's fate are not incompatible. In contrast to the others, he sees the moment of his death and its cause—the defense of his own machine—and still pushes on, meeting his end with calm dignity. What else can he do? Man can know his destiny, but not alter it, as Pinero learns when he tries to save the young couple.
Pinero's machine can be called an instrument of grace only in the most limited sense: it allows each man to know if he is chosen to live. In terms of the machine, of course, everyone dies, so none achieve “salvation” in any form. Heinlein refuses to leap beyond matter—indeed, in later works he explores, obsessively at times, the possibilities of metempsychosis and physical rejuvenation in hopes of extending the ego's existence this side of death. The action in “Life-Line” seems framed by biological determinism. There is the organic analogy of the vine of existence. And it is implied in Pinero's defense of his experimental method that the most viable forms of life are those that best understand the workings of the natural process. Yet within this materialist framework, oddly enough, the Calvinist pattern of election abides. If survival of the fittest is the rule, it is strangely qualified by the presence of the machine. Held up to its baleful light, the idea of fitness itself takes on passive, even paradoxical overtones. Pinero does not survive, yet is fittest because he alone accepts not to survive. The Protestant thrust of this parable is unmistakable. If Pinero is a new Galileo, the fact he must face is not external but internal—his own destiny. Fitness is measured less in terms of public actions—defense and counterattack—than private ones. The hero stands apart because he is the only one who accepts the consequences of his acts, who realizes he can neither play god to others nor escape his own predestined end.
Pinero is the prototype for Heinlein's elite man: all are marked by what might called a creative capacity to accept the inevitable. But where does this superiority come from? It is nothing the hero develops—this would imply that any man could do it—but rather something he already has. Indeed, its existence is clearly placed on a level outside commonality. It is not a biological trait in the ordinary sense, for Pinero possesses neither physical beauty nor strength. Nor, apparently, does he have the craft or cunning necessary for blind survival at all costs—if anyone has these, it is his opponents. Pinero puts his great intelligence to a much different end—martyrdom. But it would be wrong to give this a tragic sense either, to see it as protest against a world without transcendence.
Pinero does not elect to die; rather, he is elected. This capacity to accept fate is given to him, not to the others. And this predisposition is awakened by another gift—the idea of the machine. “Life-Line” is not the story of a man conquering his idea. From the first line, he already possesses it—the world is already divided into elect and non-elect. What follows merely confirms this division, and celebrates the wondrous ways of destiny among men. Heinlein may at times imply that biological law sanctions his elite. If we look more closely, however, we see that in Pinero's case such law is suspended. In “Life-Line,” there are two states: nature, and a secular form of grace. In the first, “wisdom” is ignorance and darkness; the way of nature is irremediably perverted. Only Pinero is lifted above this: he receives his illumination, and goes to meet his end with the serenity of the elect. His martyrdom is part, not of nature, but of some higher evolution. The fallen state is merely sifted, the chaff abandoned. The destiny of man is that of the chosen few.
The interplanetary job corps in “Misfit” (1939) serves the same function as Pinero's machine—it places all men on an equal footing, so that the new elite may emerge. Young Andy Libby, the protagonist, goes to space with a group of “misfits.” Earth is overcrowded, jobs are scarce, ways set; these lads have rebelled against such stifling conditions. A far-seeing policy gives them a fresh start, in hopes that some truly superior being may emerge. He does. Again, from outward appearances alone, Libby would be the least likely choice: he is an awkward, gangling lad from the Ozarks. In Heinlein's parables, our standards constantly fail to discern the elite. Yet, despite appearances, Libby is an intuitive mathematical genius. Answers pour from him compulsively and inexplicably: “Why, naturally the horizon has to be just that far away.” There is no rational explanation for his talents: they were given him, and providence allows them to unfold. Libby's destiny fits neatly into the larger one of man's expansion into space. In this tale, he performs the minor task of moving an asteroid—man is rearranging the heavens. He will go on (as we learn in Methuselah's Children) to invent the space drive that will open up the boundless universe. If things are predestined, they also seem open-ended: already we see a phobia of the end that will haunt Heinlein increasingly in later years.
In this tale, there is the same division between elect and non-elect; it is less radical, however. The common mortals do not see Libby's uniqueness. The more visionary Captain (unlike other established hierarchies in Heinlein, vision usually corresponds exactly with rank in the military) senses it, and explores further. What he discovers has the force of revelation: the hero's full name is Andrew Jackson Libby. All the paradox of freedom in Heinlein lies within this situation. Somewhere in Libby's background is the democratic spirit of individual liberty: in true Jacksonian manner, his parents refused to sign the “covenant.” What takes shape in the foreground is an even more select covenant. The link is the name itself. By some strange process of alternate heredity, the spirit of one great man passes into the body of another. In Heinlein, names like Andrew Jackson Libby (or Johann Sebastian Bach Smith) are microcosms of election—the everyman's last name is a mask covering the true lineage of genius. Libby comes into his world trailing clouds of glory, and merely acts out his predestined role. The story has become a ritual more than anything else. The opening scene confirms this: a group of men are being called; at the name “Libby,” the hero steps forth and his destiny unfolds.
“Requiem” (1940) is a similar kind of tale. It deals, however, not with a beginning but an end—the culminating moment in the life of the moon entrepreneur Delos D. Harriman, the visionary who first initiated space travel. Ironically, Harriman has never been able to take a trip himself to the Moon. First business interests, and then old age stand in his way. There is a hiatus here: Harriman's destiny is not complete. This story recounts the marvellous working of things that finally allows the gap to be breached, and providence fulfilled.
In “Misfit,” a social edict freed men to follow their destinies, to be called or not. But “Requiem” is a story of obstacles. In a series of episodic flashbacks, these are arrayed against the hero's Moon-dream. Father, wife and business partner are unable to believe in him. Now his family has gone to court to have him declared legally incompetent (a favorite Heinlein theme—the old man beset by family vultures—is born). Still, a fortunate paradox prevails, for Harriman constantly loses only to win. The path of destiny is beset with surprises. As a young man, Harriman had been denied, through a reversal of family fortunes, the chance to go to college and become an astronomer. But he will do much better in the end: instead of just looking at planets, he will actually die on one. In the same way, his father had scoffed at his childish desire to touch the Moon—but he will do just that. Now Harriman faces two seemingly insurmountable barriers: ill health and the law. His heart will not stand the trip, and the judge rules against him in favor of his family. A “chance” meeting with two renegade space pilots in an unlikely small-town carnival carries things forward in a manner quite unforeseen. Harriman is denied access to the circus rocket ride because of his heart, only to find men who will take him to the real Moon. The two pilots are also “misfits”—men who chafe under rules and regulations, who seek freedom in space. They take Harriman to certain death. And yet, ironically, their hardness is more merciful than the “concern” of family and friends—itself no more than a mask that hides selfish interests and lack of vision. These men know Harriman (in spite of his social status and physical condition) for one of their own. At the heart of the wider world, a secret group is formed, and pursues its plans in obedience to some higher law.
Even more obviously than “Misfit,” “Requiem” is pure ritual of election. Harriman has already conquered space—Heinlein, in fact, will chronicle his struggles in a sequel. Why must he go to the Moon himself? The only answer is that Harriman has not yet experienced grace. His destiny will accept no compromise or compensation—he must go. Indeed, the final scene has distinct religious overtones. In wondrous ways, the pains of sickness and space flight cancel each other out. Because he is feeble, accelerational gravity and free fall (proverbially unpleasant to the novice in space) become blissfully dreamlike. Near weightlessness on the Moon makes even death (the most common horror) a thing most fortunate and rare: “He was serenely happy in a fashion not give to most men, even in a long life time. He felt as if he were every man who had ever lived, looked up at the stars, and longed.” Harriman is crowned king of this elite. If he (like the speaker in Stevenson's “Requiem” that prefaces this story) also lays him down “with a will,” that will has been guided by the predestined plan that fulfills itself here: “He was where he had longed to be—he had followed his need.”
“‘And He Built a Crooked House’” (1941) and “They” (1941) belong together in spite of their different subject matter. Both inscribe a pattern that will become fundamental in Heinlein's fiction—a curious polar undulation between center and circumference. It is this rhythm which gradually controls the primal relationship between elected individual and total destiny, linking them together in a closed dynamic system. “And He Built” is the story of architect Quintus Teal, the man with a strange name who builds a stranger house. The tale itself has an odd form: it shrinks to a point, only to expand in vertiginous fashion from it. Things begin narrowing from the very first line: “Americans are considered crazy anywhere in the world.” California, however, is their “focus of infection”; its focus is Los Angeles, the center of which is Hollywood, and so on until we come to rest on Teal and his tesseract house. Built for Homer Bailey and wife, the house is a hypercube unfolded into our habitual three dimensions. During an earthquake, it collapses upon itself, into four dimensions. Architect and clients enter this structure, and find themselves trapped at its “center,” what Bailey in his three-dimensional logic sees as “the little cube in your diagram that was in the middle of the big cube.” Outward from this point new dimensional vistas reach in all directions. They open one window, and look into “inverted” space; open another, and see New York from above.
Once again, a situation serves to separate the elect from those who are not. Bailey's wife is one of those hopelessly frivolous Heinlein females; and he himself is only slightly more able to cope with this strange new world. For both, the tesseract is a maze. Teal designed the house, and understands it mathematically. Nevertheless, he gets out of it not by reason but by instinct. He is different only because he sees the relationship between the two dimensions. The point of contact, the new center, is the mind itself: “‘I watched where I was going and arrived where I intended to.’ He stepped back into the lounge. ‘The time before I didn't watch and I moved on through normal space and fell out of the house. It must have been a matter of subconscious orientation.’” As with Pinero, it is not the discovery of the machine—the tesseract house in this case—but the ability to face the implications of its working that marks the man. This slightly foolish inventor builds as if he were the instrument of destiny. Even his discovery of the link between dimensions is given to him—he falls out of the house. And what of this faculty of “orientation?” Heinlein gives things a playful twist in the end. A second tremor causes the house to vanish completely. Just before this event, the three had been contemplating the last, and most alien, landscape—a world of yellow sky and tortured shrubs. Without thinking, they leap out the window—and land in Joshua Tree National Monument! In this case, the “subconscious orientation” is most fortunate: vastness and strangeness contract to the familiar California starting point. How do we explain the Baileys' possession of this faculty? Heinlein wryly remarks that all Californians have this reflex. Unique in their madness, this is their saving grace.
In the much different world of “They,” there is this same fundamental interplay of center and circumference. “They” is the story of a monstrous case of paranoia turning out to be real—“they” are all against him. One of Heinlein's most patently philosophical tales, “They” is nonetheless a chronicle of election in the familiar mode. Once again, the hero is distinguished less by his actions than by a certain disposition to vision. In a perfectly ordinary and comfortable world, he begins to feel alienated. Other people seem ignorant and selfish; he cannot reach out to them, and feels hemmed in by a social wall. One day, by “chance,” he pierces a hole through it. He is about to leave the house one rainy afternoon with his wife. He forgets something upstairs, goes back, and opens a window shade—the sun is shining! Like Quintus Teal, he looks out on another dimension. But in this case, clearly, seeing it is not enough: he must discover its relationship to his familiar world. The maze that confronts this hero is epistemological; he is forced back upon his own being as the only possible starting point. This reductio, however, is neither Cartesian nor Berkeleyan. He exists not because he thinks, but because he physically is: his five senses are the first line of consciousness, the sole justification for belief in self. On the evidence of these same senses, he cannot dismiss the world “out there” as illusory. He kicks the stone: things really do have physical existence. He rejects both chaos and illusion, isolation and solipsism. The explanation of the world he gives has a strange a priori basis, and resembles nothing more than faith. The world simply cannot be as crazy as it seems; men cannot be that indifferent and egotistical. Therefore, if the senses are reliable, someone must have made things the way they are. Instead of absurdity, we have the big lie, an adversary: some “puppet master” has robbed these others of their free will. This particular man (who remains fittingly nameless) is given the possibility and disposition to see reality: he is chosen to resist.
In the process of resistance, he displays what is unique in mankind: the dynamic rhythm of an existence that is, in all places and moments, individual and total. Significantly, the hero of “They” never makes contact with another human being. But he is not isolated. The void behind the window shade is offset by a second glimpse at the totality of things, this time in a dream: “Gladness! Gladness everywhere! It was … good to know that everything was living and aware of him, participating in him, as he participated in them. It was good to be, good to know the unity of many and diversity of one.” In this epiphanic moment, the individual makes direct contact with a new circumferential whole. The result is the dynamic undulation of the many and the one. What these “aliens” do not realize is that the point is as indispensable to this balanced rhythm as the circumference. They are a collective organism that seeks to absorb the individual, to “dismantle” the system. At one point in his reasoning, the hero contemplates suicide as a means of escape from his condition, and then rejects it: to destroy the body is to destroy his sole contact with the external world. His vision of unity is the product neither of reason nor will: it issues again from a “subconscious orientation”—some deeper place where mind is firmly rooted in matter. Nor can the enemy, it seems, tamper with this individuality, or alter it against a man's desire. Some higher law—a “Treaty”—has apparently declared it inviolate. All these aliens can do is study this particular “specimen” as he goes through what seems a series of cyclic incarnations. And they are getting nowhere, are even losing ground: the “creature” who filled the role of his wife has become “assimilated”: she asks favors for him the next time around. One is reminded of Heinlein's later Martians, and his other “superior” races: while they sit and ponder man, man's vital existence is busy generating the energy that promises to destroy them.
Heinlein develops a similar pattern in the time travel story, “By His Bootstraps” (1941), but from an opposite angle. Here, rather than election, we have a ritual of damnation. The hero is not merely cast off; he is damned to act out his damnation over and over, without surcease or hope. What occurs is a travesty of election, in which self-awareness is a closed circle, breakthrough to totality a delusion of the ego. The maze in which this hero wanders is that of his own existence. Bob Wilson is writing a thesis on mathematical metaphysics. As he begins to discuss “time travel,” a man steps into his room through a “time gate,” and tries to persuade him to go back through it with him. A third man appears and seeks to prevent it. A fight ensues, and Wilson is knocked through the gate. Here he meets a middle-aged man who shows him the marvelous Arcadian kingdom he has inherited. He offers to let Bob share its rule if Wilson will help him: he is to go back through the time gate and fetch another man … It turns out all four are different temporal manifestations of Bob himself—they chase each other endlessly.
The “time gate” seems to be another of these windows into a new dimension. And the world it reveals is apparently as unfallen as that the hero envisions in “They.” A second look, however, shows it to be insubstantial, a shadow kingdom filled with childlike subjects and beautiful maidens. Why does Wilson send his double back to fetch books like Mein Kampf and The Prince? The whole thing is a power fantasy, a creation of the hero's frustrated ego. Indeed, the sole reality here is the circular world peopled by these time-spectres—empty, without beginning or end. If there is a dynamic here, it is not creative polarity, but a cycle of material futility: “You feed the rats to the cats, skin the cats, and feed the carcasses of the cats to the rats who are in turn fed to the cats. the perpetual motion fur farm.” The form of the story is circular in manner: it begins with the “youngest” Wilson sitting at his desk, and ends as his “oldest” double sends another back to interrupt this same “youngest” Wilson still sitting at his desk. Throughout the story, the same event is told over and over, each time from the perspective of a different Wilson. The time puzzle is carefully reconstructed, only to be scattered once again as things begin anew. In his thesis, Bob writes: “Duration is an attribute of consciousness, not of the plenum.” Wilson's adventures merely act out this solipsistic maxim. Unlike Libby or Delos Harriman, he never reaches beyond self to intersect with some broader order in time and space, never fulfills a destiny. This time the point quite literally absorbs the circumference.
If “By His Bootstraps” is a drama of fate, it is one with peculiarly Calvinist overtones. These time-frames interlock in the most terrible manner to trap their victim; but they are largely mind-formed. Fallen man struggles only to damn himself all the more. Wilson mistakes the gate for a mark of election: actually, he has elected himself. He chafes at the prospect of a narrow life, yearning to escape. the result is his fateful thesis, and the appearance of the gate—projections of his desire. Wilson is not called; on the contrary, what is re-enacted here is the primal sin of intellectual pride. Ironically, once he is caught in the revolving door of time, he grows increasingly vain. Escape is no longer enough. As he works out the intricate relations between the various time segments, he begins to think he sees the ways of destiny, and can outwit it. In spite of all his efforts, man will never escape his fate. But here, there is elation: Bob predicts “a great future.” He is and remains a dupe. Neither in the beginning nor in the end does he receive illumination or grace. No matter how hard he tries to reshape his fallen world, he fails. His petty vision at the start predisposes him to “fall” through the gate; the further on he goes, the easier it becomes. This allegory is unique in Heinlein, for it is one of the rare times he traces the destiny of one not chosen. And yet, though the meaning of Bob's adventures is quite clear, Heinlein apparently will forget it in later works. More and more men will come to elect themselves, will turn in paths of their own making that are equally circular and solipsistic. This tale could stand as necessary corrective for a monstrosity like I Will Fear No Evil.
“We Also Walk Dogs” (1941) is an interesting tale; here, for the first time, Heinlein focuses openly and unabashedly on a “super group.” “General Services” is an elite society within society. It can accomplish things—and thus act as prime mover in terms of human destiny—because it ignores the laws and customs of weaker mortals. Such an organization is usually the stuff of longer narrative in Heinlein. This version is a short story only by virtue of its limited focus. It is not a climactic moment in the lives of the principals, just business as usual. Nonetheless, the task they are asked to perform is a sizeable one: they must arrange an interplanetary conference on Earth. The problem is gravity. To make each ambassador feel at home, a series of localized gravitational fields is needed. Constructing these fields involves no less than a revolution in physical theory. General Services gets its theory from a recalcitrant scientist. The price—a rare Ming vase located in the British Museum. They steal the vase (we never learn how, but no one seems to miss it); Dr. O'Neil adds it to his private collection without a qualm. They hand Beaumont, the Government Chief of Protocol, a diplomatical and political triumph. Beaumont is well on his way to becoming the first president of a new Solar System Federation. With this stroke, parochialism is struck dead; new visionaries will be needed to lead mankind toward its new destiny. “We Also Walk Dogs” chronicles a day in the life of a growing organism. Before our eyes, the inner circle widens its activities, and acquires a new center. A neophyte is chosen out of the many nameless components of General Services, and proves his worth—Carson becomes one of elect. By the same stroke, Beaumont emerges from the morass of government agencies. But if there is expansion, there is also contraction. The heads of the organization get permission to contemplate O'Neil's vase anytime they like. This point of light, which is the “flower of forgetfulness,” becomes their mystical center: “He bent his head over it and stared down into it. … It seemed as if his sight sank deeper and even deeper into it, as if he were drowning in a pool of light.” In their vital, creative relationship to the vase, we have both the microcosm and power source for the larger dynamic they have just brought into being. Their actions not only have pushed forward the boundaries of the human race, but also secured the center at the same time: Earth will be the focal point of any future planetary union.
“We Also Walk Dogs” provides a transition between the early tales and those written during the years immediately following Heinlein's wartime silence—especially 1947 and 1948. Like the early stories, it is partly an allegory of election, a demonstration of the processes of destiny. And it is partly an exemplary tale as well, one of an openly didactic nature. As it seeks to define the complex relationship between the individual and his universe, it also sets forth exemplary types. We are not only told who the elect are—we are told or taught to admire them. In the three stories published in Saturday Evening Post during the year 1947—“The Green Hills of Earth,” “Space Jockey,” and “‘It's Great to be Back’”—this emblematic quality grows stronger and stronger. Beneath a vague cloak of sentimentality and “human interest,” the mark of election not only remains, but becomes all the more implacable and incontestable. These tables no longer offer even the promise of a philosophical problem. Rather, they celebrate a moral universe that is harshly black and white.
In its tone, “The Green Hills of Earth” seems an atypical story for Heinlein. It is, however, clearly an exemplum. The form is that of the ballad or folk tale. There is a series of loose episodes, the chronicle of a life organized around one central contrast: we have the official legend and accepted verse of Rhysling the blind space poet, and we have the story of the real man—unkempt and bawdy. To make this contrast is to uncover the fortunate paradox of the artist's life. This insignificant-seeming individual turns out to be a hero as well as a poet—in fact, he is a great poet only because he is a hero. Both his blindness and death—romanticized in the public version—are the results of an unflinching devotion to duty. The fruit of this grandeur and misery is his great poem, “The Green Hills of Earth.” As great art unfolds from this unlikely man in unlikely circumstances, we watch the familiar process of election, and rejoice in the ways of destiny.
Once again, in this story there is a narrowing: inside the public shell we find a private core of truth. “Noisy” Rhysling was, in the beginning, just another space tramp—a black-listed engineer with a talent for scurrilous doggerel. He signs on an unsafe vessel, and is blinded while performing (without question or hesitation) an act that saves the ship. His appearance and frivolous words are deceptive. When the moment comes, he does the “right” thing instinctively. Rhysling takes up the life of a wandering minstrel. From blindness, a new vision emerges: the lack of sight mercifully cuts him off from the ugliness of the world about him. On a Mars that has suffered grave ecological damage, he falls back on memory, and in a stroke of fortunate irony, sings about the unspoiled planet of yore. In a sense, he has broken through in his art to a new dimension. Significantly, however, he does not remain here. This circumference shrinks to a new point of reality as the wayfarer makes his first and last voyage homeward. He ponders, in poetic terms, an inversion of things: beauty is no longer the airy towers of Mars but the cool hills of Earth. Improvisation is interrupted by an atomic explosion. Working literally by blind instinct, Rhysling dampens the radioactive material, but exposes himself fatally in the process.
This tale may be read as an allegory. The vast circumference of Rhysling's wanderings—he becomes a symbol of man's restless exploration in space—collapses to a point as he meets his destiny. In analogous manner, human expansion into space—which Rhysling's own acts have themselves furthered in a small but crucial way—suddenly contract in his poetry: we celebrate Earth, the point of return. But the home planet is also a point of departure: from the acts of this blind singer (poetic and heroic), new vision will radiate outward. In its over-insistent association of election with duty, the story becomes dogmatic. Some inner light (the only one he has) reveals to Rhysling the workings of a higher law. These invariably seem to coincide with military codes, blind obedience and sacrifice, which are always virtues, and always beyond the common indication. Indeed, death is not crowned by a public reputation—Rhysling's is swept away in the first paragraph—but by a private act and an immortal product. Again, and in terms of the creative process this time, center and circumference make direct contract; all else is elided.
“Space Jockey” is a more obvious exemplum—and a less successful story. A pilot on the Moon run finds his job interfering with family life. In mid-journey, he ponders the problem, and is on the verge of abandoning his metier when an accident recalls him to duty. Not only does he bring the ship through—skillfully and intuitively—but by this act he reaffirms his vocation. He finally writes his letter to his wife: he will remain a pilot and she must follow him. To his surprise, she accepts without hesitation—she was with him all along.
“‘—It's Great to Be Back’” is a better tale by virtue of its extreme simplicity. A young couple living in Luna City decide they have had enough of the Moon's confined life—they yearn for the green hills of Earth. In an ironic twist, however, expansion turns out to be contraction. The Earth is cramped and dirty; even worse, the people are rude and stupidly narrow-minded. After a brief stay, the couple becomes tired of references to the Man-in-the-Moon and green cheese, and decides to go back. In a sudden flash of insight, they realize just how different—and elite—the “Loonies” are. To get to the Moon in the first place, it takes a high IQ, and a superior education and disposition. Opening this colony has automatically separated wheat from chaff. The two are accepted back without so much as a test—they are “Moonstruck,” and that is enough. Once again, the election process is some mysterious affinity—a stroke of secular grace.
In these latter two tales, the nostalgia of Rhysling's world view is reversed: the center shifts from Earth to Moon. In spite of the displacement, however, the same pattern of undulation abides. In “Space Jockey,” the pull of wife and Earthly comforts is broken—in a final symbolic act, she accepts the move to the Moon. Likewise, the stupidity of Judge Schram and his “Junior Rocketeer” son—their “influence” with the high and mighty—are of no avail in stemming this pull away from Earth. The Moon becomes the new center from which man will expand outward. The pilot's actions are vindicated (and Schram's protests brushed aside) by that silent and serene hierarchy who implement this manifest destiny. “‘—It's Great to Be Back’” merely celebrates this shift, as do most of the other tales of the period.
“The Black Pits of Luna” (1948) is about a group of silly Earth tourists, and the ordeal of a lost boy on the Moon. We see here what will become Heinlein's stereotypes: the henpecked husband; the weak-willed, fuzzy-brained, hysterical wife (she insists on bloodhounds); the impossible brat. Once again, pressure from above forces the guides to take an underaged and ill-mannered boy on this trip against regulations. During the crisis, parents and other tourists are helpless and useless. Only the older brother (the narrator) keeps his head, and thus perseveres. It is his ingenuity that saves his brother in extremis. The moral is clear—the parents are told by the irate guide: “Stay off the Moon. You don't belong here; you're not the pioneer type.” The narrator, however, feels a secret desire to return; the guide recognizes him as one of theirs. Again we have a tale of sifting and exclusion.
“Gentleman, Be Seated” (1948) makes the same point in a whimsical manner. An Earth journalist on vacation on the Moon begins probing into the ways of men on the satellite: he thinks there may be scandal or graft in connection with the building of airlocks. What he gets, as he pursues this reasoning, is a very physical lesson in how things work in this different and hazardous world. He is touring a lock in the company of Fatso Konski, “the best sandhog in four planets,” when there is a blast and leak. There is only one way to plug it—Fatso plays Dutch Boy with his ample rear end. But he soon succumbs to the cold. The narrator must take his place, and does so without hesitation. All are rescued in the end. More important is the hero's position—the free-floating skeptic has found a most basic point of attachment for the Moon. Is he one of them after all? He sets aside the honor—if Konski wants to collect the chess money he won while waiting to be rescued, he will have to come to Des Moines. Yet, although (as Konski said) he may be “conventional,” he has already shown “he has the stuff.” This time it is a disbeliever who, in a quite unforeseen way, passes the test of adoption.
“Gentlemen” begins with a discussion of agoraphobia and claustrophobia—fear of the open and of confined places. In terms of the basic rhythm, these represent unbalanced fixations on the point or the circumference. Heinlein's elite, however, must embrace both poles, striking dynamic balance between them: “Make it agoraphiles and claustrophiles, for the men who go out in space had better not have phobias.” “Ordeal in Space” (1948) is the story of a man with such a phobia, and how he conquers it. It is a simple tale, and perhaps one of Heinlein's best. During the heroic execution of ship repairs in deepest space, Bill Cole “looks down”—the terror of the void suddenly breaks his nerve, making him unfit for duty. He returns to Earth and a cloistered existence—he cannot look out into open places. A second, redeeming “ordeal in space” comes as the hero spends the night in a friend's high-rise apartment. He hears a cat meowing—it is stranded on the narrow ledge outside. He overcomes his fears, saves the cat, and regains his old calm before the vastness of space. Is this an effort of will? We learn, however, that Bill had an inexplicable affinity for cats—perhaps because they resemble spacemen in their fearlessness and capacity for adaptation. Like seeks out like. Indeed, he is drawn in spite of himself, as if called, to the window, and this foolish and fearful act that will (wondrously) save him. He seems predestined to be a spaceman. Here too, in this story, is the now familiar reversal of priorities. There is the public act of heroism—Bill has a reputation, but it is hollow and useless when the man inside has lost his nerve—and this private one. The cat is both insignificant and all-important. In this contact, the man is revealed to himself, the way prepared for continuation of the grand design. Once again, we have Heinlein's fundamental dynamic in operation. The huge canopy of space contracts to a cat. This is only to pave the way for new expansion: “Little fluffhead, how would you like to take a long, long ride with me?”
Heinlein has written few stories after 1949. These are for the most part after-thoughts, occasional works by a writer who has turned his attention almost wholly to the novel. They vary both in nature and in mood, and can be either harshly pessimistic or sentimental and optimistic. Clearly, the center no longer holds. The dynamics of balance that informed both the earlier allegories and the exempla is gone—in its place, we get apocalypse and apotheosis. Before there was preoccupation; now there is something more like obsession. As such, these scattered tales of the 1950s seem to announce the excesses of Heinlein's latest fictional ventures.
“Sky Lift” (1953) is a strange variation on the familiar theme of the call to duty. In an earlier tale, “The Long Watch” (1949), the young lieutenant hero gives his life to save Earth from a military putsch. He dismantles the stockpile of atom bombs on the Moon—and like Rhysling dies of radiation poisoning. Before, Heinlein might have left the act of heroism unsung—after all, during his “long watch,” the man has discovered himself, found his true calling. But the private act is no longer supreme. Heinlein gives his hero a funeral procession worthy of Siegfried. Public ritual replaces the inner illumination: the lead coffin must be flown to Earth with pomp and circumstances, so that the best of mankind will be inspired to carry on the fight. “Sky Lift” does not have even the compensatory ceremony. The tale may be a better one in its avoidance of patriotic cliches, but it still remains grim. A cargo of blood must be flown immediately to an outlying base on one of Pluto's moons. To get it there in time to save the diseased men, the trip must be made at intolerably high acceleration—can the crew withstand the sustained high gravity? The protagonist does not volunteer; he is chosen. Through some uncanny insight, the Captain sees in this unlikely hero a special predisposition—what is wanted here is not the traditional ability to act, but a passive talent to endure. He is reluctant—he has a well-deserved leave before him, and is brimming with youthful spirits—and yet he heeds the call. No matter how arbitrary this may seem, it is never questioned. He accomplishes his painful mission, and survives—but in a flash passes from vigor to senility. The focus here is not on the hundreds saved, but on this one wasted youth. In this elided life, Rip Van Winkle is reborn in space. Slowly, in scattered works of this period, a pattern emerges as counter current to the dynamic of formation—that process of growth to adulthood by trial and error which Heinlein adopted along with the convention of juvenile adventure, but with which he was never really at ease. Elision can be macabre, as in “Sky Lift,” or it can be a blessing. In a work like Stranger in a Strange Land, the young hero leaps in a flash over the responsibilities and anxieties of maturity to instant (and unearned) godhood.
“The Year of the Jackpot” (1952) is even more unusual for Heinlein, an apocalyptic vision. As a general rule in his early and middle work, Heinlein presents human destiny as a plan that is both unlimited and endlessly unfolding. In this tale, however, things are cut off by total and irrevocable destruction. Its beginning seems typical enough. In fact, throughout the story we expect something else—survival and rebirth—and we are surprised at the ending. The hero is a common Heinleinian figure: a statistician wanders around gathering data on a series of uncanny phenomena, and patiently plots his curves. Other men think he is crazy, but some fortunate inclination drives him on. He deduces from the study of his graphs and past cataclysmic cycles that this will be “the year of the jackpot”—a mighty convergence of disasters. The hero takes girl and survival gear, and leaves L. A.—just in time, for earthquake, tidal wave, and atomic blast strike successively, engulfing the city. The couple reach a mountain hideaway. In the later novel Farnham's Freehold (1964), such a point of survival proclaims itself the center from which a new world will be rebuilt. But not here: the sun explodes as well. A story like “Jackpot” may mark the beginning of a dystopian, constrictive current in Heinlein's work. Gradually, the endless vistas of the earlier fiction will contract around the hero (both Stranger and I Will Fear are set in narrowly confining—and dystopian—near futures). This new tightness forces him inward on a private world, itself tainted with finality: these later heroes are obsessed with death, preoccupied, not with statistical curves and survival charts, but with artificial prolongation of their own individual bodies.
Odder yet for Heinlein is the sentimental optimism of “The Man Who Travelled in Elephants” (1957). Panshin thinks this story was written much earlier. On the contrary, it has neither the allegorical complexity nor the exemplary clarity of the earlier tales. In “Elephants,” an old man who has lost his wife is on a bus enroute to one of the state fairs they had followed all their lives. There is apparently an accident. But if the old man is killed, his is a painless death, and an effortless passage into the next world—another time gate or “door into summer.” To the hero, this new world is his private vision of heaven—the biggest carnival of them all, in which he and his reborn wife mount their elephants as king and queen of the Mardi Gras. This hardly seems like Heinlein at all. Yet beneath the surface are the familiar patterns. Out of this whole bus-load, one insignificant, pot-bellied individual is elected, inexplicably to glory. Moreover, he seems predestined to this end. His private joke (and whimsical justification for his fair-chasing) was to say, when asked what line he was in, that he “travelled in elephants.” A different writer might have made the elephants of this hero's apotheosis a delusion, as with Hemingway's lion in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a moment of dreaming transition between life and death. Instead, fantasy predisposes to a higher reality: on that side of paradise, the hero's vocation is at last recognized—“a fine profession.” This story is almost entirely ritual, a huge ceremony of election that terminates in coronation itself. Elided here, in this piece of wishful thinking, is not just an individual life, but the dolorous barrier of death.
Finally, there is “Searchlight” (1962), lone beacon of the sixties, and a slight effort in every respect. A blind child prodigy pianist is lost somewhere on the Moon when her ship goes down. She has no idea where she is. Her rescuers make contact, but cannot use a radio direction finder—they are as blind as she is, or blinder, in fact, as it turns out. The problem is how to locate her. The ingenious solution goes a long way toward confirming the old paradox of the blind who see. A laser beam will be used to carry an audio frequency, a single musical pitch. The general sector of the Moon in which she is lost is divided into a grid of such beams, a span of the 88 notes of the piano. She identifies her note, and is rescued in the nick of time. This is a strange, convoluted tale of election, in which two disparate beings—the blind girl and the unnamed scientist who invents the laser grid—bend all kinds of accepted physical notions (“light can't be heard”) in order to effect an all-but-impossible union. The Moon calls for different sense and skills in order to survive. It is as if Betsy, inviable on Earth, has been called to the Moon and subjected to this ordeal solely in order to “see” anew with her exceptional ear. We have all the mechanism for a miracle. When it actually appears, however, it occurs in purely physical terms. As the ship comes down to rescue her, the reborn girl hears it: “they see her waving!”
These two people are chosen for this stranger rendezvous, predestined for it by a quality shared in common—personal conviction. Betsy doesn't hesitate to make a concert tour of the Moon in spite of the dangers. As she waits for help which may never come, she remains unperturbed, as if she possessed an even higher sense—that of election. Nor does the scientist hesitate to implement his idea; he even overrides the President of the United States. Out of this meeting come two things: a wider gap between the elect and everyone else, and a promising union of science and art. But if this parable tantalizes us with new vistas, it deceives as well. We have the shell of a blind seer, but no more. “Sight” here, like music, has no spiritual dimension whatsoever. Heinlein expends all this ingenuity only to make a paradoxical shift from one physical sense to another. It is a clever exercise in relative materialism, no more.
Heinlein's novellas, simply stated, are that series of longer early narratives written before he began to publish novels. Of varying lengths, the shortest of them are nevertheless more substantial than any of his short stories. Some are quite long, and were originally serialized. Several of these (Sixth Column, Methusaleh's Children, Beyond this Horizon) were later expanded and published as novels. In spite of this, all these novellas share a form which is peculiarly their own. They should not be considered as something intermediary or transitional, a step on the way to the novel. Theirs is rather an alternate mode of narration. Compared with Heinlein's more orthodox novels of adventure and intrigue, the novellas have a quite different structural logic. The adventure novel is fundamentally synthetic in form; successive episodes are subsumed in the gradually evolving mystery, resumed in the culminating denouement. In the same way, on the private level, the hero's consciousness unfolds in time and space until, at the moment of self-discovery, all previous experiences are encompassed in a flash. Heinlein's novellas often contain numerous episodes. These are organized, however, not in a linear series, but in concentric layers around a single center. In each novella, “action” is restricted to one pivotal problem or adventure. This is rapidly set forth and circumscribed; ensuing events tend to gloss it, building upon this center in analytical fashion. Heinlein's novellas often appear excessively digressive. Indeed, it is this centrifugal structure that generates most of those disquisitive passages that so annoy readers of Heinlein. In each of the narratives discussed here, we do not find linear movement toward a point, but pulsatory movement away from it. The “action” will expand into various satellite realms, and then suddenly (irrationally, if we persist in thinking in terms of linear construction) contract upon the point in order that the story may end.
These early novellas seem to hold the key to the excessively digressive, actionless form of Heinlein's latest work. Does he not, in a novel like I Will Fear No Evil, simply overexpand a pivotal situation similar to those found in the novellas? More importantly, however, their structure sheds light on the unusual nature of some of Heinlein's juvenile novels. In certain of these “classics,” it seems almost as if this vertical, analytical pattern has been superimposed over the initial horizontal impetus of the action novel. In this way, the “fast starts” we find in many Heinlein novels of the 1950s—where hero and reader are thrown at top speed into the middle of a train of events rushing forward toward denouement—are literally sabotaged. The forward thrust is made to coagulate around a problem center. This may indicate a preference for the novella form; but it does not necessarily mean Heinlein has lost structural control. As we shall see, he can write adventure novels of a more conventional sort when he so wishes. We can only assume, from the persistence of these hybrids, that Heinlein intends this fusion of forms, and is actively seeking some structural advantage from it. Not only are Heinlein's early novellas strongly didactic; they illustrate, in their expansive and contractive structures, a vision of man in which the individual's relation to the whole is predestined and unchangeable. Fusion of this form with the patterns of heroic adventure in the middle novels allows Heinlein to redirect a view of man that must have been basically alien to him. Freedom of individual action, rational control of destiny—values implied in the narrative of heroic quest, no matter how debased—are gradually cancelled out as this axial form spreads from the center of these novels.
The earliest of Heinlein's longer narrative, “If This Goes On—” (1940), is also one of the most interesting examples of a form that seems to have sprung fully shaped from the writer's head. Most people know this work in its expanded form (rewritten in 1953 for inclusion in the volume Revolt in 2100). The original serialized version is shorter. And yet, in its basic structure, it is virtually the same. The core of both is one single event—a revolution. In this tale, the hero only appears to grow, as he passes from loyal soldier in the Prophet's army to leader of the insurrection against theocratic tyranny. The various stages in his revolt are just so many positions around the periphery of the Cabal. His personal adventures are manipulated to cast light on this complex central phenomenon from numerous different angles.
Panshin calls “If This Goes On—” the story of a change of mind: John Lyle is a “man-who-learns-better.” If he does so, however, the change comes immediately, at the start of the action. In a flash, a young man eagerly serving one cause is wholeheartedly converted to another: it is but another example of a man predestined to grace. From this moment on, whenever his actions are intuitive, he invariably does the “right thing.” He reads the words of Tom Paine and Patrick Henry, and has a mystical revelation. Heinlein would make us believe that his conversion is not complete: Lyle has been brainwashed, after all, and such barriers to self-realization as prudishness must still be overcome. The process will be slow and painful. There are two ways to exorcise these demons: experience and precept. In reality, each adventure Lyle has on his way to that center of things which is the Cabal is but an excuse for someone to lecture him or us, and in doing so lay open this anatomy of a revolution.
The examples of staged adventure are numerous. At one point, for instance, Lyle is discovered and put to the Question. He doesn't talk; but what difference would it have made if he had? At this stage of the game, he possesses no crucial information whose disclosure might make the action rebound. Nor could this knowledge have been obtained even if he had had it: his mind has been blocked by hypnosis—the narrator now has a chance to tell us how this is done. Lyle doesn't even give his friend Zeb away. But if he had, would this have destroyed the Cabal? The real purpose of this scene is to inform and to reveal. The hero displays the power to resist, to outwit the enemy. We now know he is one of the elect, and are prepared for his subsequent (and otherwise unexplainable) rise in the organization.
In the rambling narrative that ensues, Lyle's adventures as a fugitive on the road serve an informative purpose again and again. After a narrow escape, he hitches a ride with a friendly trucker. His own woes disappear before the marvels of the machine itself: “Nor had I ever been inside a big freighter before and I was interested to see how much it resembled … the control room of an army surface cruiser.” Is this naivete? Soon we see that all along he has been following a higher plan: “I … filed away in my mind the idea that, if the Cabal should ever need cruiser pilots in a hurry, freighter jacks could be trained for the job in short order.” As Lyle gradually penetrates the inner organization of the Cabal, we get a guided tour of its workings. Various experts lecture him (and us) on such matters as the conduct of psychological warfare. Good old Zeb mysteriously reappears; Lyle gets a mentor, and the reader a round of digressive dialogues. Zeb, for example, has resumed his filthy habit of smoking. The Puritanical Lyle had always objected to it before—now he openly accuses his friend of sacrilege. He forgets where he is and all he has done. Zeb, however, straightens him out, and in the process proclaims his even more fundamentalist credo: “My religious faith is a private matter between me and my God. What my inner beliefs are you will have to judge by my actions … I decline to explain them nor justify them to you.” This whole scene is trumped up, against all laws of dramatic construction and consistent development of character, merely to give a pretext for exposing ideas. These in turn uphold without justification the cruel and inscrutable process of election which governs the shape of this narration.
As Lyle reaches the center of his journey, events occur which reaffirm his election. Another old acquaintance miraculously turns up—his old mentor Colonel Huxley, “Head of the Department of Applied Miracles” at his old military academy. Even in that world before grace, there was a strange affinity between these two men. Now Huxley inexplicably promotes this obscure newcomer to a key position in the war effort. This new order, it seems, is just as military as the old—the new army is run right because the goal is right. In Huxley's eyes, Lyle's training in the Prophet's school makes him a prince in this one, where instructors are lacking. Within this inner circle, there is yet another circle which must guide the effort because it is in tune with higher laws of destiny. This celestial chain of command is seen at work in the final battle—the assault on “New Jerusalem.” Huxley is put out of action. Lyle should hand the command over to the next officer in line, his own superior in rank. But he knows the man is incompetent: “What would Huxley have me do, if he could make the decision?” Huxley continues to make the decisions. As if visited by his dead commander, Lyle gives orders in his name. The right choices are made and destiny is fulfilled.
Lyle's journey to the center of things is made clear in the most tangible, geographical terms. The Cabal occupies a huge underground cavern in the southwestern United States. But this in turn has a center. It is reached during a picnic excursion the hero takes in the company of Zeb and two girls. With uncanny vision, Zeb guides them through this labyrinth (the passage is “so well hidden that it could have been missed for ten thousand years.”). They reach “a perfect small-domed cavern”; here is pristine sand and clear waters—they have rediscovered Eden. In this prelapsarian world, Lyle appears to lose the last of his inhibitions, and thus can tap some vital new energy that will lead him into the battle to come. Such appearances are deceiving, however. At this moment of the center, the hero does not grow; he is chosen. His predestined path is merely revealed to him.
This scene of nude bathing proclaims its purity. In reality, however, what we have here is prurience. Sex is treated exactly the same way as in Stranger in a Strange Land. Lyle gazes upon nudity and exclaims: “What is it about the body of a human woman that makes it the most terribly beautiful sight on earth?” He learns at last that they too are human. Heinlein dangles such forbidden fruit before our impossibly naive and prudish hero, and tantalizes him. But things apparently can go no further. An outburst of lust is not possible, for Zeb and the girls only taunt the hero so that they can chastise him all the better. They lecture their charge—but it seems that the lectures are meant for us, because Lyle doesn't really need them. Some marvelous grace preserves him, the “right” woman miraculously appears. Innocence need not be sullied by experience: it overlaps temptation, and achieves perfect union.
In this scene, Heinlein does not reverse the Fall so much as suspend its effects selectively. What we get is a higher form of titillation: Lyle is ever menaced, always saved. The threat may turn out to be an imaginary one. Our hero sees the two girls differently. Miriam is a blonde temptress: “I think Lilith must have been a blonde.” To gaze upon the other, however, is something else: where Miriam was “naked,” Maggie is “merely unclothed, like Mother Eve.” Yet Lyle has fears—he believes Maggie is betrothed to Zeb, and now looks on in horror as Miriam draws his friend away for a swim in the raw. This is chimerical, we know: Miriam turns out to be perfectly virtuous—it is just good clean fun. On top of this, there is another unexpected twist: Zeb is not to be Adam after all. Maggie explains: “I am very fond of Zebediah and I know he is equally fond of me. But we are both dominant types psychologically … Two such people should not marry. Such marriages are not made in Heaven, believe me! Fortunately we found out in time.” This providential revelation saves things—Maggie remains unsullied, and the way is open for Lyle to love her with purity. Or is it? Maggie reminds him Judith exists: she will not fight for him but insists on having him pure. Do we have a real barrier this time? It proves just as ephemeral—Zeb appears and tells of Judith's infidelity (she was too “Female”—“all gonads and no brain”). Lyle and Maggie are obviously destined for each other after all. But if this is the mechanism of election, it has been debased to an insubstantial game, much ado about nothing.
In two ways, both chronologically and thematically, Coventry (1940—is a sequel to “If This Goes On—.” In this novella, we enter the post-revolutionary world of the Covenant. The religious dictatorship has been abolished. It has been discovered, however, that freedom in society can only extend to a pact in which all freely subscribe. Significantly, this is not called a “contract” but a “covenant.” Freedom turns out to be a selective word: as we see, only a certain part of mankind has the need to adhere to this agreement. The rest go to Coventry. Here, supposedly, each man can do what he wants. Yet this is false, for in Coventry anarchy inexorably leads to tyranny—there, in fact, he has three modes to choose from. Man apparently has the option to choose between Covenant and Coventry. But this is not true either. The inhabitants of Coventry, we will learn, are damned, but not by their refusal. A man's fate, in fact, is in no way the product of his actions, but rather of some predetermination. Those who belong are impelled irrevocably by their fallen natures. Yet there are those, like the hero, who make the error, and choose Coventry. Their act does not doom them; rather, it sets in motion the formidable machinery of Heinlein's secular grace. To an even greater extent than “If This Goes On—.” Coventry proves that, no matter how hard they try, the elect cannot damn themselves.
Coventry opens with a problem: to what extent should society regulate individual freedom? David MacKinnon is accused of an anti-social act—he has taken a punch at a detractor: “You believe yourself capable of judging morally your fellow citizens, and feel justified in personally correcting and punishing their lapses. You are a dangerous individual … for we cannot predict what damage you may do next.” He is condemned to two choices: psychological rehabilitation or Coventry. This scene is cleverly staged, for our sympathies instinctively go out to MacKinnon. In an impassioned defense, he berates his world: lives have become futile and boring because all vestiges of individualism have been stamped out; minds are now controlled and levelled to a single norm. Because the “true spirit of the Revolution” has been betrayed, he will go to Coventry and start over: “I hope I never hear of the United States again.” We may believe MacKinnon at first; we will learn how wrong this new way really is.
