“Misfit” (Astounding, Nov. 1939) was Heinlein’s second published story and his first about space travel. It’s also his first work of juvenile fiction, or what we call YA today. Heinlein renamed FDR’s New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) the Cosmic Construction Corps for this future space adventure. I thought that was a really neat idea. And Heinlein created one of his favorite characters, Andrew Jackson Libby, who would reappear in Methuselah’s Children in 1941, and yet again in four of Heinlein’s 1970s and 1980s novels. Eventually, Libby would become a woman, Elizabeth Andrew Jackson Libby, but we won’t get into that for a very long time. Some fans even consider Max Jones of Starman Jones a repackaging of the Libby character, but I don’t.
I never liked the way Heinlein reused his characters because he eventually turned characters I loved into characters I hated. But that’s another subject to deal with in future essays.
The plot of “Misfit” isn’t very complicated. Libby is a young man who we follow into space. Like many of the boys on the ship, Libby experiences space sickness at first but eventually adapts to living in free fall. His crew arrives at a small asteroid called HS-5388, or just Eighty-Eight. Their job is to build habitats and rocket engines into the rock. Their goal is to reposition the asteroid into an orbit between Earth and Mars to make it into an emergency shelter for space travelers.
There’s little conflict or drama in the story. The only surprise in the story is we learn that Libby has a savant’s ability for mathematics, and saves the day when their “computer” conks out. Heinlein calls Libby a lightning calculator and gives him the nickname “Slipstick” – a slang term for a slide rule. In this1939 story, the word computer was not used. They called their computer an “integral calculator.” Boy, wouldn’t Heinlein have wowed us today if he had imagined a handheld calculator instead of a slide rule? (I loved using my slide rule in my math classes back in the 1960s and 1970s. I wish I had kept it.)
This is why I said in my review of “Life-Line” that I thought “Life-Line” was a much better story than “Misfit.” In “Life-Line” Heinlein gets us hooked right away on whether or not Hugo Pinero’s invention is real, and the whole story focuses on that plotline. “Misfit” is a story where this happens, then this happens, and then another thing happens until we reach an end. It’s still a good story, but it doesn’t have a tight plot. Even the dramatic scene of Libby saving the day when putting the asteroid into its new orbit isn’t done with much drama. Still, the “Misfit” is readable and likable, but its deadpan style makes me think of the old TV show Dragnet.
Heinlein had a side to him that just enjoyed explaining how things worked. My favorite part of the story was Heinlein showing us what weightlessness would be like. I thought he got it very right for 1939. And I checked to see if he hadn’t updated the story later, but he hadn’t. I don’t know if any writer back then worked out what living in microgravity would be like. I was very impressed. They call Libby Pinky, I guessed because of his red hair and complexion.
The ship’s loudspeaker blatted out, “All hands! Free flight in ten minutes. Stand by to lose weight.” The Master-at-Arms supervised the rigging of grab-lines. All loose gear was made fast, and little cellulose bags were issued to each man. Hardly was this done when Libby felt himself get light on his feet—a sensation exactly like that experienced when an express elevator makes a quick stop on an upward trip, except that the sensation continued and became more intense. At first it was a pleasant novelty, then it rapidly became distressing. The blood pounded in his ears, and his feet were clammy and cold. His saliva secreted at an abnormal rate. He tried to swallow, choked, and coughed. Then his stomach shuddered and contracted with a violent, painful, convulsive reflex and he was suddenly, disastrously nauseated. After the first excruciating spasm, he heard McCoy’s voice shouting. “Hey! Use your sick-kits like I told you. Don’t let that stuff get in the blowers.” Dimly Libby realized that the admonishment included him. He fumbled for his cellulose bag just as a second temblor shook him, but he managed to fit the bag over his mouth before the eruption occurred. When it subsided, he became aware that he was floating near the overhead and facing the door. The chief Master-at-Arms slithered in the door and spoke to McCoy. “How are you making out?” “Well enough. Some of the boys missed their kits.” “Okay. Mop it up. You can use the starboard lock.” He swam out. McCoy touched Libby’s arm. “Here, Pinkie, start catching them butterflies.” He handed him a handful of cotton waste, then took another handful himself and neatly dabbed up a globule of the slimy filth that floated about the compartment. “Be sure your sick-kit is on tight. When you get sick, just stop and wait until it’s over.” Libby imitated him as best as he could. In a few minutes the room was free of the worst of the sickening debris. McCoy looked it over, and spoke: “Now peel off them dirty duds, and change your kits. Three or four of you bring everything along to the starboard lock.” At the starboard spacelock, the kits were put in first, the inner door closed, and the outer opened. When the inner door was opened again the kits were gone—blown out into space by the escaping air. Pinkie addressed McCoy, “Do we have to throw away our dirty clothes too?” “Huh uh, we’ll just give them a dose of vacuum. Take ’em into the lock and stop ’em to those hooks on the bulkheads. Tie ’em tight.” This time the lock was left closed for about five minutes. When the lock was opened the garments were bone dry—all the moisture boiled out by the vacuum of space. All that remained of the unpleasant rejecta was a sterile powdery residue. McCoy viewed them with approval. “They’ll do. Take them back to the compartment. Then brush them—hard—in front of the exhaust blowers.” The next few days were an eternity of misery. Homesickness was forgotten in the all-engrossing wretchedness of spacesickness. The Captain granted fifteen minutes of mild acceleration for each of the nine meal periods, but the respite accentuated the agony. Libby would go to a meal, weak and ravenously hungry. The meal would stay down until free flight was resumed, then the sickness would hit him all over again. On the fourth day he was seated against a bulkhead, enjoying the luxury of a few remaining minutes of weight while the last shift ate, when McCoy walked in and sat down beside him. The gunner’s mate fitted a smoke filter over his face and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply and started to chat. “How’s it going, bud?” “All right, I guess. This spacesickness—Say, McCoy, how do you ever get used to it?” “You get over it in time. Your body acquires new reflexes, so they tell me. Once you learn to swallow without choking, you’ll be all right. You even get so you like it. It’s restful and relaxing. Four hours sleep is as good as ten.” Libby shook his head dolefully. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.” “Yes, you will. You’d better anyway. This here asteroid won’t have any surface gravity to speak of; the Chief Quartermaster says it won’t run over two per cent Earth normal. That ain’t enough to cure spacesickness. And there won’t be any way to accelerate for meals either.” Libby shivered and held his head between his hands. Heinlein, Robert A.. Revolt in 2100 (pp. 191-193). Spectrum Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
You can compare the current Kindle edition to the 1939 magazine edition:
This is pretty amazing when you think that most Americans at the time only knew science fiction from Buck Rogers and Flash Gorden newspaper comic strips, radio shows, and serials. But even in the hardcore science fiction of Astounding Science-Fiction, I just don’t remember reading anything from that era that dealt with this kind of realism. Over the years I’ve paid attention to illustrations of free fall in old science fiction magazines, and one of my favorites is the July 1941 cover of Cosmic Stories.
A fun essay to write for the future would be chronicling the history of how writers imagined weightlessness in space. I think even 19th-century writers knew about it, but I just don’t think any writer dealt with space sickness before. If you know otherwise, leave a comment.
Another example of Heinlein just explaining things is when he tells us how they found the asteroid:
Locating one asteroid among a couple of thousand is not as easy as finding Trafalgar Square in London—especially against the star-crowded backdrop of the galaxy. You take off from Terra with its orbital speed of about nineteen miles per second. You attempt to settle into a composite conoid curve that will not only intersect the orbit of the tiny fast-moving body, but also accomplish an exact rendezvous. Asteroid HS-5388, ‘Eighty-eight,’ lay about two and two-tenths astronomical units out from the sun, a little more than two hundred million miles; when the transport took off it lay beyond the sun better than three hundred million miles. Captain Doyle instructed the navigator to plot the basic ellipsoid to tack in free flight around the sun through an elapsed distance of some three hundred and forty million miles. The principle involved is the same as used by a hunter to wing a duck in flight by ‘leading’ the bird in flight. But suppose that you face directly into the sun as you shoot; suppose the bird can not be seen from where you stand, and you have nothing to aim by but some old reports as to how it was flying when last seen? Heinlein, Robert A.. Revolt in 2100 (p. 193). Spectrum Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Where did Heinlein learn this? Were there popular science books that speculated on space travel back then? Or did he just imagine it? Later on in the story, when they are trying to position the asteroid in its new orbit, we get a lesson on celestial mechanics. I believe Heinlein was a ballistics officer when he was in the Navy, so that makes sense. And I believe he was an amateur astronomer. Heinlein loved to have his characters use mathematics, and I remember Heinlein in interviews telling how he and his wife would get out butcher paper and calculate orbits for his stories.