Heinlein tugs at the “romantic” in us all. His hero (a professor of literature) is one of the last of this breed. He eschews technology, yearns to lead the “simple life.” When he goes to Coventry, he takes with him primitive objects—the trust rifle of yore, instead of the modern “blaster.” Heinlein is quick to point out the flaw in his logic: “The steel tortoise gave MacKinnon a feeling of Crusoe-like independence. It did not occur to him that his chattel was the end product of the cumulative effort and intelligent cooperation of hundred of thousands of men, living and dead.” He later eats a piece of real meat, and vomits when he learns what it is: he is thoroughly adapted to his sophisticated culture, unable to exist without it. In Coventry, he experiences the true fruit of anarchy—lawlessness, impressment, war. He is robbed by corrupt customs officials, and imprisoned by a crooked judge. In jail, miraculously, he meets “Fader” Magee, who becomes his mentor, helping him to escape, and guiding him to the underworld. Once again, there is convergence to a point, contact with a secret society within a society. There is also another rhythm often found in Heinlein—repeated contraction and expansion. Jail cells are often places of dynamic encounter. Dave and Magee team up and stage a spectacular breakout—one of the few moments of action in this story. Once underground, Dave must hide in an old radio-phonograph in order to escape a raiding party. Out of this confinement comes an expansion in a new direction. The hero begins a process of “self-analysis” by which he corrects (one by one) his misconceptions, and initiates the journey back to a world he foolishly rejected.
In this process, though, Dave has a lot of help. While in the hideout, he basks in the parental affections of Fader Magee and Mother Johnson. This brings him to reflect on his own childhood: these people are so warm and understanding that something must certainly have been lacking in his early years. In the true spirit of psychotherapy, he unearths the tyrannical father and condemns him: it was this repressive upbringing that later caused his “atavistic” trait of violence to break out. As he reflects, things are beginning to happen. The ever-warring factions of Coventry, it seems, have buried their differences; they have discovered a new weapon, and plan to attack the “Barrier” and a helpless United States. Fader is wounded trying to get this information to the other side. Though Dave still refuses to go in his place, he takes Fader to the Doctor—and a final round of instruction begins. This lone medical man in Coventry (it seems that doctors are never anti-social) is untouchable, above both law and custom. He is there (he tells us) in “voluntary exile”: “He cared nothing for dry research; what he wanted was patients, the sicker the better.” He has a young daughter, Persephone, nubile and possessed of god-like wisdom. This creature, young and old at once, is the prototype for numerous female prodigies in Heinlein. Dave falls for this child-like queen of Hades. As she lectures and coerces him, her influence wears away the last vestiges of the hero's social sickness. She informs him of the true nature of the Covenant. It is “the first scientific social document ever drawn up by man.” At its core is a Korzybskian analysis of the term “justice”: there is no observable phenomenon in the space-time continuum to which we can point and say “this is justice.” Science can only deal with that which can be observed and measured. Something like “damage” is a far more pragmatic measure for human actions. Betrayed in this social logic is a certain Puritanical mistrust of abstractions, and rejection of man's rational ability to manipulate them. It falls back on the predetermined patterns immanent in observable objects. Indeed, Dave's own development, as it follows a parallel path, shows this nicely. The abstract beliefs of the Romantic yield to the concrete facts of experience. These turn out to be merely vehicles for some coherent plan which, in the end, reveals itself as a form of election.
The world of Coventry is clearly divided into three state groups, arranged in hierarchical fashion. At the bottom, there are the reprobate of Coventry. Their natures have predisposed them to this Hell. What of the few “good” people we meet there? Heinlein is careful to explain, in each case, that they do not belong. Even the enigmatic Mother Johnson is there by default; she followed her husband, and when he died, simply decided to stay on. As great mother of the underworld, her urges parallel the scientific interests of the Doctor—they are missionaries. Then there is the world of the Covenant. Above this, however, there is a higher circle yet—a select and secret company whose election overleaps the regular channels of the Covenant. Dave is apparently one of these. At last he makes his decision. He crosses the barrier via an underground river. Impossibly, miraculously, he emerges alive on the other side. His rebirth is less astounding than that of Fader himself. The sick man he left behind returns inexplicably as Captain Randall of the Secret Service. As we have seen, Dave's decision to return is not really his own; strong forces guide him all the way. In the same way too, his final act appears no more than a ritual. Fader got out before him—and there were “others” before Fader. In any crucial sense, all these deeds seem insubstantial and inconclusive. The Revolution simply ends; we don't see how it was quelled. It was not destined to succeed, and is not important. All external action pales before the prospects of Dave's election—he will abandon literature and join the Secret Service, becoming one of Fader's higher family of elite spirits. The way to glory is immediate and overleaping. The laws of the Covenant are suspended: he need not undergo psychological rehabilitation. The black sheep is already cured; indeed, he was never sick. In the end the only things that count are the man—“he must ask himself”—and destiny.
In “If This Goes On—,” we have a theocracy that implements not God's will on Earth but a Satanic tyranny. The cure for this, in Heinlein's canon, is not unbounded freedom—Coventry is another Hell, where men left to their own fallen natures sink to bestial anarchy. In both these works, an inner group of the elect emerges in order to guide humanity along predestined paths. The novella Magic, Inc. (1940) is even more pointedly concerned with the emergence of such a group. The original, more revealing title of this story is “The Devil Makes the Law”: monopolistic practices turn out to be quite literally the devil's work. The action takes place in a world utterly familiar and contemporary except for one detail—magic. In some mid-sized city of the American heartland, “licensed practitioners of thaumaturgy” operate in harmony with legitimate businessmen to provide services and goods of quality. This balance is upset when diabolical forces begin to prey on human greed and stupidity. But Heinlein is reenacting here neither temptation nor fall—the dynamic is rather one of division. Purposely, he downplays demonic aggression. The adversary is but a shadow, and there is only one belated encounter with it—a long-delayed (and farcical) voyage to the Underworld. Numerous scenes, however, focus on the confusion and folly of mankind. The majority of men are already fallen. Heinlein shows that it takes only a nudge to drive them further and further into the labyrinth of self-corruption. Magic, Inc. is a narrative of sifting: gradually the true elite, the chosen ones, stand aside and come together. The Satanic pretext is merely the chiquenaude that sets things in motion. Heinlein's narrative, more than anything else, celebrates the marvelous ways of a destiny that elects the “right” men to power.
Significantly, the thrust of the action here is neither to defeat evil nor to reform mankind. It is rather (as in Coventry) to keep things properly divided and in their proper place. Things begin to happen only when these nether forces infringe on the doings of the wrong people. The opening scene illustrates this process. A mafia-style mobster enters the business establishment of Archie, the narrator, and tries to intimidate him into buying “protection” against bad magic. Archie boots him out; the chain of reactions is set in motion. Things happen to his business, he investigates, discovers the tentacular forces of Magic, Inc. He takes his fight through the establishment, and finally outside it. Gradually, in his fight, he gathers about him a circle of unlikely but strong allies. First, he goes to Joe Jedson, rugged individualist, self-made magician, and half a dozen other things. These two encounter, by most propitious chance, Jack Bodie, free-lance licensed magician. Jedson's talents are unrecognized by diplomas; Bodie has the degrees (graduate work at Harvard and Chicago), but eschews them—he learned all he knows from his “old man.” A strong alternate current to society's ways is forming; it gathers strength inexorably. From Bodie, we pass to Mrs. Amanda Jennings—on the surface a frail old lady, beneath it a good witch of extraordinary powers. We penetrate a secret world, for which Bodie, with his business cards, is no more than doorkeeper. But if Mrs. Jennings doesn't advertise, neither does her associate, Dr. Royce Worthington, Doctor of Law, Cambridge University. Beneath this dignified exterior there is the old-fashioned Congo witch-doctor. In reality, Magic, Inc. is a study in comparative power structures. The Chamber of Commerce, in its anarchic disorder, is unable to offer effective resistance to the monopolistic pressures. Each member pursues his own interests, and nothing is resolved. Nor do established legislative procedures fare better. Only this variegated band of individuals can accomplish anything. In a display of power which far outdoes all the public manipulations of Senators, mobsters, chiefs of state, and the infernal schemers themselves, they actually harrow Hell, hunting down the demon responsible for this operation. They form a taut core within a flabby society. In Hell they discover there is, in like manner, an efficient heart in the unwieldy body politic. Already there, disguised as one of Satan's legions, is Agent William Kane, Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The narrator Archie is the key to this chain reaction. But if such an “average guy” can enter this visionary company, why not any of us? Does Heinlein imply that any man, if he perseveres, can make himself so? Far from it. In a very real sense, this whole process of Satanic subversion is but a contorted form of grace: it exists to elect Archie to the innermost circle. The old form of Mrs. Jennings melts away to reveal an angel. Archie's everyman mask falls, and before us stands her spiritual partner. In his occupation, in fact, there is a possible sign that Archie is predestined. As opposed to the more frivolous forms of commerce and magic, he deals as a builder with “durable goods,” iron and concrete. Proof of his destiny comes when some of his companions would turn him back at the threshold of the underworld—this is a job for specialists. But Mrs. Jennings casts straws, and the man who has neither skill nor knowledge in magic is chosen. This whole process has Puritan overtones. A destiny is read in visible signs and objects. Archie's fate is plain to see—the dealer in durables who displays solid (and quite uncommon) courage throughout. No deed he does (or quality he has) explains, however, the final mark of election bestowed on him. The Amanda who goes to Hades is a resplendent young woman—fearful and angelic, but still a shade. When Archie falls in love with her, we think the situation both foolish and physically impossible—sixty years of “real” time separate them. And yet, oddly enough, it is as if this imposed chastity predisposes Archie for union on a higher level. As he sleeps after their journey, the young Amanda comes and plants a kiss on his brow, choosing him as her spiritual lover. The lowest and highest elements of this hierarchy are thus strongly and permanently welded together: “Out present relationship is something … to tie to.” Here is one of those strange polar groupings of youth and old age which, in Heinlein, cancel all possibility of individual growth between these extremes. Things here remain frozen and static. It is not Joe (the “inveterate bachelor”) who will remain single, but Archie. His relation to Amanda holds this society intact: not only do they meet regularly, but they prosper—for Archie, “business is good.”
Universe and Common Sense (1941) form a narrative whole. It is often regretted, however, that Heinlein wrote the sequel to the first story. Universe is praised because it ends on a note of uncertainty. We see the ignorant masses, and the hostile power structure; but there is also a small band of determined visionaries which promises to grow. The enemy leader Bill Ertz has been captured: he will be shown the stars—perhaps he will become a convert too. Many feel that Common Sense is not only a letdown in aesthetic terms, but a betrayal: why carry the story of this ship/universe and its visionaries to such an end? The sequel, however, is quite consistent with Heinlein's Puritanical vision. Indeed, it is essential to it: the elect must fulfill their destiny, and this second story merely provides (in typical fashion) for its ritualistic working-out. In this light, Universe alone is ambiguous. It seems to offer a promise of universal conversion: “Why, then we shall just have to do it all over, I suppose, till we do convince them.” Common Sense proves this impossibility a Romantic dream. In this novella, the group fails bitterly in its attempt to reform the whole ship: humanity in general proves itself unregenerate and fallen, hopelessly blinded by “common sense.” Characteristically, they are not converted but abandoned. The ship is left to continue its benighted path; the small band of visionaries go off to begin a new existence on a virgin planet. The meaning is all too obvious here. Their knowledge is rudimentary, heroically insufficient; the amazing “luck” that guides them is, visibly, the hand of destiny.
As with all these early novellas, the opening scene of Universe plunges us less into intrigue or action than an alien and problematic world. This story is one of Heinlein's triumphs of “extrapolation.” A whole mode of human existence, at once strange and all too familiar, is skillfully built up of rapid touches and crucial details, as we catch it in mid-evolution. On a starship of the Jordan Foundation, bound for distant Proxima Centauri, there is a mutiny. The result of this struggle is reversion to a cultural dark age. To the survivors, the ship becomes their universe. A new cosmology is created: scripture (“the Lines from the Beginning”) springs up telling of “Jordan's Plan,” of the creation and fall of man. In this account, Chief Mutineer Huff becomes Lucier—Heinlein gives us a masterly-drawn example of the human mind creating its myths out of limited knowledge, and thereby confining itself to the narrowest space. The society of Universe is thoroughly medieval in its “geo-centrism.” Men inhabit the lowest areas of the ship, where gravity is highest. Their culture is divided into two classes: the peasant-serfs, and the “Scientists,” a priestly caste whose “science” is purest scholasticism. The upper, low-gravity levels of the ship have been abandoned to the “muties”—mutants caused by radiation resulting from the destruction of the protective shield. Typically, the Scientists' explain the muties not in physical but symbolic terms. They are the cursed descendents of the “mutineers”—the outcast race. To man, then, the sky is closed. And yet, only this way lies salvation, for here one can look out on the stars, see this Universe for the insignificant thing it is. The desire to go up remains in the human race. This story opens with a foray by three boys into the dangerous realms above. For two of them it is sport, an adventure. For the third, however, it is more: Hugh Hoyland feels a strange, inexplicable sense of awe. In this dark world, he is to be the new Galileo. Called to seek the higher truth he intuits, he will look out on new worlds.
But are the muties really the more fallen race? In Universe, the matter is far more complex. Deprived of the possibility of raising their own food, the muties have reverted to a nomadic tribal existence, living off foraging raids and practicing cannibalism. And yet, however grisly, their use of the dead seems more natural than man's. The humans below feed their departed (as well as live prisoners) into the mass converter. The ship is providentially kept on course. Ironically, however, this is not their intention at all. In their superstitious ignorance, they cannot imagine the true purpose of the machine. It has become a Moloch, its function solely ritualistic. The muties are made practical by their need to survive. This same self-reliant existence also leads the best of them to a genuine intellectual detachment. At the center of Universe, is the fortunate encounter between Hugh and Joe-Jim Gregory, the two-headed mutant “philosopher.” Hugh is captured while on one of these “reconnaissance” climbs. But rather than eating him, Joe-Jim spares the boy and keeps him as intellectual company. Before his capture, Hugh had been only potentially a rebel. He might ask his old teacher, Lieutenant Nelson, why the sacred texts referred to the ship as “moving,” and not be satisfied with his casuistical answers. In spite of these doubts, he remained a prisoner of his world's superstitions. Joe-Jim, however, offers new vistas. His logic batters down these barriers. Then he takes Hugh and shows him the stars. But if Joe-Jim is keenly intelligent, he has a flaw: he is by native temperament an intellectual, a bystander, an observer. He is interested in the “how” and the “why” but his will to action is satisfied with comfort and convenience alone. Once Hugh sees the stars, he wants to reach them: “Why don't we finish this job?” He strikes a pact with the reluctant Joe-Jim, and a coalition of mind and will is formed.
Joe-Jim is detached, but he is not a solo. He operates with a band of devoted braves who, in action, are capable of heroic loyalty. Virtue is not entirely dead down below either. Hugh returns to high-weight to spread the news, and is condemned for heresy. Of all his former friends, only the peasant Alan Mahoney comes to his aid. We wonder why, and so does Alan—he understands nothing of Hugh's ravings. Hugh calls him, and he comes; following some irresistible inner urge, Alan does Hugh's bidding, undertaking the perilous climb to Joe-Jim, and persuading him to rescue his ally. In this story, a series of gradually narrowing circles form and replace each other. At the heart of these respective societies, each hero shapes a world within a world. As they unite forces, an even tighter circle is formed, the center from which this new push to the stars will emanate. As this innermost sphere is shaped, there is a certain balance: Alan's blind devotion to Hugh mirrors that of Bobo the dwarf for his master. The purpose of Heinlein's sequel is to show that this equilibrium is not only unstable but transitory. The final circle of the elect has not been reached, this group will inevitably break down and reform—and when it does, the muties will have no place in it.
In Common Sense, balance turns out to be paralysis—a dichotomy that cannot generate vital energy, but only freeze things in hopeless stasis. The dialectic between what are essentially realist and nominalist views leads nowhere. Already in Universe, the allegorist interpretations of Nelson were offset by Ertz's matter-of-fact vision: “The ship was the ship. It was a fact, requiring no explanation. As for Jordan—who had ever seen him, spoken to him. What was this nebulous plan of his? The object of life was living. A man was born, lived his life, and then went to the Converter.” This opposition only hardens in Common Sense. The sterile patterns of human reason cannot be broken—they must be abandoned, and with them the mass of mankind. Interestingly, Joe-Jim literally incarnates this fatal division of the human intellect. His lack of will and purpose is the direct result of his doubleness: as his heads carry on their futile discussions, he becomes inoperative. True, Heinlein gives Joe-Jim a glorious death in action. We note, however, that the mutant performs heroically only after he has lost one of his heads.
Physically, Joe-Jim is part of fallen, unregenerate mankind. As such, he must be excluded from the company of the elect. This is accomplished by the fantastic train of events in Common Sense. The story begins with the miraculous conversion of erstwhile enemy Bill Ertz, and ends with the departure of this small band of visionaries for a new planet. At the very last moment, as they are menaced by a new ship's rule bent on destroying them, they discover an auxiliary space craft—incredible good luck. They guess, by another fortunate insight, that they are entering an alien solar system—this must be the end of the trip! The treachery that forces them to abandon the ship, as it plunges blindly through Proxima Centauri, is a blessing in disguise. They do not really know where they are going, but luck enables them to locate and land on a planet that (incredibly) turns out to be inhabitable and peaceful. There really is too much “chance” here. Heinlein is openly showing us destiny at work; there was a “Plan” after all, but quite a different one from what the Scientists imagined. It includes the muties only in a limited sense. Joe-Jim is a necessary step in the process, but clearly he must be surpassed. His mutation, we learned in Universe, was most fortunate: “Had he been born two normal twins and among the crew, it is likely that he would have drifted into scientisthood as the easiest and most satisfactory answer to the problem of living.” Destiny uses this exceptional creature, but must dispense with him in turn if a higher stage is to be reached. Like all his kind, Joe-Jim is genetically inviable. Hugh, Bill and Alan, aware somehow of the role they must play, drag women along with them—faceless creatures, obviously chosen for breeding purposes. By some higher law that watches over racial purity, the mutant heroes must die. Alan remains; Bobo, the nobler in many ways, perishes. Joe-Jim dies heroically—and yet in the end, the world of action and adventure turns out to have only secondary importance. These noble acts are transitory, another step only in that sifting process that gradually isolates the select few destined to carry the human seed to glory. The ways of Heinlein's providence may seem incredibly tortuous—man has regressed, struggled, erred. Yet we must remember that this is not all mankind, but only a ship. And of its number, the “right” few do reach their destination, on time, and perhaps under better terms than would have been possible otherwise. Destiny has reserved for this handful of survivors—and because of their limited numbers—a return to innocence, a new Golden Age: “From now on, Alan always Good Eating.”
Finally, there is Waldo (1942). This Anson MacDonald story is, in a sense, Heinlein's archetypal novella, and one of his most complex and provocative allegorical statements. In the intricate interplay of center and circumference, in the gradual reduction of the external world to a creative polarity between this young, isolated super-genius and an old hex doctor, Waldo traces configurations that will later be worked out in Stranger in a Strange Land. The later novel will simply expand these basic patterns, and develop them in terms of linear intrigue and Bildung.
There are several elements to this strange tale. Its core is the fairy-tale motif of the monster who gets a human body. Heinlein gives this a twist, however, which links it with the recurrent theme of election. Waldo's is not merely a case of the beautiful spirit purifying and uplifting an ugly body. Instead of unbroken elevation, the pattern here is rather that of the fortunate fall. With his extreme myasthenia gravis, Waldo is literally the prisoner of gravity. Through a feat of intellect, he compensates for this by creating his weightless home in the sky. Instead of curing man's fallen state, human intelligence only worsens the original rift. This space home is alternately “Freehold” or “Wheelchair”; Waldo becomes a great floating brain in the middle of a spherical room. He must fall again in order to rise, must touch Earth. He despises those “nameless swarms of Earth-crawlers,” and yet is shown just how dependent on mankind he really is. It is in falling to Earth that he paradoxically liberates himself from this dependence. He makes contact, not with the mass of men, but with his elective counterpart among it—Gramps Schneider. Out of this creative union, Waldo rises a whole being. Indeed, only because he resolves his own plight can a solution to the general human condition be found. All mankind is succumbing to myasthenia, suffering the radical split between order and chaos. In this Waldocratic universe, however, the general cure is only a secondary development, an offhand gift from the recipient of grace to those not chosen.
Central to Waldo is the symbol of hands. These are constantly (and in various forms) reaching out, touching, physically uniting two apparently sundered poles, establishing a current of creative energy between them. This image unites the several levels of action in the story into a cohesive network. There is Waldo as a special man, reaching vertically out to his predestined point of contact on the circumferential human world. There is Waldo as fallen man, reaching laterally into “Other Space,” and drawing the energy which miraculously lifts him (and humanity) up again. And there is Waldo as partial man, reaching horizontally across his own arrested growth in order to draw this emotional child to instant maturity.
The incredible web of interlocking circumstances which is Waldo is radial in form. In its dynamics, however, it is centripedal, not centrifugal. At the center is Waldo F. Jones. Converging on him are two separate, apparently different problems. On one hand, there is engineer Jim Stevens of North American Power-Air, with their “radiant power” reactors that don't work but should by all the known laws of physics. On the other, there is Doc Grimes, and his theory of the general physical debilitation of mankind. At the center, we learn that these stands interrelate—they are two forms of some general power failure. But even when the connection is made, a seemingly impossible quandary remains. “Progress” has led to the creation of radiant energy. This weakens men and weak men in turn affect the power of their machines and cause them to fail. Once again, fallen man wanders lost in the maze created by his own intellection. The energy loosed into the world is leaking away somewhere—but where is this point of drainage, impossible by current notions of physics? The tightness of this infernal circle precludes any hope of returning to a prelapsarian state. But if it cannot be broken that way, it can be balanced with some new element, so that the ongoing polar dynamic of change in permanence may continue. This requires an act of grace, the sudden opening of a door into elsewhere. And grace does not touch ordinary men. The hidden door, we learn, was in the mind of man all along: here is both the leak and the power to rechannel it. But this discovery is made in one great mind—Waldo's.
Waldo undertakes to solve the problems Grimes and Stevens bring him. He does not do so, however, out of altruism or out of egotism—this invasion of his sealed world makes him perceive his own condition in a new light. He is suddenly aware of the fundamental inbalance his isolation has created. To overcome gravity, to suspend oneself in weightlessness, is merely to move from one extreme to another: sterile oscillation. Before, Waldo had been the suspended brain who regarded all humanity as his “hands,” and who actually reached out through his various mechanical extensions (he calls them “Waldoes”) to manipulate men. His position is that of tyrant. Suddenly, he discovers that he in turn is helplessly dependent on the creatures he controls. This polarity is mutual enslavement; to break out of it, he must establish some new vital contact with the Earth he has forsaken. He goes to Gramps Schneider, the mysterious Pennsylvania hex doctor, and a dynamic nexus is established. The two dwellings are polar opposites: Schneider's quaint old house is as Earthbound as Waldo's is detached and rootless. The symbol (or sign) of their creative interplay is the gravity-operated cuckoo-clock: one ticks in Gramps's house; the other is built and operated by Waldo inside a gravity shield in his floating home.
As the Schneider-Waldo axis is forged, the image of reaching hands takes on new significance—the grip of tyranny becomes fingers groping after creative union. The “de Kalb generators” hexed back into operation by Gramps have antennae that reach out like hands. These extend (he tells us) into “Outer Space,” and draw their power there. Furthermore, he repeats this “laying on of hands”—he strokes the machine in the “right” direction—on Waldo himself. Then too, Waldo is told he can extend his mental hands and take strength there. For a brief instant, Waldo feels a surge of power against his prison of gravity. This, however, is a revelation, but no miracle cure. It simply sets in motion the rhythmic undulation of a new creative process, and dynamic connections are made between formerly antithetical values: the individual and selfless energy, science and magic. Schneider, in fact, has a very Emersonian vision of “other space”: its power is not to be sought outside the self, but is rather “inborn,” part of the mind itself. Gramps's view is metaphysical; Waldo on the other hand, insists on locating this place topographically. He sets out in his laboratory to explore this new dimension physically, to map it, and in doing so literally colonize it, shaping it in accordance with his own conqueror's will. Only at this physical center of things can he tie all the various strands together. The machines failed, Schneider stated, because their operators were “tired.” Waldo translates this into scientific terms: if energy is “shorted” somewhere, and if this “Other Space” is where it goes, then could not the point of contact be physically in the mind? If men indeed suffer from generalized, radiation-induced myasthenia (as Doc Grimes thinks), perhaps the mind is leaking into another dimension. Using smaller and smaller mechanical extensions, Waldo is able to reach physically, surgically, through the brain to the portals of this “Other Space,” and thus verify his hypothesis—the synapses are the point of contact.
Discovery of this link leads to some important speculation as to the nature of this other dimension: “If the neurological system lay in both spaces, then that might account for the relatively slow propagation of nerve impulses as compared with electromagnetic progression. Yes! If the other space had a c constant relatively smaller than that of this space, such would follow.” It is but one step from imagining an alternate universe to actually creating one: “The Other World was a closed space, with a slow c, a high entropy rate, a short radius, and an entropy state near level—a perfect reservoir of power at every point, ready to spill over into this space wherever we might close the interval.” In Gramps Schneider's mystical vision, the world varies according to the way one perceives it: hence, “a thing can both be, not be, and be anything.” But this, as the mad Dr. Rambeau proves, can be chaos. Out of chaos, however, Waldo opts to bring cosmos: “He cast his vote for order and predictability! He would set the style. He would impress his own concept of the Other World on the Cosmos!” If the individual replaces God, the creative polarity that selects and guides him insures that he will do the same thing that God would have done. Waldo's “own” idea is directed by some higher plan, the “style he sets.” The new nexus he establishes, merely restores the dynamic interchange between center and circumference: “I think of the [Other World] as about the size and shape of an ostrich egg, but nevertheless a whole universe, existing side by side with our own, from here to the farthest star.” It is from this super-position of polar opposites that the solution to the practical problems comes: “Start out by radiating power into the Other Space and pick it up from there. Then the radiation could not harm human beings.” This magical engineering may save mankind's health and economy, but it remains simply a by-product of the real drama of Waldo's election.
But this universe maker remains apparently bounded by his own physical body. Yet his weakness also proves an illusion, a veil which falls to reveal the real Waldo. To Gramps, the solution is one of incredible simplicity—reach out your hands. Again, Waldo sets out to recreate metaphor in literal, physical terms. He has explored the brain with mechanical “hands,” the waldoes. Why then can he not use his mental “hands,” the nerve synapses, to reverse this process of leakage, and draw power like the vitalized antennae of the de Kalbs? He measures his new-found strength, significantly, in the most tangible way—with hand grips. His passage from weakling to giant also involves another form of reaching out: he floors Jim Stevens with one surprise punch; in an instant, the callow boy becomes a “man.” Because Waldo is a scientist and not a hex-doctor, we may think we are witnessing an act of conscious will. Actually it remains a miracle cure. Gramps reveals a higher truth; as he translates this into new terms, Waldo does no more than act out a predetermined pattern of grace. He does not grow, either in the physical or the emotional sense; he is transfigured.
In spite of this, however, election in Waldo's case is a centripedal process. He breaks out of initial isolation only to achieve a higher form of oneness, in which the circumferential world itself is gradually absorbed by the center. The story line is a closed circle—it begins and ends with the resurrected Waldo performing his tricks and receiving homage from his admirers. The ruler of two worlds—this space and the other—is the alpha and omega of the linear narrative as well: all poles close in him. As these two spaces (through the paradoxes of topology) do not coincide, and yet do, so Waldo executes his feats simultaneously in both the micro- and macrocosm: the neural surgeon probes the infinitely small, the acrobat defies space and gravity. Gramps Schneider is gone: the initial contact was all that was needed. From that point on, everything external is gradually drawn to the center, transposed upon it like a looking-glass. First and last in this story, we have a vision of unity that is solipsism—self mirroring self. Waldo can look out on the world of men with perfect serenity (“such grand guys”) only because they have become perfect adulators. In its convolutions around an absorbent center, Waldo looks forward to Stranger in a Strange Land.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8172
SOURCE: Gaar, Alice Carol. “The Human as Machine Analog: The Big Daddy of Interchangeable Parts in the Fiction of Robert A. Heinlein.” In Robert A. Heinlein, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, pp. 64-82. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1978.
[In the following essay, Gaar explores the theme of interchangeable parts and the central figure in several of Heinlein's novellas and short stories.]
There is a discontinuity between the rate of moral development in the human being and the exponential rate of technological progress. One might state it in a simpler way: The tool grows better and better, while its user is the same old hairless ape. The hairless ape can fly, but emotionally and morally he is still crawling. The machine works very well; maybe we don't work at all. Are the machines getting out of control, or were we never under control?
Robert A. Heinlein has been inspired by the apparent perfections of the cosmic machine to equal it by proving that we can outlive it. However, the human creature can only equal the machine by being like it or like its most efficient products. One may ascribe Heinlein's weakness in characterization—a weakness shared by most science fiction writers—to his overwhelming desire to beat the cosmos at its own game by the clever manipulation of parts. As Alexei Panshin puts it, Heinlein is essentially the engineer and is interested in how things work rather than why.1 We can criticize Heinlein in an analysis of several of his works on the basis of his interest in process and the mechanics of human survival to see how consistently he carries through his main themes and to what extent they fail or succeed in adding a realistic dimension to his works. Why demand that he recreate a basically nineteenth-century version of a clearly defined individual jeopardized by a milieu either totally indifferent or malign? Today one may see the universe as an ocean of life. The UFO craze suggests that we are a mystery-obsessed people fearful that the apocalypse will pass us by. Heinlein greets the cosmos with a proud “Hello” that says first, “I can live just as long as you,” then, “I am possibly God.”
However, the very fact that he is competing with what he sees as a giant machine calls into question the conservative view of the primary nature of the individual around whom the cosmos moves and has its being. Heinlein may hail the independent, competent ego as the sine qua non of the existing universe, but his own primary interest in process forces a reevaluation of the conservative view of the human being. Process refers to an interlocking network of energies and involves more than just one component, which in turn suggests that we are on the verge of yet another revolution analogous in human terms to the Copernican theory. It is not simply that the human being has lost his central place in the cosmos, already described in lurid and sometimes lugubrious words by writers of the past one hundred and fifty years; but he is transformed into a link in a pattern, a point on a grid, a flow of energy throughout a system. Process implies continuous motion and transformation and that we are ourselves part of a gigantic structure. The real implications of the discoveries of science in the last few centuries are just beginning to filter down into the public maw. It is one thing to regard the human being as a futile creature imprisoned in a hostile world, and quite another to see him as part of a system and necessary in kind to a cosmic ecology. Possibly this reduction to a component is what is eating at Heinlein's vitals. He has been driven to try to come to terms with or outdo the implied systematic analogy. For this he has written his short stories, novels, books, and created Lazarus Long—a symbol of the extrahuman context which like Lazarus goes on and on forever. Such a process makes Lazarus Long a valid symbol of the universe and each component of him and his milieu essential only in kind.
Just as the universe is held together by energy in several forms—gravity, electromagnetic attraction, and so forth—so Lazarus Long holds his world together through the abiding power of sexual attraction and activity. But sex means two persons, and where is the second person in the story? In a cosmos that might be really just a gigantic computer, how can one talk in terms of one personality much less two personalities? Or is this question totally irrelevant in a science fiction story? An examination of this question can give us a sharper idea of just what the precise strengths and potentialities of science fiction really are and what the sources of its overriding weaknesses are. Accordingly, I will examine the theme of interchangeable parts and the central figure in the following novels as they are listed in chronological order in Panshin's bibliography: Magic, Inc. (appeared as “The Devil Makes the Law” in 1940); Universe (1941); Methuselah's Children (first appeared in 1941); Waldo (first appeared in 1942); Starship Troopers (1959); Stranger in a Strange Land (1961); The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (first appeared in 1965);2 and the two novels in the Seventies, I Will Fear No Evil (1970),3 and Time Enough for Love (1973).4 These novels cover three generations. The early ones introduce variations on Heinlein's basic concern with how things work, and the later novels carry his theme to a logical conclusion.
Although Heinlein obviously wrote Magic, Inc. tongue in cheek, the work reveals the direction of his interests. Here the unseen energy is present both as an applied commercial resource and as a future potential. The term “Half World”—the source of the magic energy—suggests that our world is also in a sense a half world. As in our own, the powers of that other world are reducible to elements—the demons of earth, fire, water, and air. The laws of homeopathy and contiguity (referred to on page 110 of the book in connection with some second-rate magical “goods”) state that the patterns of matter are everywhere, eternal, reproducible, and unbroken. The author thereby confesses his belief not only in the structured nature of the universe, but also in the interrelated natures of his fictional personalities.
Underneath the amusing comments on business and politics is the implication that what we call “reality” must have its complement in order to be symmetrical or complete. That he uses the term “laws” indicates that Heinlein believes in a knowable, predictable universe, whose structure can be understood through applicable formulas. Energy and power are drawn from the total structure. A short, lyrical, even mystical passage demonstrates Heinlein's respect for the innate beauty of energy. Although the salamander has been used to destroy Archie's business (the novel's hero refuses to pay for “protection”), he accepts its neutral or amoral nature, loves its beauty, and desires its presence near him. These is even a delicate sensuousness in the momentary communication between the salamander and Archie with a quality both unknown and concrete. In Archie's appreciation for its perfection, he displays the engineer's love of form and contour. He could characterize the elemental spirit as feminine if he chose, yet it takes the initiative and comes to him. Evidently both humans and the elements may be characterized as having mixed masculine and feminine natures. This short episode foreshadows Heinlein's awareness of the versatility of sexual natures, an awareness which he exploits further in later novels.
The movements of Archie and his friends between worlds serves a metabolic purpose within a larger context. But there is an emotional flatness in their presentation. Archie procures knowledge without paying for it by showing a character change, which indicates that the knowledge obtained has only a superficial effect upon him. When Mrs. Jennings sees danger in Archie's future and warns him that he must let his head rule his heart, there could be the basis for a deeper development that never really appears anywhere in the novels discussed here. In the salamander episode Archie verges on the realization of the fullness of total life. He also displays some sensitivity toward the dynamic flow of events. He may even be suggesting that he is aware that there is an exchange of energy and knowledge between the two worlds which justifies the loss of exact identity.
Both Universe and Methuselah's Children were first published in 1941 in Astounding Science Fiction. Even though the style and plot of Universe are far simpler than the works of nearly thirty years later, there are certain basic themes in it that are important for the later novels and serve as the touchstone for the fascination that his works hold. They are the themes of the double personality and of the desire to appropriate a larger space. The personality becomes more complex in order to fill that larger space. Enclosing these two themes is the technology that overwhelms them both. However in Universe, one of Heinlein's best juveniles, technological enlightenment and mental development are contrasting themes which harmonize well at the end.
The word “universe” means to turn as one unit, which infers that perfection involves motion. The society in the huge spaceship in the short novel is incomplete for many reasons but primarily because motion has gone out of its scheme of things. The “universe” is at first small enough to accommodate only the primitive consciousness of the colonists who have long since forgotten their heritage from the Earth left behind centuries ago. To them their ship is the universe since they have no knowledge of anything outside it. The ship delimits their sensibilities and their mentalities. But in this well-written tale of colonists who have long since reverted to a closed hierarchical village culture, the young hero, Hugh Hoyland, finally learns that his ship is merely enclosed within an immensely larger universe. The experience is traumatic for him, but a few lines suffice to describe the effect of the great new insight upon him. He proceeds by logical steps from the awareness that the ship is a thing meant to move from one space to another to the thought that he and the scientists-priests should restore motion to the ship and make it move through the heavens. Because it is based on the principle of pure force-weight and magnetic attraction and there are no moving parts which might cause friction, the great ship is practically indestructible. This can be related to Heinlein's near obsession with human mortality or immortality by applying the idea of frictionless energy to the transplanting of a human from one space to another without destroying anything essential. The individual within that space will be a composite, just as the two-headed Joe-Jim mutant—the most intelligent person whom Hugh meets—is a composite personality.
Since Joe-Jim is more intelligent than anyone else on the ship, he portrays early Heinlein's belief in the superiority of the personality that has more than one part. The viewpoint is a structural one since it requires a controlling pattern. Even in this simple story, change due to doubling fills out a new space. The more complex person, Joe-Jim, who knows that the ship is in the universe and not the universe itself, teaches Hugh. At the beginning the young hero has the problem of a space too small for his bursting adventurousness. Then appears the greater intelligence of the individual who can carry on a dialogue with himself. Together they carry on a dynamic interchange within the larger structure of the ship, approaching its weightless section, that is finally seen in the largest structure of all—space.
But although Heinlein thinks of his most important characters as individuals, they are really creatures of the tribe in the sense that they are uncomfortable or unhappy alone with their knowledge. Hugh's first desire is to push his new insights onto his fellows. To this end he plans to forcibly bring them to the Captain's Veranda to reveal outer space to them for the first time.
Methuselah's Children is the most important of the early novels discussed here, since it introduces the Howard Families, who in toto represent later the universe delineated in time and space by the person of Lazarus Long. The Howards are Heinlein's answer to the challenge of the machine, and because they appear later in the novel Time Enough for Love, one can note the development in his basic ideas over a period of time. The positive behavior of genetic selection seems to be the basic theme of the story, if one assumes that positive behavior produces the near immortality of the Howard conglomerate. The future is based on the physical patterns already present in the genetic makeup, as opposed to accidental choice. In effect, the Howard Foundation is choice. As the chooser the Foundation creates an environment rather than just accepting one. The Foundation thereby states that the natural environment—or natural selection—is no longer adequate, although Heinlein sings the praises of the pioneer life as a natural selector of superior characteristics. He has analyzed the larger structure and concluded that a large-scale conscious manipulation is the next step. Certainly there have never been circumstances that suggested that positive thinking enabled beetles, horses, or fish to increase their life span. As far as we know the universe of such creatures is limited almost entirely to instinctual patterns of behavior. The author is trying to analyze the human being's potentiality by comparing him to something that is neither animal nor insect.
Implied by the idea of a long life span granted by favorable genetic conditions is the interlocking, multiple-adult family group that is itself in a real sense time and space. It is the grid of perceptible reality—a continuing pattern as its members multiply and create their own surrounding world increasing in size and depth. But because of persecution and exile there is neither time nor energy within the Howard Families for the suppression of individual characteristics. Indeed, they express the sense of solidarity that comes from shared peril, and their leaders are the oldest ones because they are by definition the strongest and the smartest.
By injecting the reverse values of the Half World into the everyday world, magic in the earlier novel had provided an escape from a culturally static situation. In Methuselah's Children the spaceship supplies a challenge by bringing its inhabitants into other dimensions. This in turn presupposes a larger structure whose own dimensions encompass and require constant readjustment. The various discussions between the brilliant mathematician Libby (who pilots them out of the solar system) and the others in the ship refer to the distorted time and space perceptions for a ship moving near the speed of light (pt. 1, chap. 8). Such an experience “smashes” their former dimensions. Yet the individual worlds are not expendable. Among the Howards, longevity is their basic staple and as such the source of their primary “good.” Possessing this characteristic they see themselves as members of a family whose identity perseveres in spite of the deaths of individual members. And none of them calls the others expendable. The family is the larger structure, but the healthiness of the Howards is inherent in what they are themselves. Collectively they are in a certain sense healthier than the “ephemerals.” They are more adventurous, adaptable, and wiser because they are part of an interlocking of loose family systems which combine both independence and respect for the others.
Since Lazarus Long and Mary Sperling are progenitors of hordes of Howards, who are later quite independent of them, their personalities are singled out early. The Howards live too long to maintain emotional bonds beyond a certain point, even though they care tenderly for the relatively high percentage of subnormal and defective children born into the Families. However, their relationships, founded on the need for mutual benefit, are not emotionally shallow. Over a period of time the sense of identity will become biologically defined, since they will all be more or less related. It follows that the long-lived Howards are very much aware of the fact that they are replaced by huge numbers. And even as individuals they are in a sense analogous to the Families, since the individuals become composites by virtue of organ transplants in the rejuvenation process. Because corporate identity is a physical version of the space continuum, one might conclude that Heinlein is as much interested in corporate identity as in immortality. How does an individual who can speculate on his approaching end really survive in contrast to an insect which is automatically a specialized component of a larger community? Presumably the insect does not consciously create a mental construct of such a community. Are we by instinct less creatures of community, or is the communal mentality far more deeply embedded in the human individual than hitherto realized? The highly specialized insect cannot exist apart from a community because it is inadequate alone. Mary Sperling finally finds immortality by joining the Little People in a mutual relationship. In her, Heinlein is analyzing a human approach to the theme of corporate identity as a form of survival. The individual creates the larger structure in his own mind and thus shares a collective perception. The more persons sharing and shaping this collective perception, the more complex it becomes, a process which enlarges an organizational unit that is itself indissoluble.
In contrast to Mary Sperling's attempt to cope with the idea of death is Lazarus Long, an extreme example of the peculiar genetic gift of the Howards. Yet the author portrays an interesting psychological quirk or strength in Lazarus, who, except for his rather negative state of mind at the beginning of Time Enough for Love, does not think about death at all. He inevitably includes all of the women around him within his group by the power of his sexual presence alone, and they in turn bring other men into the group and keep them there. In the later novel sex is the New Evangelism, although it is actually subordinated to the family pattern. It is the universal energy that attracts and holds “bodies” and also the energy that makes communication possible. Although Lazarus expresses his belief in the survival of the fittest, he, like the Howards in general, is neither ruthless nor inhumane, as one can see in the protection of the defective children, who sometimes have special gifts of their own. This means that the family as a real structure is stronger and bigger than the individual weaknesses of a few who accordingly are not regarded as threats. Sex is here an aspect of interfamily identity and dependence and as such is inseparable from the family grouping. And the crucial point is that Heinlein does not delve into the possibilities of unknown, unexplainable power sources in his conception of sex. His use of sex is basically not even really erotic.
As Panshin points out (p. 52) Heinlein does not revert to nonrational explanations of events, and he avoids the mysticism which would contradict his fondness for clear explanations. This is the source ultimately of his shallowness in character portrayal and the flat, opaque quality in the personalities of his characters. Sex reflects energy and love/hate when the individual is almost shattered by the awareness of another will facing him. Mysticism in its most basic sense begins at this point and from there rises into the transcendent regions of religion and speculation. But those devoted to “applied technology” alone avoid the mystery in the beginning. Heinlein's central concern seems to be a unifying pattern or a perpetual energy in human terms. His passion for organization and arrangement is an attempt to analyze the dominating force in the nature of a universe perceived by a living organism. When Lazarus analyzes the alternating despair and hopefulness of the preeminent statesman Slayton Ford (whose protection of the Howards has ruined him), it becomes obvious that the author's main concern is for survival and psychological viability, the how rather than the why (pt. 1, chap. 8 of Methuselah's Children).
The smashed dimensions of the Howards as they move through space and time are merely suggested physical dimensions. Completely missing in Heinlein is the awareness of the tragic levels of life or of tragedy in any form due to guilt or accident. How can there be guilt where there is nothing to sin against, no gods and no sacred mysteries? There is nothing to shake or demolish the psychological, spiritual, or philosophical dimensions within which Heinlein characters move. There is no accident which can utterly destroy the machine, because all machines have their duplicates and missing screws can be replaced. Whereas in the classical world tragedy is part of the fortuitous circumstances that humble the mighty and the proud, to many science fiction writers of every level all events are so much a part of an inclusive system (stated or unstated) that the fortuitous event is merely stimulating to the problem-solving intelligence. Even the alien, grotesque as he may be, is in a sense a distant relative, since otherwise he could not be portrayed, he could not be seen. Just as our minds have created our universe—a shared, tribal construct—the alien is also a shared, tribal construct. And it is significant that the aliens in Methuselah's Children are either hierarchically ordered individuals or corporate components, because that is how we really see ourselves.
The two superior alien peoples are themselves part of a larger hierarchy—the Jockaira, far inferior to the “gods” who have won mastery over temporal and spatial orientations as the Earthmen know them, and the Little People, superior to both the Earthmen and the Jockaira. The individuality of Earthmen evidently makes them (except for some of the subnormal children) unsuitable for mental telepathy. The corporate mentality is baldly set forth in the existence of the Little People, who are not individuals at all. Here for the first time the analogy between human-like creatures and the machine becomes obvious. The universe seems to be a mechanism that includes everything. To conceive of it at all is to conceive of it as a unit, which implies a dimension to our conceptual processes that goes beyond the four that locate a point in time. One might imagine Heinlein's posing of the question to himself: “Why are people not as efficient as machines?” and answering it thus: “Machines have hitherto been seen in a confused manner. People are more efficient than the machine, which is itself inadequate. Of course a person will break down if all of his parts are not functioning correctly. The problem is, how to improve that functioning so that the human being will go on forever, as he was meant to.”
One can approach Methuselah's Children from the standpoint of a negative argument—the isolated individual is not sufficiently complex. Heinlein is on the verge of a metaphysical stance when he includes the individual in a structure which is a source of energy to the individual component but far more than a collective body. He approaches that stance from several aspects; namely, (1) the permanent nature of the larger structure, (2) the interchangeability of its components, (3) the dynamic interaction between those components for growth, and (4) the warping of the physical dimensions that “placed” the smaller structure. The next step is to note carefully how Heinlein “reorganizes” the individual to fit him into that context.
First published in 1942 in Astounding Science Fiction, Waldo develops Heinlein's cosmic personality by focusing on an individual who is transformed from a physically inferior person (although mechanically brilliant) into someone who is superior in the sense that the new Waldo begins successfully to create the world of men in his own image. The story moves from the self-isolation of the physically inferior, compensating individual to a totally new spatial and temporal orientation on the part of that genius who, as a result of his newly positive attitude toward the rest of humanity, shares his discovery with others. As in Universe weightlessness symbolizes the freedom of outer space where one is closer to one's own true nature as a dweller in space. Waldo's genius has lifted him above the physical confines of gravity. Out there he becomes aware of another world which is a source as well as a depository of energy. The Other World is the place where Waldo searches for speed, where he compares electricity to nerve impulses. Waldo proceeds on the assumption that the energy from the Other World is also subject to laws which can be discovered and used if the formulas are known.
Heinlein's shallowness in character portrayal reveals itself here in these machinations. His characters avoid traumatic shock by refusing to confront something unpredictable within a system. Waldo calls Gramps Schneider a hex doctor and then proceeds to work out basic rules for tapping the power source of the unpredictable. Like Heinlein, Waldo is the mechanical genius who avoids the confrontation with the all-encompassing theoretical implications of this new energy. Rambeau really seems more consistent when he loses his sanity because of the traumatic shock to his rigid scientific outlook. Waldo remains, however, a very clever child intrigued by the possibilities and blind to the real import.
But there are some interesting insights in Waldo's attempts to develop a terminal for the power source. When he mentally reduces the Other World to the size of an ostrich egg, he shows his own mastery of a comprehensive structure—a process which in itself becomes the new source of his strength. In this way Waldo has gone beyond the mere sense of another world, as in Magic, Inc., and as an individual, beyond the helpless exposure to other dimensions, as in Methuselah's Children. Energy from the Other World makes him into a complete human being who wants nothing more than to be surrounded by other people who like him.
Here again Heinlein's conceptual weakness becomes obvious. The Other World is actually other people, and learning how to manipulate energy corresponds to learning how to interact with the other people, and at the same time, learning how to be a man. But the real interaction with the Other World has to admit its basic mystery, as the theoretician would even while he speculated about it. The author allows the energy exchange between Waldo and his counterpart in the Other World to degenerate into “nerve surgery”—a mechanical and most inadequate description of the process that Waldo thinks he has discovered. The emotional complexity of the exchange is missing, therefore the intimation of the Other World is flat.
Waldo's transformation from an embittered, weak genius into a physical superman is an obvious spin-off from Faust and Nietzschean motifs. The greatness of Goethe's masterpiece is due, among other things, to a consistent following through in the bargain that Faust makes with Mephistopheles. Faust's reign of glory is always in the shadow of the final payment. Every ounce of energy that he receives demands its physical and emotional price. His return to youth at the beginning is balanced by the mistakes of youth and the blindness of old age. The wisdom, wealth, and power that he gains bring with them an emotional winnowing. In the science fiction novel it is the lack of an accompanying developmental trauma that suggests Waldo's powers are spurious. Only in Rambeau's madness and a short description of Waldo's bitter hatred of the “smooth apes” are there the rudiments of an emotional interaction to intense experiences, but these lines are never developed. Though Waldo decides that mental concentration can prevent the myasthenia gravis which is weakening the people below and is the source of his own crippled state, he does not analyze the nature of mental control over the body. His mechanics lead nowhere, and nothing important is really demonstrated. But the positive point made is that Waldo becomes a “real” man, even wants to impress girls (echoing Faust's pathetic wish to fall in love), when he can draw off the energy of the Other World not only to heal himself, but to give himself physical capabilities that others do not possess.
Starship Troopers was first written as a juvenile book, but to my mind it is interesting to adults and one of Heinlein's most successful novels. Its importance for this discussion lies in the way in which the author integrates his hero Rico into a psychologically well-oiled military machine which attracts and animates the hero and gives his life meaning. This novel comes before Heinlein's plunge into the pseudosexual maelstrom, but unlike the other novels discussed here it has a rather carefully analyzed villain who is himself very much like a machine. The major figure of the survivor appears in the person of Rico, who survives his induction into the larger group. Rico's reasons for becoming a soldier reflect the desire to be part of a close-knit group. In the beginning hero worship drove him into the military. And his own ego drives him to prove that he is something more than the boss's son, that he is part of something bigger than civilian life has to offer—a Federation citizen who can vote.
This is a further development in the solution to the problem posed in Magic, Inc., where sorcery is accepted tongue in cheek as the key to the Half World, and in Methuselah's Children, where longevity is the key to the technology that unlocks ultimate power. Or in Waldo where a society is characterized as shaping itself according to the needs of its technology, which can upon occasion be detrimental to the physical makeup of the human being. In Starship Troopers a human unit is pitted against the Bugs which are themselves as efficient as machines. They provide the hostile edge to life in this novel, and the human unit survives or equals the creatures that symbolize the inscrutable and endless universe around it. The Bugs are streamlined versions of the tentacled monsters of space opera, who are in turn updated versions of the Hydras and Medusas of classical folklore. Huge insects and monsters are all basic symbols of an opponent related to us but also related to the creeping horror of the universe in that they are all imperturbable, unsympathetic, and as pervasive as we. Unindividualized, the Bugs represent an efficient organization which replaces and multiplies immediately what is lost. But they are not mindless, and altogether they compose an intelligence as great as man's and in some respects less vulnerable (chap. 10). The essence of the problem is that the Bugs are the thing that Rico is not, and Rico is not replaceable to himself.
The Bugs seem to be another variation on the theme of the corporate mentality. Actually, groups of the Little People represent or make up one personality, while the Bugs are specialized organisms under the control of a superbrain. But the Little People are just as destructive to the individuality of the Earthmen as the Bugs. The hostility personified in the Bugs stimulates Rico to risk his individuality in a military death. Evidently it is not the single-minded destructiveness of the opponent that terrifies us but its apparent oneness with the surrounding context. Since the author is analyzing the techniques of survival—indifference to death, unity of mind, defense—he has at some point to consider the uses of someone else's hostility. In the alien Bug, Heinlein has drawn a picture of a quintessential soldier's picture of everything unsympathetic in the universe. Rico's decision to go into the military is in contrast to the instinctual role of an insect, just as Rico is different from the insect.
How does Rico integrate himself into the unit, and can one really speak of a unit mentality? Common danger and pride in their identity welded the Howards together without destroying their respect for each other's uniqueness, and common pride and an even greater sense of danger weld Rico's combat unit, the Roughnecks, together. In later novels sex takes the place of fear. But all of these forms of emotional reaction and commitment subordinate the survival of the individual to the survival of the larger unit. But it is significant that the Bugs are machine-like in their appearance and in their organization, since they are almost computer controlled. As Dennis E. Showalter states, Rico fights for a network of buddy relationships.5 We might call that network an extended family, almost an entity in itself held together by a common peril and a common identity rather than blood relationships. This is comparable to the early days of the Howards when they were united by their unique genetic makeup alone. One might argue that Rico has the characteristics of the quintessential human being who wants to belong to a larger unit, since none of Heinlein's heroes in the books discussed here are really loners. Through Rico's desire to integrate himself into the larger unit by fighting the Bugs, Heinlein is analyzing the dynamics of the larger structure.
In spite of the much publicized shift in theme in Stranger in a Strange Land, it represents the development of ideas which appear in the earlier novels. The Half World and the Other World are related to the dimension of the Old Ones. The traumatic change in perception in Universe appears here. The physical and psychological changes that occur in Waldo, his ability to create his own spatial dimensions occur within the group around Mike, who has learned the techniques of superexistence from the Martians. The “family” that exists in Methuselah's Children in the Howards, the Jockaira, and the Little People, and in Starship Troopers in the Roughnecks and the Bugs appears in the Martians and Mike's Family. The de facto immortality of the Little People through interchangeable parts leads to the potential immortality of Mike's Family through interchangeable members blessed by association with Mike, by their ritual cannibalism, and by the group sexuality of the love feasts.
Why does Lazarus Long feel such revulsion toward the Little People? It is the total lack of individuation in them that revolts him, the blank character and unstimulating nature of their lives. But the description of the Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land is much more detailed because they are captured in the mirror of Mike's personality. The sexual nature which remains such a mystery in the earlier novel and is somewhat more developed in the later is to my mind an aspect of the technological analogy which Heinlein uses and makes increasingly complex. Sex in Heinlein's novels is adolescently shallow because it does not reflect the rich variety of human passions, strengths, weaknesses, virtues, and vices. Instead it mirrors his analysis of the process of group formation and is analogous as such to a kind of magnetic attraction. Here sex is necessary (just as fear and peril) to the formation of a structure larger than the individual and more lasting than the individual. This is in contrast to the real essence of the erotic, namely, the confrontation with another personality which is apart from ourselves—a confrontation which appears rarely in any American fiction.
Heinlein and other science fiction authors who are writing about the possibilities of the vast sociological and psychological changes ahead of us are pioneers on a more superficial level in human relationships out of necessity rather than out of choice. When the group relationships that authors are as yet only playing with, the potentialities of a long life, the implications of the far broader human perspectives are developed in more detail and have a chance to ferment, then the time for a deeper level of experience in conjunction with the inevitable destructive and constructive dimensions of those experiences will have come. At this stage Heinlein can only treat sex like an attraction and differentiate that attraction from other forms of energy. Actually, it is the different sexual orientation of the Martians that prepares Mike for the traumatic shock of Earth sex and thus gives some direction to the rest of the novel. Only by emphasizing sex (and the raw term is most fitting for his approach) can Heinlein create a polar attraction that differentiates the human being from the surrounding universal context. He fully recognizes the natural unity of the physical world and sets up in analogy and as a contrasting figure the dominant masculine characters in lieu of an anthropomorphic god. In this way Mike and his Family and their powers become the source of a new universe with its own laws.
Through the power of his personality Mike is a planet or sun that holds satellites in orbit, just as later Lazarus Long is the creator of his own universe through the manipulation of time and space. The dominant male is God, children (basically through cloning) are the Son, and sex is the Holy Spirit. Or one may compare this trinity to universal energy, the space-time continuum, and electromagnetic attraction. Heinlein wants to compete with and improve upon the universe. However, there is no dynamically dialectical relationship between Mike's satellites. The female figures mirror in no way the mysteries of another presence and there is no overwhelming transcendent reality to smash the preconceived notions of the characters. Mike is a god going nowhere, and it's all just a joke.
The powers that the Martians display and that Mike has learned from them are present in the earlier novels. Heinlein simply reduces the area in which these powers are displayed to the enclosure of the family circle around Mike. “Grok” represents a creative energy control which allows him to recreate the world on his own terms. However, Heinlein remains the engineer who is not concerned with whatever cannot be measured, manipulated, or replaced. This is in contrast to the scientist who has the unknowable gnawing at his vitals. Accordingly, the manipulation of personalities rather than an intense analysis of their basic natures dominates Heinlein's works and that of many science fiction writers. Such manipulations preclude both religion and eroticism since both revolve around objects that cannot be absolutely known on the first person's terms. The author is following through the basic idea that people are interchangeable parts. Rarely does he show interest in the mystery of an unknown reality, and the result is a tautology—a closed circle. Although sex is not the main subject of this chapter, it is relevant to the extent that it reflects in Heinlein the limitations of a mentality trained in applied technology. Which leads us to the next novel, in which line marriages and a dominant computer personality are perfect complements for a successful revolution.
In a discussion of technology in Heinlein one should not ignore the generally engrossing The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, serialized in IF in 1965 and published in novel form in 1966. The line marriage, described to some extent in chapter 10, clearly fits into the canon of efficient arrangements which do not interfere with the goal, in this case a successful revolution. It is also capable of lasting in perpetuum because of the replacement of component human beings. And obviously the computer Mike is the most compelling and memorable personality in the story though he does come to an end. At the top of a five-level, open, tetrahedral pyramid his purpose is laudable and comprehensible—amusement for himself and the prevention of social disintegration for the sake of his friend Mannie. All of the human characters in the novel are tools for Mike, who plays the game of revolution. The novel illustrates Heinlein's analysis of the human being as a superior tool or mechanism if one accepts Mike as a living character who proves finally that the purpose of life is fun and games. What Mike wants at the beginning of the novel is what Lazarus Long wants in the later novel—amusement and new experiences.
The novels written in the Seventies, I Will Fear No Evil and Time Enough for Love, push the theme of interchangeable parts within the complete machine to the final conclusion. The first of the two also gives us the ultimate act of nonerotic sex when Joan Eunice, possessing the brain of the physically senile Johann Sebastian Bach Smith, has herself impregnated with his preserved sperm to produce a child at the end. That is the final triumph of the closed system and the omnipotent ego, or one might even call it the act of masturbation taken to its most absurd conclusion. However, this act is merely a baroque continuation of a premise in one of the early novels; for example, the nontheoretical cast of mind shown by Waldo, whose first reaction to the potentialities of the Other World was to make use of its energy and manipulate its powers—all without trying to understand its secrets or touch its mystery. Even in the books of the Seventies sex is nothing but the energy binding space and time and not the communication between profoundly different entities. We have moved from Waldo's ego through the figure of Lazarus, Mike the Martian, then Mike the Computer to the transcendent ego of Johann Sebastian Bach Smith, who by an act of will and with the aid of the latest modern conveniences successfully stamps the “other” sex with his own image and in this way annihilates for the space of the novel the primal mystery of man and woman. Here is a new archetypal family pattern proceeding logically from a figure who like everyone else fears mortality most of all but who simply outlives all those around him. The computer makes possible the transplant of a part from damaged machinery to better machinery. How fitting that the ego should become a member of a somewhat different “sex,” since all parts are neutral, nameless, and differentiated only by function.
The title is splendidly ironic. “I will fear no evil” demands the completion of the sentence from the Twenty-third Psalm, “for thou art with me.” But the “thou” is not the glorious Eunice (who is not convincing anyway), but rather Smith himself, who is most assuredly an amateur in that role. In spite of the so-called dialogues between two minds in one, the “conversation” is really a dialectical monologue somewhat reminiscent of Joe-Jim's bipartite monologues in Universe. The computer that had made it all possible provides the glue that holds this self-destructive society together. The ubiquitous nature of the violence in the society as portrayed in the novel indicates that there are no unifying concepts or traditions that can include the mysteries of the world around them and make those mysteries an integral part of the social context. The word “loving” as it is used is meaningless because Joan Eunice really carries on a “dialogue” with him/herself.
Escape from the pressures of another personality's demands is part and parcel of our social heritage, and a genuine female is rarely found in the novels considered here. In chapter 25 the wedding ceremony between Joan Eunice and Jake mirrors the problem that is basic to the works of many writers. The ceremony emphasizes tolerance for one's partner, a tolerance which is equivalent to the body's ability to accept transplants without rejection rather than the soul's devotion to a mystery even larger than itself. In the next chapter technology is identified as the only escape for a dying (if tolerant) race, as well as the true purpose for its existence, and technology is equated in value and importance to the baby that Joan Eunice is carrying. Just as technology had permitted Johann to escape his unbearable physical debility, it is now permitting pioneers to escape an overcrowded Earth and, at the same time, is becoming the excuse for their existence. Or as Jake puts it: “‘In the universe, space travel may be the normal birth pangs of an otherwise dying race. A test. Some races pass, some fail’” (26). And the final point of it all has been to produce Joan's baby, who is born in outer space on the Moon—in essence a new Johann S. B. Smith. Thus Heinlein's sole claim to an encounter with the unknown is the space where the baby is born, but the author does not speculate upon that void and its nature.
For Heinlein the only purpose of sex and life is to provide a shelter for children because they are the future. He makes that point very clear in Time Enough for Love in the chapter entitled “Agape,” where he states that the only excuse for the existence of a family is the protection of the children growing up within its circle. Yet one might ask who the children within that circle are. The twins are Lazarus's clones, “conceived” without his knowledge and in no real sense independent personalities. Heinlein expands upon the premise that eternal migration is the basis for genetic selection, which however is aided by the vast genealogies of the Howard Families, who remain primarily concerned with longevity. And the bulk of the novel is about Lazarus, his recollections, and the attempt to keep him from suiciding by providing him with new experiences. Of course the supreme experience left for him is seduction by his mother, thus returning him to the mirror image of his father—which one might regard as solipsistic or tautological, depending upon his own tastes. Computers and their accompanying technology have brought about this continuation and possibly the conclusion of the Howard Families with Earth's colonization of the galaxies. One might even say that the technology and the colonization are the same mode, far more than merely harmonious. Lazarus himself uses the terms “interchangeable parts” in the chapter “Boondock” in speaking to his two little clones sisters.
But there is a contrapuntal theme here as befits the musical arrangement of the novel. By far one of the best written and most realistic episodes in his works is “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter,” comprising chapters XI and XII in “Variations on a Theme.” The episode is in counterpoint to the primary message stating that man is as good as the universal machine because he is a better machine. The tale is an idyllic interlude which extols the hardships and joys of hardy pioneers who find a transcendent meaning for life in their own short existence. Dora gives Lazarus the happiest years of his life because she accepts utterly the fact of her own mortality and of growing old. She refuses rejuvenation, and Lazarus ages willingly to be with her, and from her he learns “that supreme happiness lies in wanting to keep another person safe and warm and happy, and being privileged to try” (12). He has learned that the parts which are not interchangeable are the best ones. The most memorable woman out of the multitudes that Lazarus has known is the one who holds a mystery of her own and is as different from him in essence (since she is an “ephemeral”) as day is from night. All of the other women in the book seem in effect to be clones of his mother if not of him and reflect nothing more than his self-love, as the twins explain to him in the chapter “Narcissus.” Because Dora willingly limits herself to one man, a lifetime of pioneering toil, the bearing of that man's children, and an old age by his side, she is different from the other women in the stories discussed here. It is a traditional tale of a superpioneer's wife with none of the baroque grotesquerie of the New Wave. It is also a lusty story of the Old West, convincing because it is realistic, and realistic because she is supremely human, gloriously ephemeral, and determined to live life to the fullest serving husband and children. What comes before and after is interesting, entertaining, even fascinating to some readers, but unreal. The seduction of Lazarus by his mother essentially only completes the circle of the Lazarus theme. What is left for him after the role of an Oedipus without gods but to suffer the punishment of eternal life blind to an escape opening from the endless circle, embracing nothing more than a semidetached, replaceable rib? Along with all of the unreal, replaceable nuts and bolts in the great Cosmic Computer, which are like us because we are unreal and replaceable, there is at least Dora, who wanted to live once rather than just exist many times over.
Alexei Panshin, Heinlein in Dimension (Chicago: Advent, 1968), 36.
The most recent editions are the following: Robert A. Heinlein, Waldo & Magic, Inc. (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1970); Universe in Orphans of the Sky (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1970); Methuselah's Children in The Past Through Tomorrow (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1975); Starship Troopers (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1968); Stranger in a Strange Land (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1968); The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1968).
Heinlein, I Will Fear No Evil (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1971).
Heinlein, Time Enough for Love (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1974).
Dennis E. Showalter, “Heinlein's Starship Troopers: An Exercise in Rehabilitation,” Extrapolation, XVI, no. 2 (May 1975): 113-24.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12530
SOURCE: Sarti, Ronald. “Variations on a Theme: Human Sexuality in the Work of Robert A. Heinlein.” In Robert A. Heinlein, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, pp. 107-36. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1978.
[In the following essay, Sarti traces Heinlein's treatment of gender roles and sexuality in his short fiction.]
By the end of the 1950s, Robert Heinlein had established himself as the Dean of science fiction, a beloved storyteller whose ways had grown familiar after twenty years of pleasurable reading. Few would have wanted him to change, and fewer still would have expected it. And yet, abruptly, Heinlein's work did change. With the arrival of the new decade, Heinlein's stories took a startling new direction, the reason for which remained a mystery to his readers. Perhaps most surprising was Heinlein's sudden concern for the theme of sexuality. He seemed to have become fascinated with the subject and began exploring such explicit sexual topics as promiscuity, incest, and narcissism. The avant-garde discovered Heinlein's new work and hailed his vision of the sexual future. At the same time, they generally ignored his earlier works, regarding them as adventure stories devoid of meaningful sexual content. They were wrong.
Heinlein's concern with sexuality did not suddenly leap into existence with the Sixties. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Heinlein had dealt with aspects of sexuality as peripheral themes in his work, and subtly developed a consistent sexual viewpoint through the creation of many unique characters and relationships. With these characters and relationships, Heinlein demonstrated a sexual objectivity and vision almost unseen in science fiction, and rarely matched in contemporary American literature. The importance for the genre is that Heinlein—throughout his career—has always been in the vanguard of sexual honesty in science fiction.
This is not to say that Heinlein has always been successful, nor that his own creations have been as sexually honest as he might have wished. Unfortunately, for all that he accomplished, Heinlein has experienced severe problems in his treatment of the sexual theme. These problems have limited his success and caused failure, most dramatically in the later part of his career when the sexual theme had become central to much of his work. Heinlein has never been able to overcome these problems totally.
Heinlein's whole career must be considered in order to understand the nature of his success and failure, but a study of his work is most easily accomplished by dividing his career into the two most obvious periods: a first period, consisting of the twenty years in which Heinlein developed sexual topics as peripheral themes; and a second period, in which some aspect of sexuality is an important theme in almost every work. In this way, it is hoped that we will arrive at an understanding not only of Heinlein's success or failure with individual themes, but also of those sexual elements common to his work and essential to the philosophy which inspires them.
FIRST PERIOD (1939-1958)
From his first story in 1939 through his excellent Have Space Suit—Will Travel in 1958, Robert Heinlein was the master storyteller of science fiction. As storyteller, his themes were neatly developed in the context of his work through action and characterization, with only minor commentary by the narrator. Many of the themes were familiar to science fiction: the ability of Man to survive and conquer, the evil of slavery and dictatorship, and the need for individual freedom and responsibility. The theme of individual freedom was usually applied to political expression, but Heinlein developed it much further. By logical extension, the concept of freedom had to include sexual freedom, and this freedom underlies Heinlein's intellectual attitudes about sexuality.
However, in the stories of Heinlein's first period, the theme of sexuality was developed only as a peripheral interest rather than as a central theme. There were a number of factors which might account for this lesser interest. For one, Heinlein was more concerned with other themes, other freedoms more directly threatened by the shadow of political dictatorship. For another, the sexless purity of science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s was jealously guarded by editors and publishers. When asked why in the 1960s he had suddenly started writing so freely about sex, Heinlein replied, “Because there was no market for sex in science fiction before then.”1 This was especially true for the dozen juvenile novels he produced in his first period. The readers were assumed to be adolescents, and therefore restrictions were even more severe than in ostensibly adult science fiction.
In spite of all these restrictions, Heinlein accomplished a great deal with the theme of sexuality. Even in his juveniles, various aspects of sexuality were subtly developed and woven into the fringe of the story line. Through the creation of unique character types and healthy relationships, Heinlein entertained and enlightened his readers with both a fresh look at their own sexual conventions and mores, and a suggestion of the possible alternatives that lay before them.
Heinlein, of course, does not always succeed. He uses techniques which are inherently weak when dealing with a complex subject like sexuality. Yet, he overcomes these weaknesses enough times to have an important effect upon the reader, and to advance the artistic and thematic legitimacy of sexuality in science fiction. Because of these accomplishments, the male and female characters, their relationships, and Heinlein's techniques deserve to be studied separately.
Basically, Heinlein's male characters may be divided into two categories: the competent and the incompetent. The incompetents are of little use in the practical world. They function mainly as caricatures for purposes of contrast, satire, and humor, and include such types as the spoiled brat, the jellyfish father, the pompous blowhard, and the bungling meddler. The competent male characters are divided into two types: the stock competent and the Heinlein hero. The competents are the pragmatic, realistic, capable men who keep the wheels turning. One might be a scientist, teacher, pilot, cop, bartender, whatever. He is a nice guy, sometimes harassed, but doing his job and doing it well. Often a stock competent will have a large enough role to rank as a secondary hero and serve as mentor or partner to the hero. The competent are members of the composite that Alexei Panshin has correctly analyzed as the Heinlein Individual.2 This Heinlein Individual may appear in an early, middle, or late stage of life, but he is the same character—losing innocence and growing older and more worldly-wise at each stage, though just as competent as ever.
The Heinlein hero is merely the Heinlein Individual whom the story is about. But the typical Heinlein hero has some peculiarities that make him sexually interesting to the reader. Although he is smart, talented, and able to learn, the young version of the hero is grossly naive about women and sex. In “If This Goes On—” the young hero, John Lyle, begins his narration by implying that he had never even talked to a woman other than his mother.3 And this is an adult story.
A level of ignorance and naiveté might be excused in Heinlein's juvenile novels due to editorial requirements. Yet even in these the ignorance transcends the need. In Tunnel in the Sky, the hero cannot guess that the person he shares a cave with is a girl. And in Citizen of the Galaxy, the adolescent hero—an ex-slave raised in a gutter environment—still has no sexual knowledge or experience, and does not recognize the situation when girls are clearly interested in him.
This ignorance must make us wary of what the naive young hero feels or tells us about women and sex. He is still learning, still losing his innocence. His attitudes (those of twentieth-century America) serve a purpose, since they allow Heinlein to inject our own sexual conventions and mores into the story where they can be criticized. In Starman Jones, the young hero, Max Jones, feels that the heroine Ellie is not too bad a person—considering she's a girl. She can even play a game of three-dimensional chess, which Max feels is beyond the intelligence of most girls. It is only after Ellie has proved her bravery, and admitted that she is a chess champion, that she corrects Max: “Mr. Jones, has it ever occurred to you, the world being what it is, that women sometimes prefer not to appear too bright?”4 The hero can learn; it just takes a few gentle taps with a sledgehammer. The reader too has been shown that his own assumption—if sympathetic to the hero's—was similarly incorrect, and that there are alternatives to his preconceived notions. Thus, because of the young hero's inexperience (not to mention Heinlein's purpose), we must be wary of his pronouncements.
In contrast, the sexual statements of the respected, knowledgeable, older heroes can usually be taken as representative of Heinlein's own view. Still, the older heroes have their sexual “oddity,” perhaps left over from their former romantic youth. Seen again and again is the hero's insistence upon marriage (or at least, vows) before having sexual relations with the woman he loves—and this after the heroine has offered herself free of charge. In “The Year of the Jackpot,” the hero, Potiphar Breen, pops the question to his heroine outside an isolated cabin:
After a time he pushed her gently away and said, “My dear, my very dear, uh—we could drive down and find a minister in some little town?”
She looked at him steadily. “That wouldn't be very bright, would it? I mean, nobody knows we're here and that's the way we want it. And besides, your car might not make it back up that road.”
“No, it wouldn't be very bright. But I want to do the right thing.”
“It's all right, Potty. It's all right.”
“Well, then … kneel down here with me. We'll say them together.”
“Yes, Potiphar.” She knelt and he took her hand. He closed his eyes and prayed wordlessly.
When he opened them he said, “What's the matter?”
“Uh, the gravel hurts my knees.”5
Besides the opportunity for humor, there are several possible explanations for this characteristics, all equally valid. First, the scene is a case of ego gratification for the hero. The Heinlein hero never has to grovel for sex—it is always offered free of charge. In Heinlein's second period, the hero Lazarus Long comments upon this tendency: “‘I never risk being turned down; I wait to be asked. Always.’”6 A second probable explanation is that much as Heinlein criticizes our restrictive sexual conventions, he cannot entirely overcome them himself. There is still the recognition that vows will make it morally right in some way. A final explanation for this characteristic of his heroes is that Heinlein actually believes that a special relationship between a man and a woman can exist and deserves to be marked and differentiated from the common affair. That this is the case will be seen in our discussion of relationships.
However, before discussing relationships, Heinlein's women deserve consideration. More important to science fiction than Heinlein's male characters are his female characters. Because of their importance, they have drawn more attention and been roundly praised and condemned. Anne McCaffrey feels that “Robert Heinlein's women are horrors: excuseless caricatures of ‘females,’”7 while Pamela Sargent admits that they “may represent an advance over much previous sf.”8 We will see that they contribute greatly to Heinlein's early accomplishments with the theme of sexuality.
Heinlein's female characters closely follow the male categories. The major division is between the competent and the incompetent, with the incompetent again being caricatures such as the hysterical parent, or the snobbish lady. Fittingly, Heinlein matches male and female incompetents into couples, as in “‘And He Built a Crooked House,’” where they provide much of the comic effect.
The competent female characters compose the equivalent of a female Heinlein Individual, and are used both as stock competents and as heroines. The stock competents are of a type rarely seen in previous science fiction and important for the assumptions which they imply. They appear in the background of many stories, functioning as space pilots, military officers, medical doctors, scientists, and mathematicians. They are professional in their duties and respected for their competency. Theirs is a society in which women have proved themselves and are judged according to their ability rather than their sex. In the 1940s and 1950s, this vision of the future must have had a great effect. A whole generation of young readers—conditioned to a male-dominated society where women airline pilots were nonexistent, and a woman doctor the exception—saw that women might be capable of more than their traditional roles.
This effect was intensified with the extraordinary Heinlein heroine, a female remarkable for her competence and achievement, and almost unknown in American literature and society. Damon Knight tells us that Heinlein's wife was the model for many of these heroines:
Heinlein's red-headed wife Ginny is a chemist, biochemist, aviation test engineer, experimental horticulturist; she earned varsity letters at N.Y.U. in swimming, diving, basketball and field hockey, and became a competitive figure skater after graduation; she speaks seven languages so far, and is starting on an eighth.9
The Heinlein heroine may not have all the skills Ginny has mastered, but whether child, adolescent girl, or adult woman, she is interesting for the unusual qualities she does exhibit. All Heinlein's heroines are brave and intelligent, the adult heroine often a skilled professional in a scientific or military field. And these qualities are more important than the size of a bustline. Ignoring that unkillable stereotype, the Heinlein heroine is not necessarily beautiful, nor even pretty. Physical beauty, while occasionally noted, is not emphasized.
Even more startling for a literary heroine is the fact that she is sometimes faster-acting and more rational than the hero, and able to kill ruthlessly when he is endangered. While fleeing catastrophe in “The Year of the Jackpot,” the hero, Breen, stops his car and finds a pistol thrust against his head by a stranger. The heroine, Meade, responds in typical Heinlein fashion:
Meade reached across Breen, stuck her little lady's gun in the man's face, pulled the trigger. Breen could feel the flash on his own face, never noticed the report. The man looked puzzled, with a neat, not-yet-bloody hole in his upper lip—then slowly sagged away from the car.
“Drive on!” Meade said in a high voice.
Breen caught his breath. “Good girl—”
“Drive on! Get rolling!”
This is refreshing. Too long have storybook heroines screamed and fainted while some poor slob gets stomped on by Igor the Monster. Wounded, pregnant, even slug-ridden, the Heinlein heroine remains dedicated to the survival of her hero and herself.
Intelligent and courageous, the Heinlein heroine embodied a positive new image of womanhood, an image that was not lost upon the readers. The Heinlein heroine was exciting. She was a woman they had never imagined, and she presented possibilities that were strangely appealing. To a generation of impressionable minds, she was Woman as capable human being.
Yet, there is one flaw to the remarkable Heinlein heroine. The adult heroine—strong-willed, competent, well-adjusted—becomes a meek and obedient kitten when the hero commands. In The Puppet Masters, the hero, Sam, and the heroine, Mary, find themselves in the middle of a battle:
Mary had walked west on the highway with the downy young naval officer while I was examining the corpse. The notion of a slug, possibly still alive, being around caused me to hurry to her. “Get back into the car,” I said.
She continued to look west along the road. “I thought I might get in a shot or two,” she answered, her eyes bright.
“She's safe here,” the youngster assured me. “We're holding them, well down the road.”
I ignored him. “Listen, you bloodthirsty little hellion,” I snapped, “get back in the car before I break every bone in your body!”
“Yes, Sam.” She turned and did so.10
Yes, Sam. Yes, Potiphar. Yes, master. When the hero puts his foot down, that's it. Me man. You woman. Obey.
So much for pilot training and karate lessons. The skills and intelligence of the heroine—and her individual freedom—are subordinated to the ego of the hero. Of course, in each case he just happens to be right (odd coincidence that, no?), but the total obedience of the heroine is unexpected. It becomes incomprehensible when, in The Puppet Masters, the same hero later insists upon the individual rights of his wife as a human being:
“… Those records were snitched out of my wife's head and they belong to her. I'm sick of you people trying to play God. I don't like it in a slug and I don't like it any better in a human being. She'll make up her own mind. Now ask her!”
In effect, what the hero wants for a heroine is a liberated woman who knows her place.
Anyone have a bigger sledgehammer?
The Heinlein heroine's inconsistent behavior cannot be explained away, nor excused. It stands as a—pardon the expression—male chauvinist tribute to the hero, implying that women—even such as the heroine—enjoy being dominated. The image of the Heinlein heroine is thus not the ideal that it might have been. Heinlein himself could not break away from his own emotional attachment to the obedient female.
Nevertheless, on the whole the standing of the heroine and of the female competent must be judged highly. Rather than being condemned for this single fault, they should be applauded for the stereotypes they broke and the progressive outlook they embodied. In their time, they were a great advance both for science fiction and for literature in general.
Following close behind Heinlein's female characters in importance are the relationships between heroes and heroines. For convenience, we may classify them into four basic sets: (1) the young hero and young heroine, as in The Star Beast; (2) the adult hero and young heroine, as in Have Space Suit—Will Travel; (3) the adult hero and adult heroine, as in The Puppet Masters; and (4) the adult married couple, either as hero and heroine as in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” or as competent parents (actually secondary heroes and heroines) as in The Rolling Stones. With these four sets, Heinlein is able to highlight patterns of sexual behavior, such as love, romance, marriage, and role-playing; to demonstrate the effects of environmental conditioning and sex discrimination; and to promote intersexual need and partnership.
The basic assumption in all of these relationships is that the heroine—in spite of her occasional obeisance—is as capable as the hero. Promoted is the idea that women are the equal of men in courage, intelligence, and skill. At least, they have the potential for such equality. That they had not fulfilled (or been denied) their potential during Heinlein's lifetime was obvious: no women were piloting his flights. Yet able women such as his wife, Ginny, did indeed exist, and so there had to be reasons for the status of women in twentieth-century America. One reason is given in Magic, Inc., when a competent, worldly-wise male character observes:
“It's like this: Most women in the United States have a shortsighted, peasant individualism resulting from the male-created romantic tradition of the last century. They were told that they were superior creatures, a little nearer to the angels than their menfolks. They were not encouraged to think, nor to assume social responsibility. It takes a strong mind to break out of that sort of conditioning, and most minds simply aren't up to it, male or female. …”11
But more than just this type of environmental conditioning is at work. For those who overcome the restrictive conditioning of their society, there is also sexual discrimination to contend with. Heinlein tears down the banners of discrimination with a romantic but effective little story symbolically entitled “Delilah and the Space-Rigger.” A competent female radio technician arrives to work on a space station under construction by an all-male crew. She is frustrated by the stubborn engineer in charge who doesn't think much of her and refuses to accept her ability:
Then he called her in. “Go to the radio shack and start makee-learnee, so that Hammond can go off watch soon. Mind what he tells you. He's a good man.”
“I know,” she said briskly. “I trained him.”12
In a microcosm of our own society, the heroine is not allowed to learn the rules, but then is blamed when she breaks them.
In many of the stories of his first period, Heinlein creates a different sort of society in which women are accepted—at least to some degree—on talent rather than sex. In other stories, as we have just seen, the futuristic society is not so very different from our own. Ellie in Starman Jones has to hide her abilities to be “feminine,” and Maggie in “If This Goes On—” has been trained for nothing except the position of domestic and mistress. In both works, the heroines reflect twentieth-century limitations on womanhood, and it is clear that Heinlein dislikes these limitations upon the freedom of women. His works echo the opinion that women are potentially capable, and that in a possible future society they will assume a rightful, integral place in the professional world, with the same freedom as men to develop themselves into competent individuals. But Heinlein's work also implies that in our own type of society, the majority of women—due to environmental conditioning and sexual discrimination—have been forced into an artificial mold of incompetence. Denied the chance to develop herself, it is only an outstanding woman who overcomes her environment, and even she may be forced to hide her capabilities in order to fit a romantic role of womanhood.
Perhaps this is why so many of Heinlein's adult heroes are matched with adolescent or preadolescent heroines. Heinlein may like younger heroines because he considers them unspoiled by cultural conditioning. There is evidence for this in a novel from Heinlein's second period, Glory Road, in which the hero's mentor explains that the typical American woman is sure of her domestic genius, in bed and out. The mentor adds that it is impossible to convince her otherwise “‘Unless you can catch one not over twelve and segregate her, especially from her mother—and even that may be too late. …’”13 In another novel from Heinlein's second period, Time Enough for Love, the hero does literally “catch one” and then raises her on a pioneer planet with the help of his mistress, who “was born on Earth but had shucked off her bad background when she migrated; she did not pass on … the sick standards of a dying culture.”14 When the child is grown, the hero marries her.
This marriage follows logically. The Heinlein hero—in order to find a heroine worthy of him—must raise her himself, in his image. By early contact, he will mitigate the cultural conditioning which the child-heroine will later encounter. This may explain some of the brief, puzzling relationships we see in The Door into Summer and Time for the Stars. In these instances, brief contact between adult hero and young heroine results in a later marriage.
In any case, where a relationship is developed between competent characters of different sexes, the characters are fundamentally equal, regardless of their ages. This equality is inherent in the interdependence of hero and heroine which is necessary in order to survive and succeed. It is suggested in the relationships of “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” and The Puppet Masters, but it is shown most clearly in the last work of Heinlein's first period, Have Space Suit—Will Travel. Kip, the hero, and the eleven-year-old heroine, Peewee, accomplish things together. But they do so only after each has persuaded the other to act in the most prudent and competent manner. Their relationship is complementary. He reins in her impetuosity and she gets him to ignore his male ego. For example, Kip and Peewee are climbing a mountain on the Moon in a desperate attempt to escape danger. Kip (the hero) narrates:
I wanted to be a hero and belay for her—we had a brisk argument. “Oh, quit being big and male and gallantly stupid, Kip! You've got four big bottles and the Mother Thing and you're topheavy and I climb like a goat.”
I shut up.15
Each partner encourages the other to do what is necessary for survival, rather than letting their particular masculine or feminine nature—and their romantic conceptions of the proper behavior—take control and ruin them. They function as a team to which each brings different skills and talents, and it is a team in which each has an equal share, an equal responsibility in the struggle. Alone, either would have failed to overcome the odds.
With a relationship established on such equal and solid footing, respect and affection follow naturally. And where the hero and heroine are of suitable age, the partnership will also develop into a deeper emotional relationship. The expression of their love is a total commitment to each other which is romantic in its idealism. There is a total need for the other person, as Kip in Have Space Suit—Will Travel recognizes in his parents' relationship:
I have talked more about my father but that doesn't mean that Mother is less important—just different. Dad is active, Mother is passive; Dad talks, Mother doesn't. But if she died, Dad would wither like an uprooted tree.
In Farmer in the Sky, the hero's mother has died, and his father must flee all the way to the moon Ganymede in order to start life over again. Lifelong permanency and fidelity are implicit in the unwavering devotion of each partner for the other.
Fortunately, these ideal relationships are not allowed to become overly romantic. Heinlein recognizes the problems of marriage, and he always recalls the difficulty of such relationships, as with the various marriage contracts (“term, renewable, or lifetime”) offered the hero in The Puppet Masters.16 And in Methuselah's Children, Heinlein suggests that people could not or would not live out relationships which lasted longer than a normal lifetime.
Even the characters temper their own romanticism with realistic observations about the limits of love. The Heinlein hero, knowing life for what it is, does not expect his heroine to be a virgin. In “If This Goes On—” the heroine Maggie readily admits her sexual past to the hero, who shrugs it off and marries her anyway. And in The Puppet Masters, the hero casually dismisses any worries about the heroine's sexual experience as “her business” because “marriage is not ownership and wives are not property” (21). Heinlein may indulge in romantic notions, but he is not ruled by them. The ideal relationship is held possible in spite of a hard look at the reality in which it must exist.
That the relationships should lead to a family would be expected, and great store is placed in family life. This fact, strangely enough, has earned Heinlein some criticism. Representative of several Heinlein females, one of his characters has voiced an explicit desire for nothing more than a man, “six babies and a farm.”17 This attitude has been interpreted as an attempt by Heinlein to put women “back in the kitchen where they belong.” It is overlooked that male characters are also devoted to the family, and that the quality of this domestic life is more important that professional careers. Several sets of married couples seem to have given up hectic careers in order to devote themselves to the profession of parenthood. In The Rolling Stones, Edith Stone is an M.D., and Roger Stone is an engineer and retired mayor of Luna City. She stays home—and so does he, by writing space opera serials in his living room with his family around him for inspiration. In Have Space Suit—Will Travel, the hero's parents, a former mathematician and his most promising student, have established a quiet life in a small town, providing a permanent home rather than the hotel rooms the hero remembers from his boyhood when his parents pursued their glamorous careers. The message is that parenthood is more important than anything else. Not to be forgotten is the fact that characters—male and female—choose domesticity as a mode of personal fulfillment; they are not forced into it by conditioning or discrimination. Pamela Sargent makes note that:
As a matter of fact, Heinlein's female characters choose their fates to a certain extent. They are generally not passive creatures but strong-willed sorts who make up their own minds about what they want. … It seems that Heinlein genuinely believes that parenthood is an exciting occupation and as fulfilling as anything else might be. This is a good and defensible position.18
If Heinlein advocates parenthood and domesticity in his first period, it is not that he wishes to restrict either sex to a subordinate role, or reinforce society's conventions. Rather, it is his own appraisal of each sex voluntarily finding fulfillment in important roles for which they are biologically suited, forming a complementary partnership between competent equals.
Obviously, Heinlein's relationships are relatively complex, and it is difficult to squeeze them into a rigid mold. There are elements which might be criticized as uninspired repetitions of society's romantic conventions and traditional mores. Certainly, Heinlein is a victim of his own environment and his own emotional nature. He could not sluff off all the mores and all the conventions. Some are too appealing and enjoyable, sentimental and clichéd and irrational and chauvinistic as they might be. But Heinlein was able to discard many conventional notions, and his intellectual honesty and love of freedom resulted in a progressive view of the relationships between the sexes. The partnership of man and woman, their interdependence, their equality and individual freedom, and their free choice of life-style connote a vision far removed from romantic or sentimental tradition. Like the Heinlein heroine, these relationships rank as one of Heinlein's real accomplishments with the sexual theme during the first period of his career. Their importance—both to the artistic and sexual development of science fiction, and to the sexual philosophy of Heinlein's readers—must not be underestimated.
As successful as Heinlein's characters and relationships are on the whole, the ability of any single character or relationship to promote the sexual theme is dependent upon the techniques used to portray that character or relationship. Unfortunately, Heinlein uses two techniques which are badly suited to the development of this theme, and the result has been occasional mediocrity and failure.
Heinlein's first technique is to use a highly selective point of view, in which he “ignores completely the pain, jealousy and uncertainty that are the ordinary stuff of human experience.”19 We rarely see doubt or worry or fear at work upon a character. He or she may be experiencing intense jealousy or pain over a relationship, but we will not see the restless days or sleepless nights. The character might mention the fact at some point, or state that he has gotten over it; but we will rarely see the emotion at work upon the individual. Sam in The Puppet Masters rationalizes away jealousy (“her business”), and that is that: no twinges, no doubt, no curiosity. The result is that there is little emotional development with which the reader can identify.
The second technique Heinlein uses is the distancing of himself and the reader from those moments when intimacy and emotion are required. He often accomplishes this distancing by employing conversation to convey the scene. The conversation itself often consists of a continuous banter which attempts to be casual and relaxed, but is actually artificial and uncomfortable. In one scene from Beyond This Horizon, the hero (upon their first meeting in his apartment) disarms the heroine, wrestles her into submission, and then kisses her:
… “That,” he observed conversationally, “was practically a waste of time. You ‘independent’ girls don't know anything about the art.”
“What's wrong with the way I kiss?” she asked darkly.
“Everything. I'd as lief kiss a twelve-year-old.”
“I can kiss all right if I want to.”
“I doubt it. I doubt if you've ever been kissed before. Men seldom make passes at girls that wear guns.”
“That's not true.”
“Caught you on the raw, didn't I? …”20
The action, when it is described, can be horribly romantic and clichéd, and Heinlein's attempts to portray the emotional side of a feminine nature often are simply trite mannerisms such as the liberal use of “dear” in conversation, or bursting into tears at touching moments. Again, going to Beyond This Horizon for an example (Heinlein really was out of sorts with this one), we have this sentimental little exchange between another hero and heroine:
“I—But … Oh, Marion, Marion!” He stumbled forward toward her, and half fell. His head was in her lap. He shook with the racking sobs of one who has not learned how to cry.
She patted his shoulder. “My dear. My dear.”
He looked up at last and found that her face was wet …
What we are deprived of is a close look at the complex psychological and emotional elements common to humanity, and a realistic translation of those elements into action and expression. Heinlein strips his stories of the distractions and crosscurrents that make up a human being and a human relationship. And this omission is due, simply, to Heinlein's uneasiness about portraying such intimate matters of human experience.
This is a particularly important failure, because for all their originality, Heinlein's characters are only two- or three-dimensional, and the success of a character depends upon the close, careful development of those dimensions. If those dimensions are not developed, the character fails to come alive. For example, in Methuselah's Children, Mary Sperling has the usual heroine competency. But she also fears death. These are the two dimensions of her personality. We are told often enough of her fear, but we never really see her wrestling with this problem. It just sits on top of her, weighing her down, making her dull, and never changing. Mary is thus relatively uninteresting to a reader accustomed to the Heinlein heroine's competence.
Similar problems apply to Heinlein's relationships. In The Door into Summer there is a love affair between an adult hero and a twelve-year-old heroine who remains one-dimensional throughout. Suspended animation and time travel even out their ages so that they can have a conventional marriage, supposedly after the heroine has spent her entire adolescence without seeing the hero (he's in cold sleep), but still loving him enough thereafter to go into cold storage herself for twenty years. As sketchily drawn as the heroine-child is, she is an essential element of the plot, the motivating factor behind much that the thirty-year-old hero does:
She would not look up and her voice was so low that I could barely hear her. But I did hear her. “If I do … will you marry me?”
My ears roared and the lights flickered. But I answered steadily and much louder than she had spoken. “Yes, Ricky. That's what I want. That's why I'm doing this.”21
It is understood that the hero needs to know the heroine as a child in order to save her from her environment. But why the hero loves this particular child is never shown to us. Heinlein does not reveal the process by which this attraction has been reached. We would like to be happy for them in the end, but the question of why always comes back to haunt us.
There are a goodly share of failures due to Heinlein's discomfort, and his subsequent exclusion of emotions and arm's-length distancing of the intimate. Yet, in a substantial number of works he is able to overcome this discomfort and enjoy a more relaxed handling of characters and relationships. He does not abandon his techniques entirely, and the situations remain romantic, but he achieves a more intimate tone, and we get to see brief, revealing glimpses of the vulnerable, human side of his characters. The result is those stories which are most successful and do the most to advance the sexual themes with which Heinlein is concerned. One success is “If This Goes On—.” Heinlein gives us some well-paced, well-developed scenes in which we see the emotional confusion of hero and heroine. For example, John Lyle is struggling against his own sexual impulses as he watches the heroine swimming nude:
Again I could not take my eyes away if my eternal soul had depended on it. What is it about the body of a human woman that makes it the most terribly beautiful sight on earth? Is it, as some claim, simply a necessary instinct to make sure that we comply with God's will and replenish the earth? Or is it some stranger, more wonderful thing?
I found myself quoting: “How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!
“This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.”
Then I broke off, ashamed, remembering that the Song of Songs which is Solomon's was a chaste and holy allegory having nothing to do with such things.22
Here, the character comes alive as a vulnerable human being, subject to the doubts and fears which chain us all.
A like achievement is found in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” where the hero and heroine are a married couple who grow more confused and frightened as they delve deeper into supernatural mystery. Heinlein allows us to see these emotions at work, acting upon them, and they come alive as characters. And in Have Space Suit—Will Travel, the hero and heroine's understanding of each other develops throughout the novel, as does their mutual respect and affection.
In all these stories, our sympathetic interest and understanding of the characters and of their relationships make us receptive to the points Heinlein is making. In “If This Goes On—” Heinlein scorns a society where women are either virgins or whores, and blind sexual repression is the norm. With “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” he shows us that a married couple can be friends as well as lovers, partners against a harsh and threatening life. And in Have Space Suit—Will Travel, the interdependence of man and woman is exemplified again and again. The points are well made—as well made as the characters and relationships are drawn. They have all been given the care and attention they deserve. Heinlein is at his best here, relaxed and comfortable. And so is the reader.