As a kid, Heinlein made me want to study math and science. I wished I could have been like Kip Russell in Have Space Suit–Will Travel who applied himself vigorously with disciplined self-study. I can say Heinlein made me wish that about myself, but I never did. I took a bunch of math classes, but I only applied myself in a half-ass fashion. I also bought a telescope and read popular science books, but I just never worked hard at learning what Heinlein expected of his characters. As I got older, I even wished I could live my life over so I could be more like the characters in Heinlein’s juveniles. When I retired, I even planned to study math again, and go back to college and get a master’s in computer science. I didn’t. I bought a bunch of math books and realized I had forgotten nearly everything I had once known about mathematics. I got onto the Khan Academy website and started over with third-grade math. By the time I got to six-grade math, I realized it just wasn’t going to happen. But that desire came from reading the Heinlein juveniles back in the 1960s.
“Misfit” came in dead last in the AnLab (Feb. 1940). But “Misfit” was in an issue with the Gray Lensmen serial. Evidently, the readers back then weren’t impressed with Heinlein’s speculations about space sickness like I am now. Maybe they never imagined space sickness and didn’t want to believe it. One reader in the letter column wrote to tell Campbell there were people who could math in their heads like Libby. But I didn’t find anyone else that got excited about the story.
Campbell does push Heinlein In Times To Come for his current serial If This Goes On—. That story might be considered Heinlein’s first novel, depending on its length in the magazine. When it was revised and slightly expanded for Revolt in 2100, it was considered a novel-length by ISFDB.
James Wallace Harris, 10/1/22
5 thoughts on ““Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein”
“Heinlein had a side to him that just enjoyed explaining how things worked. ” Many writers of hard-SF seem to share this, and I sometimes find it tiresome. I felt this way about “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” with its detailed descriptions (or so I recall) of financial transactions. I preferred the briefer and more moving (to me) sequel, “Requiem.”
It’s that old rule of writing—show don’t tell. I don’t mind a little info dumping especially if it’s well integrated into the story. What bugs me is when the story abruptly stops for a lecture.
I thought Heinlein did it proper with how he handled space sickness.
There are many reasons why “Requiem” succeeds. It’s dramatic. It has good characters. It has a plot with an emotional resolution. Plus it plays homage to science fiction.
Heinlein could write proper stories when he tried but too often he used his fiction for philosophizing and lecture.
“I wished I could have been like Kip Russell in Have Space Suit–Will Travel who applied himself vigorously with disciplined self-study”
I do think that way… if there’s numbers to be analyzed I analyze them. 🙂 “Have Spacesuit Will Travel,” which I read when I was 9 or 10, inspired me. The end of the story suggested MIT as a good university to go to for science and engineering and had me talking about that ambition by the time I was in 4th Grade…. and eventually I was accepted at MIT, in 1965, skipping 12th grade. I never had the math talent of Libby or Max Jones, but Kip Russell was a protagonist I could identify with. The scene where Professor Reisfeld makes a comment about his adventure and then a late night phone call to get Kip into MIT still brings tears to my eyes. MIT was an enormously wonderful start to my career as a scientist, so I KNOW what it would have meant for Kip.
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I envy the hell out of you! When I was young I also wanted to go to MIT or Caltech. But I never made the real effort. I took science and math courses but only worked at them in a half-ass manner.
Did you have good parents that guided you, or found a mentor when you were young?