In retrospect, the development of sexual themes in Heinlein's first period was an important achievement and success. For science fiction, Heinlein created characters and relationships far more honest than the stereotypes previously used, and touched upon subjects that the genre had hitherto ignored. For his readers, he had presented observations and alternatives that were different and exciting. If his techniques implied discomfort and resulted in occasional failure, he was able to overcome his deficiencies in many works.
Thematically, by its distinctiveness and merit, this first period in Heinlein's long career must be regarded in its own right and evaluated by its own accomplishments and failures. Yet, this period may also be kept in mind as the essential foundation for Heinlein's second period. Early sexual themes, and the philosophies they embodied, would undergo development and manifest themselves in the sexually preoccupied novels of Heinlein's second period. More ominously, the deficiencies that lurked in his techniques would become crucial as he gained interest in the many variations of the sexual theme, and pursued them not as peripheral interests, but as themes central to the purpose of his work.
SECOND PERIOD (1959-)
In 1959, after twenty years of enjoyable continuity, Heinlein began the second period of his career in which he changes from Heinlein the storyteller to Heinlein the moralist. This change is marked by three principal characteristics: first, Heinlein becomes increasingly didactic, subordinating story, plot, and character to the development of his theme; second, his work becomes implicitly pessimistic and defeatist; and third, the theme of sexuality becomes central to much of his work. Although we are only concerned with sexuality, all three characteristics are closely associated with each other in a tangle of cause and effect, and thus their interaction must be considered. By so doing, it may be possible to understand the overall sexual philosophy and psychological viewpoint from which Heinlein is writing. But before we can adopt this approach, we must first study some of the individual works of this period, analyzing the sexual theme of each, deciding upon its success or failure, and familiarizing ourselves with those elements which repeat themselves and form the expression of Heinlein's sexual beliefs.
Based upon his original belief in individual freedom, Heinlein's toleration of sexual activity broadens throughout his second period. With this toleration comes an impatience with subtlety. His stories slow to an agonizing crawl as elaborate views and ideas are put forth for the reader's consumption. Long, involved discussions between characters allow Heinlein to lecture upon every aspect of sexuality, and the result is that Heinlein enters all the sexual worlds forbidden to science fiction, such as emasculation, promiscuity, group sex, incest, narcissism, and the nature of hetero- and homosexuality. However, with the sexual theme foremost, the discomfort and ineffective techniques which earlier plagued Heinlein's work also come to the front and limit his study of each sexual theme.
Heinlein continues to express interest in the same aspects of sexuality which concerned him during his first period. The family—extended beyond the conventional nuclear unit—plays a major role in his novels, as does parenthood. And stripped of such notions as fidelity and permanency, love remains as a powerful force in Heinlein's work. All of these appear time and again as critical elements in his second period.
As with everything else in his work, some aspects of sexuality do change. For instance, the Heinlein heroine experiences a sad degeneration in many novels. Heinlein no longer bothers to develop his heroines, and they usually devolve into vaguely drawn sex objects. Perhaps Heinlein's basic attitudes toward women remain the same, but the patience required to create an enjoyable heroine is lacking. The heroine's only new characteristic is the urgent desire to be impregnated by the hero, some even going to the extremes of artificial insemination (against the hero's will) in order to bear the child of the Heinlein hero.
Another change from his first period is Heinlein's direct concern with specific aspects of sexual behavior. Sex in all its permutations has become a thing of endless wonder to Heinlein, as evidenced by the sexual variety of the stories which Heinlein has written in this period. “‘All You Zombies—’” is an unusual short story utilizing time travel and a sex-change operation to create a solipsist's nightmare. With Podkayne of Mars, Heinlein attempts a feminine point of view (an exception to the heroine degeneration) by having a female narrator. Glory Road is a parody in which Heinlein creates the ultimate Heinlein heroine, (the second exception) in order to satirize the romantic notions implicit in his long line of characters and relationships. Besides this, he tosses in a reversal of conventional sex roles, and flirts briefly with a situation conveying tones of bestiality. And Farnham's Freehold is a novel in which all the male characters are emasculated and rendered impotent in one way or another, while The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress provides a detailed picture of life in a “line family” with multiple wives and husbands.
Individually, these works are less important to our study and must be set aside in order to consider the three novels in which Heinlein is most concerned with sexuality: Stranger in a Strange Land, I Will Fear No Evil, and Time Enough for Love. These three novels not only provide specific examples of Heinlein's success and failure, but also most clearly illustrate the philosophy which Heinlein has adopted in his second period.
Stranger in a Strange Land (published in 1961) is the first sexually important work of Heinlein's second period. It is a conglomeration of many things, including religion, satire, and adventure, but is most interesting to us for its development of the sexual themes of promiscuity and group sex.
It is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who is raised by Martians and learns superhuman powers. He returns to Earth humanly inexperienced, is educated, and then forms a sexually active church in which he teaches “grokking” to those who are qualified to understand the nature of existence and thus share in the superpowers. He is killed by a mob at the end of the novel because of his rejection of all conventions and mores of a hypocritical society.
Robert Plank has criticized the novel as a series of “primitive sexual fantasies” with no informative value,23 and Alexei Panshin mentions that “the sexual relations are beyond criticism, self-justified,”24 because Heinlein gives them as being right, and either a character can see this truth and “grok,” or he cannot. Both observations are valid. The novel seems to be a long and loud bugle call for a perfect sexual freedom between all the spiritually beautiful people in the world. The dastardly villains preventing this dream from becoming a reality are human jealousy and the Judeo-Christian moral code.
The hero Michael Smith feels that sexual union should be a merging of bodies and souls in shared ecstasy, but that:
“… Instead it was indifference and acts mechanically performed and rape and seduction as a game no better than roulette but less honest and prostitution and celibacy by choice and by no choice and fear and guilt and hatred and violence and children brought up to think that sex was ‘bad’ and ‘shameful’ and ‘animal’ and something to be hidden and always distrusted. This lovely perfect thing, male-femaleness, turned upside down and inside out and made horrible.
“And everyone of those wrong things is a corollary of ‘jealousy.’ …”25
Linked to this human emotion of jealousy, and possibly growing out of it, is our religious code of sexual morality. This time Mike's mentor, Jubal, has his say:
“… the ethics of sex is a thorny problem. Each of us is forced to grope for a solution he can live with—in the face of a preposterous, unworkable, and evil code of so-called ‘Morals.’ Most of us know the code is wrong, almost everybody breaks it. But we pay Danegeld by feeling guilty and giving lip service. Willy-nilly, the code rides us, dead and stinking, an albatross around the neck.”
As we see, Heinlein is not blind to the emotional and environmental factors ordering our existence. He succeeds in clearly putting his ideas about them before us. The only thing needed is the evidence to validate these ideas—but this we never get. Instead of showing us how we might throw off “constraints” and achieve these heights of emotional and sexual freedom, Heinlein simply gives us a finished product, a perfect community free of restrictions such as jealousy and morality. Promiscuity and group sex are given as the natural order, and the solution for everything from job dissatisfaction to menstrual cramps.
Such a community is possible because Michael and company have the ability to grok those who are worthy. Only the good of heart are able to grok and enjoy the delights of sexual and spiritual union. The rest will never make it through the door. Mike states:
“… I had no slightest wish to attempt this miracle with anyone I did not already cherish and trust—Jubal, I am physically unable even to attempt love with a female who has not shared water with me. And this runs all through the Nest. Psychic impotence—unless spirits blend as flesh blends.”
Even Jubal recognizes that “it was a fine system—for angels” (36).
This is the problem with Stranger in a Strange Land: The novel creates a sexual utopia that does not apply to the common lot of humanity. Heinlein again ignores the “common stuff of human experience.” For example, we are told that a character, Ben, suffers from jealousy, while a heroine, Jill, is intolerant of a “water-brother” who likes to collect pictures of nudes. Ben and Jill come closest to displaying the emotional elements that make up ordinary human existence. But in both cases, Heinlein keeps their problems at arm's length and solves them with a little superpower, so that suddenly the characters grok. No more problems.
What Heinlein is doing, of course, is utilizing his old techniques, and now as before they fail him. Only now, their weakness betrays his sexual argument and threatens the success of the novel itself. How are we to know who is worthy to share water, and who should be discorporated? How can we tell if another is able to achieve spiritual union as well as physical union? Heinlein ignores this reality. He raises arguments, but offers no proof. He suggests change, but offers no workable alternatives. Heinlein's satire is excellent, and his ideas are thought provoking. But no meaningful discussion can be found of the value and place of the promiscuity which is so highly touted.
I Will Fear No Evil (1970) is the most ambitious of Heinlein's novels, and perhaps that accounts for the fact that it is his worst failure. The novel fails as a satire—if it was meant to be one—because it satirizes very little. It fails as a story because the narration is tedious and the plot dull. It might have succeeded as an exploration of the nature of sexuality, for it is certainly concerned with that subject. Highlighted would have been such important topics as the heterosexual and homosexual drives, and the interrelationship between the physiological and psychological processes in a sexual being. But here, too, it fails.
Instead, I Will Fear No Evil succeeds as nothing more than a long catalog of naughty stories, including: the young secretary and the older executive; the young boy and the housewife next door; the cuckolded husband (three wives—three children—three horns); the high school cheerleader impregnated by the basketball team; the scantily dressed maid; the spanking; the nurse and the seven interns, the society lady and her two servants, and so on. Between these revelations of the life histories of the characters, we are told the story of Johann Smith, an old billionaire in a state of infirmity and kept alive with tubes, wires, and shoestrings. A once-vigorous man, his old age is a living death, and he prefers either to live or to die. The escape is to have his brain transplanted into the first body that becomes available—which turns out to be that of his female secretary Eunice, who has been killed by a mugger. The story recounts the experience of Johann's adjustment to being a woman.
The concept is fascinating, and a host of questions arise. Johann has a man's psychology, but his body is a woman's. How will Johann feel when a man touches him? Or a woman touches him? How will the mind adjust? Which is the homosexual act? When will Johann be sexually aroused—and when should he be? Which will predominate, psychological conditioning or physiological drives? And how will others relate to the change? What about those who loved the hero as a man—or loved Eunice, to whom the body belonged? How will these others respond?
Heinlein raises these questions himself. For example, Jake, a friend of Johann's and the lover of Eunice, breaks down and has to be sedated when Johann proposes a toast to the dead woman whose body he is occupying. And the hero, who finds himself attracted to both men and women, realizes that:
“… I'm in the damnedest situation a man ever found himself in. I'm not the ordinary sex change of a homo who gets surgery and hormone shots to tailor his male body into fake female. I'm not even a mixed up XXY or an XYY. This body is a normal female XX. But the brain in it has had a man's canalization and many years of enthusiastic male sex experience. So tell me, Jake, which time am I being normal, and which time perverse?”26
The hero answers his own question, and makes what seems to be a major point of the book:
“… From my unique experience, embracing both physiological sexes directly and not by hearsay, I say there is just one sex. Sex. SEX! …”
This is an unusual point to make, and we might expect an author to use every page to prove his thesis by showing the hero adjusting, and explaining how he responded physiologically and emotionally to each sexual step. This does not happen.
Again, as in Stranger in a Strange Land, the rightness of Heinlein's premise is self-justified. Johann experiences no problems adjusting because there is only one sex, and he has done nothing but change the vehicle of his pleasure. An irascible old man before the transplant, Johann becomes an agreeable, charming personality in Eunice's body. He finds himself thinking about sexual relations with his doctors even before he has recovered from the operation. Oh, he says he has trouble adjusting: “The time I'll feel like a queer is the first time some man kisses [me]. I'll probably faint” (10). Johann does not faint, he just enjoys. And this is all we see.
The simplicity of adjustment extends to the hero's acquaintances. Jake, who knew the hero and loved Eunice, should be having gigantic problems adjusting, considering the promising scene in which he broke down earlier. But no, he, too, regains his composure and becomes the perfect gentlemen with Johann (and Eunice's body) out of deference to old friend and buddy Johann. Later, he ends up marrying the hero.
Even if we credit the self-justified point of the story with some validity, it is fatally compromised by plot and technique. First of all, Johann is not alone in the body of Eunice! When he awakens from the transplant operation, he discovers that the consciousness of Eunice still resides in the body, right along with his own consciousness. Eunice becomes Johann's sexual mentor and the heroine of the story, helping Johann adjust to being a woman, not that he really needs much help (later in the novel, Jake dies and they haul his consciousness into their body with them). This circumstance immediately destroys any chance for a viable consideration of the situation, and renders meaningless the many questions that are begging to be answered.
Also, since the point is self-justified and there is no need to deal with the messy, complex development of human sexuality, we are left free to consider such truly profound matters as the quality of different kisses, the difficulty in buying women's clothes, and the erotic histories of the characters (all those naughty stories).
More tiresome than these matters are the endless conversations. Heinlein has the ability to write witty and informative dialogue. Here, he is merely trite and repetitive. The following passage is an example of a conversation between Johann and Eunice (supposedly occurring mentally within Johann's brain inside Eunice's body—got that straight?). Johann has just kissed his female nurse, Winifred:
Winifred left about sixty seconds later. (Well, Eunice? How did that one stack up?) (Quite well, Butch. Say eighty percent as well as Jake can do.) (You're teasing.) (You'll find out. Winnie is sweet—but Jake has had years more practice. I'm not chucking asparagus at Winnie. I thought you were going to drag her right in with us.) (With Mrs. Sloan outside and watching our heart rate? What do you think I am? A fool?) (Yes.) (Oh, go to sleep!)
This banter fills up page after page in the novel, and we might almost consider it part of a grand parody if Heinlein did not treat it so seriously, and with such repetitious detail.
This type of conversation is also utilized to narrate Johann's reactions to the kisses he receives and bestows. Johann gets to kiss almost every character in the book (Heinlein is fascinated with kissing), and we get to hear about every experience. Yet, for all that Heinlein is constantly suggesting sexual arousal, he never delivers the real thing. As with previous works, no sexual coupling is ever actually described. We are told about Johann's first sexual experience the morning after, and it turns out that Johann was drunk and everything was fuzzy. Convenient.
Why Heinlein should tease us all through the novel and then avoid the moment of truth may only be explained by those old problems, his inhibitions. He is still not comfortable with intimate scenes of human emotion, and he falls back on the same techniques he used before, and then some. The naughty stories, Eunice's consciousness, the worthless conversations, and the kissing are all devices to avoid coming to grips with a subject that Heinlein does not know how to handle.
Yet, Heinlein does overcome one inhibition, when for the first time in his work he introduces a sexual four-letter word. He uses it twice, both times in the same paragraph at the very end of the novel and just before Johann-Eunice-Jake die giving birth:
“Everything always hurts, Roberto—everything. Always. But some things are worth all the hurts … It is good to touch—to fuck—be fucked. It's—not good—to be—too much alone. …”
It is too bad that for all his effort, this is all Heinlein had to say. The sexual themes which are mishandled so badly do need to be explored. But Heinlein's methods are not the ones to use.
In his most recent novel, Time Enough for Love (1973), Heinlein is more successful because he takes care to be a storyteller—and an artist—rather than just a moralist or sexual adventurer. The novel is ostensibly about love, but actually deals with the sexual themes of incest and narcissism, which are given as manifestations of that love.
Time Enough for Love is a rambling, picaresque account of the past life of Lazarus Long. After two thousand years the hero is tired of life, but is prevented from committing suicide by the long-lived Howard Families. They convince Lazarus that he should live long enough to relate his experiences for their benefit, and so he does. Meanwhile, the people he has met form a family around him, and many of the females have themselves impregnated by Lazarus in one way or another, some even serving as host mothers to cloned versions (female reproductions) of the hero. His interest in life revived, but still seeking something new in the way of adventure, Lazarus goes into the past, ends up having an affair with his own mother, and then gets himself killed in World War I. The novel ends with his family of the future snatching Lazarus off the battlefield and reviving him.
Throughout the novel, the emphasis is upon the sexual aspects of his adventures, as signaled in the title of the novel. The key to the title may be found in one of the excerpts from Lazarus Long's Notebooks:
The more you love, the more you can love—and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had time enough, he could love all of that majority who are decent and just.
It is also made clear that “whatever ‘love’ is, it's not sex” (“Variations on a Theme IV”). We find love to be much more, as Lazarus explains:
The longer I was privileged to live with Dora, the more I loved her. She taught me to love by loving me, and I learned … Learned that supreme happiness lies in wanting to keep another person safe and warm and happy, and being privileged to try.
(“Variations on a Theme XII”)
So, love is defined as being the supreme happiness of the one who loves, and is achieved by caring most deeply for another human being. Simple enough, and the definition is applied consistently throughout the novel. But the definition is a narcissistic one. Love is supreme happiness. We want to make ourselves happy, and so we love others, and take care of others—not for their sake, but for our own. The principle extends to everything we do:
… once you pick up a stray cat and feed it, you cannot abandon it. Self-love forbids it. The cat's welfare becomes essential to your own peace of mind—even when it's a bloody nuisance not to break faith with the cat.
(“Variations on a Theme VI”)
With this narcissistic interpretation, almost every chapter may be (and is intended to be) interpreted as a variation upon this theme. All of Lazarus Long's sexual and emotional relationships thus become expressions of self-love. The narcissism becomes quite literal at times, as when Lazarus makes love to the two cloned female versions of himself whom he has helped raise:
“… Coupling with us might be masturbation, but it can't be incest because we aren't your sisters. We aren't your kin in any normal sense; we're you. Every gene of us comes from you. If we love you—and we do—and if you love us—and you do, some, in your own chinchy and cautious fashion—it's Narcissus loving himself. But this time, if you could only see it, that Narcissist love could be consummated.”
(“Variations on a Theme XVII”)
Similarly, the theme of incest runs just as deeply through the novel, and is considered in the same type of unique variations. At one point, Lazarus explores in scientific detail the relationship of a set of mirror twins whom he buys out of slavery. They are diploid brother and sister having the same mother and father, sharing the same host womb, growing up together as brother and sister, but with no genetic reason to prevent their mating, as they wish. The result of the investigation is a new understanding by the reader of the nature of incest. It becomes clear that:
“‘Incest’ is a legal term, not a biological one. It designates sexual union between persons forbidden by law to marry. The act itself is forbidden; whether such union results in progeny is irrelevant. The prohibitions vary widely among cultures and are usually, but not always, based on degrees of consanguinity.”
(“Variations on a Theme IX”)
The basic message is that incest is a cultural taboo imposed because of genetic dangers, but often of no logical relation to the genetic dangers which it is meant to avoid. Whether or not one agrees with Heinlein's ideas, his consideration of incest does leave the reader with enough information and knowledge to apply such investigative methods to the cultural and genetic validity of his own incest taboos. In this way, Heinlein has succeeded with his theme.
The theme of incest is carried to fruition when Lazarus Long goes back in time and has a sexual and emotional love affair with his mother. Heinlein overcomes his own sexual inhibitions by finally including a sex scene, the one in which this relationship is consummated. Yes, Heinlein is still uncomfortable, and the dialogue is still artificial, but somehow the scene works, perhaps because of the reader's amazement at seeing such a thing in a Heinlein novel.
Time Enough for Love succeeds in many ways, and it will probably be ranked as Heinlein's most complex and interesting work. The primary accomplishment of the novel is Heinlein's masterful intertwining of the themes of incest and narcissism into each chapter and each example. For instance, one of the most romantic chapters concerns Lazarus and Dora, a child he has saved and raised as his own. When she comes of age, she wants to have a baby by Lazarus. After having raised Dora as his daughter, the incestuous element is clear in the emotional relationship. Lazarus is changing from father to husband. Then, Lazarus himself raises the issue of narcissistic self-love for this act. He has married Dora because she is a stray kitten he must take care of out of self-love. Thus, the relationship has both its incestuous and narcissistic elements. Both themes are also inherent in his relations with his cloned selves, with the mirror twins, with his family, and with his mother. The intricate plotting of these sexual themes is the work of a master craftsman.
By the elaborate repetition of the two themes, the novel is also a success for the manner in which it raises questions and suggests alternatives. Through the numerous variations of each theme, the reader is familiarized with the subject and begins to see the complexities of the theme, and to consider it outside the narrow bias of his own cultural point of view. This is an accomplishment.
However, with the novel's success comes its failure. As entertaining as the novel may be, and as many questions as it may raise and as much thought as it may stir, there is little real human substance to apply to our own situation. The mirror twins are not really normal brother and sister; Dora is not Lazarus' biological daughter; and his cloned female selves are neither sisters nor daughters. Even his mother is no longer his mother. She is a “lovely young matron, just his ‘own’ age” (“DaCapo III”), a woman who happens to be the mother of the child that Lazarus was two thousand years before. In too many cases, scientific manipulation accounts for a sexual improbability. Scientifically, the examples work, and the novel is good science fiction. But these examples fail to offer insights into the human factors that make up so many of these problems. Again, as in Stranger in a Strange Land and I Will Fear No Evil, the complex psychological and emotional elements that make up sexuality are ignored.
None of Heinlein's work in his second period is as successful as it might have been, and the fault is mainly with his inadequate handling of the sexual theme. The variations on this theme are cleverly presented and effective within limits—but these limits are disappointing. Heinlein's persistent reluctance to deal with the human condition of emotional vulnerability forbids any true application of the sexual studies he has undertaken. For this reason, Heinlein's second period must be looked upon as one of unfulfilled promise. Our consolation is that if Heinlein did not provide any answers, at least he asked the needed questions.
Having completed an evaluation of some works of this period in terms of the success or failure of each, it is now possible to consider the philosophy and psychology which have dictated Heinlein's extensive interest in the theme of sexuality.
Heinlein has always put great store in physical survival, and in his first period optimistically showed us the ability of the competent man to succeed against the odds. Heinlein himself was the archetype of competency and success. By the end of his first period he had already written a massive body of literature, carved out an inestimable niche for himself in science fiction, and was regarded with adulation by a large body of fans. Most would view such a life as a great success.
However, by the beginning of his second period in 1959, Heinlein was fifty-two years old and reaching the age when one's own mortality becomes obvious. A man might realize that for all his competence and for all his victories he could not escape the eventual defeat of death. Old age would strip him of his abilities and leave him powerless before this fate.
Heinlein's writing in his second period seems to reflect this type of thinking. For all their competence, his heroes are strangely unable to alter circumstances, are emasculated, and rendered impotent against the forces of the universe. The realities of old age and death also figure more prominently in Heinlein's work. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael is killed by the mob. The novel I Will Fear No Evil is about one man's desperate attempt to escape old age and death. And Time Enough for Love is about a man who cannot die. Heinlein was in his sixties when he wrote Time Enough for Love, an aging man writing about an ageless man. The attraction of the fantasy is obvious.
But if a man is not a Lazarus Long, if he cannot affect his fate, if he can no longer find importance in his temporary victories against the universe, where can he seek purpose? How can he give life meaning?
Religion is one answer, but Heinlein seems to have rejected that. If ever a believer in a God, Heinlein implies throughout his second period that he is atheistic. He rejects the Judeo-Christian code in Stranger in a Strange Land, and later makes it clear in Time Enough for Love that “Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help” (“Intermission”). Denying himself this comfort, it is indeed a gloomy realization that death is the end of everything, without either physical or spiritual immortality.
Yet, there is another way to gain a measure of physical immortality. The answer is genetic survival, and it is this answer that Heinlein has grasped in order to give meaning and purpose to life. If a man cannot live forever, at least he can ensure the survival of a part of himself in his children. This attitude is reflected in his novels. Michael Smith impregnates at least half a dozen women by the time of his death. Johann Smith takes great care to have his female body impregnated with his own seed, and far into Heinlein's Future History, Lazarus Long is literally the genetic forefather of an important segment of the human race, and propounds that “racial survival is the only universal morality.”27
To ensure this type of survival, the family is essential. Not only does it protect and educate the children, but it also provides comfort and holds off the grim thoughts of that ultimate fate. The love and adoration of the family, and the careful education of the children in the image of the father (hero) are essential to his psychological well-being, and far overreach any temporary interests in a professional career or adventure to the stars. This is why so many of Heinlein's stories at this time are domesticated, either utilizing the family scene as an essential story element like the “Nest” in Stranger in a Strange Land, or in providing a warm sanctuary from which the hero may venture forth upon occasion as Lazarus does. For lack of this family, Lazarus—having been kicked around the universe for a few centuries—even welcomes death until a new family has built up around him and provided a “home” to return to. It is the family that rescues Lazarus from the battlefield and brings him back to life, in symbolic manifestation of the physical immortality that the family allows.
What the hero gives in return is love. There is that special love for the woman, the tender love for many women, and the warm, asexual love for “that majority who are decent and just,” both men and women. The hero must love all these because it is good to love, as Michael Smith and Johann Smith and Lazarus Long all know. This is why their “families” grow so large. The more one loves, and the more there are to love, the happier one is, and it is this happiness which will deny the Fates and push back the heavy knowledge that weighs down the human spirit.
Thus, parenthood, the family, and love—always important in Heinlein's early work—evolve into essential elements of his later philosophy by forming a consistent denial of one's own purposeless mortality. However, there is another element perhaps just as essential, one that Heinlein has newly turned to in his second period. The “icing on the cake,”28 the bountiful gift which spices up human existence, is sex. In denying death, in making a family, in loving others, “this lovely perfect thing, male-femaleness” plays an essential role that fascinates Heinlein. If all conventional adventures have shrunken in importance, the sexual adventure looms in their place. Sex can provide a first step toward love by encouraging intimacy (“growing closer”), so why not have sex often, with many people, in order to hasten the love (“spiritual union”) in which happiness and comfort can be found? Besides, sex is fun, so why limit it in any way? Why let jealousy create inhibitions? Why let illogical taboos and morals interfere with this innocent pleasure that does so much to deny the reality of our own demise? Why not explore the different types of sexual love and see how we have limited ourselves and denied ourselves this great comfort?
Having evolved this philosophy, having discovered the purpose and pattern by which to live, Heinlein must preach the gospel of his new revelation, perhaps to himself as much as to others. Family! Sex! Love! These are the weapons with which to challenge the universe and deny death. These are the important things in life, the essential elements of a desperate happiness. In our pitifully short lives, there must always be time enough for these.
Robert A. Heinlein, “Views of Robert Heinlein,” The New Yorker, July 1, 1974, 18.
Alexei Panshin, Heinlein in Dimension (Chicago: Advent, 1968), 169-72.
For this story and for other early works from Heinlein's prewar writing (1939-42), I am referring to versions rewritten for book publication rather than the original magazine versions. For more information on original versions and rewrites, see Panshin.
Heinlein, Starman Jones, ed. Judy L. del Rey (New York: Ballantine, 1975), (19).
Heinlein, The Menace from Earth (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1962), (2).
Heinlein, Time Enough for Love (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1974), “Variations on a Theme XII.”
Anne McCaffrey, “Romance and Glamour in Science Fiction,” in Science Fiction: Today and Tomorrow, ed. Reginald Bretnor (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 281.
“Women in Science Fiction,” Introduction, Women of Wonder: Science Fiction Stories by Women About Women, ed. Pamela Sargent (New York: Random House, 1975), xliii.
“Introduction by Damon Knight,” Heinlein, The Past Through Tomorrow (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1975).
Heinlein, The Puppet Masters (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1975), (27).
Heinlein, Waldo & Magic, Inc. (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1970).
Heinlein, in The Past Through Tomorrow.
Heinlein, Glory Road (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1970), (21).
Heinlein, Time Enough for Love, “Variations on a Theme XII.”
Heinlein, Have Space Suit—Will Travel (New York: Ace Books, 1975), (6).
Heinlein, Tunnel in the Sky (New York: Ace Books, 1970), (2).
Sargent, Women of Wonder, xliv.
Panshin, Heinlein in Dimension, 151.
Heinlein, Beyond This Horizon (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1974), (4).
Heinlein, The Door into Summer (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1975), (11).
Heinlein, “If This Goes On—” (10), in The Past Through Tomorrow.
Robert Plank, “Omnipotent Cannibals: Thoughts on Reading Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land,” Riverside Quarterly, V (1971): 30-37. See also Chapter 4, this book.
Panshin, Heinlein in Dimension, 151.
Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1968), (36).
Heinlein, I Will Fear No Evil (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1971), (14).
Heinlein, Time Enough for Love, “Intermission.”
Time Enough for Love, “Variations on a Theme VII.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9231
SOURCE: Tucker, Frank H. “Major Political and Social Elements in Heinlein's Fiction.” In Robert A. Heinlein, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, pp. 172-93. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1978.
[In the following essay, Tucker explores the political, social, and economic threads found in Heinlein's fiction.]
In discussing the principal political and social ideas which are expressed or reflected in the Heinlein literature, it is best to begin by observing that these are in no sense tract novels and stories, and the political content is secondary or even incidental to the narratives. One should also note that the usual uncertainty regarding fictional material applies here, as to whether or not the statements of various characters reflect the author's views. However, we are obliged to rely on such statements usually as our primary source, and where they recur or are emphasized, they can be considered as significant.
First let us look at elements which are essentially individual matters. There are several ways in which the author's concepts of the “proper individual,” the hero and the leader, shed light upon our subject. There are many strong characters, functioning in the stories as exemplary figures, even acting as leaders of their people or as guides to younger, less experienced characters. These leaders often seem to reflect an outlook which is typical of the intelligent, fairly conservative achievers of the author's own generation in the United States. They are go-getters, and are often ready to dedicate their efforts to the common causes of exploration, liberation, and other forms of service to mankind, or at least to their own segment of mankind.
The author is a realist, but he is rather optimistic about human destiny. In The Door into Summer we read, “Despite the crape-hangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better.”1 This progress is seen as having been facilitated, during the past history of man, by competition and by the process to which the name of Charles Darwin is attached, natural selection and survival of the fittest—a tendency in nature toward the proliferation of mutated types which are more able to cope with their environment, accompanied by the tendency of the less fit types to die out. During the forthcoming development of mankind, in addition to these trends in nature, the author sometimes contemplates the use of genetic planning, and even genetic engineering—alteration of germ cell material—to enhance these tendencies.
Franz Rottensteiner has termed Heinlein's stories “an endorsement of social Darwinism.” Fittingly, he says also that the characters in these stories “personify an ethic of success.”2 Although Heinlein accepts the Darwinian label, the phrase “social Darwinism” should be used cautiously because it has come to include a thoroughly ruthless approach to human affairs, dignifying the abuse of colonial populations and the extermination of supposedly inferior races as natural, ultimately beneficial processes.
In Farnham's Freehold we find an estimate that a twentieth-century atomic war might actually have the long-range effect of improving the stock of the human race. After such a holocaust, that is, the survival of individuals would be a real struggle, and the survivors of that competition for sustenance would tend to be the most fit persons. World Wars I and II, on the other hand, brought death mostly to the fighting forces, in which the fitter individuals were concentrated, sparing the poorer specimens who were not at the front. This concept is perhaps meant to apply only to the United States, since at the time in question there were many deaths elsewhere from starvation and genocide, not directed particularly toward the fighting forces.
At any rate, another appreciation of the racial value of hard times appears in Beyond This Horizon, where the sage District Moderator for Genetics, Mordan Claude, says, “‘Easy times for individuals are bad times for the race,’” and the corollary is that when there is not enough adversity there must be compensatory governmental intervention and planning. There is much more in this latter novel about genetics. The character Hamilton Felix is described as a genetic superman, highly fitted for survival. We also read about the aftermath of an atomic war in 1970. The survivors used genetics to breed people who would be more peaceable, more like sheep than wolves, but the experiment failed because the nation was attacked by more wolflike peoples, who won.3
There is much more discussion of genetics in Farnham's Freehold, but not on the part of the heroes; rather it is the overlords of the arrogant superrace of the time who refer to the matter most often. A more decent reference to Darwinism occurs in Starship Troopers with some worried musing that because a certain planet lacks radiation in its atmosphere there will be no mutation, thence no zoologic competition and no progress in life forms. The musing extends to the observation that people don't worry about future generations as they should.4 This sounds a little like Edmund Burke's dictum that our responsibility as human beings extends not only to the living but also to the past generations and the yet unborn generations of the human community.
The application of Darwinian thought to the new situations created by the discovery and development of new frontier lands was made by Charles Darwin himself, in The Descent of Man, where he pointed out that a kind of selection process operated when people made the choice to go out to the New World of the Western Hemisphere during the era of settlement: those who went tended to be those who had more courage, initiative, or innovativeness. Heinlein also is mindful of this factor in his anticipation that space travel might ruin the Earth by draining its best minds away. He certainly thinks of space exploration as being akin to the old eras of colonization and the Westward Movement on Earth. One of his Moon ships is called the Pioneer, and its sister ships have the equally significant names of Mayflower and Colonial. In another story, a group of fugitive settlers on Venus are described as having their own “rough frontier culture,” under the guidance of a headman who handles justice like Judge Roy Bean. The formerly soft lawyer who is settled there notes the virtues of frontier life, harsh though it is, and he wonders if he should return to his former, sterile life as a fat, prosperous Earthling. In another narrative, the frontier of Western Americana is reenacted even in such details as a Conestoga wagon, on a remote planet, and the protagonist remarks that the frontiers have a wholesome, “culling” effect on mankind.5
The frontier as a safety valve for an overcrowded land and a stultified culture, one of the elements in the “Frontier Thesis” of the famous American historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, seems to be what Damon Knight has in mind when he remarks that even the somewhat wild Heinlein juvenile-story plots, about high school kids being sent in a survival test to remote and savage planets, are not unlikely in the context of an Earth grossly overcrowded by its population explosion.6
One further introductory note is needed here regarding archetypal images, those very widespread and ancient modes through which the human mind brings to its surface its deepest conceptions of problems and solutions, including the human figures which, as archetypal images, may represent our chief hopes and hazards. The reader is not asked to accept Carl Jung's interpretations of these phenomena, and it would be unwise to assert that Heinlein has done so. Such archetypal images as savior figures, whether young or old, male or female, earthbound or heaven-sent, are often found in the Heinlein stories. They may have been put there simply because such figures were natural and needful for the story. Or perhaps, as Damon Knight believes about Heinlein's Freudian probings, he has mortared some of them in, without conviction, thinking that they improve his product (p. 86).
Certainly it is evident that Heinlein at some point had become familiar with quite a mass of archaic, occult, and psychoanalytic information. In Waldo, for example, we find a certain defense of the accomplishments of magic. In Magic, Inc. there is reference to a full set of demons—Lucifugé, Sataniacha, Ashtoreth, Mammon, and Beelzebub.7 There is much magic and fantasy in Glory Road, in which the character Star, for instance, represents the archetypes of the Terrible Mother, witch, and so forth. More pertinent to our political interests here would be the inclination of Heinlein to have a senior guiding figure in his stories, a “wise old man,” as the Jungians would say. Examples of this include Mordan Claude in Beyond This Horizon, Dr. Jefferson in Between Planets, Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land, Sam Anderson in Starman Jones, Professor Bernardo de la Paz in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and Lazarus Long in Methuselah's Children and Time Enough for Love. Lazarus, living to be thousands of years old, is surely the epitome of this figure. He also represents the type who is specially endowed with a marvelous quality, as are many of the savior and hero figures in this literature. In his case, a mutation which allows the longevity is the special gift. Furthermore, Lazarus is recurrently rescued from death by rejuvenation techniques, and finally he is in fact killed, but is, amazingly enough, brought back to life like the Lazarus of the Bible. The book also describes Long as “our Moses who led his people out of bondage,” and he plays still another role despite his vulnerability, that of the archetypal “Trickster Figure.” That is reflected in the description of him as having “audacity, a talent for lying convincingly, and … a childish delight in adventure and intrigue for its own sake” (TEL Introduction).
The archetypal imagery of control lost over one's own personality or body, whether by possession (as by demons) or through some other device, finds several echoes in the Heinlein literature. In science fiction as a whole, in fact, it is quite a common phenomenon, reflecting very probably a strong anxiety by modern man concerning the independence or integrity of his person. Our author makes less use of this concept than average, but there are some interesting examples. The Puppet Masters is a good case of this, with direct control of each human being who has a loathsome guest organism on his back. The masters, furthermore, are not independent individuals themselves, being blended into a collective whole without which they hardly function. Such a loss of individuality to the communal entity occurs also in Methuselah's Children, where the rabbit-like Little People have a purely collective personality. A human being, Mary Sperling, joins them, to the distress of the other people. Again, the animal-like Jockaira of the same novel do not exist for themselves but as pets of unseen masters. The masters exercise mystically vague mental control and telekinetic control over Jockaira and humans alike, though their intervention into the human mind produces hysteria and disorientation. The implications of all this for twentieth-century man, with his own agonizing choices as to collectivization and communal life, are reasonably clear.
GENERAL POLITICAL CONCEPTS
Heinlein's writings often speak of the need to keep government small, to minimize its functions. Governmental honesty, candor, and efficiency are esteemed, and limited government will conserve these qualities. Where does Heinlein get his political philosophy? We have only a few direct indications. In “If This Goes On—” Grand Master Peter recommends Tom Paine to John Lyle for basic enlightenment, and we are told that Lyle finds the works of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry also when he looks up the works of Paine. The interest in Paine and Henry is not merely casual; we know that Heinlein ran a full-page ad in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph on April 13, 1958, asking the readers to dedicate themselves as heirs of Patrick Henry. The ad quotes Henry's famous “liberty or death” speech, and deplores those who would give up essential liberty to obtain temporary safety. At any rate, our young hero Lyle also discovers that “secrecy is the keystone of tyranny. Not force, but secrecy … censorship.”8
Heinlein respects the political process, preferring the practical politicians to those who are more idealistic. In Podkayne of Mars we read, “Politics is … the way we get things done … without fighting. We dicker and compromise … the only alternative is force. … Homo sapiens is the most deadly of all the animals in this solar system. Yet he invented politics!”9 In Time Enough for Love the opinion is that reform politicians lack the reliability that “‘business politicians’” have, because the former lie and cheat to serve their vague ideals (TEL “Variations on a Theme III”).
How is the political process to be kept wholesome? Perhaps not through democracy, but through the twin concepts of loyalty and duty, without which any society is doomed, and by taking care that authority and responsibility are kept equal and coordinate in government. Suggesting that democracy is based on the idea that a million men are wiser than one man, the author implies that this is a dubious concept (TEL “Intermission”). Again, in Glory Road, the following commentaries appear:
“‘Democracy. A curious delusion—as if adding zeroes could produce a sum. … Democracy can't work. Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, that's all there is—so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work. … But a democratic form of government is okay, as long as it doesn't work. Any social organization does well enough if it isn't rigid. … Most so-called social scientists seem to think that organization is everything. It is almost nothing—except when it is a straightjacket. … [The U.S.A.] has a system free enough to let its heroes work at their trade. It should last a long time—unless its looseness is destroyed from inside.’”10
In “Gulf,” the comment comes from a villain, which can mean that it is not the author's view. However, it does not appear to be greatly different from the opinions cited above, except that the villain will use conspiracy and murder to promote his own cause. He opines that democracy could flourish for about one hundred and fifty years in the past, but muddled and ignorant men cannot be trusted to settle by their voting processes the issues of the modern world in which nuclear physics and the like are beyond their capacity to understand. He condemns communism also, because very little progress was made under it, a totalitarian, political religion being, as he says, incompatible with free investigation. Even this character sees some practical good in individual freedom, in that it lends itself to experimentation, evolution, and progress through trial and error.11
The weight of opinion throughout this literature is in favor of leaving people alone. In Coventry, a speaker objects to excessive planning: “‘You've planned your whole world so carefully that you've planned the fun and zest right out of it.’”12 In Time Enough for Love, Chairman Ira Weatheral believes that no unnecessary governing must be done or allowed; the aim of government is not to do good but to refrain from doing evil. It must keep order, but the Chairman regularly prunes officious officials from his organization, abolishing their jobs and those of their juniors (TEL “Variations on a Theme I”). In “If This Goes On—” the original version had the liberation organization planning to teach freedom to the people through hypnosis, but the revised form of this story shows the organization rejecting hypnotic conditioning, because free men must come to understand freedom under their own power (“ITGO” 14).
Some political interpretations have come into this literature in connection with references to past events. These references are not particularly numerous, since science fiction is more oriented to the future than to the past, but they do reveal a few things about the author's points of view. In “Logic of Empire,” the subject is slavery—in the future, on the face of it, but certainly the example of Europe's global expansion in the past, and the frequently attendant practice of slavery, is in the picture here. The author refers to it, and he is not so logical or accurate in these matters. A character deplores our tendency to accept “devil theory” when we examine such problems; he says that colonial slavery resulted not from villainy but from stupidity, in that it was nonproductive. It is true that slave labor is less productive than free labor. In colonial times, indeed throughout most of the centuries of European imperial expansion, there was a shortage of labor; not enough workmen to do the enormous job of opening up to European settlement and industry the two American continents, Australia, and South Africa. That does not justify slavery, but neither does it make the brutal, stopgap practice “stupid.”
A related error is the declaration in “Logic of Empire” that “… the use of mother-country capital to develop the colony inevitably results in subsistence-level wages at home and slave labor in the colonies.” This may often have been true, but by no means always. For example, mother-country capital was lent to the British colonies in North America—raised by stock companies, in some cases, for the initial development of the colony. Slavery did not become a regular and important institution in the Northern colonies, though it had a limited or token existence there for a time.
The patriotism of Heinlein is often evident, one sign of it being his special interest in the American Revolution, long before the Bicentennial celebrations made this a commonplace reference. In Farnham's Freehold, for instance, Hugh Farnham had a safe in his underground shelter, the combination for which turned out to be 74-17-76—duly explained in the text as deriving from July 4, 1776 (4). Perhaps the special interest was related to the Heinlein address in Colorado Springs, 1776 Mesa Avenue. However that may be, the patriotic view of history is substantial enough. In the same novel, Farnham declared, “‘America is the best thing in history, I think. …’” (1)
More recent history is grist for the author's mill; there are reflections of Nazis in the future situations, presented with evident disapproval, as are their emulators outside of Germany. One of the Nazi-like elitists of the Survivors Club in Beyond This Horizon is a section leader named Mosely, surely redolent of Sir Oswald Mosely of the British “Silver Shirts” in the Hitler era (7).
As for communism, it comes in for clear disapproval, but the references are not always shrill; occasionally there is even a neutral borrowing of a communist feature. The hero of “If This Goes On—” belongs to a revolutionary group which is presented approvingly; it is overthrowing a nasty theocratic dictatorship. The group requires our hero to spend a lot of time on his “Personal Conversion Report,” a copious, complete, and detailed account of his background and how he became converted to the revolution. If these reports ever verged on the superficial, or omitted anything, they were to be supplemented by interrogation under hypnosis. This copious report is very similar to the long reports, diaries, and journals which cadres in training in Communist China are required to present. It is a key feature of their training, and probably inspired this fictional item, though one should concede that the Chinese would hardly use hypnosis in such connections (“ITGO” 10 and 11).
More general social phenomena in modern America are also reflected. The hero of Glory Road acknowledged that his generation, which matured in the 1950s and 1960s, contributed the overpowering goal of “Security” to the American dream. Those who are apathetic, selfish, or spoiled get no encouragement from this author (1), but that will be considered further in our discussion of citizens' rights and responsibilities below.
A modern trend which has been explicitly denounced by Heinlein in his nonfiction writing is anti-intellectualism and antiscience outlooks. His intellectual critics would be surprised, perhaps, how much better he does than do some of the critics' friends at defending the realm of the intellect and science in the face of pernicious attacks.13
FUNCTIONS OF GOVERNMENT AND WARRANTS FOR REVOLUTION
The author's positions on the functions of government are a bit ambivalent: he seems to want its power to be very limited, but he views strikes against the authorities (perhaps against the public interest or even the public safety) as a bad thing, a point shown best in “The Roads Must Roll,” not only in its own crisis of a strike against the road system, but in its “historical” reference to the so-called Functionalists of the 1930s, who supposedly said that any group might rightly exert whatever powers might be inherent in their functions—a fictional sect, but discernibly related to the strikes by public employees which have in fact brought controversy as threats to safety. Civil servants are feared for their potential power as “civil masters,” and we are told that it is a fallacy to suppose that taxes are levied for the benefit of the governed. Societies are allegedly built on procedures for the protection of pregnant women and young children; anything more is a nonessential function of government. The excesses of government are derided with the saying that an elephant is a mouse built to governmental specifications (TEL “Intermission”).
Naturally a foe of big government would execrate such things as secret police, thought control, and torture, and all these are duly deplored in “If This Goes On—” which appeared so early (in 1940) that we cannot attribute its Orwellian features to influence from 1984. Heinlein's Grand Inquisitor, as he is called in this story, is similar to the minions of the Ministry of Love in 1984, and his Prophet is somewhat like Big Brother in the latter story. It appears that 1984's concepts are derived to some extent from the dystopian novel of the Russian Evgeni Zamiatin, We, which appeared in the first years after the Bolshevik Revolution. We can relate the authoritarian features of the Heinlein story to We; certainly Zamiatin's dictator, the “Benefactor,” is comparable to the Prophet, for example. However, we will stop short here of a direct attribution of “If This Goes On—” to influences from We.
What about the power of the state to make war or to conscript soldiers? Heinlein seems to affirm the first but to reject the second. He writes, “You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don't ever count on having both at once” (TEL “Intermission”). That is given in a piece of fiction, but his Gazette Telegraph ad cited above contained the same idea. On the other hand, he says that “no state has an inherent right to survive through conscript troops and, in the long run, no state ever has” (TEL “Intermission”). Consistent with this is the national, or rather, imperial defense portrayed in Starship Troopers, where the system is quite militaristic, but all service is voluntary.
Concerning the right to make a revolution against unjust authority, Heinlein certainly believes in it, rather in the spirit of the American Declaration of Independence. Many of his plots contain such endeavors, presented as virtuous actions. On the other hand, we also find examples of unpleasant militarists who try to grab power. For example, in “The Long Watch” the coup is attempted by officers who feel that it is “not safe to leave control of the world in political hands; power must be held by a scientifically selected group.” Accordingly, the plotters will strike from the Moon, bombing “an unimportant town or two” on Earth to promote their coup. The hero of the story, Lieutenant Dahlquist, sacrifices his life to abort this foul attempt.14
An ample set of Heinlein political ideas is found in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress because in this novel the narrative centers on the efforts of the people in Earth's settlements on the Moon to achieve independence. We are told here that, as with many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonization projects on Earth, the original settlers consisted for some time of convicts or transportees. By the twenty-first century, however, when independence becomes an effective cause, the lunar complaints do not focus on a lack of personal freedoms. To be sure there are many constraints on individuals, but they are due mostly to the harsh realities of the struggle to live on “Luna,” as it is called here. The grievances are mostly financial, like those of the American colonies in 1776.
The Lunar Authority, a corporation-like entity, conducts the commerce between Earth and Luna, setting the prices at which materials are sold to Luna and at which the products of the Moon are purchased. Since the lunar settlers consider the former prices to be too high, and the latter too low, they desire independence, so that they may negotiate more equitable terms. This aim they have in common, whether they are the descendants of American, Russian, or Chinese settlers. We read that “Great China,” a greatly expanded version of the China of 1976, took most of Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Mongolia, and Siberian regions, deporting many of the inhabitants to the Moon.15
This book contains a lot of background information on lunar society and customs, which vary from earthly modes, chiefly because a chronic shortage of women has led to new forms of family structure and to courtship patterns in which the woman makes very free choices of her friends and affiliations (MIHM 3 and 11). Most significant for us, however, are the political philosophy and political aspirations expressed by the leading characters here. Since they are also the leaders of the independence movement, they are obliged to enunciate their aims and methods at some length. Two leaders in particular say a great deal about the desirable political forms for the future independent Luna; these men are Manuel O'Kelly Davis, a computer expert who narrates the novel, and Professor Bernardo de la Paz, his revolutionary collaborator who is to become head of the fledgling government of Luna. “Prof,” as the latter is usually called here, expresses the more complex or academic aspects of the political thought, while Manuel represents the more everyday, straight-forward views of the man of action. Lastly, the conspirators confer with an elaborate computer which is able to vocalize. The computer, known as “Mike,” becomes their friend and collaborator, contributing to their planning his more-than-human logical analysis of all problems, including the political questions. We may take it that these three parties, taken together, express the Heinlein political thought as presented in this novel.
Of course the lunar revolutionary organization is initially authoritarian because of the need to conceal the identities of its conspirators. A cell-like organization is developed, so that if a member is taken prisoner, or is a traitor, he can betray only two or three other members. Under such conditions, naturally there can be no extensive voting or consultation. Even so, the leading conspirators are broad-minded when it comes to comparing the political philosophies of capitalism, socialism, and so on. As the professor puts it, “Private where private belongs, public where it's needed, and an admission that circumstances alter cases.” He goes on, however, to identify himself as a rational anarchist, one who believes that government can only exist really in the acts of self-responsible individuals. Blame and responsibility can only repose in single persons, he says. As an anarchist, he is willing to accept any rules that his associates feel are necessary to their freedom, and yet if he finds a rule too obnoxious he will break it (MIHM 6).
Sometimes bits of anarchism, natural law, and lunar custom are blended in this novel. The lunar customs are natural laws, says Manuel, because they are the ways people must act to stay alive. The customs have been the chief regulator of behavior. Formal laws have not been issued, only some “do or don't”-type regulations from higher authority. But all this is the status quo. What do our protagonists wish to enact when they seize power? First there is a denunciation by Manuel of busybodies who would regulate details of morals, personal habits, and the like. He muses that there must be a yearning deep in the human heart to keep others from doing as they please, usually expressed with a pious but faulty allegation that the rule is for the good of those who will be regulated (MIHM 11 and 14).
When the Luna Declaration of Independence is issued, appropriately enough, on July 4, 2076, there is much discussion as to the rights which should be guaranteed to all citizens, but the matter is left unsettled here. As for the newer rights of twentieth-century America, Heinlein includes a dialogue which may indicate a distaste for these, although perhaps he means only that under lunar conditions these would be inappropriate. We are told that on the Moon individuals pay for their medical care, their libraries, and for what education they happen to want. The narrator says he isn't sure what social security really is, but there is none on Luna.
With the formation of a Constitutional Convention on Luna to work out a detailed constitutional statement, the professor is stimulated to write some lengthy advice for that body, including the following significant points:
After warning the Convention how great are the dangers of losing freedom to a government, the professor warns against trusting time-honored methods, such as representative bodies based on geographic division. He suggests electing from other constituencies, such as age groups, or electing all members at large. He would even consider electing the candidates who got the least number of votes, as a safeguard against tyranny. Another possibility is to be selection by petition, giving office to each person who garners a certain number of citizens who support him—a method which would give every citizen a representative of his choice. As a further safeguard of freedom, the professor urges the conferees to “accentuate the negative.” Let them forbid their government to do a number of things: to conscript men, to interfere with freedom of press, speech, assembly, travel, religion, education, or occupation. Let there be no involuntary taxation! Fearing the growth of a powerful government, he would keep it small indeed by limiting its revenues to voluntary contributions and income from lotteries and other noncoercive operations (MIHM 15, 17, and 22).
If there is a one-word summation of this voluntarism and desire for minimal government, with much distrust of the benefits of government welfare programs and the like, it is expressed here by the title of Book Three of this book: “TANSTAAFL!” This stands for “There ain't no such thing as a free lunch,” and it is reiterated a number of times, leaving no doubt that the author wishes to emphasize it. In conclusion, a pessimism about man as a political animal emerges at the end of this novel when we learn that the framers of the new government of Luna adopted none of the professor's ideas. Manuel, too, was disappointed at the interferences with freedom which were generated by the new government, and he concluded that there “seems to be a deep instinct in human beings for making everything compulsory that isn't forbidden.” At the story's end Manuel considered going out to the Asteroids, where there would be some nice places, “not too crowded,” a sentiment reminiscent of the pioneering spirit of the American past, wherein the frontiersman went out beyond the settled lands to escape constraints (MIHM 30).
RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE CITIZENRY
To quite an extent, the rights and roles of citizens may be complementary to the roles of governmental authorities, and thus the functions of citizens have already been delimited or implied in what we adduced concerning the executive operations. However, let us see what further perspectives can be derived by looking at these matters from the citizens' point of view. Particularly let us consider the position of women now; on equal rights for women the author's inclination appears to have been reasonably equitable, and not merely in recent years when the women's rights movement has made this a fashionable and natural thing for writers to advocate.
In “Delilah and the Space-Rigger,” which came out in 1949, Tiny Larsen, construction superintendent on Space Station One, accepts a woman electronics engineer for his team. At first he objects vociferously and contemptuously, mostly because he fears for the welfare and efficiency of his group if women are added. Soon, however, finding that the lady engineer does a good job, that she is accepted by the men, and that morale actually improves, he changes his tune and proposes to add a number of female personnel to his group. Perhaps these criteria are more functional and expedient than idealistic matters of equity, but the result was, in this story, a much more liberal situation than one could find in either trade unions or in business and the professions back in 1949.16
Later, in Time Enough for Love, the narrator reminisces about the twentieth-century United States Navy, observing that there was no job in it which could not be performed by either sex, despite which it remained heavily male in its staffing in the first six decades, at least, of that century (TEL “Variations on a Theme II”). Midway between these two stories, Starship Troopers in 1959 provided many references to women in many sorts of roles of leadership, active combat service, and even command of ships, in the space navy. The honors, status, and formal precedence given to female officers here are certainly equal. Also, it is important to note that the juxtaposition of the two sexes on spaceships, even on long voyages or in time of hostilities, is not shown as awkward and troublesome. Women are omitted only from service as combat infantry; on the ships, however, they participate in the hazards of violent death or injury in action. The author does not glaze over or ignore the little social problems or emotional reactions that would come from the propinquity of the sexes in a military force; he handles it realistically.
The same even-handed realism is evident throughout the interracial encounters under intimate and trying circumstances which are an important part of Farnham's Freehold. Rights for black citizens are not an especially frequent topic in Heinlein's fiction, but in this novel he takes on the problems of racial relationships in a low-key manner. Again, there is no glossing over of the nonwhite characters. They have faults, they do some awful things, they can be either gentle or arrogant; in short they are fairly typical human beings. In the future world postulated here, where blacks are the race in charge, the novel could have made an Uncle Tom's Cabin in reverse, but it did nothing of the kind.
There are, it is true, many stories in which this writer, as others in science fiction, contemplates a yellow peril—invasions from Asia, cruel Oriental overlords, and the like. Let us leave these to be considered as matters of hypothetical international relations of the future. Opinion will differ, but these situations could be defended as realistic, or at least as one man's attempt to project a not-altogether-fantastic future development. Nor does he follow the tradition of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. In those creations, the reader may recall, the Red Mongol overlords of Rogers' day went out of their way to kidnap Buck's beloved Wilma; her seduction was recurrently one of their prime objectives. Similarly, Flash's girl, Dale, got a lot of attention from the oversexed minions of the fiendish Ming the Merciless. In Heinlein, on the other hand, the Oriental attackers, while quite unpleasant, as invaders will be always, appear largely as businesslike operators; their dislike or scorn for the other side and the other races is not lurid or unusual.
The author's views on modes of sexual relationships reflect primarily his generally broad view of rights. The authorities, and indeed people as a whole, should mind their own business and be tolerant. In Time Enough for Love this has been given more play, presumably in response to new popular feelings in the Western world, the “new morality,” and such factors which naturally condition the products of a great many writers. The hero of the novel thought that laws on marriage were unnecessary (TEL “Variations on a Theme XIV”).
The general rights of the citizen were particularly broad in the society sketched out in Coventry. The people were not forbidden to do anything unless it damaged another person. If they did commit such damaging acts they were required to submit to a program of psychological readjustment administered by the authorities, to render the offenders more innocuous. If a person refused the program he was obliged to leave the society entirely, by passing through a force field or barrier to the region beyond it, which was external to the society, inhabited by such exiles or pariahs, unsupervised by the government. We find this concept of largely leaving people alone extended to risky undertakings—the government should not forbid these either. This is expressed in the story called “Requiem,” where a character declares that it is not “‘the business of this damn paternalistic government to tell a man not to risk his life doing what he really wants to do.’”17
More specific rights enunciated by Heinlein's characters include the privilege of bearing arms and the concomitant arrangement that the police should not be too strong: “The police of a state should never be stronger or better armed than the citizenry. An armed citizenry, willing to fight, is the foundation of civil freedom.” The words here show some resemblance to those of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which says that the right of citizens to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed because the armed militia is essential to the security of a free state. Many of the other “Bill of Rights”-type immunities would result indirectly from the approach Heinlein advocated in his speech at the World Science Fiction Convention in Seattle, in 1961. He would not put anyone in jail, conscript anyone, or otherwise subject him to involuntary servitude, nor would he suppress or conceal information.18
In Starship Troopers and some other stories the citizenry is certainly not free from what Americans in recent times have come to think of as cruel and unusual punishment; in fact all inhabitants, whether citizens or not, and whether in the armed forces or not, are subject in Starship Troopers to flogging, as a punishment for a variety of offenses. We are told that twentieth-century America found itself so endangered because of lax handling of its offenders that life became insufferably dangerous, and there was finally public support for corporal punishment. Flogging was not reserved for rare and horrible crimes; drunken driving got the offender something in excess of ten lashes. The underlying rationale is stated here, that man does not have a moral instinct, as the people of the twentieth century thought; he has simply a cultivated conscience—thence the importance of exemplary or deterrent punishments (ST 8).
Nowhere is the doctrine of rights being coordinate with responsibilities applied more straightforwardly than in the Starship Troopers situation, where one must earn the franchise and citizenship through national service—largely military, but not necessarily in a combat arm. The veterans-only government came into being after a prisoner-of-war foul-up following a war with the “Chinese Hegemony,” and is considered efficacious because all those admitted to citizenship have, in the service, placed group welfare ahead of their personal advantage; they have at least made some sacrifices for the nation. A noncitizen cannot enter politics, but he is not persecuted, and he may be very successful in the private sector. The hero's father has a prosperous business, though he is not a citizen at the beginning of the novel. Some other key roles are reserved for citizens; only they may teach the secondary-level course called “History and Moral Philosophy,” because of its importance in shaping the outlooks of young people. A single enlistment of a few years is usually enough to qualify for the franchise, but those who sign up for the career service may run into trouble in this regard if they do not finish twenty years' service.
Some debate is possible as to whether this situation would be in substance an infringement on a truly volunteer service, since there are distinct liabilities attached to those who don't volunteer. Another objection might be that a government of veterans only could be a little one-sided, or even jingoistic. Nevertheless this system would indeed coordinate privileges with responsibility in a significant way (ST 4, 6, 11, and 12).
Starship Troopers gives most of its attention to the career of an enlistee in the Mobile Infantry, an interstellar personal combat force which resembles most closely the United States Marines. The volunteer's life is manifestly regimented to a high degree; his rights and his scope for freedom of action are very limited. However, he has volunteered for this situation. Therefore even this novel is quite consistent with the Heinlein position on the individual vis-à-vis the various political philosophies, which is most comprehensively stated as follows:
Political tags—such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth—are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.
(TEL “Second Intermission”)
ECONOMICS AND BUSINESS
The Heinlein general theory on economics is in a way a laissez-faire theory, derived from the views on minimal government and individual freedom which we have already considered. The reason for hedging with the words “in a way” in the preceding sentence is that in many of his stories the economic units or corporate entities are so large that it may be uncertain whether there would be much free economics, much individual discretion, or much random marketplace action left. It is somewhat the same question we behold on the real Earth of the present, but with many, many planets involved, the capacity for impersonal bigness is unavoidably increased.
A basic dictum already noted, “There ain't no such thing as a free lunch,” has obvious implications in the area of economics. Starship Troopers applies much the same concept specifically to the democratic nations of the twentieth century, looking back regretfully at them to note that they collapsed because the people thought that they could “vote for whatever they wanted … and get it, without toil …” (ST 6). In a more recent novel, the author says the same thing, and says it in the form of an aphorism, in a list of sayings recorded by the hero. That is a fairly gratuitous utterance, not really needed for the novel, so it may be taken as authentic author-opinion: “Anything free is worth what you pay for it” (TEL “Second Intermission”).
There are also economic corollaries to the Darwinian thought which Heinlein echoes repeatedly, and to his thoughts about the frontier. From The Door into Summer we have “Competition is a good idea—Darwin thought well of it” (12). Of course the brilliant and ingenious inventor found in that novel, and in several others, emerged as a natural type to succeed in a free enterprise system. Another hero manages easily to found a bank, not a deed readily accomplished by individuals in mid-twentieth-century America, but not so hard to do in a frontier-like settlement, as in the story of Lazarus Long. Even there, the development of a more meddlesome government menaces Lazarus' bank with nationalization, to his annoyance but not to his surprise. He indulges then in a dialogue on the worthlessness of paper money, denouncing fools who expect that governments will be able to guarantee both plentiful money and favorable prices. What is more, the hero recalls that he has been many times wealthy during his long life, but always lost the wealth, usually by governments inflating the economy, thus depreciating the currency, or even by outright confiscation. “Princes … don't produce, they always steal,” he declares (“Variations on a Theme XII” and “III”).
Clearly Heinlein is in favor of letting the law of supply and demand operate; he says that no one has improved on it. He does not accept Marx's value theory, finding it illogical. Really, he opines, value to man is either what he can do with a thing or what he does to get it. His disapproval of idealistic theorists extends also to those who would abolish poverty, which is the normal condition of man throughout history. Poverty is occasionally conquered temporarily, he believes, only because a tiny, creative minority scores an advance, but before long that minority is once again inhibited by its society and poverty is restored.
As for idealists who extol nature and deplore any artificialities or interferences by man with animals or natural conditions, the author reminds those silly people that man, too, is part of nature, stating that he himself prefers dams built by Homo sapiens to those made by beavers. The “naturalists” hate themselves, he says, and are contemptible (ST and TEL “Variations on a Theme III” and “Intermissions”). We infer from this, then, that if interference with entrepreneurs were not already out because of laissez-faire beliefs, certainly interference in the name of nature or preservation of the wilderness would be taboo.
Most of the interpretations of international relations in this literature will be found in the events which are projected for the future, or what was the future when the stories were written. These projections are meaningful enough, despite the element of imagination in them, because they reflect the writer's estimate of what might happen, and because those projections were selected by him, out of the infinite number of conceivable future contingencies.
First, however, it is possible to point out a few ideas which partake of the nature of general observations on the relations of nations. One of these is war. Heinlein is of course no pacifist; he finds pacifism almost inconceivable in a male, and apparently believes that many pacifists are not completely against war or violence, just selectively opposed. This author is not enamored of militaristic warmongers either, preferring to consider war proper only when it is more or less necessary. Violence, likewise, is not endorsed beyond the levels which are needed for approved purposes. In Starship Troopers, for instance, we read that “‘war is controlled violence, for a purpose. … The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him … It's never a soldier's business to decide when or where or how—or why …’” (ST 5). The Mobile Infantrymen of this novel are outfitted with exceedingly versatile powered armor which renders each user far more mobile and destructive than individual infantrymen as we have known them. By virtue of this powerful equipment, we are told admiringly, the fighter is able to make war more selectively, even in a personalized manner, eschewing indiscriminate, mass destruction (ST 7).
That laudable standard is shortly disregarded, one gathers, first by the declaration that the Mobile Infantry raid then in progress had “frightfulness” as an aim. (Frightfulness is the translation of the German term Schrecklichkeit.) Even in undertaking to be frightful, however, the narrator reassures us that one is not supposed to kill unless he has to (1). That is puzzling, but ten pages later it is clarified somewhat when the infantryman reports that he threw a “thirty-second bomb” into a churchlike room full of the enemy people—it being quite doubtful that they could all get out of there before the device exploded, in half a minute's time. Also, in the same raid, fire was liberally engendered in the area, so that “much of the city was burning,” with a not-so-selective loss of life (ST 1).
So far as the projection of specific near-future wars with familiar, terrestrial nations is concerned, Heinlein has often reflected the common anticipations of the American public in the years of the respective stories. “The Year of the Jackpot” appeared in 1952, a year when the United States was at war and when there was widespread fear of all-out war with Russia. Thus it is not an especially fanciful or pessimistic author who builds into this story a reference to World War III, with the Soviet Union, as an accomplished fact—a war in which there were “forty cities gone.”19
Five years after that story there appeared The Door into Summer, in 1957. When it was being written, the advent of the first artificial satellite had not yet occurred, but the programs in America and Russia for development of rockets that could put satellites into orbit, or which could carry atomic missiles from one continent to another, all these matters were familiar to intelligent and well-informed men like the author. Consequently, with Cold War nervousness about as keen as it has been in 1952, it was natural enough that The Door into Summer projected the following series of events as having taken place by 1970: another great war, many little ones, the downfall of communism, the Great Panic, the artificial satellites, and the change to atomic power (1). It was in the year after the publication of this novel that the author's Gazette Telegraph advertisement warned against agreements with the Russians on limitation of atomic testing, cautioning that unless such a treaty included provisions for on-the-spot inspection the United States would be unable to learn about secret Soviet tests.
So much for apprehensions concerning the USSR. Another continuing anxiety was that China would be ever stronger and more aggressive. Sixth Column appeared in 1941 and was later issued as The Day After Tomorrow. It projected a sequence of events in which China absorbed India and Japan. The Americans, thinking that the USSR would keep busy with the Asian expansionists, taking care of them, ignored the whole thing. The Russians lost out and then the U.S.A., with its chronically bad intelligence services, stumbled into war with the PanAsians, as the Chinese came to be called after their conquests. A preemptive Chinese strike with devastating weapons kept the Americans from using their own arsenal, and PanAsia occupied the U.S.A. After the blow fell, one of the characters in the novel mused, “What would it be like, this crazy new world—a world in which the superiority of western culture was not a casually accepted ‘Of course’ … ?”20 The Oriental occupation, as described herein, had many of the features which a later generation came to see in practice, during the consolidation of communist power in Cambodia in the 1970s—registration and close control of all persons, relocation of massive numbers to work camps, executions, mandatory permits for all sorts of routine matters.
The later novel Starship Troopers is another of the examples of references to war with China. In this case, the reference is only a passing one; in connection with a later struggle with an insectoid empire, the narrator suggests that the nation should have foreseen the communal strength of the Bugs by recalling the grief given to the “Russo-Anglo-American Alliance” by the “Chinese Hegemony,” which was another case of a collective mass in which the individual wills were submerged (ST 11).
These then are the principal themes of foreign relations as reflected in the Heinlein stories. There are other examples, of course, but these examples should suffice to indicate the author's focal points.
To sum up the political and social thought of a prolific writer is a difficult proposition, all the more challenging if the author's products have been rather diversified and have evolved and developed over the years. One may note, however, that the evolution of Heinlein has been mostly a matter of natural maturation, skill in the handling of new elements, and new responses to changing public tastes, to new moods among the readers. It is very much the same man there behind the writing desk, with pretty much the same core of fundamental ideas.
There are surely contradictions and dilemmas implicit in the content of the Heinlein stories. Contradictions are manifestly a vital part of the life of people in groups under any circumstances. There is, notably, the tension between liberty and leadership. There is the problem of the dutiful and devoted servant of mankind, who can hardly avoid the natural tendency of power to corrupt those who wield it. The author has had a lot to say about duty and responsibility, which he regards as a cement of proper societies, but he knows that the distance is not so great as one might suppose between the humble and the despotic, between the puritanical and the libertine. Minimal government is preferred, but so frequently we end up with gigantic empires or corporations. Still, the Heinlein “good guys” do strike back at unwholesome centers of power.
We have found contradictions also between a humane and peaceable outlook, on the one hand, and a readiness for war, on the other. One finds sometimes even an affirmation that war is part of the natural order of things, not to mention a countenancing of widespread destruction and loss of many innocent lives when this is “strategically necessary.” Also, in this future fiction, it is not surprising to find a gap between the author's indubitably keen concern for the preservation of maximal individual liberties and privacy, on the one hand, and the grim promise of the new electronic age, on the other. We face, and have to some extent already experienced in real life, the great potential of surveillance gadgetry, as well as computerized processing of data, to carry on the “full coverage” of individuals which the fictional accounts often include.
Our author, in his comments on political and social affairs, has frequently been passionate, emphatic, or categorical. Seldom does he stray for long, however, from a correspondingly strong element of the logical, methodical, and scientific. These components are not confined to the scientist's workshop, but emerge in this literature to guide the development of mankind.
Robert A. Heinlein, The Door into Summer (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1975), (12).
Franz Rottensteiner, The Science Fiction Book (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 100.
Heinlein, Farnham's Freehold (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1971), (2); Beyond This Horizon (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1974), (2), (10).
Heinlein, Starship Troopers (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1968), hereafter referred to in text as ST.
Time Enough for Love (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1974), (Introduction, “Prelude I,” “Variations on a Theme XIV”), hereafter referred to in text as TEL; “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” (8), (12), in The Past Through Tomorrow (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1975); “Logic of Empire,” in The Past Through Tomorrow.
Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder (Chicago: Advent, 1967), 84-85.
Heinlein, Waldo & Magic, Inc. (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1970), 76-77, 186.
“If This Goes On—,” (6), in The Past Through Tomorrow, hereafter referred to in text as ‘ITGO.’
Heinlein, Podkayne of Mars (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1975), (4).
Heinlein, Glory Road (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1970), (20).
Heinlein, “Gulf,” in Assignment in Eternity (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1970).
Heinlein, “Coventry,” in The Past Through Tomorrow.
Heinlein, “Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults, and Virtues,” in The Science Fiction Novel, Basil Davenport et al. (Chicago: Advent, 1969), 44-45.
Heinlein, “The Long Watch,” in The Past Through Tomorrow.
Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1968), (2), hereafter referred to in text as MIHM.
Heinlein, “Delilah and the Space Rigger,” in The Past Through Tomorrow.
Heinlein, “Requiem,” in The Past Through Tomorrow.
Heinlein, Beyond This Horizon, (9); Alexei Panshin, Heinlein in Dimension (Chicago: Advent, 1968), 185.
Heinlein, “The Year of the Jackpot,” (3), in The Menace from Earth (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1970).
Heinlein, The Day After Tomorrow (New York: New American Library, Signet Books, 1975), (1).
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14860
SOURCE: Franklin, H. Bruce. “From Depression into World War II: The Early Fiction.” In Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, pp. 17-63. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
[In the following essay, Franklin discusses the defining characteristics of Heinlein's early short fiction.]
“—during the '30's almost everyone, from truck driver to hatcheck girl, had a scheme for setting the world right in six easy lessons; and a surprising percentage managed to get their schemes published.”
—Robert Heinlein, “The Roads Must Roll,” June 1940
In 1938 the atom was split. That did not seem such big news to many people, for in 1938 the Japanese were extending their invasion of China, the Italian Fascist army was trying to wipe out the stubborn partisan resistance in Ethiopia, Franco's forces opened their decisive offensive against the Loyalist government of Spain, Franco's ally Adolf Hitler invaded Austria, and Czechoslovakia was divided up by Germany, Hungary, and Poland. In early 1939, the Soviet Union crushed an attempted invasion by Japan. In late 1939, Germany successfully invaded Poland. At some point, World War II had begun.
Meanwhile, in April of 1939, the New York World's Fair opened, in futuristic splendor, with visions of “the World of Tomorrow” presented by hundreds of corporations and dozens of states and countries. The Long Island Railroad promised to take you there swiftly from Manhattan: “From the World of Today to the World of Tomorrow in ten minutes for ten cents.” Four months later, in a world plunging from the Great Depression into a global holocaust, Astounding Science-Fiction printed Robert Heinlein's first story.
Heinlein's first three published stories are all celebrations of the individual genius—lonely, misunderstood, but leading humanity forward to new frontiers of time and space. This lone superior individual, alienated but true to his own unprecedented destiny, is to become the central character-type of Heinlein's fiction for the next third of a century.
The hero of “Life-Line” (August 1939), his first story, is Dr. Hugo Pinero, the kind of lonely scientific genius who had haunted the pages of nineteenth-century science fiction from Victor Frankenstein through H. G. Well's Time Traveller. Pinero has invented a marvelous machine that determines with chilling accuracy the time of a person's death. Ridiculed by the scientific establishment, but hailed by the media as “The Miracle Man from Nowhere,” he sets up a lucrative business, “Sands of Time, Inc.,” so successful that it begins to threaten the profits of the giant insurance corporations.
Determined to crush the little upstart, Amalgamated Life Insurance attempts to destroy Dr. Pinero's business with an injunction. But they encounter a judge who delivers a most revealing lecture, obviously expressing the views of Robert Heinlein, whose family's farm-equipment business had been superseded by an emerging monopoly and whose own recent small-business ventures had been unable to compete, in this era of life-and-death struggle between corporate monopoly and small enterprise. This judge denounces the “strange doctrine” that because a “corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest.” He denies the demand of Amalgamated Life Insurance “that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.”
Like many in his social class, Heinlein clung tenaciously to the belief that the main vehicle of progress was free enterprise, a vehicle sometimes willfully sabotaged by the giant corporations. This is an overt theme in several of his stories during this period. In “Life-Line,” Amalgamated Life Insurance shows its true nature after it is frustrated in court: it hires gangsters who carry out their assignment of murdering Dr. Pinero and wrecking his wonderful equipment. Then the leading scientists, earlier labeled by Pinero the “Barbarians! Imbeciles!” who “have blocked the recognition of every great discovery since time began,” fulfill their part on the job by burning all the documentary evidence of Pinero's brilliant results.
Although the corporations and the academic establishment are the main enemy of the lone genius in “Life-Line,” Pinero expresses as much scorn for “the little man in the street” as for “you little men” of the Academy of Science. Yet despite all this exaltation of rugged individualism, there is a detectable countercurrent: a yearning to be part of a collective, a yearning so intense that it threatens to overwhelm individual identity. Pinero's theory and his machine are based on the assumption that each individual life is a continuity in space-time that can be compared to “a long pink worm, continuous through the years.” In explaining his theory, Pinero argues that these pink worms are not, despite all appearance to the contrary, really discrete individuals:
“As a matter of fact there is a physical continuity in this concept to the entire race, for these pink worms branch off from other pink worms. In this fashion the race is like a vine whose branches intertwine and send out shoots. Only by taking a cross-section of the vine would we fall into the error of believing that the shootlets were discrete individuals.”
This sense of the individual as part of a human collective, organically joined to a death-defying timeless racial identity, is the other side of an unresolved contradiction that branches throughout all of Heinlein's work.
“Misfit,” Heinlein's second story, published in Astounding in November 1939, dramatizes the lone genius as a kind of ugly duckling who, unlike Dr. Pinero, achieves acceptance in the human family. Like “Life-Line,” “Misfit” can also be read as a product of the Depression. In fact, its teenaged hero, Andrew Jackson Libby, is recruited into a twenty-second-century version of the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps. This C.C.C. of the future is the Cosmic Construction Corps, employing young misfits to convert asteroids into space stations.
Libby, “a thin, gangling, blond lad,” turns out to be a supergenius. When the ballistic calculator fails at a crucial moment, Libby takes its place, saving the mission. Like the nineteenth-century science-fiction dime novel, “Misfit” allows its readers to identify with a boy genius who wins the admiration and gratitude of the adult world.
The first of Heinlein's stories with a juvenile hero, “Misfit” foreshadows his juvenile novels of 1947-58.1 In fact, Starman Jones (1953) has an extended replay of Libby's superhuman computations in space. The figure of Libby himself continues to haunt Heinlein's imagination and to appeal to his readers. In Methuselah's Children (1941) Libby single-handedly invents and builds the “space drive” that allows trips into deep space, in this and many later tales. In Time Enough for Love (1973) one of the ritual quests performed by the novel's deathless mythic hero is to voyage backward in time to bury the orbiting body of his old friend Andrew Jackson Libby. In The Number of the Beast—(1980) Libby is resurrected as a beautiful woman, Elizabeth Andrew Jackson Libby Long, cloned from his original body and preserving his memory.
“Misfit” also introduces another theme of growing importance in Heinlein's later fiction: love and interchangeability between a human being and a thinking machine. Libby is assigned to the ballistic calculator, “three tons of thinking metal.” The emotional response of this boy who had never felt “needed” is intense: “He loved the big machine. … Libby subconsciously thought of it as a person—his own kind of person.”
The lone genius in Heinlein's third story, “Requiem” (Astounding, January 1940), is Delos D. Harriman, an old man about to die. Bearing the name of the nineteenth-century railroad magnate, Harriman is the crafty, visionary, ruthless, heroic capitalist who has (as we learn in a later story) almost single-handedly built “the Company” that all by itself explored and colonized the moon; he has also created the Harriman Foundation which finances space travel in many later tales. Prohibited by rules laid down by the bureaucracy of “this damn paternalistic government” and his own company from traveling to the moon, Harriman nevertheless roguishly buys his final trip to die on that remote place of his youthful dreams.
In describing these dreams, Harriman eloquently paints a picture of the boys and young men who made pre-World War II science fiction—both those who read it and those who wrote it. This picture is a wonderful self-portrait of Robert Heinlein:
“… I believed—I believed. I read Verne and Wells and Smith, and I believed that we could do it—that we would do it. I set my heart on being one of the men to walk the surface of the Moon, to see her other side, and to look back on the face of the Earth, hanging in the sky.”
“… I just wanted to live a long time and see it all happen. I wasn't unusual; there were lots of boys like me—radio hams, they were, and telescope builders, and airplane amateurs. We had science clubs, and basement laboratories, and science-fiction leagues—the kind of boys that thought there was more romance in one issue of the Electrical Experimenter than in all the books Dumas ever wrote. We didn't want to be one of Horatio Alger's get-rich heroes either; we wanted to build space ships.”
For these technologically oriented boys and men, stimulated by the visions of science fiction, technology tends to be the focus of romance, love, and even sex. Harriman's wife “had not shared his dream and his need.” As he dozes on his voyage to the moon, he imagines her voice calling “Delos! Come in from there! You'll catch your death of cold in that night air.” The ship itself seems more alluring: “He noted with a professional eye that she was a single-jet type with fractional controls around her midriff.” He scans her controls “lovingly”; “Each beloved gadget was in its proper place. He knew them—graven in his heart.” On the voyage he finds himself between two sensual beauties:
The Moon swung majestically past the viewport, twice as wide as he had ever seen it before, all of her familiar features cameo-clear. She gave way to the Earth as the ship continued its slow swing, the Earth itself, as he had envisioned her, appearing like a noble moon, eight times as wide as the Moon appears to the Earthbound, and more luscious, more sensuously beautiful than the silver Moon could be.
Throughout Heinlein's fiction, Earth is beautiful only when viewed from a distance, when people and their civilization cannot be seen.
Despite the vision of “the World of Tomorrow” projected by the 1939 World's Fair, the Depression had shattered the dreams of millions of Americans. Looking back, we can see that this economic catastrophe signaled the collapse of the free-enterprise system, which was rapidly being replaced by monopoly and state capitalism as the dominant form of the American political economy. Robert Heinlein's social and political outlook was shaped within this historical drama. Again and again throughout his writing career, we see him posing the old beliefs in “free trade” and “free enterprise” against the growing monopolies and bureaucracies of the giant corporations and the state controlled by these impersonal forces.
In the pre-World War II stories, the struggle often takes the classic form of the small businessman, the inventor, or the small factory owner fighting directly against the corporate monopolies, which sometimes are seen as already dominating the government. Two striking examples are stories published in 1940, “‘Let There Be Light’” and “The Devil Makes the Law,” the first a hard-core science-fiction tale published in the May issue of Super Science Stories, the second a wild fantasy published in the September Unknown.
The hero of “‘Let There Be Light’” is Dr. Archie Douglas, a young physicist doing research in a laboratory set up in the factory owned by his father. While awaiting a visit from the illustrious biologist Doctor M. L. Martin, Archie tries to pick up a beautiful blonde with a “dumb pan” and a figure like fandancer Sally Rand's. She turns out to be the famous M. L. Martin (“Mary Lou to her friends”) and Heinlein's first significant female character.
Mary Lou, who has been experimenting with the biology of fireflies, teams up with Archie to invent a device to turn electric power into light with minimum power loss. Then Archie's father explains that he is about to be driven out of business by the utility monopoly, which has “bought” both houses of the legislature “body and soul” in order to keep exploiting “power that actually belongs to the people.” So the two geniuses reverse their process and invent a solar power generator, promising “Free power! Riches for everybody!”
Now they have to struggle against the monopoly, whose political and economic power is explained to naïve Archie by worldly-wise Mary Lou, who cites the preface to George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah2 in describing “the combined power of corporate industry to resist any change that might threaten their dividends.” She tells of the ruthless methods industry uses to suppress inventions, including the super carburetor (an American folk legend that I personally have heard from at least a dozen mechanics in different sections of the country), and of the commitment of American industry to produce commodities “just as bad as the market will stand” so that they will wear out as soon as possible. Using feminine wiles to massage his male ego, she attributes their inventions solely to him and warns that “You threaten the whole industrial set-up.”
Since they cannot safely profit from the inventions, Mary Lou proposes that they release the secret to everybody: “Free power! You'll be the new emancipator.” So finally the theme of the lone Promethean genius is blazoned forth in a newspaper headline: “Genius Grants Gratis Power to Public.” The publicly acclaimed Genius of course is Archie, who now persaudes Mary Lou to marry him “to make an honest man of me.” It is interesting to note that the anti-monopoly if not downright anti-capitalist message of this story is expounded by Mary Lou, who allows her own scientific and practical roles to be concealed from the public, and that the story is the first Heinlein published under a pseudonym (Lyle Monroe), thus concealing his own identity from the public.
“The Devil Makes the Law” is, as its title suggests, an allegory. The setting is a typical American town where, as elsewhere in this fantastic world, all the businessmen routinely use magic in their trades, manufacture, and professions. The protagonist is another Archie, Archibald Fraser, Merchant and Contractor in the construction business. His small business, like all the others in town, is threatened by a ruthless monopoly named Magic, Inc. When the businessmen take their struggle to the statehouse, an old “mass of masonry” which “seemed to represent something tough in the character of the American people, the determination of free men to manage their own affairs,” they are dismayed to discover that Magic, Inc. is already in control of their own state government and those of other states across the country.
Archie and his friends—including a small manufacturer who uses witches to produce the garments made in his factory, an African witch-doctor, and a fiercely independent old witch-lady—are forced to take their fight directly to the source of this infernal monopolistic conspiracy: Hell itself. There, with the help of an FBI agent working for the anti-monopoly division and disguised as a demon, they unmask and defeat the boss of the monopoly, one of Satan's own lieutenants.
Heinlein's loathing of monopoly develops into the most radically “left” story of his career, “Logic of Empire,” published in Astounding in March 1941. Here, as in much of his post-World War II fiction, “the Company” has stretched beyond Earth to become an enormous interplanetary monopoly, tyrannizing over farflung colonies which are moving toward a replay of the 1776 American Revolution.
The story begins with two prosperous gentlemen, lawyer Humphrey Wingate and his wealthy friend Sam Houston Jones, whom Wingate accuses of being a “parlor pink,” drinking and arguing about whether the “labor clients” of the Venus Development Company are actually slaves. Wingate vociferously champions the Company, with its “obligations to its stockholders,” and condemns the lazy workers, “a class of people that feel that the world owes them a living.” The argument ends in a drunken decision to sign a contract for six years of indentured labor on Venus, and they wake up incarcerated in a spaceship.
Heinlein then dramatizes the conditions of labor on Venus as a combination of indentured labor in the eighteenth-century American colonies, Black chattel slavery on nineteenth-century American plantations, and wage slavery and debt peonage in the factories and on the farms of twentieth-century America. Once off the spaceship that resembles a slave ship, the “clients” are sold to “patrons” in a slave auction. As soon as Wingate, our point-of-view character, begins laboring on a plantation, the narrative begins to sound like a future version of nineteenth-century narratives of escaped slaves, such as the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. There are overseers, an addictive drink used to narcotize the slaves, and even threats made against recalcitrant slaves “to sell you South” to more “factory-like plantations.” Technically, the status of the Company's “labor clients” most closely resembles a combination of the conditions of the two main groups of workers in pre-World War II America: the debt peonage characteristic of the majority of Black rural workers and the wage slavery typical of mine and factory labor. Wingate discovers “that while he was free theoretically to quit, it was freedom to starve on Venus, unless he first worked out his bounty and his passage both ways.”
Even more devastating is Wingate's discovery that the conditions of labor are deadening his consciousness; in a passage echoing Frederick Douglass's picture of his own degradation, Wingate realizes that “he was becoming one of the broken men,” whose mind is relaxing into “slave psychology.” And like Douglass, Wingate reawakens the freedom of his mind by resolving upon bold action based on the belief that “No slave is ever freed, save he free himself.” So he and two other slaves attack their owner and escape.
The fugitives discover one of the “runaway slave camps,” where they gain admittance by identifying themselves with the code name “Fellow travelers.” This turns out to be the first of many examples in Heinlein's works of a vigorous frontier cultural outpost, the antithesis of the decadent monopolistic tyrannies of Earth. This “rough frontier culture” gives Wingate still another course in his re-education. He is surprised to find “that fugitive slaves, the scum of Earth,” were able to build a viable society, just as “it had surprised his ancestors that the transported criminals of Botany Bay should develop a high civilization in Australia.”
Wingate, now almost totally awakened to social reality, begins writing “a political pamphlet against the colonial system.” He then encounters a character soon to be familiar to Heinlein readers, a cranky old mouthpiece for the author, in this case a university professor fired for his political views (under a pretext very similar to Stanford University's for firing Thorstein Veblen). “Doc” ridicules Wingate's “devil theory”—although the pamphlet seems tame compared with “The Devil Makes the Law”—explaining that “bankers,” “company officials,” “patrons,” and “the governing classes back on Earth” are not “scoundrels” but products of social necessity and their own class outlook: “Men are constrained by necessity, and then build up rationalizations to account for their acts.” Doc gives Wingate a key lesson in Heinlein's economic theory: “Colonial slavery is nothing new; it is the invariable result of imperial expansion, the automatic result of an antiquated financial structure—.” Later, back on Earth, this message is reiterated by Sam Houston Jones, who has bought himself and Wingate out of slavery:
“I've been wondering how long it would take you to get your eyes opened. … It's nothing new; it happened in the Old South, it happened again in California, in Mexico, in Australia, in South Africa. Why? Because in any expanding free-enterprise economy which does not have a money system designed to fit its requirements the use of mother-country capital to develop the colony inevitably results in subsistence-level wages at home and slave labor in the colonies.”
Finally, Wingate, who has renounced “the empty, sterile bunkum-fed life of the fat and prosperous class he had moved among and served,” realizes his inability to produce another Uncle Tom's Cabin or Grapes of Wrath and seems resigned to Sam's pronouncement that “Things are bound to get a whole lot worse before they can get any better.”
Tacked on to the end of “Logic of Empire” is a note from editor John Campbell, informing readers of Astounding that “all of Robert Heinlein's stories are based on a common proposed future history of the world.” Two months later, in May 1941, Astounding printed Heinlein's chart of this future history. Modeled on the charts of macrohistory included in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930), and sharing Stapledon's vision of a spiral of progress moving upward through cyclical rises and falls, Heinlein's chart provided a framework for much of his prewar fiction, an independent display of his historical ideology, and a new pleasure for his growing throng of readers, who could now anticipate the missing pieces of the puzzle. Campbell's introductory essay, “History To Come,” perceptively noted what many subsequent critics have agreed is the most engaging quality of Heinlein's fictions of the future: their sense of being “lived-in,” as opposed to the “stage setting” environments of stories that have to create their future environments from scratch. Heinlein's fans thus had the comfort of entering a somewhat familiar projected history where they could recognize an occasional old friend, while at the same time experiencing the thrill of the unexpected.
Heinlein made minor revisions of this chart of future history until 1967, adding new tales as they were written and occasionally deleting an old one. Most of the stories subsequently included were published before World War II; those eventually added or subtracted made no fundamental change, except to delete references to all years before 1975 and to extend the future from 2140 to 2600. The principal addition was a cluster of nine short stories, published between 1947 and 1950, sketching the early days of space exploration shortly before and after the year 2000. Most of the Future History was published in three volumes: The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950), The Green Hills of Earth (1951), and Revolt in 2100 (1953). In 1967, Heinlein published The Past Through Tomorrow, billed as the “Future History Stories Complete in One Volume,” and including a publisher's note telling how “Heinlein created a gigantic chart—filling an entire wall of his study—to keep track of his future world and the progress of its peoples and civilizations.” The latest revised chart is published in each collection.
Besides itemizing and dating the stories, the chart draws the “life-lines” of some of the characters, prophesies technical development, and provides sociological summaries of the main events in human history for the next centuries. Other works loosely interconnect with the projected future. Gaps are filled in by a postscript to Revolt in 2100 called “Concerning Stories Never Written” and by the novel Time Enough for Love. From the 1941 chart to the latest revision in 1967, the outline of the Future History remains consistent.
In the immediate future lies the “Collapse of Empire” and “the Crazy Years” of the middle twentieth century: “Considerable technical advance during this period, accompanied by a gradual deterioration of mores, orientation, and social institutions, terminating in mass psychoses in the sixth decade, and the Interregnum.” Then comes the strike of 1960, the “False Dawn” of 1960-70, with the first rocket reaching the moon in 1978: “The Interregnum was followed by a period of reconstruction in which the Voorhis financial proposals gave a temporary economic stability and a chance for re-orientation. This was ended by the opening of new frontiers and a return to nineteenth-century economy.” This crucial quest in Heinlein's fiction—for “new frontiers” that will lead back to free-enterprise capitalism—is embodied in the Future History conception by Harriman's Lunar Corporation, the foundation of Luna City, and the development of the “Period of Imperial Exploitation, 1970-2020.” But “the short period of interplanetary imperialism” is ended by three revolutions: Antarctica, the United States, and Venus.
Viewed in the context of the Future History, “Logic of Empire” can be read as a study of the conditions that lead to revolution. At the close of “Logic of Empire,” Sam Houston Jones foresees the rise of “a rabble-rousing political preacher like this fellow Nehemiah Scudder” to overthrow the technocratic monopolies. This important event in the Future History is loosely sketched in “Concerning Stories Never Written.” Scudder's revolt leads to a religious dictatorship in the United States, outlined in the Future History chart: “Little research and only minor technical advances during this period. Extreme puritanism. Certain aspects of psychodynamics and psychometrics, mass psychology and social control developed by the priest class.”
Those words describe the scene at the opening of Heinlein's first long fiction, “If This Goes On—” (Astounding, February, March 1940). The former United States is now under a theocratic dictatorship, headed by the latest incarnation of the Prophet, crushed under the weight of a vast military apparatus, and suppressed by omnipresent secret police, religious zealots employing hypnosis, torture, drugs, and the very latest methods of scientific thought control. Here is a perfect setting for Heinlein to explore what has long been one of his central themes: the relation between cultural conditioning and the possibility of human freedom.
If consciousness is determined by being, including the constantly reinforced values of a particular society or social class—and Heinlein sees all this as fairly obvious—then how is it possible for an individual, a social class, or a people to have true freedom, which depends upon the ability to transcend conditioning in order to arrive at true or at least accurate perception? In “Logic of Empire,” Humphrey Wingate was thrown bodily into the social class whose existence he had so radically misunderstood, and he thus came to transcend the false consciousness of his own affluent class. Heinlein chooses as protagonist and narrator of “If This Goes On—” a stolid, loyal, naïve young graduate of West Point, assigned to guard duty near the center of government at New Jerusalem. The story of the revolution is unfolded through the developing revolutionary consciousness of this one young man, John Lyle. But the problem remains, as we shall see, whether such a radical transformation of perception is possible for the people of the nation.
John Lyle falls in love with Judith, a nun-like Virgin about to be despoiled by the lascivious arch-hypocrite Prophet. It is this romantic attachment that literally drags Lyle to his initiation into the underground revolutionary Cabal. He rescues Judith, resists torture because the Cabal had hypnotically prepared him for it, assumes a new identity, escapes arrest, becomes the chief of staff of the commander in chief in the Cabal's enormous underground general headquarters, and takes command of the final victorious assault on New Jerusalem. Then at the end John Lyle decides to become a common citizen in the new system, marrying Judith and becoming a partner in a textile wholesaling firm.
Lyle had learned the truth about the dictatorship through his personal involvement at its evil core and through a long, intensive re-education administered to him by the Cabal. But what of the mass of ordinary citizens, exposed from birth to a profound superscientific conditioning to accept their slave status under the holy and omnipotent state? How are they to become convinced that all they had believed is false?
This problem is posed directly by a member of the technological elite running the revolution, the “chief of psychodynamics,” who argues that “‘We can seize power, but we cannot hold it!’”:
“Remember, my brothers, no people was ever held long in subjugation save through their own consent. The American people have been conditioned from the cradle by the cleverest and most thorough psychotechnicians in the world to believe in and trust the dictatorship which rules them. Since the suppression of our ancient civil liberties during the lifetime of the first Prophet, only the most daring and individual minds have broken loose from the taboos and superstitions that were instilled in their subconscious minds. If you free them without adequate psychological preparation, like horses led from a burning barn, they will return to their accustomed place.”
[March, p. 134]
This is the same problem faced by Hank Morgan in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, when he attempts to establish a capitalist industrial republic amidst the religious darkness of feudal England. It is also one of the central problems of twentieth-century socialist revolution, which attempts to establish a new form of society, often in lands dominated by the most backward beliefs and most pervasive thought control, such as Russia in 1917, China in 1949, Cuba in 1959.
In “If This Goes On—” Heinlein presents a solution to this intricate problem, one “concocted” by the technological geniuses in the “psychodynamics” section of the Cabal. This plan “to change the psychological conditioning of the people and make them aware that they really had been saved from a tyranny which had ruled by keeping them in ignorance, their minds chained” provides for “readjusting the people to freedom of thought and freedom of action” under the direction of the men from psychodynamics:
They planned nothing less than mass reorientation under hypnosis. The technique was simple, as simple as works of genius usually are.
[March, p. 141]
All that is involved is placing the masses of people under hypnosis and showing them an extremely sophisticated propaganda film. The technique had already been tested, and found “usually” successful:
Usually it had worked, and the subjects were semantically readjusted to a modern nondogmatic viewpoint, but if the subject was too old mentally, if his thought processes were too thoroughly canalized, it sometimes destroyed one set of evaluations without providing him with a new set. The subject might come out of the hypnosis with an overpowering sense of insecurity which usually degenerated into schizophrenia, involute melancholia, or other psychoses involving loss of cortical control and consequent thalamic and subthalamic anarchy.
So the forces of the Cabal “‘had our work cut out for us!’”:
More than a hundred million persons had to be examined to see if they could stand up under quick re-orientation, then re-examined after treatment to see if they had been sufficiently readjusted. Until a man passed the second examination we could not afford to enfranchise him as a free citizen of a democratic state.
[March, p. 141]
There is not the slightest suggestion of the monstrous possibilities inherent in the technological elite's determining who thinks correctly enough to be allowed to vote, and no hint of irony in Lyle's description of their colossal task: “We had to teach them to think for themselves, reject dogma, be suspicious of authority, tolerate differences of opinion, and make their own decisions—types of mental processes almost unknown in the United States for many generations.”
Thirteen years after the original publication of “If This Goes On—” Heinlein revised it extensively for publication in Revolt in 2100. In the new version a cantankerous old man from Vermont, who looked like “an angry Mark Twain,” arises to denounce the proposed mind-conditioning technique:
“Free men aren't ‘conditioned’! Free men are free because they are ornery and cussed and prefer to arrive at their own prejudices in their own way—not have them spoonfed by a self-appointed mind tinkerer! We haven't fought, our brethren haven't bled and died, just to change bosses, no matter how sweet their motives.”3
He goes on, articulating ideas that in the original version had been presented by the head of psychodynamics in a postscript:
“I tell you, we got into the mess we are in through the efforts of those same mind tinkerers. They've studied for years how to saddle a man and ride him. They started with advertising and propaganda and things like that, and they perfected it to the point where what used to be simple, honest swindling such as any salesman might use became a mathematical science that left the ordinary man helpless.”
When challenged to provide a solution, this new avatar of Mark Twain advocates simply restoring the old civil liberties and the franchise to everybody: “‘If they mess it up again, that's their doing—but we have no right to operate on their minds.’” This position certainly seems less dangerous than the one Heinlein had presented without challenge in the 1940 version. However, it merely evades the central problem of this revolution, which according to the logic of the story itself should not be able to succeed and certainly should not be able to establish a new society capable of resisting the very forces that had originally established the tyranny. Heinlein barely covers the confusion by having the old man dramatically drop dead and the Cabal then immediately accept his position. For he remains stuck on the horns of an awkward dilemma that grows from seeing only two choices: either have the elite indoctrinate the people into correct thinking or just pretend that the problem will solve itself. The last words on the subject come from John Lyle: “I don't know who was right.”4
This basic political and philosophic problem will reappear in many forms throughout Heinlein's works, for he will continue to see essentially just two alternatives: either the elite (the good elite) saves the day, which obviously contradicts democratic principles he sometimes espouses, or society succumbs to the ignorance and folly of the masses of common people. His concept of revolutionary social change imagines something created by an elite for the benefit of the people, usually quite temporarily. He seems incapable of believing that progressive social change could come through the development of the productive forces and consequent action by the exploited classes themselves. Thus Heinlein places himself consistently in direct opposition to the most powerful forces of social change in the twentieth century.
According to the chart of the Future History, the elite revolution we witness in “If This Goes On—” does succeed in establishing “The First Human Civilization,” a society implicit in the sequel, Coventry (Astounding, July 1940). The new society is based on “the Covenant,” a social “contract” guaranteeing “the maximum possible liberty for every person.” The Covenant forbids “no possible act, nor mode of conduct” as long as the action does not “damage” another individual. Those who violate the Covenant are not punished; they are allowed to choose between undergoing “psychological readjustment” to remove their tendency to injure other people or being sent to Coventry, a bountiful land reserved for those who refuse to accept the Covenant.
Heinlein's story does not show us life in this rational libertarian utopia, although we learn that science has provided an extremely high standard of living, social harmony prevails, while “danger and adventure” are still available: “there is danger still in experimental laboratories; there is hardship in the mountains of the Moon, and death in the jungles of Venus.” Instead Heinlein shows us life in the tooth-and-claw world of Coventry, the land of exile.
The faith in rugged individualism preached in much of Heinlein's post-World War II writing is here the object of scathing attack. The arrogant, conceited protagonist, David MacKinnon, refuses to accept the mutual obligations that constitute society, yet he whines that society should guarantee him some private property in Coventry. The guard at the Barrier to Coventry scorns him and the other such “rugged individualists”: “‘You've turned down our type of social co-operation; why the hell should you expect the safeguards of our organization?’” As he approaches the gate to Coventry, deluding himself with his quest for a “Crusoe-like independence,” MacKinnon fails to realize that even his personal possessions are the end products of “the cumulative effort and intelligent co-operation” of many people, living and dead.
What he finds in Coventry is a lawless social jungle of vicious predators, as well as a conspiracy to overthrow the society of the Covenant. MacKinnon speedily learns his lesson. He absorbs the virtues of self-sacrifice, and “cures himself” by becoming responsible to an old man known as Fader (father?) and to society. Fader turns out to be an undercover agent of the Covenant society, and he and MacKinnon each manage to return there with warnings of the dangerous plot brewing in Coventry.
A similar message appears in “The Roads Must Roll” (Astounding, June 1940), set in 1970, the period of the “False Dawn” in the Future History. Automobiles have now been replaced by high-speed rolling roads with their own restaurants and stores. The skilled workers who man the great underground apparatus powering the roads follow the leadership of a monomaniac who asks “why we technicians don't just take things over.” Heinlein denounces his ideology, developed from “the Bible of the Functionalist movement,” a treatise “published in 1930,” “dressed up with a glib mechanistic pseudopsychology” and proclaiming that those with the most indispensable function in advanced industrial society ought to be its masters. The fallacy, as Heinlein notes, is that in modern society many different functions are indispensable: “The complete interdependence of modern economic life seems to have escaped him entirely.”
The other Future History story set in this period is “Blowups Happen” (Astounding, September 1940), predicting “the most dangerous machine in the world—an atomic power plant.” Here too the main theme is social responsibility. With so much “responsibility for the lives of other people” in their hands, the atomic engineers in the plant must be selected for their “sense of social responsibility” and then they must be ceaselessly observed by the finest psychiatrists. Even so, there emerges the statistical inevitability of a catastrophic—perhaps world-destroying—accident. The only solution, to place the main power plant in orbit, is vigorously fought by the profit-hungry Board of Directors of the Company (who talk just like the management of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant which came close to a meltdown in 1979). But even they are eventually pressured into accepting a socially responsible role, the breeder reactor is on its way into orbit, and the human race is on its way into space, in ships to be powered by nuclear fuel.
“‘—We Also Walk Dogs’” (Astounding, July 1941) was later included in the Future History chart, someplace around the year 2000. It is the tale of General Services, Inc., “the handy-man of the last century, gone speedlined and corporate,” doing anything its customers ask for, though disdaining “the richly idle” who provide most of the business. Yet even the superefficient operators of General Services, who can arrange to have a lone genius invent an anti-gravity shield on order, become lost in adoring contemplation of the timeless beauty of the Flower of Forgetfulness, a Ming bowl they have lifted from the British Museum.
The climax of the Future History comes in Methuselah's Children (Astounding, July, August, September 1941), which begins with the disruption of the Covenant society in the year 2125, traces Heinlein's history back through all the other Future History stories to a key event in 1874, and ends with the “beginning of the first mature culture” in the middle of the twenty-second century.
Back in 1874, a rich old man, fearing death, establishes the Howard Foundation, designed to breed a strain of humans with extreme longevity. The result is the Howard Families, who clandestinely build their own culture in the United States during the next two and a half centuries until they number over a hundred thousand individuals, led by 183-year-old Mary Risling (revised to Mary Sperling in the 1958 edition and the sequel, Time Enough for Love). The Families have decided to reveal their existence to the larger society, resulting in a frenzy of vicious envy that sweeps aside the Covenant and launches a pogrom aimed at extracting the alleged “secret” of longevity by any means, including the Inquisition of the old religious dictatorship.
Although the individuals in the Families are supposedly of superior intelligence, richly enhanced by extraordinarily long and varied experience, we see most of them incapable of confronting this crisis and acting like “bird-brained dopes” (July, p. 42). So on one hand we witness the citizens of the most humane, rational, libertarian, and scientifically advanced society suddenly metamorphose into a ruthless, snarling horde of beasts, merely because some other people have attained longevity; while on the other hand we see a subsociety, allegedly superior to this superior society (not to mention such inferiors as us), behaving like sheep.
Since, according to Heinlein, the majority of people are incapable of determining their own collective action rationally, there can be only one solution: wise leaders must arise to manipulate the masses for their own good. As the crisis begins to unfold, a new leader of the Families suddenly appears: the most characteristic, enduring, and revealing of all Heinlein's heroes, the daring, individualistic, shrewd, tough, brilliant, resourceful swashbuckler born in 1912 as Woodrow Wilson Smith and now calling himself Lazarus Long.
The wise leader on the other side turns out to be the chief Administrator of the Covenant society, Slayton Ford, a genius at organization (as his last name suggests). Lazarus Long concocts a plan, secretly accepted by Slayton Ford, that decides the fate of the Families. Long's plan is to commandeer an enormous interstellar spaceship and transport every single member of the Families—without their consent—to some planet to be discovered beyond our solar system. Before Ford hears this plan, he himself reluctantly comes to the conclusion that there can be no solution to the problem posed by the existence of the Families, either on Earth or on any planet of our sun:
The only matter as yet unsettled in his mind was the question of whether simply to sterilize all members of the Howard Families or to kill them outright. Either solution would do, but which was the more humane?
[July, pp. 41-42]
These are not the thoughts, mind you, of some sinister maniac, but the calm reflections of a man who is later to be chosen for his wisdom and political incisiveness as the administrative leader of the Families themselves. Nor are these thoughts being published in an historical vacuum. This passage appeared in July 1941, while similar speculations about a “final solution” to the problem posed by the people of a subculture were being considered by the leaders of Germany, Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary, and the other fascist powers. Heinlein himself had already explored, in 1940, the helplessness of the Jews in the concentration camps, as well as the genocidal urges of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, in the short story “Heil!” (Futuria Fantasia, Summer 1940). Zyclon-B, the gas eventually used in the death camps, was already being manufactured by Dow-Badische, the German branch of the Dow Chemical combine.
Ford accepts Long's plan with relief, but a practical question remains: How can all one hundred thousand people of the Families be kept safely in one place until the spaceship is stolen? As the summary in the August 1941 Astounding puts it: “But Long points out that the people of Earth will have to be deceived, or they won't release the Families. The Families must be deceived, or they won't have the necessary swift action and unanimity of movement.” Long comes up with the brilliant solution: Ford is to carry out a “mass arrest” of all the Families and place them in a “concentration camp”! (August, pp. 64, 68).
The spaceship, duly stolen by Lazarus and most aptly named the New Frontiers, is soon off to the stars with all hundred thousand people, powered by a “space drive” single-handedly invented—and built—by Andrew Jackson (“Slipstick”) Libby, the calculating genius of “Misfit.” “The work to be done is too urgent” for elections or other democratic social organization, so “democracy will have to wait on expediency” (August, p. 90). Slayton Ford, with them as a fugitive for his role in the adventure, now becomes their head of internal organization, in charge of a mass “indoctrination campaign” (p. 91), while overall dictatorial authority is invested in the Captain, aptly named Rufus King. Heinlein, with all his love of the first American Revolution, constantly seems drawn back toward the monarchy, at least aboard ship.
Eventually they land on an Earth-like planet inhabited by the Jockaira, a “completely gregarious” race. Everything is fine until they discover that the Jockaira are under the rule of mysterious superhumans they call “the gods,” making them domesticated animals in contrast with the wild beings from Earth. The “gods” literally lift the Families from the planet and send them, using inscrutable forces, thirty-two light years away to a park-like Edenic planet with placid seas, low hills, and calm breezes, inhabited by a race of Little People, apparently gentle, loving telepaths.
The Little People, who seem to be “simply Mother Nature's children, living in a Garden of Eden” (September, p. 147), see no need for buildings, machines, agriculture. “Why struggle so for that which the good soil gives freely?” they ask, and point to many trees bearing Earth's foods, indicating “to eat therefrom” (pp. 146-47). But in fact they are another kind of superior being, “masters in the manipulation of life forms” (p. 148). Though individually they resemble “morons,” it turns out that “the basic unit of their society was a telepathic rapport group of many parts” and “collectively, each rapport group constituted a genius which threw the best minds the Earthmen had to offer into the shade” (pp. 148, 152). These group minds (derived from Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and Star Maker), able to produce scientific marvels “with a degree of co-operation quite foreign to men,” are a challenge to the human essence, as conceived by Heinlein. In searching for an apt comparison, Heinlein again reveals the outlook of his own social class, in his own society, during the late Depression years when the doom of small enterprise and perhaps of the entire system of free-enterprise capitalism was daily becoming more clear. Lazarus thus muses as he confronts the obvious superiority of the Little People:
Human beings could not hope to compete with that type of organization any more than a back-room shop can compete with a factory assembly line. Yet to surrender to any such group identity, even if they could, would be, he felt sure, to give up whatever it was that made them men.
The Families reject and abandon this communal Eden created by collective hyper-science; as Oliver Schmidt puts it, “‘I want to work for my living.’”
A few, however, such as Mary Risling, are seduced into “choosing nirvana—selflessness,” marrying into one of the Little People's groups, “drowning” their “personality in the ego of the many.” And the Little People, using their psychic control of the material world, genetically “improve” a newborn human baby into “a sort of superman,” an hermaphroditic specimen with hoofs, rearranged organs, and many extra fingers, including one ending “in a cluster of pink worms.”
The rest of the humans decide to return to Earth, armed with their newly acquired advanced technology; as Lazarus puts it, “‘We'll be in shape to demand living room; we'll be strong enough to defend ourselves.’” They fly blind, “with nothing but Slipstick Libby's incomprehensible talent to guide them,” and arrive in orbit in the year 2153 prepared to fight for their Lebensraum as a superior race. But there they discover that “Everybody is a Member of the Families now,” for it turned out that biological heredity had very little to do with longevity, the secret being “psychological heredity”: “A man could live a long time just by believing that he was bound to live a long time and thinking accordingly—.” This is as far as the Future History gets, until we meet Lazarus Long again, at the age of 2360, in Time Enough for Love, published thirty-two years later.
An alternative to the flight of the New Frontiers is the voyage of its sister ship, launched several years earlier, described in Universe (Astounding, May 1941). Blindly drifting for centuries in interstellar space after a disastrous mutiny, the Ship has become the Universe of a semifeudal society headed by an autocratic Captain, administered by a class of barely literate priests who call themselves “scientists,” and fed by peasants who work the hydroponic farms around the little villages separated by concentric decks, compartments, and miles of maze-like passageways. “Up” is the direction of lesser weight: toward the interior of this enormous, slowly spinning cylinder. On these relatively weightless levels lurk gangs of cannibalistic mutants, one of whom, the brilliant two-headed Joe-Jim, having read the ancient books and discovered the only viewport, has comprehended the incredible truth: the universe does not end at the lowest level of the Ship, and the Ship itself is moving. In “civilized” society down below, such ideas encountered in the ancient scientific books are dismissed as allegorical romances, and anyone propounding such preposterous heresies is fed, along with mutants, into the Convertor. For, after all: “The Ship can't go anywhere. It already is everywhere.”
Universe is a classic presentation of that critical problem, the impenetrable limits environment places around consciousness, a theme crucial not only for Heinlein and for such science-fiction masterpieces as E. A. Abbott's Flatland, Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and “The Great Dark,” Jorge Luis Borges's “The Library of Babel,” and Christopher Priest's The Inverted World, but for all modern industrial society as technological and social revolutions constantly change the human environment. In the epistemological laboratory presented by Universe, neither the traditional beliefs of the present rulers nor the hard-headed pragmatism of a dissident rationalist bloc who accept only immediate facts can comprehend the stupendous truth of the real universe that lies outside. They are even less capable of breaking out of the prison of the Ship.
The sequel, Common Sense (Astounding, October 1941), is more a minor tale of adventure which concludes with the highly improbable escape of three men, who, along with their chattel wives, manage to land a Ship's “boat” on an Earth-like planetary moon. The story is notable mainly for its political intrigue, the appearance, rare in any Heinlein story, of a Captain who abuses his authority, and the flagrantly derogatory treatment of women, best summed up by the principal hero's injunction, “‘Keep those damned women out of the way.’”
The delusory world of the Ship in Universe is presented as a convincing possibility in a rigorously controlled science fiction in which true science offers the only way out. During this same period, Heinlein was also publishing fantasies of psychological entrapment, paranoia, and solipsism with an emphatic denunciation of science and scientific reasoning. This is not to suggest that he dramatizes one kind of world view in his science fiction, and a contrary one in his fantasy, for, as we shall see, some of his science fiction is just as passionately anti-science. And some of the minor stories of this period show a full range of attitudes toward technology, science, and fantastic imaginings beyond science: “‘—And He Built a Crooked House—’” (Astounding, February 1941), about a four-dimensional house created by an architect and an earthquake; “‘My Object All Sublime’” (Future, February 1942) in which an inventor develops an invisibility device (similar to one in Jack London's “The Shadow and the Flash”) so that he can squirt synthetic skunk juice on offending motorists, which gets him jailed “for everything from malicious mischief to criminal syndicalism”; “Pied Piper” (Astonishing Stories, March 1942) in which a scientific genius stops a war by kidnapping a few hundred thousand children from the enemy nation; “Goldfish Bowl” (Astounding, March 1942), a speculation that there are stratospheric beings to whom we are as goldfish are to us.
The most unrelenting of Heinlein's paranoid fantasies is “They” (Unknown, April 1941), which starkly enacts the dark side of the cult of the lone genius. Most of this story, one crucial to comprehending the meaning and significance of Heinlein's achievement, consists of the anguished musings of a man confined in what seems an insane asylum. He is convinced that the entire material world and all the people in it exist for one purpose only: to deceive him, to keep him from distinguishing their “lies” from the “truth,” which comes to him in dreams. “They,” “the puppet masters,” are merely “swarms of actors”; “they looked like me, but they were not like me.”
Starkly displayed here is the myth of the free individual, so central to Heinlein's fiction and so representative of Western thought since the dawn of the capitalist epoch. The narrator's epistemological predicament, in fact, derives directly from the birth of Cartesian consciousness. He actually reformulates the classical Cogito, ergo sum: “First fact, himself. He knew himself directly. He existed.” Then the evidence of his senses: “Without them he was entirely solitary, shut up in a locker of bone, blind, deaf, cutoff, the only being in the world.” He desperately speculates that the other beings around him might also experience the isolation of the imprisoned ego: “Could it be that each unit in this yeastly swarm around him was the prison of another lonely ego—helpless, blind, and speechless, condemned to an eternity of miserable loneliness?” In Heinlein's later fiction we will see “the agony of his loneliness” re-enacted in many forms.
The other side of this terrifying imprisonment is the narrator's belief in his own transcendent importance: “… I was the center of the arrangements. … I am unique.” He even deduces his own unique god-like immortality: “I am immortal. I transcend this little time axis.” This desire to live beyond and outside one's time will become almost an obsession in the later fiction.
The narrator does vacillate about one person, his wife, who certainly seems to be another human being, one who loves him. But in the end we discover that all his apparently paranoid visions are not delusions at all: New York City and Harvard University are being dismantled as useless props, and “the creature” who pretended to be his human wife requests that the Taj Mahal sequence be arranged as his next deception.
In “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” (Unknown Worlds, October 1942), another paranoid fantasy, our world is merely an immature creation of some aspiring Artist, who has made the mistake of painting us and our environment over an earlier work, “The Sons of the Bird,” evil creatures who now lurk in the world behind mirrors, ready to burst forth into our reality and take possession. Jonathan Hoag is a Critic who has been sent to judge our world to see if it has any aesthetic saving grace or whether it should be obliterated.
Hoag is now in Chicago, which he finds squalid, dismal, and repulsive. Especially distasteful to him are its “coarse and brutal” working-class people. Falling partly under the wicked powers of the Sons of the Bird, Hoag seeks assistance from a married man and woman with their own small business, a detective agency. The husband and wife now find themselves at the center of the evil plot. She is afraid that if they stay on this case they “will find out what it is grown-ups know” and become as unhappy as everybody else. The Sons of the Bird lure the husband into “a small room, every side of which was a mirror—four walls, floor, and ceiling. Endlessly he was repeated in every direction and every image was himself—selves that hated him but from which there was no escape.” This prison of morbid egoism suggests that “the whole world might be just a fraud and an illusion.”
Because of the mutual loyalty of these two devoted small-business people, embodying “the tragedy of human love,” Hoag eventually decides not to destroy our world, merely to correct it by wiping out the Sons of the Bird. He warns the husband and wife to drive away and under no circumstances to open the window of their car. When they momentarily disobey while driving along a crowded Chicago street, they discover that the world they have been perceiving is indeed merely an illusion:
Outside the open window was no sunlight, no cops, no kids—nothing. Nothing but a gray and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life. They could see nothing of the city through it, not because it was too dense but because it was—empty.
They flee to a remote farm, where they live in a house without mirrors, handcuffing themselves together through the night. Their flight from the overwhelming, threatening, supposedly delusory reality of modern working-class urban America to some simple, primitive, rural world from the mythic past is another archetype reappearing many times in Heinlein's fiction.
“Lost Legion,” published in Super Science Stories in November 1941, the month before the United States formally entered World War II, is set in the contemporary world, when the forces of “pure evil” are poised for a decisive assault: “They've won in Europe; they are in the ascendancy in Asia; they may win here in America …” (Chapter 11. In “Lost Legacy,” the 1953 version of the story, Heinlein switches the words “Europe” and “Asia,” thus switching his identification of “pure evil” from fascism to communism). In the United States these evil forces are embodied in “the antagonists of human liberty—the racketeers, the crooked political figures, the shysters, the dealers in phony religions, the sweat shoppers, the petty authoritarians, all of the key figures among the traffickers in human misery and human oppression” (Ch. 12), who include some members of Congress, judges, governors, university presidents, heads of unions, directors of nineteen major corporations, and local authorities. They are all under the command of an inscrutable “evil thing,” a no-eyed, legless monster in control of almost limitless psychic forces. The situation, in short, resembles that in “The Devil Makes the Law.”
Opposed to these forces are a professor of psychology, his prize female student, and his surgeon friend, who together discover that everybody has almost limitless psychic forces, including telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, etc. Our trio of good guys become “supermen” and then link up with a community of even greater psychic supermen hidden inside Mount Shasta and led by a new avatar of Ambrose Bierce, who seems to be a reincarnation of Mark Twain.
Through their new friends, our heroes take a telepathic voyage to the prehistoric past where they learn the true history of the human race. It seems we were all gods until Loki, speaking for an elitist band of Young Men, argued that “the ancient knowledge should henceforth be the reward of ability rather than common birthright, and second, that the greater should rule the lesser” (Ch. 6). Thus comes “The Twilight of the Gods,” and the emergence of war and empire, specifically “Mu, mightiest of empires and mother of empires.” (Heinlein had co-authored a perfectly silly shaggy-dog parapsychological fantasy set in Mu, entitled “Beyond Doubt,” in Astonishing Stories, April 1941.) The rest of history has been an ever-recurring struggle between the good psychic adepts and the evil forces, who believe in “authoritarianism, nonsense like the leader principle, totalitarianism, all the bonds placed on liberty which treat men as so many economic and political units with no importance as individuals” (Ch. 7).
The good side now is striving to let all the people know that they are capable of these superhuman powers, virtually total direct control of matter by mind. Since the forces of evil already control so many adult American institutions, it is necessary to get several thousand specially picked Boy Scouts to assemble at “Camp Mark Twain” on Mount Shasta, instruct them in parapsychology, and let them loose as teachers for the common people, while our trio and the other good-mind adepts annihilate the evil-mind adepts, literally liquidating the evil leader, leaving him “a gory mess on the rug.” Thus in “Lost Legion” the evil forces trying to take over the world are defeated by the unaided mind.
The belief that mind can at will do almost anything to matter represents the absurdity at the extreme end of the bourgeois definition of freedom and free will. If the will is free to do anything it wishes, the will is free from the apparent laws of the physical universe and also free from the apparent laws of human social development—a thoroughly non-dialectical definition of freedom. Instead of human consciousness being collectively and progressively freed by the advances of science, technology, and social organization, all produced by developing human consciousness, human history is seen as a sinister, imprisoning force that overwhelmed the supposed freedom of nineteenth-century individual enterprise or even, as in this story, some prehistoric, mythic freedom of beings like gods. In the face of the historic forces threatening the destruction of his social class, Heinlein's impulses are characteristically reactionary, that is, longing to reverse the processes of history, and often even thoroughly anti-historic, that is, yearning to see history shattered and swept away.
The paranoid vision clearly relates to these anti-scientific and anti-historic impulses. In early stories such as “Life-Line” and “‘Let There Be Light,’” the sinister powers are often the forces that were then indeed overwhelming free-enterprise capitalism—the forces of monopoly, which actually appear as diabolic in “The Devil Makes the Law.” But the vision of evil forces subverting, controlling, or annihilating our society takes many forms in Heinlein's imagination. They may be power-mad priests (“If This Goes On—”) or satanic elitists (“Lost Legion”) or the Sons of the Bird or simply “They”; in postwar works, they become “the Communists,” either explicitly (“Gulf,” Farnham's Freehold, as well as other fiction and non-fiction) or somewhat refracted into giant communistic slugs (The Puppet Masters) or bugs (Starship Troopers).
In the novel Sixth Column (Astounding, January, February, March 1941), they are the Pan-Asian hordes, who have perfidiously attacked and invaded the United States. Opposed to them is “the most magnificent aggregation of research brains” ever assembled, hidden away in an unmarked spot in the Rocky Mountains, searching for a superweapon to repel these four hundred million cruel Asians, who of course care nothing for individual human life and who are routinely called “monkeys” by all the good staunch American patriots, referred to consistently as “the whites” and “white men.” Finally, when there are only six men left in the secret laboratory, now headed by the aptly named Whitey Ardmore, they figure out “what makes matter tick,” and they launch their counterattack under cover of a phony messianic religion, armed with an assortment of superweapons which kill only those with “Mongolian blood”:
The “basic weapon” was the simplest Ledbetter projector that had been designed. It looked very much like a pistol and was intended to be used in similar fashion. It projected a directional beam of the primary Ledbetter effect in the frequency band fatal to those of Mongolian blood and none other. It could be used by a layman after three minutes' instruction, since all that was required was to point it and press a trigger, but it was practically foolproof—the user literally could not harm a fly with it, much less a white man. But it was sudden death to Asiatics.
[March, p. 133]
The vision of Asians expressed throughout Sixth Column is best summed up in the attitude of Jefferson Thomas, one of the heroic freedom fighters: “‘A good Pan-Asian was a dead Pan-Asian …’” (January, p. 26). This undisguised racism is hardly unique to Robert Heinlein; here, as usual, he is being a fairly representative American. The intense dread of “the Yellow Peril,” those cruel Asians bent on overrunning America, emerged at the very moment that Americans began their campaign of conquest and exploitation of Asia and Asians (just as the dread of the “Indian savages” began with the genocidal conquest of the natives of this continent by the European invaders). Heinlein's fantasy of race war is mild compared with that envisioned by Jack London in his 1910 story “The Unparalleled Invasion,” where the white nations, fearful of being overrun by the Asian hordes, unite to attack China with germ warfare delivered by airplanes, succeed in utterly exterminating the Chinese people, and thus establish a joyous epoch of “splendid mechanical, intellectual, and art output.” By 1924 the Congress of the United States had prohibited all further immigration from Japan and outlawed the naturalization of all those who had already immigrated. Heinlein was far less racist than his government, for he calls his one Asian-American character, Frank Roosevelt Matsui, “as American as Will Rogers” (January, p. 27) and shows him loyally and heroically sacrificing his own life. Ironically, in March 1942, a year after the publication of Sixth Column, the American President for whom Frank Roosevelt Matsui was named was to issue his infamous Executive Order 9066, which had all 117,000 Japanese-Americans rounded up and placed in concentration camps, while their land and other property was seized. And although it may seem highly improbable that American scientists could devise a superweapon that would kill only Asians, in less than four years they certainly did invent a superweapon that did kill only Asians.
Throughout this first period, Heinlein seems torn between two quite contradictory conceptions of the relations between mind and matter. On one side he has faith in science and technology—the rational, systematic, developing accumulation of human knowledge which permits a progressive enlargement of human consciousness, of control over the material environment, of potential freedom. On the other side, he rejects science and embraces wishful thinking, the direct, unfettered, immediate control of matter by mind.
Waldo (Astounding, August 1942) embodies this conflict in a single story. In this future scene, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle has been done away with and physics has become “an exact science,” the “religion” of men like Dr. Rambeau, head of research for the gigantic power monopoly, North American Power-Air. But this “faith” is being undermined by the mysterious failure of the Company's power receptors.
The Company is forced to seek help from Waldo F. Jones, a marvelous caricature of the lone genius. Waldo orbits above Earth literally in his own small sphere; ostensibly treasuring his “freedom” from the “smooth apes” of Earth below, he calls his solitary home “Freehold.” Waldo, a flabby weakling reduced to almost total physical impotence by the muscular disease myasthenia gravis, has employed his inventive genius to contrive the servomechanisms known in the story, and subsequently in the actual world, as “waldoes.”
Waldo's view of the world in one direction confronts that of Dr. Rambeau:
To Rambeau the universe was an inexorably ordered cosmos, ruled by unvarying law. To Waldo the universe was the enemy, which he strove to force to submit to his will.
Yet Waldo and Dr. Rambeau both share a very mechanical materialism. True knowledge is vested in Gramps Schneider, an old “witch doctor” who initiates Waldo into the mysteries of the “Other World,” an old term for the realm of magic, which Heinlein had set forth in “The Devil Makes the Law” (reprinted as Magic, Inc. in Waldo and Magic, Inc., the 1950 volume that places these two tales into a unified world view). The old seer presents Waldo with an unmitigated split between mind and matter:
“The Other World,” he said presently, “is the world you do not see. It is here and it is there and it is everywhere. But it is especially here.” He touched his forehead. “The mind sits in it and sends its messages through it to the body.”
Gramps uses his occult power to fix one of the power receptors, and Dr. Rambeau becomes a convert from science to magic, deliriously proclaiming: “‘Nothing is certain. Nothing, nothing, Nothing is certain!’” “‘Chaos is King, and Magic is loose in the world!’”
Waldo learns to repair the broken power receptors by merely willing them to work, and he constructs an improved receptor that draws its power directly from the Other World. So now, as in “‘Let There Be Light,’” there is “free and unlimited power,” but Waldo is able to trick the Company into paying him royally even though he blandly tells the Chairman of the Board, “‘you will not be in the business of selling power much longer.’”
Now Waldo attempts to build a scientific explanation of the Other World, for it is “contrary to the whole materialistic philosophy in which he had grown up” to believe “that thought and thought alone should be able to influence physical phenomena.” But he finds himself plunged into pure Berkeleian idealism, wondering if “the order we thought we detected” is “a mere phantasm of the imagination,” “Orderly Cosmos, created out of Chaos—by Mind!” He begins to believe that “the world varied according to the way one looked at it,” that the physical universe would operate by magical principles for a culture that believed in magic, by scientific laws for a culture that believed in science. This notion, that a society's culture determines the physical universe it inhabits, is precisely the opposite of the view, stated earlier in the story, and certainly truer to human history, that it is the physical universe, including the current level of technology, that determines the character of a society's culture:
It may plausibly be urged that the shape of a culture—its mores, evaluations, family organization, eating habits, living patterns, pedagogical methods, institutions, forms of government, and so forth—arise [sic] from the economic necessities of its technology.
Heinlein seems unable to choose between a mechanical materialism, together with an inflexible determinism, on one hand, and unmitigated idealism, together with a capricious voluntarism, on the other. Any dialectical interplay between mind and matter, between what is determined and what can be freely changed, lies outside the rigid bipolar framework for the philosophical speculation in Waldo.
In Waldo himself, however, we do see such a dialectic. Gramps Schneider had told him that he could reach into the Other World to cure his pathological muscular weakness:
Gramps Schneider had told him he need not be weak!
That he could be strong—
Waldo has something in common with many of the readers of Astounding, as we find out if we turn to the last page of this August 1942 issue:
Let me make YOU a SUPERMAN!
When you stand before your mirror, stripped to the skin, what do you see? A body you can be really proud of? A build that others admire or talk about? OR—are you fat and flabby? …
If you're honest enough with yourself to admit that physically you're only half a man now—then I want to prove I can make you a SUPERMAN in double-quick time! …
… I'll show you exactly how to get a handsome, husky pair of shoulders—a deep, he-man chest—arms & leg muscles hard as rocks yet limber as a whip … every inch of you all man, he-man, SUPERMAN.
Charles Atlas's “Dynamic Tension” method of body-building here advertised is almost precisely what Waldo employs. He does not overcome his weakness by the instantaneous and magical wishful thinking he used to fix the power receptors, but by a determination of will that forces him to condition the muscles of his body systematically and rigorously. Gradually building up his muscles, he becomes even stronger than the average man, and leaves his lonely exile in “Freehold” to rejoin the human race, becoming an acrobatic dancer, admired by all for his strength and agility. The lone genius, it turns out, really just wished “to be liked, to be wanted.”
Heinlein's first published attempt at a time-travel story, “Elsewhere” (Astounding, September 1941), projects a bizarre maze of alternative time tracks which individuals may choose at will. Here the desire to be free from the present, to be released by wishing for an escape, is explicit: the central character, a professor of speculative metaphysics, escapes from imprisonment by wishing himself into a future that combines idealized features of both ancient Rome and an advanced space age. The professor explains to his four choice students that “‘the mind creates its own world,’” that “‘Berkeleian idealism’” creates just as “real” a world as “materialism.” (In the revised version, published in 1953 in Assignment in Eternity, Heinlein goes so far as to add a fifth student, a religious fundamentalist, who manages to transform herself directly into an angel!) There is scorn for “‘you engineers,’” who all “‘believe in a mechanistic, deterministic universe.’” Yet a young engineering student saves a whole planet from an invasion of alien forces by flitting from one time track to another so that the good guys can build a blaster gun, a “little gadget” that “‘unquestionably will win the war for us.’” The whimsical jumble of fantastic time tracks contrasts sharply with the novel from which this story derives, Jack London's The Star Rover (1915), in which a political prisoner in San Quentin escapes from incessant torture by achieving different identities in the class struggle that has constituted actual human history.
“Elsewhere” also contrasts sharply with “By His Bootstraps” (Astounding, October 1941), Heinlein's second time-travel story, and one of his masterpieces. Rigorous in its logic, this tale penetrates deeply into the implications of the myth of the free individual.
Bob Wilson, the protagonist, moves from being an ordinary doctoral student (working on a thesis disproving time travel) to becoming the lone active will and consciousness thirty thousand years in the future, ruling alone as lord and master over an Earth filled with his slaves. We see the events from the different points of view of Wilson as he becomes different selves by moving back and forth through time.
When we first meet Wilson, he is being accosted by two mysterious strangers who pop out of a “Time Gate” into his apartment. Later we perceive the same scene from the point of view of each of these men, who turn out to be later selves of Bob Wilson, sent from the future back into the present. The first Wilson goes through the Time Gate and meets the mysterious all-powerful Diktor, who sends him back into his own time, from which still another Wilson eventually emerges into that remote future ten years before the encounter between Diktor and Wilson. In all these adventures, Wilson can never recognize any of his future selves. He does not even realize that he himself has become Diktor until the moment of the first encounter between this future self and the first Wilson from the past. On one level, the story is an ingenious exploration of the problems of identity in time, and the associated questions of the relations between determinism and free will. Diktor has created himself out of Bob Wilson, but without conscious choice until after it has already happened.
“By His Bootstraps” is also a dramatic display of the trapped ego, creating a world out of images of itself. It is thus the first fully developed manifestation of the solipsism which will become one of Heinlein's main themes. This solipsism is the ultimate expression of the bourgeois myth of the free individual, who supposedly is able to lift himself from rags to riches by his own bootstraps. As Diktor puts it to the Bob Wilson who emerges into this future of dictatorial power and abject slavery, “‘One twentieth-century go-getter can accomplish just about anything he wants to accomplish around here—.’”
Diktor is a grandiose enlargement of Robinson Crusoe, with the entire planet his island. In fact, the first man Wilson meets in the future throws himself on his knees and arises as “his Man Friday.” All the people of this world, who have been enslaved by some mysterious “High Ones” for 20,000 years, are now “docile friendly children,” “slaves by nature.” What they lack is “the competitive spirit,” “the will-to-power”: “Wilson had a monopoly on that.”
But this “monopoly” is also a state of supreme loneliness, as well as boredom. Diktor wistfully compares these people, mere extensions of his own will, with “the brawling, vulgar, lusty, dynamic swarms who had once called themselves the People of the United States,” the very society he had earlier rejected and abandoned as “a crummy world full of crummy people.” His choice—if that is what he ever had—lies between the life of normal futility he left and the one of sublime futility he has acquired. The choice is embodied in his sexual alternatives: in the future are myriads of beautiful mindless slave women literally kneeling to his will; in his old life there is the “shrewish,” conniving Genevieve, whose approaching footsteps on his stairs had been the deciding factor in driving him out of his humdrum world into the Time Gate. Wilson's sexuality in both worlds is barren. He can only reproduce himself, as he, a self-created being, suggests in his final words, promising himself, his only kind of son, a great future: “‘There is a great future in store for you and me, my boy—a great future!’”
On still another level, “By His Bootstraps” displays this world-embracing egoism as the center of political imperialism. When Diktor asks the first Bob Wilson to return briefly to his own time, his purpose is to acquire some tools to be used in colonizing this undeveloped land:
“I want you to return to the twentieth century and obtain certain things for us, things that can't be obtained on this side but which will be very useful to us in, ah, developing—yes, that is the word—developing this country.”
The prime thing he needs is certain books: Machiavelli's The Prince, Behind the Ballots by political machine boss James Farley, How To Make Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.
The utopian novel Beyond This Horizon (Astounding, April, May 1942) is Heinlein's only attempt in this early fiction to describe what he conceives to be a good society. Here he tries to combine a high level of social organization and cooperation with the maximum possible individual freedom. Though this society somewhat resembles the one implied in Coventry, it is no gentle, peaceful land where any damage to another person means “readjustment” or exile. It is a society made up of people “descended from ‘wolves,’ not ‘sheep’” (April, p. 21), one in which all self-respecting men and even some women are expert gunfighters ready to cut each other down at the drop of an insult. The main product of human history through “the Continuous War of 1910-1970” and beyond can be summed up in one italicized sentence: “The fighters survived” (April, p. 21). Now, several centuries of systematic genetic engineering have created a race of human beings superior in health, longevity, physique, and intelligence.
The underlying assumption of Beyond This Horizon, as Philip E. Smith II has put it in his superb essay on Heinlein's social Darwinism, is that “biology explains behavior” and “biology also explains politics,” with an “underlying fantasy-wish … derived from a social Darwinistic interpretation of evolution.”5 We witness this dynamic utopian society passing through a series of crises to advance to what Heinlein often projects as the next stage of human evolution, the development of telepathic powers.
The economic structure itself, supposedly a perfected, fully rational capitalism that has evolved from the “pseudo-capitalism” of previous centuries, is seen as relatively unimportant, so long as there is a rational system of finance. Here everybody gets “dividends,” the social distribution of surplus capital, through centralized accounting. To the question “… wouldn't it be simpler to set up a collective system and be done with it?” comes this response:
“Finance structure is a general theory and applies equally to any type of state. A complete socialism would have as much need for structural appropriateness in its cost accounting as would a free entrepreneur. The degree of public ownership as compared with the degree of free enterprise is a cultural matter. For example, food is, of course, free, but—.”
[April, p. 11]
Technology also has relatively little to do with the greatness of this society, except insofar as it allows the necessary improvements in genetic engineering. We are assured that the goal of their eugenics is to improve the gene pool of the whole race, not to develop a separate line of supermen.
The hero of Beyond This Horizon is Hamilton Felix, the fastest gun in town, packing an antique Colt.45. A “star line” genetic type, Hamilton is supposed to contribute his superior genes to the race by breeding with his pre-selected genetic counterpart, Phyllis, a beautiful gunslinger. But he is weighed down by ennui and frustration, because he lacks some of the qualifications of the leading geniuses, the philosophers in charge of centralized planning: “‘When it was finally pounded into my head that I couldn't take first prize, I wasn't interested in second prize’” (April, p. 24).
However, Hamilton discovers and helps defeat a conspiracy of “the Survivors Club,” an elitist cabal planning to seize power, set up “the New Order,” and redirect genetic engineering to create classes of superbrainy leaders and superbrawny workers. In heroically combating these protofascists and amorously dallying with Phyllis, Hamilton begins to reawaken his interest in life and the possibility of procreation.
Yet he still fails to see any purpose in human existence. His own profession symbolizes his dilemma: he invents sophisticated games and superpinball machines for amusement centers. An extraordinary revelation comes to him as his consciousness swims out from a dose of gas he gets in a shootout:
No fun in the game if you knew the outcome. He had designed a game like that once, and called it “Futility”—no matter how you played, you had to win. … It was always a little hard to remember which position himself had played, forgetting that he had played all of the parts. Well, that was the game; it was the only game in town, and there was nothing else to do. Could he help it if the game was crooked? Even if he had made it up and played all the parts.
[May, p. 66]
Hamilton here is perilously close to Diktor, the sole player in the rigged time-travel game of “By His Bootstraps.”
But Hamilton makes a deal with the geniuses who administer this society. He will agree to reproduce if they will commit massive funds to investigate the meaning of life, including research into the question of an afterlife. They accede, Phyllis assumes her proper role of wife and mother, and their star line children soon exhibit telepathy and living proof of reincarnation.
As the May 1942 synopsis explained, Beyond This Horizon “is, itself, almost a synopsis.” There are subplots that go nowhere (including a delightful sequence about a Babbitt-like ex-football player and fraternity man, rabid anti-Communist, boosterish Republican businessman who turns up from 1926 and soon dispels some romantic notions that have developed about the twentieth century), pages of scientific and pseudo-scientific theory, and more philosophizing and action than the narrative can comfortably handle. This myriad of fragments kaleidoscopically displays the contradictory components of Heinlein's late Depression outlook, a world view that will later determine his responses to the earth-shaking events of the period from the end of World War II to the early 1970s.
I have saved for the final story to be explored in this [essay] the only one that directly confronts the actual international situation emerging in these early years of World War II, “Solution Unsatisfactory” (Astounding, May 1941). This story, like most of the fiction we have looked at so far, should not be read as merely prewar. As Heinlein puts it in “Solution Unsatisfactory”: “We were not at war, legally, yet we had been in the war up to our necks with our weight on the side of democracy since 1940.”
In December 1938 Otto Hahn in Berlin had discovered the splitting of the uranium atom under a bombardment of neutrons. Earlier that year, Hahn's Jewish wife, the great physicist Lise Meitner, had fled Germany to avoid the pogroms; in early 1939, Dr. Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch formulated an explanation of Hahn's process, which they named nuclear fission. Heinlein begins his tale with the ominous implications of these critical modern events. He loosely fictionalizes Lise Meitner as Estelle Karst, a Jewish assistant of Dr. Hahn, who comes to the United States and discovers, as a by-product of her medical research, the ultimate and irresistible weapon, radioactive dust.
The story is told by “an ordinary sort of man” who suddenly finds himself thrust into the center of history. The main character and hero is “liberal” but “tough-minded” Clyde C. Manning, congressman, colonel in the United States Army, and apparently the only possible savior of the world.
America now has the weapon which amounts to “a loaded gun held at the head of every man, woman, and child on the globe!” The narrator expresses some misgivings about America having this power:
I had the usual American subconscious conviction that our country would never use power in sheer aggression. Later, I thought about the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War and some of the things we did in Central America, and I was not so sure—
Nevertheless, for Heinlein there can be only one conclusion, inescapable and inevitable:
The United States was having power thrust on it, willy-nilly. We had to accept it and enforce a world-wide peace, ruthlessly and drastically, or it would be seized by some other nation.
So first America intervenes in the war. But before actually using the atomic weapon, “we were morally obligated” to give every possible warning, first to the German government, then to the people of Berlin, the targeted city. This passage rings with shocking irony in the echo of the American sneak attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Next comes the worldwide “Pax Americana.” The United States demands that every nation in the world immediately disarm, a threat Heinlein quaintly expresses in frontier lingo: “‘Throw down your guns, boys; we've got the drop on you!’” This choice is forced on us by such “facts” as these:
Four hundred million Chinese with no more concept of voting and citizen responsibility than a flea. Three hundred million Hindus who aren't much better indoctrinated. God knows how many in the Eurasian Union who believe in God knows what. The entire continent of Africa only semicivilized. Eighty million Japanese who really believe that they are Heaven-ordained to rule.
So the Pax Americana inescapably must be “a military dictatorship imposed by force on the whole world.”
Sure enough, there is another nation so uncivilized, unreasonable, and dastardly as to dispute the American global hegemony, the “Eurasian Union,” now under the control of the “Fifth Internationalists,” who have paralleled our atomic research. In 1945, unlike the actual history of that year, the sneak atomic attack is delivered not by the United States but upon it. We retaliate by wiping out Vladivostok, Irkutsk, and Moscow, and sending an invasion force, “the American Pacification Expedition.” The United States now has the job of “policing the world.”
The President of the United States at this time is a good man, so he and Colonel Manning wish to prevent the atomic weapon being used “to turn the globe into an empire, our empire” for “imperialism degrades both oppressor and oppressed.” They decide that the power “must not be used to protect American investments abroad, to coerce trade agreements, for any purpose but the simple abolition of mass killing.” In characteristic American and Heinlein style, “Manning and the President played by ear,” establishing treaties “to commit future governments of the United States to an irrevocable benevolent policy.”
Colonel Manning then becomes Commissioner of World Safety, which forms the international Peace Patrol, whose pilots, armed with the atomic weapon, are never to be assigned to their own country. The Peace Patrol is welded together by “esprit de corps,” and the main check on their new recruits is “the President's feeling for character.”
Then the good President is killed in a plane crash, and the presidency is assumed by the isolationist Vice President, allied with a senator who had tried to use the Peace Patrol to recover expropriated holdings in South America and Rhodesia. They attempt to arrest Manning, but the pilots of the Peace Patrol intervene, arrest the bad President, and make Manning “the undisputed military dictator of the world.”
Nobody, not even Manning, likes this solution. But, though unsatisfactory, it apparently seemed the best to Robert A. Heinlein in 1941.
As pointed out by Sam Moskowitz in Seekers of Tomorrow (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1966), p. 194.
Actually the reference as pointed out by J. R. Christopher in “Methuselah, Out of Heinlein by Shaw,” Shaw Review, 16 (1973), pp. 79-88, is to Shaw's The Apple Cart. This article documents quite an extensive influence by Shaw on Heinlein. And Samuel R. Delany has argued that “the didactic methods of Robert Heinlein owe a great deal to Shaw's comedies of ideas, far more than to Wells and Verne” (in “Critical Methods: Speculative Fiction,” Many Futures, Many Worlds, ed. Thomas Clareson (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1977), p. 281).
“If This Goes On—,” Revolt in 2100 (New York: New American Library, 1955, 1959), pp. 118-19. This is the text of the 1953 Shasta Publishers' edition.
Ibid., p. 119.
Philip E. Smith II, “The Evolution of Politics and the Politics of Evolution in Heinlein's Fiction,” in Robert A. Heinlein, eds. Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (New York: Taplinger, 1978), p. 141.
Unless otherwise noted, all references are to the original publication, as identified in the text. Page references will not be given for short stories. For longer works published in serial form, page references will be given parenthetically and will include month and page number; where it will be more convenient for the readers, and where no ambiguity will be thus created, references will be made by chapter number.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5283
SOURCE: Wolfe, Gary K. “Autoplastic and Alloplastic Adaptations in Science Fiction: ‘Waldo’ and ‘Desertion’.” In Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, pp. 65-79. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
[In the following essay, Wolfe contrasts the different approaches of Heinlein's Waldo and Clifford D. Simak's “Desertion” to the problem of integration between body and environment.]
At a recent gathering of science fiction fans—a “con,” to use the jargon of the fans themselves—an acquaintance and I were watching the bizarrely dressed crowd milling about in the lobby of the hotel when he turned to me and asked, “Have you noticed how many grossly overweight people there are here?” In fact, there were a surprising number of rather large people present, but there were also quite a few fans who seemed to represent the more traditional stereotype of the science fiction fan as undernourished adolescent. There was even a sizable number of people of normal, undistinguished girth. But the person who called this to my attention assured me that a rather atypical distribution of body types was quite common at conventions of this sort, and that he had noted it often. Perhaps he was more acutely aware of bodily structures than I, for, himself a science fiction fan since childhood, he had recently published his second book on body building and weight control.
Later, in talking with others more generally familiar with the world of fandom than I, I found that many people had made observations similar to these. A few even offered theories about how science fiction conventions offered a safe arena for social intercourse among people who felt inept or awkward on the outside. Such a theory reminds one of the cliché that “science fiction is a crutch for people who can't handle reality” and of the retaliatory T-shirt slogan that was making the rounds of these conventions a couple of years ago: “Reality is a crutch for people who can't handle science fiction.” Both suggest in different ways the often tribal nature of interactions among fans, but it was not solely this hard-core group of fans I was concerned with. I looked at a number of interviews, memoirs, and autobiographies of science fiction writers—including Isaac Asimov's remarkably detailed In Memory Yet Green—and found frequent confirmation of what had now become a growing suspicion: not that science fiction was necessarily fattening (or emaciating, for that matter), but that it seemed to address the needs of adolescents and even adults who, at some key stage in their lives, felt themselves to be unattractive or ill at ease in their own bodies. I am not suggesting that such an attitude is in any sense a prerequisite to the enjoyment of science fiction, or that it is even characteristic of a majority of readers, but I will attempt to demonstrate that in a genre which spent many of its formative years catering to a largely adolescent audience and responding to the needs and desires of that audience, this attitude has been reflected in the literature.
This pattern has been noted before. Joanna Russ, in a 1970 essay titled “The Image of Women in Science Fiction,” declared that science fiction readers “are overwhelmingly likely to be nervous, shy, pleasant boys, sensitive, intelligent, and very awkward with people. They also talk too much.” But while science fiction did for a long time garner a predominantly male audience, such a feeling of social awkwardness was not confined to boys. An attractive woman science fiction reader in her late thirties reports that, as a teenager, she often felt ungainly, unattractive, and ostracized from the social life of her school—partly because of her appearance, but partly also because of her superior intelligence, which seemed to be regarded as inappropriate in a girl. She took solace in stories of mutants, particularly Henry Kuttner's “Baldy” stories (collected as Mutant, 1953), and in stories of bodily transformation, such as Clifford D. Simak's “Desertion” (collected in City, 1952). The mutant stories conveyed to her the promise of a world in which mind or intelligence could act directly on the environment through telepathy or telekinesis, without the mediation of socializing agencies such as schools and families. Furthermore, the mutants themselves, the holders of these secret powers, were often physically unattractive outcasts (hence their nickname “Baldies” in the Kuttner stories). The tales of bodily transformation were another matter, and perhaps reflect a deeper fantasy. These tales, which might include James Blish's “pantropy” series (collected in The Seedling Stars, 1957) as well as the Simak title, concerned the fantasy of achieving a near-perfect match between a body and an alien environment, made possible by a liberation from earthly form altogether.
The point of all this is not just that science fiction is a genre principally concerned with mind-body dualism—though it does often address that issue—but that one of the uses of science fiction is to provide its readers with alternate models for relating to one's environment, and for gaining rewards from that environment. Generally, these models are of two kinds, and in describing them we might borrow an opposition originally suggested by Géza Róheim in discussing the differences between primitive and technological societies. One such difference, Róheim suggested, is that the former tend to be autoplastic while the latter are alloplastic; that is, the primitive seeks a more hospitable relationship with the environment through manipulation of his or her own body (as in surgical rites of passage), while a technological society such as ours manipulates the environment itself through such means as engineering and architecture. The opposition takes on added meaning when one remembers that Róheim sought to establish a psychoanalytical model for anthropology which would permit parallels between ontogenetic and cultural development—an idea later developed and extended by Bruno Bettelheim and Norman O. Brown. While later anthropologists have persuasively disputed any such one-to-one correspondence, the autoplastic-alloplastic antinomy remains in use in both cultural anthropology and developmental psychology.
What I want to explore in this essay, then, is the manner in which science fiction attempts to resolve the opposition of self and environment through both autoplastic and alloplastic fantasies, with some sidelong speculations on how this may in part account for the appeal of certain science fiction works to their readers. For this I would like to borrow another unusual term, this time from science fiction itself. “Instrumentality” is a useful word in discussing the means by which ends are achieved in science fiction, but it is a term that came into the genre through an odd route, probably originating in a novel that is not science fiction at all and that is almost never read today. Science fiction readers will recognize the word from its usage to describe the intergalactic government, the “Instrumentality of Mankind,” in the stories published under the name Cordwainer Smith. It has been suggested that Smith (Paul Linebarger) intended a spiritual meaning for this term, borrowing it from references in Roman Catholic and Episcopalian theology to the priest becoming the “instrumentality” of God while performing the sacraments. Without disputing this, I suggest that Linebarger may have had a broader meaning in mind as well. His earlier, non-science fiction novel Ria (published under the name Felix Forrest, 1947) ends with the protagonist undergoing a kind of mystical vision on a beach in North Carolina. “She felt that she stood somewhere in the lower part of her own tremendous skull, and that she listened to the fluent deep roar of a resounding bronze instrument of some kind—something metallic, something which sounded like the instrumentality of man, not like the unplanned noises of nature and the sea.” The echo of Wallace Stevens may be deliberate, for the clear implication in this passage is that instrumentality includes the whole project of imposed human order, a project that in Smith's science fiction would be extended to the entire universe. But in Smith's science fiction, the instrumentality of man expresses itself through both autoplastic and alloplastic means; the predictable alloplastic fantasies of vast cities and controlled environments, common to nearly all galactic-federation stories, are balanced by stories in which the limits of human form itself are questioned by making humans partly into machines or animals partly into humans. Smith's first published story, for example, “Scanners Live in Vain” (1950), concerns humans surgically restructured to survive in the hostile environment of space, cut off from all knowledge of their own bodies save through special “scanning” instruments. In keeping the Róheim's model of cultural development, the scanners are phased out once the instrumentality discovers alloplastic means of dealing with this problem—namely, building better spaceships.
Science fiction, then, offers its readers the promise of greater and more satisfactory integration with the environment in two ways. In the first, the environment itself becomes the instrumentality of integration through its appropriation and alteration to humanity's will. This is the focus of the bulk of imaginative fiction which extrapolates trends in a direct line from an already highly alloplastic culture such as ours, and it leads eventually to fantasies of completely remaking environments to meet cultural needs: “terraforming” alien worlds in many novels, but also custom-building new worlds in novels such as Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970), Bob Shaw's Orbitsville (1975), or, on a smaller scale, Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1973). (It is interesting to note that, even though physicist Freeman Dyson has seriously suggested the eventual possibility of constructing an Orbitsville-type artificial world, science fiction writers have often shied away from making humans responsible for such a wholesale alloplastic fantasy, and all three of the novels I mentioned present the artificial world as an alien artifact.)
Thematically opposed to such instrumentalities of the environment is a smaller but distinct tradition of science fiction stories which deal with what we might call instrumentalities of the body. In these stories, the human form itself is altered through artificial means in orders to achieve greater integration with an environment that would otherwise be hostile. This tradition includes the Simak, Blish, and Smith stories mentioned above, as well as Bernard Wolfe's remarkable novel Limbo (1952) and any number of “cyborg” stories, including most recently and notably Frederik Pohl's Man Plus (1976). A still more recent story which gives evidence of the tradition's continuing appeal is Vonda McIntyre's “Aztecs” (1977). Although this tradition has antecedents as diverse as H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930), I would like, for purposes of this essay, to explore its impact in a single period of science fiction history, at the height of the so-called Golden Age of magazine science fiction, and to contrast it with a more conventionally alloplastic treatment of the same theme of self and environment from the same period.
More specifically, I would like to examine two stories which appeared only two years apart in Astounding Science Fiction in the early forties. Both stories subsequently gained reputations as minor classics of the genre, and both deal in almost archetypal terms with the problem of integration between body and environment. But their approaches to this problem differ considerably: Robert Heinlein's Waldo (August 1942) is for most of its length a conventional alloplastic fantasy, albeit reduced to the most primal terms in a tale concerning a weak and ungainly individual's attempts to create a hospitable environment. Clifford D. Simak's “Desertion” (November 1944), on the other hand, is an equally simplified version of the autoplastic fantasy in which the body itself becomes the instrument of integration through bodily transformation, again in a tale focusing on a single individual's experience.
Heinlein's Waldo is a story which is remembered primarily for a relatively trivial reason: the fact that the term ‘’waldoes,” used in the story to describe the mechanical hands that Waldo uses to overcome his own weakness, later entered the jargon of nuclear technology to describe similar artificial hands used to handle radioactive or other dangerous material. But the story itself is far more interesting for other reasons, not the least of which is the portrayal of the world-saving genius as isolated weakling. As H. Bruce Franklin points out, “Waldo has something in common with many of the readers of Astounding, as we find out if we turn to the last page of this August 1942 issue.” What is on that last page, Franklin notes, is an ad for Charles Atlas's “dynamic tension” method of body building—a method not too different from that discovered by Waldo during the course of the narrative. Is Waldo a fantasy projection of the typical science fiction reader, then, and are we back to the body-image problem which I mentioned at the beginning of this essay? Perhaps that is carrying things a bit far, but there is much evidence within the story itself to suggest that it indeed addresses a number of concerns that were likely shared by its readers in 1942 and, for that matter, by many science fiction fans even today. Furthermore, the story exhibits clearly an ideological tension that characterized not only much of Heinlein's work, but the entire field of science fiction as it grew and developed under John W. Campbell, Jr.'s guidance during his years as editor of Astounding. The early signs of this tension were already apparent in 1939 with the launching of Unknown as a fantasy companion to Astounding, but the tension would continue to be apparent throughout the next decade, leading to such works as Jack Williamson's The Humanoids (1947-48 in Astounding) and culminating, perhaps, in the involvement of Campbell with the Dianetics movement in the early fifties. This tension, I believe, was not merely an opposition between fantasy and science fiction, but something more fundamental, arising, perhaps, out of a growing need to find a place for human mind and will in the mechanistic vision of the universe projected by much science fiction of this period. One might loosely characterize this, then, as a tension between free will and determinism, or between the individual and technology (using technology in a sense similar to that which Jacques Ellul describes in The Technological Society ), but for our purposes, both of these may be subsumed into the opposition between self and environment of which we spoke earlier. Put in more purely psychological terms, the question becomes: does one alter one's environment to conform to the needs of the self, or can one alter oneself in order to function in the environment? Does one seek integration through alloplastic or autoplastic means? This, it seems to me, is one of the central issues in Waldo.
Near the beginning of Waldo, a number of oppositions are quickly established which serve to separate the protagonist, Waldo Farthingwaite-Jones, from the mainstream of the future society in which the story takes place. Foremost among these is Waldo's physical condition, which alone would serve to isolate him from society: suffering from myasthenia gravis since birth, he is abnormally weak and “softly fat, with double chin, dimples, smooth skin; he looked like a great, pink cherub, floating attendance on a saint.” Waldo's prepubescent, babylike features are significant, and certainly might have served to promote identification among many of the adolescent readers of the magazine. His condition also accounts for his lack of sexual experience, which will become a motivating factor later in the story. Add to this a brilliant mind and an arrogant, somewhat paranoid personality, and the result is a fair portrayal of the boy genius as social outcast.
But Waldo is set in opposition to society in more symbolic ways, too. In an age when most people have taken to living and working in underground structures according to something called “the London Plan” (p. 20), Waldo instead lives in a gravity-free orbiting space station which puts fewer strains on his weakened body. He calls this station “Freehold,” suggesting liberation, but earthlings call it “Wheelchair,” suggesting quite the opposite—dependence. An opposition between the individual and the corporation is also established: while most earthlings are dependent on a conglomerate called North American Power-Air for their energy (the corporation holds a virtual monopoly on the “broadcast power” that runs the cities and transportation systems), Waldo has declared a vendetta against this company for allegedly cheating him on some patents. In all, there are three principal levels of oppositions established to differentiate Waldo from the rest of the society. On what we might call the mythic level, there is the opposition of the sky and the underground (with the surface of the earth virtually abandoned by both Waldo and society, as evidenced by the crumbling roads left to deteriorate because “90 percent of the traffic is in the air” [p. 45]). On the social level, this becomes the opposition between the individual (Waldo, who lives in the sky) and the corporate state (North American Power-Air, which literally runs the underground society). Finally, on a level which is both psychological and philosophical, the opposition is between freedom (Freehold) and dependence (Wheelchair). The problem thus set up, the basic movement of the story is toward resolving these oppositions and getting Waldo back down to earth. From a psychological perspective, this becomes a problem in integrating the individual with his social and physical environment.
Initially, Waldo seeks to achieve this integration through purely alloplastic means, by creating an environment suitable to his bodily infirmity and surrounding himself with mechanical extensions of himself (the famous “waldoes”). But this solution clearly takes its emotional toll on him, and his resulting loneliness is evidenced not only by his arrogant misanthropy but by his sentimental attachment to a pet dog and canary. Yet Waldo's genius remains wholly mechanical; like Edison (the model of many early technologist-heroes in science fiction), he is more the inventor than the theorist. It seems never to have occurred to him to have turned to medicine or physiology to seek solutions to his problem; instead he manipulates the environment to reduce the dimensions of the problem. To this extent, Waldo's Freehold is a microcosm of the technological society of earth, a purely alloplastic adaptation. At this early point in the story, the only figure warning of the limits of possible dangers of such adaptation is Waldo's mentor and uncle, Doc Grimes, who also serves as mediator between Waldo and earth society. Grimes is concerned that long-term exposure to broadcast energy on earth is having a debilitating effect on the human nervous system (p. 15)—eventually turning the whole country into a nation of Waldoes. To protect himself from these effects, Grimes introduces one of the few autoplastic adaptations in this part of the narrative: the lead-shielded clothing which he wears to protect himself (p. 14). Grimes is also a doctor, a profession logically associated with autoplastic adaptations, and at one point in the narrative he recalls delivering the baby Waldo with “the necessary ‘laying on of hands’” (p. 17). Grimes is clearly Waldo's father figure throughout the narrative, and is the only one whom Waldo will turn to for advice.
The narrative of Waldo begins by introducing a technological problem that will eventually force Waldo to reassess his own dependence on technology by calling into question the very reliability of alloplastic adaptations. Broadcast power receivers on earth have begun to fail for no apparent reason, and the power company is forced to turn to Waldo for assistance in solving the problem. Already, through this collaboration, the individual/corporation antinomy begins to resolve itself, with Grimes the mediating agent. The only one so far able to repair an affected receiver is not a scientist, but an aging “hex-doctor” named Schneider, whose repair involves a mystic ritual and results in the receiver antennas wiggling like worms. Thematically, Schneider is set in opposition to a corporation scientist named Rambeau, who is devoted to a wholly deterministic view of the universe—a view underlined by the point made early in the story that an earlier “reformulation of the General Field Theory did away with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle” (p. 13). To Rambeau, physics is an exact science, and Schneider's repair of the broken receivers using power drawn from “the Other World” drives Rambeau crazy. The mad Rambeau's ravings give Waldo the clue to solving the problem, but Waldo must visit Schneider (who refuses to leave the earth or communicate via technology) in order to learn the actual solution. Significantly, Schneider chooses to live on the surface of the earth, and when Waldo, descending from orbit, and corporate representatives, rising from their underground cities, meet at Schneider's home, the opposition of sky/underground is symbolically resolved.
Schneider, then, supplants Grimes as the symbolic mediator of the earth/Waldo antinomy; and in a sense he also temporarily supplants Grimes as Waldo's father figure: it is through another “laying on of hands”—Schneider's massage of his weak arms (p. 67)—that Waldo begins to learn how to tap the sources of inner strength that will result in his eventual rebirth. But Schneider also becomes one pole of another set of antinomies, with Rambeau representing his opposite, and Waldo himself must provide the synthesis for this level of the dialectic. The Schneider/Rambeau opposition can be expressed in a number of ways; Waldo's own formulations of it progress from magic/science (p. 76) to mind/world (p. 88) to will/determinism (p. 89). But it might also be expressed as autoplastic/alloplastic, for while Rambeau insisted that the problems with the mechanical environment could only be solved through reference to that environment itself, Schneider insists that the solution lay within the individual. And that, incredibly enough, turns out to be precisely the reason the receivers began to fail. The operators, indeed weakened by the radiation effects Doc Grimes had feared all along, permitted the machines to fail by losing faith in them, by being “run-down, tired out, worried about something” (p. 73).
By adopting Schneider's methods; that is, by learning to focus on himself rather than on his environment, Waldo is able to gain the strength necessary to enable him to function successfully in the gravity of earth. Heinlein also strongly implies that Waldo manages to achieve a dialectical synthesis of the magic/science antinomy by means of a new, comprehensive view of the universe that encompasses both mind and matter, but as is commonly the case when a science fiction story extrapolates itself into this particular corner, the details of the new synthesis are necessarily vague. What is important to the emotional impact of the story, however, is not that Heinlein should manage to construct a comprehensive synthesis of physics and mysticism, but that he should find a means by which Waldo can be integrated into society, and that this means can be drawn from Waldo's own mind and body. In a sense, the story becomes a cautionary tale about depending too heavily on alloplastic adaptations. Like many fairy tales, including “Rapunzel,” the story indicates that the body may provide solutions to problems, rather than simply being itself a problem. As Waldo gains strength, he also develops an interest in social relations that is new to him. He learns how to use his body in relation to others—not belching in their presence, defending himself when challenged—very much in the manner of a child moving into adolescence. It seems appropriate that his first request of his newfound friend Stevens (one of the corporate representatives who had been his nemesis) should be “Could you teach me how to behave with girls?” (p. 103). Later he comments, “I'm just beginning to find out how much fun it is to be a man!” (p. 103). By the end of the story, Waldo has become almost a parody compilation of adolescent fantasies—a world-famous ballet dancer, brain surgeon, and scientist, sought after by reporters, business managers, and beautiful women.
Waldo begins by positing an extreme condition of alloplastic adaptation and ends by showing the limits and dangers of such adaptations. In Clifford D. Simak's “Desertion,” these limits of mechanical adaptation provide the basic premise of the story. “Desertion” is a much shorter story than Waldo, but together with its sequel “Paradise” (Astounding, June 1946) it provides what may be the pivotal element in Simak's remarkable chronicle-narrative City (1952). Furthermore, as Thomas D. Clareson points out, “‘Desertion’ provides a classic example of one of the basic sf structural patterns: the solution of a specific problem.” This in itself is unusual for a story as exclusively concerned with autoplastic adaptation as “Desertion” is; what is more remarkable is the manner in which Simak elides the technical dimensions of the problem in order to present the tale purely as myth (and it is, more than any other tale in City, presented as “entirely myth” by the anonymous dog-narrator of the frame-tale). Within the sequence of City stories, “Desertion” and “Paradise” provide the account of how most of humanity abandons the earth, clearing the way for the tales of intelligent dogs, robots, and ants that make up the bulk of the rest of the narrative. But “Desertion” also has a power uniquely its own. It may be in part, as Eric S. Rabkin and Robert Scholes suggest, a fable of environmental determinism, but I suspect this is not enough to account for the peculiar fondness with which many science fiction readers remember the tale. Many readers I have met can even quote the closing lines of the narrative, when the protagonist Fowler and his dog Towser, converted into Jovian life forms to explore the hostile environment of Jupiter, refuse to return: “‘They would turn me back into a dog,’ said Towser. ‘And me,’ said Fowler, ‘back into a man.’”
The narrative begins in a society that has already given itself over to autoplastic adaptations to aid in the exploration of alien planets. Simak does not bother to explain why technology failed in conquering these environments with more conventionally alloplastic solutions; he only mentions that “converters,” machines which transform humans into native extraterrestrial life forms, have been in use on “most of the other planets” (p. 106). Jupiter, however, presents a special problem: not only is its tremendous pressure and corrosive atmosphere more than usually destructive of machinery, but the four men who have so far been “converted” into the native life form known as “Lopers” have failed to return to report on their findings. Humanity's reasons for wanting to explore Jupiter are described in terms of the classic manifest destiny theme of much technological science fiction: “Man would take over Jupiter as he already had taken over the other smaller planets.” For this appropriation to succeed, however, it is important that humanity not be “forced to work with clumsy tools and mechanisms or through the medium of robots that themselves were clumsy” (p. 106). Two important, if somewhat contradictory, points are made here: first, that the autoplastic adaptations used to explore the other planets had not been genuine; that is, they were undertaken in the service of the larger alloplastic fantasy of acquiring resources to feed a burgeoning interplanetary technology. The idea, apparently, was never that humanity would permanently adapt to these alien life forms. Second, there is evidence that this technology itself is already beginning to prove inadequate; the “clumsy tools and mechanisms” have begun to frustrate humanity in its attempts to truly know other worlds. The story begins, then, at a point at which the limits of alloplastic adaptations are already making themselves apparent.
When a fifth man who has been converted into a Loper fails to return, Fowler, the project director, decides that he and his dog Towser will undergo the conversion themselves. (Fowler's attachment to his dog, although taking on added meaning in the larger context of the City narrative that describes the rise of a dog civilization, also recalls Waldo's attachment to his dog; in both cases the relationship serves to reassure us that these characters are not after all heartless technophiles and to prepare us for the emotional changes they will undergo later in the story.) The converter itself is one of those delightful pieces of science fiction business that seem totally impossible; we spaceships, superweapons, even an entirely artificial planet called the “Death Star.” In contrast to this are the desert, ice, and jungle planets where the rebels live and are forced to adapt themselves to unpromising environments. The extreme of such autoplastic adaptation is the jungle planet in The Empire Strikes Back where the ancient Yoda survives by drawing on an inner power called “the Force” and where the hero Luke Skywalker trains himself to adapt to any environment using this Force. Near the end of Star Wars, Luke, who in that film had only begun to learn the power of the Force, rejects technology in order to use this inner force from his own body to destroy the Death Star. I mention this scene in particular because it contains almost a direct echo of Heinlein's Waldo: Luke is persuaded to trust in the Force by the calm, disembodied voice of his previous mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who had been earlier eliminated by the villain Darth Vader. The similar scene in Waldo occurs when the myasthenic Waldo, attacked by the insane Rambeau, hears the words of Schneider: “Gramps Schneider said in his ear, in a voice that was calm and strong, ‘Reach out for the power, my son. Feel it in your fingers’” (p. 96).
Even more direct autoplastic fantasies are contained in the recent films Altered States and Scanners. Scanners is more traditionally a horror film based on the common mutant theme of psychokinesis, but Altered States literally concerns the alteration of the body through liberation of “inner forces.” Based on a 1978 Paddy Chayefsky novel, the Ken Russell film is in part an inadvertent remake of a 1958 B-picture called Monster on the Campus, which concerned a scientist whose experiments on himself transformed him into a Neanderthal. Altered States not only recreates that fantasy, but goes beyond it in a tale of a scientist who combines isolation-tank experiments with hallucinogenic drugs to turn himself into a variety of amorphous primal shapes which quickly get out of his control. In the film's climactic scene, the scientist is able to overcome these transformations through love for his wife, which he has never been able to declare before. But before we dismiss this as a sentimental cliché common to films of this sort, we should pause to consider the cliché's significance: it reassures us that bodily changes, even when exaggerated to the level of the bizarre special effects of a film like this, can indeed serve to promote greater integration and a better relationship with others. Through the transformations, the scientist Jessup in Altered States learns the value of his own natural bodily form and gains the motivation needed to save his failing marriage.
Such autoplastic themes as I have discussed suggest a number of things about science fiction that might easily be overlooked: that it is not exclusively a literature about mechanization and technological appropriation of the universe, that its roots do not necessarily lie in fantasies of power and subjugation, that it does not serve its readers wholly as a means of escape or as a device for intellectual game-playing, that it is not antihuman. The works I have discussed gain their power not from the technological marvels they introduce, but from the structural models of integration they provide. In this manner, science fiction can provide for an older, somewhat intellectual audience some of the same functions that fantasies and fairy tales serve for younger children. This is not to suggest that fantasy cannot do the same thing science fiction does—that is a matter for another essay altogether—but merely that the science fiction, grounded in a framework of intellectuality that many of its readers value, can use that framework to construct positive and highly affective models of integration and maturation.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 824
SOURCE: Slusser, George. “Notes and Correspondence: Robert Anson Heinlein, 1907-88.” Science Fiction Studies 15, no. 3 (November 1988): 385-86.
[In the following essay, Slusser reflects on his personal friendship with Heinlein.]
In the newspaper Tuesday morning, May 10th, I read that Robert A. Heinlein had died Monday in his sleep from heart ailments and emphysema. He was 80 years old, and had lived a long, rich, and creative life. Death was merciful to him. And yet I had difficulty believing he was really dead. After all, the single theme of his work, over all those years, is the quest for material life at all costs. Once pushed into this life, you fought for all you're worth to keep going on. A powerful theme, and one which in Heinlein's case seemed to admit no defeat. Yet here were the facts.
During that Tuesday, I tried to sift out what Heinlein meant to me. First people called me from newspapers, to get some quick information about this “acclaimed SF writer.” Journalistic memory went back to the hippies and Stranger and Manson. There were the inevitable questions. “Was Heinlein really a good writer?” “If I liked him, why?” I found myself saying things like: he put me on the Moon, he let me live in Luna City, he put me on a spaceship with the real Rolling Stones. Not the sort of “literary” things they wanted to hear.
Then friends called, and we talked about all the stories and novels we had read. And then I was alone with my experience. I had been a Heinlein fan since a young boy, and had never stopped reading him. I don't believe I ever read him with pleasure (as one reads a novel like Great Expectations), but rather with a mixture of fascination and irritation. Heinlein says things I don't like, but writes about problems that need urgent tending to. I never heard a word about Heinlein in graduate school. In fact, there I was taught a method for attacking “writers of this sort.” Where is the stylistic complexity, the intricate web of symbols and ambiguities? The touchstones were Flaubert, Joyce—in America, Stevens. But Heinlein's prose does not live on the metaphysical streets of a physical town. It is in fact, for the academic, a real stone, the one we must kick once in a while to see if we live in literary reality. And so it was for me. Heinlein taught me to see the real American tradition: Whitman, Jeffers, Twain. To look beyond “imperfections” of style to their mythic power. And Heinlein taught me to see that SF is not a debased avatar, but a true avenue—the continuation of our native myth.
Thinking of these things, I suddenly realized that this mythic Heinlein did not belong to the past, or to the past tense. Writers die when their works become “texts.” But Heinlein is a voice. And a voice that is still heard with pleasure. It is a voice that runs through five decades of novels and stories. And still found entertaining and relevant by students, many of whom had not been born when Heinlein put his words to paper. This ability to be heard is the mark of a great storyteller, and Heinlein is one. I regularly teach novels like The Star Beast alongside Fielding, Cervantes, Balzac—great voices—and they stand the comparison.
I have quarreled with Heinlein, with his seemingly strange linkage between individuality and immortality. I found his anti-Sisyphean vision of perpetual motion, which reads like a modern version of Cronos devouring his progeny, terrifying. But only to realize that all this is not necessarily a “nightside” to our culture. I saw, instead, that Heinlein's dream stirs deep within that culture: in Thoreau's experience at Walden Pond, in Emerson's “undulatory” process. It was by struggling with Heinlein that I came to understand what American culture at least wants to be: dynamic and perpetually adolescent—a motion-machine that is not a circle but a spiral. If a true and vital flow passes from writers like Poe and Melville directly to Heinlein, then the academic distinction between SF and “mainstream” is a patent absurdity. For SF today, in Heinlein and in his literary progeny, best represents Emerson's legacy, where form has become a genuine function of power.
Heinlein has, in works from “Lifeline” to The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, dealt with the same problem over and over—the individual's fascination with, and struggle against, material limits. Heinlein is dead now, matter and destiny have claimed their part. But it seems as if only a part has fallen and fallen only in order that a corresponding power, the voice or “spirit” of the man, is freer to rise. I cannot think of Heinlein without hearing these lines of his Northern California neighbor, Robinson Jeffers: “What / Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried/Fear at its rising / Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8480
SOURCE: Slusser, George. “Heinlein's Fallen Futures.” Extrapolation 36, no. 2 (summer 1995): 96-112.
[In the following essay, Slusser evaluates the impact of Heinlein's work, viewing him as “a national writer, one who carries into a new scientific century cultural and ethical patterns first conceived by nineteenth-century American thinkers and writers of ‘romance’.”]
Robert Heinlein's long career has ended. Thus, there is the need, more urgent than ever, to assess the nature and importance of his work. But on what level should this assessment take place? The old-style fan saw Heinlein, both writer and public persona, as the quintessential SF writer and adulated him. Criticism of any sort was not tolerated, as I found out when my mid-seventies monographs were awarded the “galaxative award” by Spider Robinson in a hostile fan press. But SF readership has changed since then, and Heinlein has been placed in broader context—not necessarily to his advantage either, for the persona fans once admired has become an embarrassment to many of today's academic readers, whose ideologies he does not readily serve. All this shows that the Heinlein “problem” is one of the critical context in which we choose to place him. Is his work best studied in terms of genre? As a “literary” phenomenon? A cultural or mythical construct? After years of thinking about Heinlein and following his career, I wish to reinforce my original point of departure: Heinlein is a national writer, one who carries into a new scientific century cultural and ethical patterns first conceived by nineteenth-century American thinkers and writers of “romance.” If Heinlein is the Grandmaster of SF, we cannot say, with Bruce Franklin, that Heinlein has turned America into science fiction, but just the opposite—that SF is America, its natural form of literary expression in the continuity of its culture.
Recently, my earlier writings on a then-living Heinlein were taken to task by British critic Robin Usher. As Usher sees it, I mistakenly sought to limit my explanation of Heinlein's work to “theological” paradigms, in this case to the operation, in his fiction, of a secularized mechanism of Calvinist election: “Heinlein is concerned to promote a vision of an ‘immutable higher order’ but his God does not choose man. Man chooses God, or rather he chooses to be His vehicle. The God which the Heinlein hero serves is a personal inner god: the ‘Self’ of Jungian psychology” (Usher 71). The Jungian interpretation is attractive and no doubt correct. For me, however, it is simply too general. For the Jungian, it seems that all people have a “higher self,” and all are free to choose, or not, to integrate with it. Increasingly, however, it is clear to me that Heinlein's “hero” is not everyman but a uniquely American figure shaped in a very particular cultural matrix.
I do not wish to abandon the Calvinist interpretation, rather I wish to nuance it with an Emersonian reading. Among the few books on the shelves of families in the Bible Belt where Heinlein grew up, Emerson's essays are sure to sit. Emerson is read as secular American scripture, and it is he, not Jung, that glosses Heinlein. Analogies can be made, of course, between Emerson's “oversoul” and Jung's higher self. Nor is election an apparent aspect of Emerson's transcendental materialism. His frequent use of “we” suggests at least that the undulation between soul and oversoul, center and circumference, is a process open to all. The real difference, however, is in the direction and purpose of the process. In Jung, to invest the “higher self” is to grow, expand, move toward a future that must be wiser, thus better. In Emerson, investment takes an opposite path. The heart that abandons itself to the Supreme Mind “will travel a royal road to particular knowledges and powers. In ascending to this primary and aboriginal sentiment, we have come from our remote station on the circumference instantaneously to the center of the world, where, as in the closet of God, we see causes, and anticipate the universe, which is but a slow effect” (“Over-Soul” 1154). Things are topsy-turvy here, with the Jungian “royal road” leading instead from general circumference to a particular center, to an intimate “closet of God” that surely suggests the strait gate of election. What is more, in this closet of God we witness the contraction of future and history (the “slow effect”) to a presentness which is that of the sole self: “For the soul is true to itself, and the man in whom it is shed abroad cannot wander from the present, which is infinite, to a future which would be finite” (“Over-Soul” 1158).
Usher speaks of “a positive form of Heinleinian solipsism,” in Jungian terms one with a future, a growth vector. Heinlein's most powerful figures, however, despite their nominal insertion in a “future history,” in fact exist in a present that they strive to render infinite in duration and in size. This is a dynamic, self-sustaining solipsism. Emerson on one hand seems to deny the role of election in bestowing special “grace” on such a self: “Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks from this one, and for another moment from that one” (“Experience” 1170). On the other hand, he describes the mechanism whereby such a self generates its own power and form: “Life itself is a mixture of power and form, and will not bear the least excess of either” (“Experience” 1171). The Heinlein hero cultivates “life” not in terms of growth, which is excess, but rather as dynamic undulation measured in the sense of increasing amplitude, where longevity is equated with expanding duration of its present moment. What is experience here is not Jungian individuation but, rather, a material infusion of self into cosmos like that of Emerson's transparent eyeball: “I am nothing, I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me” (“Nature” 1067). The Heinlein hero tells the bird of power it need not alight, for everywhere the bird would put down, the single body is, cosmic currents flowing through its extended circulation system.
Just as Emerson shifts from “we” to “I” in the case of the secularized “election” that is the transparent eyeball, so Heinlein maintains an illusion of democratic possibility, until from the circulating masses a single being is chosen to become the body that in turn subsumes the circulation system. Following Emerson, Heinlein thus occludes traditional Calvinist anxiety over origins. The hero does not worry about whether he was initially chosen; in that “choice” here is made a function of ostensibly material forces such as genetic accident or species drive, the so-called “survival of the fittest.” Successful use of these, however, balancing the power-form ratio in order to expand beyond “we” to “I,” must, in the manner of Puritan society, be read as visible signs of election. The question, then, of Heinlein's “theology” is crucial in the context of an American culture that, as in Emerson, effectively obviates psychological development by transposing religious forms onto secular or material experience.
Heinlein continued publishing up to his death in 1988 (indeed, his voice continued to be heard in 1989, in Grumbles from the Grave). In one sense, however, his opus comes full circle in The Number of the Beast (1980)—or rather, swallows its tale, which from its earliest stories is that of the male monohero himself expanding to absorb all other characters and “plots.” Ostensibly a sprawling space opera, Beast soon reveals, as we sail off with Zeb Carter for dimensions unknown, that it is both fiction about fiction and, specifically, fiction about Heinlein's own fiction. Increasingly in his later novels, Heinlein used fictional persona as alter egos. The author here, however (it is hard to refer to a “narrator,” as Heinlein almost always lets his characters speak in their voice or speaks of them in a voice calqued on their “point of view”), not only resurrects figures from a panoply of early novels but makes them aware that they are fictional creations. Moreover, Heinlein incorporates his reader into the text as well by mingling that reader's world (both as “real” person and as reader of pulp adventures) with those of his fictional characters, thus making that world yet another of the alternative universes he rules over. There is humor here, much of it aimed at critics. Even so, the implication is clear: the author, nowhere and everywhere in his creation, makes himself a transparent eyeball and at the same time, forcing all currents of the Universal Being to flow back through his own pen, declares himself a god in all possible worlds, the reader's world included.
Heinlein announces in this novel an “inter-universal society for eschatological pantheistic multiple-ego solipsism.” The joke, however, contains the fundamental paradox of Heinlein's work as a whole. Beast is full of chatty “family” scenes; it is a-whirl with multiple entities. Yet, beyond even the genetic lines of Lazarus Long, this proliferation of kin, fictional or real, collapses as it seems to expand, circumscribing at a single center the isolated “body” of the author. Expansion and contraction are one, systole and diastole, so that as action and pages of prose proliferate, the single author becomes increasingly “visible” not just in but as his creation. We can call the process “dynamic solipsism,” or some such thing. But it seems, too, an act of literary cannibalism, where scores of worlds are “born” only to be fed upon and fictional progeny devoured as the source of energy needed to sustain the single writer. This “god” does not create ex nihilo; rather, he recycles, and because what he recycles is things he creates, he endlessly swallows himself. At the same time, however, this solipsistic creator is central to the material universe that underlies Heinlein's fiction. Operating here is a system of pure transfer of energy that excludes the possibility of future progress. One understands the attraction of grace in such a condition, for Pascal faced a similar dilemma. To Heinlein, however, grace is not a means of transcending orders of reality; instead, it promises access to an alternate world where entropy is replaced by self-sustaining process, where an individual center—here the writer in the closet of God—expands to create its own circumference.
On the narrative level, Heinlein displaces the literary “circumference,” with its diversity of character and plot and pretensions at future history, with the undulating rhythms of personal solipsism. His career as a published writer spanned exactly five decades. His first story, “Life Line,” appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in August 1939. Thereafter his steady output literally evolved along with the publishing industry, embracing formats from the magazine story and serial, the hardback juvenile novel for lending libraries, mass-market paperbacks, and, at the end of his career, increasingly luxurious hardback and trade paper-back publications (an example is the 1980 Fawcett Columbine edition of Number of the Beast with its lavishly embossed wrap-around cover and massively integrated illustrations). The lengths of his fictions range from minimalist short stories, written under austere editorial (and no doubt personal/artistic) constraints, to prolix novels that get longer and longer. By the end of his life Heinlein could demand of his publishers that no word, however unnecessary, be stricken from his texts. As late as 1968, in Stranger in a Strange Land, the work that made him a best-seller, editorial cuts were made; the posthumous appearance of an “uncut version” shows us how precious those lost words have become since.
Despite this great variety of formats, Heinlein's literary purpose has remained remarkably monochromatic in his incessant focus on the single individual and his world. This despite the fact that, as Heinlein's career advanced, he sought to persuade the reader that his stories and novellas were really part of a projected, organically evolving “future history.” Ever since Balzac and the later Asimov, however, we know such histories are post hoc creations. For Heinlein, it seems to have been a matter of drawing clever diagrams and chronologies after the fact. For the 1967 appearance of The Past Through Tomorrow, billed as “Future History Stories: Complete in One Volume,” reveals the arbitrary nature of the grouping and suggests that, as of then, the project was closed.
The true nature of Heinlein's “future” is clearly revealed with the 1980 publication of Expanded Universe. Here Heinlein presents a handful of so-called future history stories (the same five stories were also published in a volume called The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein that appeared one year earlier than The Past Through Tomorrow, in 1966). Now, however, the stories serve to present not history but the singular career of the author himself. Presenting “Life Line” lets Heinlein describe his first sale. Other stories mark the chronology of his literary life, giving the occasion for speeches and essays that expose his increasingly obsessive thoughts and “credo.” In his “Foreword” to Expanded Universe. Heinlein talks about making money and gloats uncharitably about outliving all his presumed literary enemies: “time wounds all heels.” The historical mask falls here. And if Heinlein, in his 1980s novels, brings back figures from earlier works to play roles, in a neo-Balzacian attempt to bestow on the whole of his oeuvre a feel of historical continuity, the latter is a facade. The late novels may claim the scope of an intergalactic human comedy. Yet the recurring figures in this family of man prove to be the family of one figure, the most representative of players in his putative “future history,” Lazarus Long. Long's progeny return obsessively in novels from Beast to Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984) and To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987). Long shares with the “commentator” of Expanded Universe, the writer-god of Beast, and even with Heinlein's Job an obsession with preserving his physical being. In Heinlein, all promise of mankind's advancement, its growth across time and space, conflates on a focus that is not even family in the sense of dynasty but the single self. Does it matter if this self is the “real” Heinlein or his fictional alter ego Lazarus Long? Long, whose literary situation permits him to meditate on the wages of prolonged personal destiny (rather than on royalties and enemies), may be most fascinating of the two. It is Long, in fact, who raises the question of kairos in relation to author Heinlein's pretense at chronos or historical axis. For as Lazarus frantically seeks to cleave throughout eternity to his individual body firmly held in the bands of matter, he denies all possibility either of history or of cosmic growth through transcendence, where individuals give way to higher collective entities or “overminds.”
Thus, despite the huge bulk of Heinlein's production and the increasing sprawl of his form into massive romans à tiroirs, the normative form in his canon remains, both in a literal (i.e., structural) and figurative sense, the short, vertically operative allegory. This is an endlessly repeatable tale that, in its working out, ever repeats the same scenario: (1) initial promise of action and strong character development suddenly ruptured along its line of horizontal development; (2) subsequent, and instant, translation of events or protagonists to adulthood and “glory”; (3) conflation of ends and beginnings; finally, (4) physical condensation of all fictional scenarios and human dramas to that fixed point where we discover the preordained duration of a (ultimately the) single physical body.
A frequent narrative mask in earlier Heinlein is the “social evolutionary” setting where, as in Beyond this Horizon (1948), genetically “strong” protagonists dream of some dimorphic evolution that would send their seed “to roam the stars—no limit.” Yet for such “star lines,” genetic advance (and advantage) never leaves the unlikely matrix of the patriarchal family. The perennial grouping, even in tales of promised genetic change, is invariably father, mother, son. The configuration is as static as the psychoanalytical triad. Its particular fixity, however, in Heinlein, comes more from “atavistic” traits, so-called anal and oral formations.
The first, and obvious, thing we notice about Heinlein's narrative is its single-gender nature. If formula plotting requires that there be roles of wife, daughter, even “lover,” Heinlein goes out of his way—more than the conventions of “juvenile” fiction demand—to turn females into tomboys, nags, fuzzy-brained hysterics. Feminists execrate Heinlein, on a visceral level, because he presents women who do domestic duty as irrevocably stupid. For example, the simpering wife of “The Black Pits of Luna” (1948) is so dumb (i.e., ignorant of science) that she calls for bloodhounds on an airless moon to search for a lost son who subsequently proves quite able to take care of himself. The tomboy is a bit more interesting, but only because she is a male travesty. Heinlein lets girls wear the shoes of the traditionally male adolescent of the juvenile bildungsroman. For example, Podkayne of Mars, heroine of a belated juvenile (1963), enters the scene as a tough-as-nails girl with ambitions of breaking into the all-male world of military space flight. In the end, however, biology makes her drop the mask, and voila, the old curse of Eve returns. All she need do is look in a mirror to discover she has broad hips and is fond of babies, and dreams of space conquest bow to destiny with relief. When Heinlein brings back another “tomboy,” in Friday (1982), we are, it seems, promised something quite different: a real female at last, one who (as is proclaimed on the book's jacket) “is all woman … very, very female.” How troubling to learn that this female, who “can think better, fight better and make love better than any of the normal people around her,” is not normal but, rather, is “a super-being … engineered from the finest genes.” The Engineer is still a male authority, and the product, “trained to be a secret courier,” is still his little girl Friday.
Heinlein's “departures” from the male adolescent hero formula are significant because they are not departures. He gives us girl heroines, even concocts potential sexual rivalries and “love affairs” between his youthful protagonists, only to elide them in a way that shows he has no interest whatsoever in gender differences on this level. A female heroine can survive only by being the exact calque of a young male. All daughters are really sons, and it is as sons that they must deal with parental authority. Parents alone in Heinlein have marked gender stances, and what differentiates them has the force of deep creation myth.
In his culturally unassuming medium of the “juvenile” bildungsroman, Heinlein recasts the struggle of child and parent on the primitive and universalist plane of a battle between earth and sky gods. As first glance, the prize seems nothing less than possession of the material universe. In work after work, a young hero(ine), freed of the necessity of seeking Freudian or Jungian individuation, is called to act in a quasi-symbolic drama that (like Everyman moving between the gates of heaven and hell) is bounded by two unchanging, and all-encompassing, forces. On one “end” of the life line, we find the all-separating mother, who bears life only to cast it forth into the stream of material growth and decay. She is a conflation of generative and biological curses—Rhea and Pandora combined. On the other (respondent) end, there is the all-consuming father. In Heinlein's mythology, the latter is postlapsarian. Born of woman's curse, this figure sustains male life only to the degree he harnesses the mother's capacity to generate more life in the form of consumable energy. He is a new Kronos, spawning and raising children in order to devour them. The sole role of Heinlein's younger “generation,” then, is that of allegorical vector between producer of energy and consumer. Such existence is hardly progressive—the young man growing to displace father and mother. It is regressive, where quests for adulthood and adult relationships only mask an inverted (and thoroughly male) drive to reverse the fall by controlling—“farming,” in a literal sense—the maternal force.
The allegorical nature of Heinlein's stories is evident in their ritualistic nature. Female temptation and love, for instance, are rituals. We have seen how the challenge of the female rival is thwarted when plot veers from conflict to revelation of identity. Similar forces intervene to deny the female the self-knowledge necessary to function as lover and, potentially, wife. Wherever couples are formed in a Heinlein novel, the gesture is anticlimactic, an afterthought that denies passion and offers no threat of future conflict. The “lover” is instantly the potential mother, future and dutiful serer of offspring for another young Kronos-in-training.
The rhetorical device here is ellipsis. That its use conceals an obsession with the Pandoran mother as source of originally uncontrolled generation—all-destroying time and love—is clear. In order to contain, and ultimately control, this chthonic force, Heinlein always conflates the figures of wife and mother. His texts (like his heroes) function like machines that would regulate this terrible organic presence by a highly contrived “technology” of substitution. On the simplest level, in a juvenile like Time for the Stars (1956), Heinlein mechanically multiplies female suitors, reducing potential individuals to faceless ciphers. In this novel, Special Relativity is evoked to sanction the elevation to prominence of one identical twin over the other. As befits this allegory of secularized “grace,” female “temptation” must be offered only to be eliminated by making that presence generic in nature. Predestined by their very names, Misses Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Furtney have a destiny only as components in a telepathic net. Unnamed, they cannot be called. Nonentities, they offer no individual menace to the scientifically elect.
The same reduction of female personalities to groupings occurs in the so-called “adult” novels as well. We find them, ironically, in the novel that passed in the late 1960s as a call to self-awareness: Stranger in a Strange Land. The long first section of the novel celebrates the doings of mature “sybarite” Jubal Harshaw. Harshaw offers an iconic template for domination of women that young Michael Valentine Smith will implement in the course of this long book. Playing Pan to the coming hippie rock star, Harshaw always travels with his entourage of beauties. But, physically, they are as faceless as an MTV constellation. They are his “secretaries,” and there is a James Bond uniformity to the standardized modes of sexual experience they offer. There is a Bondlike “danger,” too, in Amazon Jill and temptress-dancer Dawn. But whatever potential threat they pose instantly vanishes when they learn that they are (despite minor physical differences like full-body tatoos for Dawn) in fact mirror twins. We have the impression of reading two novels having different women with the same name. Harshaw's Jill has a mind of her own and is well on her way to becoming a prime mover in the intrigue. With Mike, however, all this vanishes; suddenly she is another faceless unit in his harem—now neither person nor lover, just another breeder of chosen ones.
In the later novels, however, the youthful-feminine appears more tempting, and correspondingly harder to dominate. In I Will Fear No Evil (1970), the male messiah of Stranger (who could only be resurrected on an alternate plane) is replaced by an aged recycler, who takes women's bodies as well as their personalities. The three names here—Johann Sebastian Smith—tell us in emblem fashion that we have a special creative mind trapped in the body of an everyman. An automobile accident and a brain transplant let Johann be recycled in the body of his beautiful secretary. The situation generates three hundred pages of voyeurism and sexual charades, with finally two men and a woman “sharing” the same body. Heinlein, however, is not putting Plato's androgyne back together here. Instead, what we have is a male destiny using a female body to get physically closer to the process of reproduction. Johann had stored his sperm before the operation and now uses it to inseminate himself so that he can control, now from inside the body, the process of gestation that will perpetuate his seed.
Heinlein's young hero has not become old so much as become a conflation of old and young. Smith figures in this sense Heinlein's aged-yet-ageless hero, Lazarus Long. Long's sole activity, in Time Enough For Love (1972), is finding new and intricate ways of fathering himself. In this novel, Long uses a number of gambits from genetic engineering to time travel in order to play sons and lovers, though he has reached the end not only of his biological line but of human time as well. By this playing, he hopes to conquer, retroactively, the female challenges left undone by the normal flow of existence. Cloning allows him to produce the “sisters” he never had. In their production, he reduces biology to empty form by insisting that cloned embryos be carried in host “mothers,” who are two exotic and faceless hetaera of the sort Jubal cultivated. Thanks to longevity, Lazarus can raise these sisters as “daughters” and in turn seduce them as lovers. The creatures even condone his actions: “Coupling with us might be masturbation, but it can't be incest, because we aren't your sisters. … We're you.” In another episode, Lazarus acts as onanistic Pygmalion to bring a computer to life. Where before he has lost “emphemeral” lovers to the stream of time, now he lures a flesh-and-blood woman out of machine-eternity, if into a life of sterile servitude.
Longevity gives Lazarus, after he tires of living multiple lives, the capacity to relive them through the lives of his sons and daughters. Not only are daughters clones of the sons, but both become, through genetic control, simply extensions of the father's body.
Not content with channeling the energies of the female first cause, he strives to encompass it physically, too, by going back in time to make love with his mother. Heinlein titillates us with the possibility of this son becoming his own father. But titillation is all we get, for if the system is to hold, the mother must remain the inviolate first cause. Lazarus cannot touch it, for not only would he cease to be, but the energy that generates the power and form of this being would fail. For the Emersonian materialist, the first cause is awesome. Final causes are, by contrast, menacing but controllable. In relation to birth (the center), final causes promise irreversible events—individuation, future happenings, death—and as such commit energy to linear rather than undulatory movement, drawing it fatally beyond the pull of its source. A “Lord of Life” is needed to forestall the end by controlling the means, holding the center in relation to an ever-expanding circumference. Lazarus is such a “Lord of Life.”
Looking backward from Lazarus, we see these figures dominating Heinlein narratives from the beginning. The only difference is their power and width of circumference. We go from Fader Magee in Coventry (1940) and Kettle Belly Bailey in “Gulf” (1940) to reincarnations of Jubal Harshaw who bridge the gap, in Number of the Beast, between a career of fictional mentors and the author as their stepfather. Finally, there are the many lives and beings of Lazarus Long as they multiply in response to the looming ubiquity of Maureen Johnson in The Cat Who Walks through Walls (1986) and finally To Sail beyond the Sunset (1988). That Heinlein's “Lords of Life” are almost never natural fathers is a strategic device. Witness Lazarus's many “adoptive” masks and roles, which allow him to approach the seat of female power without committing incest or chronoclasm.
The scenario, however, already functions in the juveniles. For example, in Time for the Stars the hero Tom's blood father is “unmanned” through attachment to wife and home. The boy finds a mentor in bachelor Uncle Steve. And happily Steve's advice—go to the stars—proves a way, via relativity, for the son to impede the normal course of bloodlines. Tom returns to find his twin brother the age of his grandfather. He could, therefore, marry a girl the age of his granddaughter. In doing so, he would draw the future, now a circumference to his center, at least a ways back toward the original point of generation.
Uncle Steve is a military man, and his mentor is a titular one: the Captain. Heinlein's army, however, is not a place of blind obedience to a system. Indeed, Time is an exemplary tale of how few, if many are thus named, have the intrinsic qualities to be Captain. Tom is under the command of the inept Captain Urqhardt. The latter, ordering the ship to certain ruin, forces Tom (and with him the now-dead Steve, who remains his tutelary voice) to disobey orders. And through the intervention of a yet higher authority, what Heinlein calls “serendipity,” in the form here of the faster-than-light vessel that suddenly arrives to vindicate the hero's actions, Tom can defy the letter of the law without breaking its spirit. In allegories of this sort, the mentor is ultimately an inner, guiding voice. The action is its vindication, as all institutional hierarchies (as with Emerson, institutions are but lengthened shadows of men) yield to natural ones. In like manner, a natural providence—here the relativity that allows scientists back on earth time to research and build the “miraculous” ship—breaks through the benighted folly of ordinary beings to make manifest the right way. But in Heinlein, “the way” is not a way that goes anywhere in a historical sense. What is revealed is not moments that decide the course of human progress. As with Emerson's representative men, we have revelations of a number of representative moments, different manifestations or forms of a same living power. This is precisely the “geography” of the linked novellas Universe and Common Sense (1941). We do not, here, see all humanity reverted to superstition and self-limitation, only certain people on a typical generation starship lost on its course to Alpha Centauri. The adventure of the stories' “new Galileo,” Hugh Hoyland, leads to no historical breakthrough, no new beginning of civilization, simply to a reprieve. The narrative, revealing a type, only retells Heinlein's single story, that of the winnowing of human chaff and the emergence of the elect.
Heinlein surely would not have liked terms like “providence” or “grace.” The conventional Miltonic God the Father, as we see in Job: A Comedy of Justice (1986), is just another corporate manager, whose dominions are a stifling bureaucracy. But “serendipity” is not a secularized form of grace; it is a localized form. Heinlein's chain of “grace” is not just patriarchal; it is operative on the local, or tribal, level. In his military chain of command, there are never generals. In Starship Troopers (1959), for example, Johnny Rico's exemplary career is guided first by Sergeant Zim, the boot-camp instructor who returns, “providentially,” to lead him in his baptism of fire. Beyond Zim, there is the less tangible Colonel Dubois, the high school “moral philosophy” instructor who first inspires Johnny to enlist. But, if Dubois returns again and again to direct Johnny's path, guidance here is through words not deeds. We have Dubois's timely letters, his lectures, his reported bits of wisdom, but not his physical presence. Colonels, in fact, seem to be numinous figures in Heinlein. Witness P-Colonel Baslim of the Exotic Corps in Citizen of the Galaxy (1957). Once he saves orphan Thorby from slavery in the opening pages of the book, he dies, leaving behind his “aura” or guiding light to future mentors. Captain seems the ideal level of patriarchal authority—the head or chief of a small tribe, of a “few good men.” The social unit of serendipity is never large; in lieu of the blood family, it must form an alternate unit of equal size, as befits the intimacy of Emersonian power and form.
Heinlein's patriarchal dramas, then, are to be read not in an Oedipal sense but as rituals that free the young hero from the strictures of family and blood, from the possibility of social individuation and, beyond this, of historical dynasty. But free them to what purpose? In Citizen of the Galaxy, step-father Baslim acts, beyond death, to activate a series of surrogate mentors whose task is to free Thorby from any resurgence of blood ties: first Captain Krausa, who frees Thorby from the toils of a Trader “family” so complex in organization an anthropologist is needed to decipher it; then Lawyer Garsch, who extricates the hero from the intrigues of his own blood family. As we have seen, blood fathers, like the bureaucratic structures they represent, hinder the young hero. They do not, however, hinder “growth” in a Freudian sense. We never see, in Heinlein, Freud's displacement of the father as creating a balanced personality. Heinlein's mentors, instead, redirect the young man to a non-Oedipal line, where blood father is displaced by a symbolic figure: bachelor uncle, teacher, captain. In Starship Troopers, for example, the possibility of Oedipal conflict is raised only to be elided when an alternate military chain of command subsumes the authority of blood ties. Johnny's blood father is unsuccessful in exercising his paternal right to prevent his son from enlisting. Defeated, he returns in the end in an inverted role: now as the sergeant who serves directly under Lieutenant Rico. Johnny has displaced the father, but not through psychological growth; rather, by instant identification with the symbolic patriarchy that rules his universe. This is the universe of Kronos, a world before and outside the laws of personal and historical development, where fathers and sons, by necessity, remain indistinguishable. The symbolic figure associated with a Kronos who absorbs his progeny is that of elision. “Son” Johnny is simply an immanent patriarch. By eliding normal processes of biology and psychology, he merely invests the form of the symbolic “father.”
It is difficult to isolate a “key” text for any aspect of Heinlein's rich work. The narrative, however, that best defines the crux between immanence and history in Heinlein, where the promise of future generations encounters the self-perpetuating dynamic of Kronos, the interchangeable father and son as Emerson's center and circumference, is The Puppet Masters (1959). This novel, on the surface, seems to restore Freud and bloodlines to the family portrait. For in the story we learn that the “Old Man,” the military boss, is in fact the protagonist's own flesh-and-blood father. The purpose of this narrative, it appears, is not to lead Sam, in guise of some secular grace, to take possession of the father role. It is rather to have him earn the right to become the father, as the individual who rids the Old Man of his parasitical “slug,” restoring him to the bloodline and overthrowing his authority at the same time. The Kronos function, the immanent possession that conflates son and father to interchangeable roles, seems transferred to the vampiric, personality-stealing slugs who in the end are defeated. But on what terms is a family reunited here? Were I wont to give Heinlein such intentions, I would say that in The Puppet Masters he restores the Freudian temptation, but only to “subvert” it. On the eve of figures like Michael Valentine Smith and Lazarus Long, who are openly hermaphroditic compounds of father and son, he seems to wish to lay the ghost of individuation to rest.
Indicating the vertical nature of family development in the novel is the perfect allegorical “readibility” of the cover illustration from the 1951 Galaxy, where the earlier serial-form appeared. The cover, depicting the final scene, shows us a son who is now Boss, looming tall and strong over a much smaller female figure. In now familiar manner, man's potential partner and sexual rival is neutralized by size and symbolic position. The seductive attributes of Eve—in this case full breasts—are regulated by the strait-jacketing “space” costume and thus reduced to mere signs of the breeding function the female must serve on the subsequent twenty-year flight to Titan to destroy the slug's home world. This is an accurate depiction of the narrative's reductive nature. Initially, Mary is an agent as tough and resourceful as Sam. In the course of things, however, she does not develop but is merely translated from an active to a symbolic role. In the end, she may be the one who saves mankind; but she does so only because she is capable of being a passive vessel. Because she has survived the rare Venusian fever that kills the slugs, she becomes the repository of crucial information that allows men to exterminate them. Indeed, it is only through controlled male probing of her hidden life sources in memory, an act of permissive rape by proxy, that the identity of the disease is finally retrieved.
The background of the cover is a huge spaceship, the largest element in the picture and symbol of the primacy of the mission. Beckoning the couple to enter is the Old Man. His distant smallness suggests the role of tutelary spirit. He bears, in fact, no family resemblance to the tall young man. Instead we have Heinlein's typical mentor, bald and paunchy, the physique common to such diverse figures as Kettle Belly Bailey and Hugh Farnham. In the narrative, the Old Man all but perishes in a final plane crash only to be resurrected by physical fusion with his young acolyte. Much as Jubal Harshaw's suicide, in Stranger in a Strange Land, is reversed when Mike “inhabits” his body, here Sam's lying “face to face … almost cheek to cheek” with his dying father restores the vitality we see on the Galaxy cover. On that cover, the father continues to draw on filial energy, inviting the son into a situation—space travel—where he must take the form of an old man. Sam's voyage to adulthood will be an elided one. Like Rip van Winkle, the tall son will emerge from this mental chrysalis twenty years later on a distant planet as a bald and paunchy figure. Yet, within the allegorical space of this cover, Sam, potentially the father yet still the tall youth, improves on Rip. Rip must pay for the instant translation from inexperience to wisdom with loss of youth, while Sam retains both. Applying the Einsteinian gambit of Time for the Stars, twenty years of Sam's time at near-light speeds translates into centuries of earth time. If Sam ages on his biological line, even more he is a hopeless anachronism to the “new” world many intervening generations have created. Yet, by the logic of paradox, he still returns “younger” that his great-great-grandfather. This cover freezes, in static eternity, the elements of that dynamic of self-perpetuation which is Heinlein's master narrative throughout his career. It is a narrative in which, in this instance, the fantasy of election and the physics of space travel concur to make Sam a youth in age's mantle.
Looking across the span of Heinlein's work, then, we see families and generations and future history conflate into what is an endless reconfiguring of a single lifeline—that of the aging authority figure, from Hugo Pinero in the first published story “Life Line” (1939) to Lazarus Long—into a dynamic figure that resembles Emerson's undulation between center and circumference. If Emerson defines his poles as individual being on one hand and universe on the other, he does not see the latter as a purely personal construct but as the universe itself. We cannot, thus, limit Heinlein's hero, in light of his relation to the “continuity” of an American experience, to those patterns of psychoanalysis and bildung his own fictional vision rejects. The Oedipal and individuation myths assume the primacy of Zeus and the Socratic dictum of “know thyself.” But Heinlein, following a cultural current that can be traced back to Ben Franklin, openly formulates the human condition in terms of a pre-Socratic emphasis on material atoms and intelligence on one hand and, on the other, of preindividuated, “archaic” human formations—the oral Kronos who devours generations and futures in order to preserve his material present. In Heinlein's monohero—in whom Emersonian self-reliance and Thoreau's call to “simplify” is carried to monstrous proportions—we have, rather than a case of arrested development or “phobia” of growing old, a concerted act of personal philosophy.1
Heinlein's care is for the physical perpetuation of the body—the sole body he (in the manner of the empirical tradition of the American founders) really knows: his own. But if psychological categories are tangential, even antithetical, to his vision, moral categories are not. The word “ethos” refers to a being's character, its “normal state” of being. C. Hugh Holman states that Calvinism “may almost be considered the ethical mode in America” (226). As such, Calvinism may be said to haunt Emerson's transcendental vision as its ethical “soul,” the basic condition of the humanity on which that vision would operate. Heinlein, then, though neither a professed nor practicing Calvinist, is unable, in his narratives of male self-perpetuation, to do away with the female first cause. Here, it seems, we have a thing of awe and terror, the place of generation that is at once a place of total depravity and source of the Fall and a wellspring of “grace,” the force (however disguised as genetic or evolutionary trajectories) that sustains Lazarus's “unconditional” election beyond any ability he may have to perform deeds. It is for this reason that Lazarus, claiming the circumference in the very late novels, increasingly comes under the pull of Mother Maureen's center. Her presence in these novels acts to restore, in light of the secular temptation of control by unaided reason, Calvinism's ultimate doctrine of limits. Maureen's rise signals the limited possibility for atonement or action in the face of the mystery of grace, which no one, even Lazarus, deserves in light of the enormity of the Fall.
Heinlein's Americanism is usually confused with the genre formulas he adopts. Samuel R. Delany outlines the following pulp formulas as “genre conventions” in SF: “(1) that a single man, unaided, can change the course of history; (2) that the universe is basically a hospitable place; (3) that intelligence is a perfectly linear human attribute” (226). Heinlein is constantly telling us that such is his credo. But let us measure his fiction by these categories. First, in spite of constant praise (through fictional mouthpieces or in authorial asides) of the lone hero, rarely if ever is that single man “unaided” in Heinlein. Lazarus's name, we are told, means “God has helped.” For such heroes, self-reliant toughness is doubled by a secular form of “grace,” an inscrutable destiny that elevates a figure who bears no marks of greatness. Second, if certain men are chosen, how “hospitable” is the destiny that elects them? Heinlein forever asserts, in the name of “serendipity,” that the universe is a friendly place for his elect. For example, when Hugh Hoyland's band in Common Sense casts off in space, it appears to land in a new Eden. Yet no new world begins here: instead we have a localized event, a huddling place for a few lucky survivors, nothing more. In the broader scope of the Fall, human triumphs and “conquests” are diminutions when measured against what was and is no more, the lost first cause, or, in its secular mask, the peak of energy from which all else is a downward slope. Heinlein's “Eden,” in fact, returns human beings to the crudest oral existence: “From now on, Alan, always Good Eating” (128). On an even vaster intergalactic stage, Kip, in Have Space Suit, Will Travel (1959), successfully argues the human cause before a cosmic bar of justice. But the outcome of his serendipitous efforts (his “grace”) is pure Calvinist anticlimax, for mankind is not granted a pardon, only a reprieve. The sole triumph is again on the level of anality and food. For only back at the local soda fountain after his adventure can Kip exercise free will, and this only to fling a pie in the face of the local bully.
Calvinism makes a perfect fit with the thermodynamic vision that Heinlein derives simultaneously from his Emersonian heritage and from his interest in the physical sciences. The undulatory pattern between center and circumference, which shapes family relations and conflict around the self-sustaining patriarch, may offer conservation of matter. But this itself is a localized case on the irreversible slope of entropy. However centrifugal the claim for an expanding circumference, as with Lazarus's universe-spanning body, expansion is matched by an opposite and unequal centripetal pull toward an ever-diminishing center. Nor is intelligence, the motor of physical mastery, ever (in Delany's sense) linear in Heinlein's SF formulas; rather, it is curved or sloped. For example, the apparently linear pursuit of life extension leads ultimately to physical contraction. Such is Kettle Belly Bailey's search to acquire “speedtalk” in “Gulf” (1941), for this is a skill that damns those that master it to “an effective lifetime of at least sixteen hundred years, reckoned in flow of ideas,” thus placing an intolerable compression on a still-short lifeline. Even escape into alternative universes proves a compression, not expansion, of heroic possibility. In Glory Road (1963), “Scar” Gordon trades Vietnam for a realm of sword and sorcery only to find its paths of glory (worse even than those of its analogue) meandering and hopelessly regressive. “Decisive” battles lead nowhere, and the world he finally liberates (aptly called “Center”) turns out to be simply a mirror of Scar's anarchic being, a world without government, where “even the positive edicts of the Imperium were usually negative in form.” Finally, intellectual mastery of time inscribes nothing more than endless loopings around a single, and endlessly diminishing, instant or episode in the lifespan of a single self. Bob Wilson, in “By His Bootstraps” (1941), appears to achieve physical eternity—and a much better life in the magic kingdom of Norsaal—by orchestrating a dynamic circumference of temporal manifestations of himself around a single, endlessly repeated spacetime event. Yet perpetual motion proves here to be a “fur farm,” where with each turn something dies, a little energy is lost. Bob, for example, passes through the circles to become the mentor Diktor because he is Diktor. Yet the notebook Diktor first showed him is lost in the process, and he must (re)write it. The “Bob” who will replace him in turn must rewrite another, and so on. What happens, however, to these notebooks? And where does each Diktor that is displaced go?
In the end, Bob Wilson is perhaps the emblematic Heinlein hero. He, by an act of grace (the appearance of the “time gate”), does not have to finish his thesis and go get a dull teaching job in the adult world. He runs temporal rings around his fiance Genevieve, dominating her while never having to marry her. He invests the role of his mentor by both being and becoming him, thanks to the providential paradox of sequency/simultaneity. He is master of a segment of time, with the reward of being able to live in an imaginary kingdom, the master of many beautiful women. Even entropy, provided he sees it operating on the notebooks and Diktors, must take a million years to wear him down. And yet we readers find him ultimately dull and empty. He has neither personality nor future nor the possibility of spiritual adventure. He is Heinlein's fallen man, who is chosen only to illustrate the ubiquity of damnation. The stigma, in Heinlein, that cleaves universal promise to material process is a denial not only of the future but of all possibility of transcendence. In the paradox of election in a world without the possibility of God as spirit, we face the vision, less of Emerson than his nightside Poe, whose materialist fantasies are circumscribed by a brooding sense of the universe as irrevocably depraved and fallen. On one hand, history and future must lie in the tomb of matter, where existence undulates between fear of premature burial and the lure of material “resurrection,” and its amplitude in the end is but the span of a corpse, so that Lazarus and Johann Smith make no advance over Ligeia. On the other, hope of transcendence is ultimately the same life-in-death suspension of biological process we find in the symbiosis between Usher and his house. In like manner, Heinlein's life-defying patriarchs draw parasitically on their maternal past. The “universes” they build, to cite Ray Bradbury in “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” are “wormed with man and gravity” (250), equally crumbling. Heinlein has taken the formulas of SF and lengthened their shadows, infusing them with the central problematic of his culture, for which the paradox of the fallen future remains a driving force, and fatal obsession.
One can trace Heinlein's preoccupation with endlessly extending the material line of a single existence from his first published story “Life Line.” We find fascinating variants on this ongoing investigation in the “middle period,” in works like Double Star, where a protagonist called in to impersonate a political figure in danger in the end actually becomes that figure. The older man has been physically replaced (rejuvenated) by the younger one, and, in infinite series, one could imagine a yet younger one, when the time comes, replacing this impersonator. Time Enough for Love carries this search to obsessive and monstrous extremes, and the last novels only build on this.
Bradbury, Ray. The Golden Apples of the Sun. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953.
Delany, Samuel R. “Reflection on Historical Models.” Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Pleasantville, NY: Dragon Press, 1984.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Experience,” The American Tradition in Literature, 3rd ed. Vol. 1. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1967.
———. “Nature.” The American Tradition in Literature.
———. “The Over-Soul.” The American Tradition in Literature.
Heinlein, Robert A. Beyond This Horizon. Reading: Fantasy Press, 1948.
———. “The Black Pits of Luna.” The Past through Tomorrow.
———. “By His Bootstraps.” The Menace from Earth. New York: Signet Books, 1957.
———.The Cat Who Walks through Walls. New York: Putnam's, 1985.
———. Citizen of the Galaxy. New York: Scribner's, 1957.
———. “Coventry.” The Past through Tomorrow.
———. “Common Sense.” Orphans of the Sky. New York: Berkley Books, 1963.
———. Expanded Worlds: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1980.
———. Friday. New York: Holt, Reinhart, Winston, 1982.
———. Glory Road. New York: Putnam's, 1963.
———. Grumbles from the Grave. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine, 1989.
———. “Gulf.” Assignment in Eternity. Reading: Fantasy Press, 1953.
———. Have Space Suit, Will Travel. New York: Scribner's, 1958.
———. I Will Fear No Evil. New York: Putnam's, 1980.
———. Job: A Comedy of Justice. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine, 1984.
———. “Life Line.” The Past through Tomorrow.
———. Number of the Beast. London: New English Library/Times Mirror, 1980.
———. The Past through Tomorrow. New York: Berkley Books, 1967.
———. The Puppet Masters. Garden City: Doubleday, 1951.
———. To Sail beyond the Sunset. New York: Ace/Putnam, 1987.
———. Starship Troopers. New York: Putnam's, 1959.
———. Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: Putnam's, 1961.
———. Time for the Stars. New York: Scribner's, 1956.
———. Time Enough for Love. New York: Putnam's, 1973.
———. “Universe.” Orphans of the Sky.
Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature. 3rd ed. New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1962.
Usher, Robin Leslie. “Robert Heinlein: Theologist?” Foundation 54 (Spring 1992).
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3976
SOURCE: McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “Heinlein's Solar System, 1940-1952.” Science Fiction Studies 23, no. 2 (July 1996): 245-52.
[In the following essay, McGiveron explores the role of extraterrestrials in Heinlein's fiction.]
“Noisy” Rhysling, the wandering blind poet of the spaceways in Robert A. Heinlein's “The Green Hills of Earth” (1947), sings,
We've tried each spinning space mote And reckoned its true worth: Take us back again to the homes of men On the cool, green hills of Earth.
Despite his apparent dismissal of “the harsh bright soil of Luna” and the jungles of a pulp-fiction Venus “Crawling with unclean death,” Rhysling can not help but admit the beauty of “Saturn's rainbow rings,” “the frozen night on Titan” (Past 372-23), and, in another poem, the canals and graceful towers of a Lowellian Mars (Past 366-67). Reckoning the true worth of the Solar System Heinlein created throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, however, reveals more than simply an admiration for rugged beauty.
One notable characteristic of much of Heinlein's early work is his use of a Solar System inhabited in the past or present by four different species of nonhuman intelligences. Heinlein depicted these species first in magazine stories published in the 1940s and enriched his treatment of them in a number of juvenile novels published in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Certain of his stories written at this time, of course, do not fit into this scheme. For example, though it was published as part of the Future History series, the story “‘—We Also Walk Dogs’” (1941) postulates not only aliens on “three planets [including unlikely Jupiter] and four major satellites” (Past 331) but also a breakthrough in gravity control which fortunately is not carried over into any other tale. Many of the other Future History stories simply do not deal with aliens at all, and after 1952 the novels either shift from the earlier pattern or leave the Solar System altogether. Yet the majority of Heinlein's early works which deal significantly with the diverse inhabitants of the Solar System do fit into a general pattern.
Heinlein's alien worlds of the 1940s and early 1950s not only provide colorful settings but also serve the didactic purpose of humbling the human species. Rather than simply being threatening monsters to outthink and outshoot, Heinlein's intelligent aliens teach his characters—and us—that the cosmos easily weeds out the morally or intellectually unfit and that human beings still have much to learn about controlling their baser instincts. The extinct Selenites and inhabitants of the hypothetical Fifth Planet provide a warning against hubris, while the living Venerians and Martians show some ideals for which we should strive.
Other critics, of course, have discussed didacticism in Heinlein's early fiction, often rather derisively. To Brian W. Aldiss, for example, “Heinlein is often verbose and pedantic,” “a straw-chewing technophile who would tell God himself that He was wrong” (268). H. Bruce Franklin sees Heinlein's juvenile novels as “optimistic, expansionary, [and] pulsing with missionary zeal …” (73). George Edgar Slusser comments dismissively, “Rather than simply show us how things work, he has always been ready to tell us how they should work. Heinlein is, and always has been, a dogmatic optimist, a soapbox preacher who peddles his pet theories in the guise of fiction” (RAH i). Heinlein thus is chastised not only for his particular views but simply for daring to express them.
Not all critics agree, however, with such an easy dismissal. Jack Williamson, for one, does not see being optimistic or expressing opinions as inherently damning: “Considering the Scribner's books as a group, we can claim for them a major role in the evolution of modern science fiction. Certainly they gave many thousand young readers, and thousands not so young, a delightful introduction to the genre. Built on sound futurology, they still make a fine primer for the new reader” (30-31). This assessment fits with Heinlein's outlook, for he claimed that “science fiction prepares young people to live and survive in a world of ever-continuing change by teaching them that the world does change. Since that is the only sort of world we have, science fiction leads in the direction of mental health, of adaptability” (SF 61). If Williamson and Heinlein are correct—which I believe them to be—then investigating the pattern of Heinlein's earlier work may be just as important as looking at his later, more complex novels. C. W. Sullivan III contends that, with their “carefully integrated” components of “adventure, sociology, and science,” Heinlein's juveniles “are still ‘contemporary,’ and are among the best science fiction in the YA range” (64). Fred Erisman finds that Heinlein's use of aliens shows us that “the [human] race must outgrow its inherent racism” (224), and Williamson has observed that the extraterrestrials of Heinlein's juveniles “often serve as teachers for the maturing heroes” (19). To date, however, no critic yet has examined Heinlein's early inhabited Solar System in any detail.
In Space Cadet (1948) a cadet of the Interplanetary Patrol is informed that
The arts of space and warfare are the least part of your education. … Much more important is the world around you, the planets and their inhabitants—extraterrestrial biology, history, cultures, psychology, law and institutions, treaties and conventions, planetary ecologies, system ecology, interplanetary economics, applications of extraterritorialism, comparative religious customs, law of space, to mention a few.
When the cadet questions the utility of studying the extinct inhabitants of the Moon, since “they've been dead for millions of years,” he is told blandly, “Keeps your mind loosened up” (§6:73). As readers learn, the civilizations of the past teach humanity some valuable lessons.
Heinlein first uses extraterrestrials in “Blowups Happen” (1940), employing the extinct Selenites to show Terran nuclear physicists that Earth's important yet dangerous fission reactor, aptly named “The Big Bomb,” must be moved into orbit to avoid a possible catastrophe. Because in this story scientists have “proved” that lunar cratering could not have been caused by meteoric bombardment or volcanism, the only remaining answer is that the Moon is “dead by suicide!” (Past 103). An astronomer explains the scenario:
Perhaps they knew the danger they ran, but wanted power so badly that they were willing to gamble the life of their race. Perhaps they were ignorant of the ruinous possibilities of their little machines, or perhaps their mathematicians assured them that it would not happen.
But we will never know … no one will ever know. For it blew up, and killed them—it killed their planet.
In this story, at least, the Selenites are a sufficient example, and the brash young human species avoids the mistakes of another world's past. As David N. Samuelson notes, “The solutions are simplistic, [and] events happen with miraculous speed and coincidence, but the problems are built up seriously enough … if we allow for adventure magazine oversimplification” (11). For readers today, over half a century after its first publication, the story still is an appropriate metaphor in a world of dwindling resources and increasing technological complexity.
Heinlein toys with an inhabited Moon again in Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), yet in this novel he suggests, rather more bleakly and more realistically, that our problems usually cannot be solved by mere technological fixes. In the post-Hiroshima age a teenaged astronaut of the Galileo explains his theory that the devastation of the Moon could not have been accidental:
Look at Tycho. That's where they set off the biggest ammunition dump on the planet. It cracked the whole planet. I'll bet somebody worked out a counter-weapon that worked too well. It set off every atom bomb on the moon all at once and it ruined them!
As in the earlier story, the explosions blew off the lunar atmosphere and let the seas boil away, yet here Heinlein's caution hits even closer to home. Rather than a mere accident, the Moon people “had one atomic war too many” (§11:120); the war might have been prevented by a change in values or morality but certainly not by simple engineering.
Of similar didactic value is Heinlein's use of the hypothetical Fifth Planet, Lucifer, whose breakup was imagined to have formed the Asteroid Belt. He refers to the planet peripherally in Farmer in the Sky (1950) and in the lightweight The Rolling Stones (1952), but it is the earlier Space Cadet which really puts Lucifer to use. Although, as in the discussion of the Selenites, Lucifer is mentioned only in what is essentially a 300-word aside, it fits well into Heinlein's concept of the inhabited Solar System. In addition to learning that the planet was once inhabited—“probably the most important discovery in System-study since they opened the diggings in Luna” (§12:148)—scientists find that the planet was broken apart “nearly half a billion years ago” (§12:141) not by natural forces but by war. Whereas the Selenites of “Blowups Happen” and Rocket Ship Galileo merely rendered their world uninhabitable, the Fifth Planet actually “was disrupted by artificial nuclear explosion. In other words, they did it themselves.” According to the captain of the ship bringing the discovery sunward, “we have more reason than ever to be proud of our Patrol—and our responsibility is even heavier than we had thought” (§12:148); again Heinlein soberingly reminds us that any “solution” is not a technological one but a moral one instead.
Heinlein originally had hoped to return to the Fifth Planet, sending the characters from Rocket Ship Galileo there in a novel to be titled The Mystery of the Broken Planet (Grumbles 43). This book, unfortunately, was never written, but in Between Planets (1951) Heinlein returns to the idea that even the cleverest species are fallible and mortal. Because of its intelligent Venerian “dragons” and teddybear-like “move-overs”—not to mention its differing political history and another miraculous technological breakthrough—this novel does not fit into the general scheme of his Future History or the rest of the juveniles. However, warning of the fallibility and mortality of all species again is given by the Fifth Planet, whose grand First System Empire left “ruins on the floor of two oceans … and four other planets” (§2:22). If even “the noblest planet of them all, the home of empire” (§2:23) could misstep on the path of intellectual evolution and disappear almost without a trace, surely less experienced humanity should tread with care.
Yet Heinlein creates not only self-destructive worlds but flourishing ones as well, though the species of these latter ones often thrive in ways which humanity is only beginning to learn to appreciate. Whereas Luna and the Fifth Planet remind us most glaringly that pride must be tempered with wisdom, Venus and Mars show us examples of the wisdom for which we eventually must strive. Humans, claims a psychology-trained officer in Space Cadet, basically are motivated by money, pride, or ethics, yet “The Martian is another sort of cat, and so is the Venerian” (§9:111). This important difference is what makes the inhabitants of Venus and Mars worthy of our attention.
Heinlein first works with Venus in “Logic of Empire” (1941), but here the indigenous culture is drawn rather unambitiously. The lisping amphibian Venerians merely tag along with the human colonists, hoping to bum a “‘thigarek’ … the staple medium of trade when dealing with the natives” (Past 398). Space Cadet fleshes out a Venerian civilization much more satisfying and more fitting for Heinlein's overall view of intelligent species' place in the cosmos. Whereas the earlier natives are caricatures added merely for local color, the Venerians of Space Cadet are subtle reminders that humans are not necessarily lords of the cosmos; the natives are more scientifically proficient, socially complex, and morally enviable than anyone previously had supposed.
Although the “Little People” do not appear to have the great technological infrastructure that human civilization has, they possess an understanding of science so thorough that it seems more common knowledge than a separate discipline. Despite their apparent lack of tools or machines, the Little People perform many technical feats almost unnoticed, making one cadet realize that “the Venerians [are] not the frog-seal-beaver creatures his Earth-side prejudices had led him to think” (§16:193). Their cities, for example, are built beneath lakes and are lit with “some sort of glowing, orange clusters” (§14:168-69) whose workings the humans are unable to explain. “The Little People make little use of power, they hardly use metal” (§17:212), yet they produce a fabric which cannot be cut with the cadets' knives (§14:170). One human claims, with no little justification, “They've forgotten more about chemistry than we'll ever learn” (§17:214): the Venerians create chemical solutions which protect against a century of Venus's harsh climate (§17: 202-03) or are caustic enough to eat through a spaceship's hull (§15:177, §16:193). For the humans the Venerians are able to synthesize Terran maple syrup from a sample and, more impressively, the liquified gases which make up rocket propellants (§17:211-14). The Little People, “to whom even a common door latch [is] a puzzle” (§16:193), prove to the cadets “that there may be more ways of doing engineering than the big, muscley, noisy ways we've worked out” (§17:212).
The Venerians whom the cadets encounter in the planet's unexplored equatorial regions are “more civilized than the ones around the [polar] colonies.” When one human asks, “What is civilization?” another hedges, “Never mind the philosophy …” (§17:212). Although the humans thus cannot quite name the difference, it is not merely a matter of technical prowess. The equatorial Venerians prove “that the planet has only one language …” (§14:166), and they somehow have heard of the Patrol even though no contact had previously been made (§15:181). Both of these important factors suggest that, far from being broken into isolated bands, the Venerians belong to a sophisticated society in which communication is planet-wide. Though they do not delve too deeply into the “philosophy,” at least the humans learn that the Little People are not only more scientific than they had supposed but more socially complex also.
Yet perhaps the most important lesson of Venerian civilization is its moral progress. While one cadet discovers that he cannot make one of the Little People understand the existence of other planets and stars (§16:194), the Venerian herself “continually [uses] words and concepts … which [can] not be straightened out …” even with the help of their best translator, so that “He began to get hazily the idea that Th'wing was the sophisticated one and that he, Matt, was the ignorant outsider. ‘Sometimes I think,’ he told Tex, ‘that Th'wing thinks I am an idiot studying hard to become a moron—but flunking the course’” (§16:195). Perhaps the cadet is essentially correct. He may be puzzled by Venerian technical terms, but it seems just as probable that he cannot fully comprehend the social or moral system of Venus either. A cadet raised in one of the polar colonies states with authority that “the Little People just don't have the cussedness in them that humans have” (§14:171); they have, after all, “never heard of” war (§16:190). The Venerians remind us that human morality still needs considerable improvement.
When writing about Martians in Red Planet (1949) Heinlein does not need to make that species' technical achievements as subtle as those of the Venerians. Envisioned in the tradition begun by “the immortal Dr. Percival Lowell” (§2:15) and continued by over four decades of science fiction writers, Heinlein's Mars is a slowly dying world crisscrossed by great canals thousands of kilometers long. In addition, the Martians use clever holographic techniques to simulate the outdoors within their social rooms (§3:35, §7:105), hidden environmental engineering to raise atmospheric pressure in their dwellings without an airlock (§3:36, §7:104), and mind-reading apparatus which can replay a lifetime of memories in mere hours (§8:112-14, 118). A pair of teenaged human colonists discover a remarkable system of ancient, ultra-highspeed “subways” far beneath the planet's surface (§7:108-09) and, more surprisingly, that the Martians “had interplanetary flight millions of years back … had it and gave it up” (§14:184). When enraged, even modern Martians are able to make an enemy disappear inexplicably (§3:34, §13:179, 180-81).
As with the Venerians, however, far more important than the Martians' technological achievements is their moral progress. Indeed, Samuelson contends that “the reader's learning to understand this strange world and its inhabitants” is more important than the human plot of oppression and revolution which drives the novel (123). The Martians have advanced far enough that they seem to have little of the greed and impatience which still threaten humanity. A telling excerpt from “Noisy” Rhysling's “Grand Canal” reads,
Bone-tired the race that raised the Towers, forgotten are their lores; Long gone the gods who shed the tears which lap these crystal shores. Slow beats the time-worn heart of Mars beneath this icy sky; The thin air whispers voicelessly that all who live must die—
Yet still the lacy Spires of Truth sing Beauty's madrigal And she herself will ever dwell along the Grand Canal!
Rhysling's poem captures not only the Martians' renunciation of the fleeting and unimportant but, with its reference to beauty, their wise embrace of the soothing and aesthetic.
In Red Planet we are informed that “no two Martian cities looked alike. It was as if each were a unique work of art, each representing the thoughts of a different artist” (§3:32). The buildings are “filled with an atmosphere of peace and security” (§8:107), and, as the main character learns, the Martians themselves are similarly reassuring: “the Martian's voice had a strange effect on him. Croaking and uncouth though it was, it was filled with such warmth and sympathy and friendliness that the native no longer frightened him. Instead he seemed like an old and trusted friend” (§3:30-31). Moreover, though they have just met, the giant three-legged Martians generously—and improbably—include the colonist and his friend in their important water-sharing ceremony (§3:37-38). Despite their physical differences, “Martians are good people” (§7:101). Clearly beings who radiate such “a warm glow of friendliness as real as sunshine” (§8:115) have much to teach.
One of the Martians' most significant social activities is “growing together.” In “Ordeal in Space” (1948) Heinlein describes growing together as “sit[ting] for hours with a friend or a trusted acquaintance, saying nothing, needing to say nothing … [The Martians] had so grown together that they needed no government, until the Earthmen came” (352). In Red Planet the boys are, again improbably, included:
For a long time nothing was said. Jim's thoughts drifted away. … He came back presently to personal self-awareness and realized that he was happier than he had been in a long time, with no particular reason that he could place. It was a quiet happiness; he felt no desire to laugh nor even to smile, but he was perfectly relaxed and content.
He was acutely aware of the presence of the Martians, of each individual Martian, and was becoming even more aware of them with each drifting minute. He had never noticed before how beautiful they were. …
He was aware, too, of Frank beside him and thought about how much he liked him. … He wondered why he had never told Frank that he liked him. …
Jim … lay back, and soaked in the joy of living.
Certainly it is vague and all too easy, yet in a juvenile novel even this slant away from the superficial problems of the everyday world is important.
Apparently central to the Martians' ability to “grow together” is their idea of the “other world.” This is one of the “small seasonings of mysticism” which Alexei Panshin notes, rather prosaically, “remind us again that there are more things in heaven and earth than can be explained by The World Book Encyclopedia” (52). In Space Cadet an officer tries to explain to a cadet that the concept of the “other world” just might be valid, even though the humans do not understand it:
Let's forget the usual assumption that a Martian is talking in religious symbols when he says that we live just on “one side” while he lives on”both sides.” Suppose that what he means is as real as butter and eggs, that he really does live in two worlds at the same time and that we are in the one he regards as unimportant. If you accept that, then it accounts for the Martian being unwilling to waste time talking with us, or trying to explain things to us. He isn't being stuffy, he's being reasonable. Would you waste time trying to explain rainbows to an earthworm?
In Red Planet a gruff old doctor, the novel's wisest human character, asks, “can you imagine a people having close and everyday relations with Heaven—their heaven—as close and matter of fact as the relations between, say, the United States and Canada?” (§12:165). Apparently the Martians have such relations with their “other world,” for in representing humanity before “the judges of mankind's worth” (Slusser, Classic 43), the doctor speaks with an ancient ghost, “a being … that has trouble remembering which millennium he is in …” (§14:187). Though the doctor himself—“a warmhearted old curmudgeon serving as the author's mouthpiece” (Franklin 78)—realizes that “The most wildly impossible philosophy of all is materialism” (§9:133), many humans are interested simply in getting Mars “opened up to exploitation” (§3:28). Martian spirituality allows the native inhabitants of Mars a crucial perspective which most humans lack.
As many readers will see, Red Planet lays some of the groundwork for Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), a complex novel outside the scope of this simple essay. While Heinlein's exploration of Martian culture in this juvenile is more thorough than his treatment of any of his other species, the Martians are no less metaphorical than the others. Despite the solemnities of water sharing, “growing together,” and the “other world,” the Martians are obviously less an example to follow than a reminder that humanity still has far to progress.
In stories throughout the 1940s and juvenile novels in the early 1950s Robert A. Heinlein created a Solar System whose diverse inhabitants serve the purpose of humbling the brash young human species. While the extinct inhabitants of the Moon and Lucifer remind us that the price of hubris may be self-destruction, Heinlein's Venerians and Martians display some of the wisdom we need to avoid that fate. Hard-headed Heinlein certainly does not suggest that we must engage in water sharing and grok—but he does suggest that we still have far to go in our intellectual and moral evolution.
Aldiss, Brian W., and David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. NY: Atheneum, 1986.
Erisman, Fred. “Robert Heinlein's Case for Racial Tolerance, 1954-1956.” Extrapolation 29: 216-26, Fall 1988.
Franklin, H. Bruce. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. Science-Fiction Writers Series. NY: Oxford UP, 1980.
Heinlein, Robert A. Between Planets. 1951. NY: Ace, n.d.
———. “Blowups Happen.” Astounding Science Fiction, Sept 1940. Past 73-120.
———. Farmer in the Sky. 1952. NY: Ballantine, 1975.
———. “The Green Hills of Earth.” Saturday Evening Post, 8 Feb 1947, Past 363-73.
———. Grumbles from the Grave. NY: Del Rey, 1989.
———. “Logic of Empire.” Astounding Science Fiction, Mar 1941. Past 375-421.
———. “Ordeal in Space.” Town and Country, May 1948. Past 347-61.
———. The Past through Tomorrow. 1967. NY: Berkley, 1975.
———. Red Planet. 1949. NY: Del Rey, 1978.
———. Rocket Ship Galileo. 1947. NY: Del Rey, 1981.
———. The Rolling Stones. 1952. NY: Ace, n.d.
———. “Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults and Virtues.” The Science Fiction Novel. 1959. 2nd ed., rev. Ed. Basil Davenport. Chicago: Advent, 1964. 17-63.
———. Space Cadet. 1948. NY: Del Rey, 1978.
———. “—We Also Walk Dogs.” Astounding Science Fiction, Jul 1941. Past 319-42.
Panshin, Alexei. Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis. Chicago: Advent, 1968.
Samuelson, David N. “The Frontier Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein.” Voices for the Future: Essays on Major Science Fiction Writers. Vol. 1. Ed. Thomas D. Clareson. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1976. 104-52.
Slusser, George Edgar. The Classic Years of Robert A. Heinlein. Milford Series. Popular Writers of Today 11. San Bernardino: Borgo, 1977.
———. Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in His Own Land. Milford Series. Popular Writers of Today 1. San Bernardino: Borgo, 1976. [This passage in the Introduction to the first edition has been dropped from the much revised Introduction to the 2nd edition, 1977.—RDM]
Sullivan, C. W., III. “Heinlein's Juveniles: Still Contemporary After All These Years.” ChLA Quarterly 10 (1985): 64-66.
Williamson, Jack. “Youth Against Space: Heinlein's Juveniles Revisited.” Robert A. Heinlein. Eds. Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg. Writers of the 21st Century Series. NY: Taplinger, 1978. 15-31.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 230
Franklin, H. Bruce. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980, 232 p.
Traces Heinlein's literary development.
Olander, Joseph D. and Greenberg, Martin Harry, eds. Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1978, 268 p.
Collection of critical essays.
Slusser, George Edgar. The Classic Years of Robert A. Heinlein. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977, 63 p.
Classifies Heinlein's literary career into periods and discusses the defining characteristics of each category.
Usher, Robin Leslie. “Robert A. Heinlein: Theologist?” Foundation, no. 54 (spring 1992): 70-86.
Discusses George Edgar Slusser's critic of Heinlein's work.
Additional coverage of Heinlein's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 17; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 4, 13; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 75;Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R, 125;Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 20, 53; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 14, 26, 55; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Ed. 1; Major Twentieth Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Science Fiction Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 7; andSomething About the Author, Vols. 9, 56, 69.