Robert Heinlein began publishing science fiction in 1939 but by July of 1941, he was the guest of honor at the 3rd Worldcon. How did he get so famous within fandom so fast? I always imagined he blazed upon the genre right from his first publication, but looking over the 1939 and early 1940 letter columns in Astounding gave no indication that was true.
Heinlein published just two stories in 1939 (Aug. and Nov.), “Life-Line” and “Misfit.” “Life-Line” came in second in the Analytical Laboratory columns and “Misfit” last. The letter writers barely mentioned Heinlein. Not quite a stunning debut. However, in the April 1940 issue of Astounding, there’s a letter from Isaac Asimov rating all the stories for 1939, and “Life-Line” came in second — even ahead of the serial Gray Lensman. (Asimov also jokes about his own debut short story, “Trends.”)
Years later, in 1979, Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg published The Great SF Stories 1 (1939), the first in a series that collected the best science fiction short stories for every year from 1939-1963. Three of the ten stories he picked in 1940 are included, and he adds “Misfit.” Here’s the complete table of contents:
• The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton • short story by Robert Bloch • Trouble with Water • short story by H. L. Gold • Cloak of Aesir • novella by John W. Campbell, Jr. • The Day Is Done • short story by Lester del Rey • The Ultimate Catalyst • novelette by John Taine • The Gnarly Man • novelette by L. Sprague de Camp • Black Destroyer • novelette by A. E. van Vogt • Greater Than Gods • novelette by C. L. Moore • Trends • short story by Isaac Asimov • The Blue Giraffe • novelette by L. Sprague de Camp • The Misguided Halo • short story by Henry Kuttner • Heavy Planet • short story by Milton A. Rothman • Life-Line • short story by Robert A. Heinlein • Ether Breather • short story by Theodore Sturgeon • Pilgrimage • novelette by Nelson S. Bond [as by Nelson Bond] • Rust • short story by Joseph E. Kelleam • The Four-Sided Triangle • novelette by William F. Temple • Star Bright • novelette by Jack Williamson • Misfit • novelette by Robert A. Heinlein
These are the stories that have survived the test of time — at least with two people very familiar with the genre in 1979. How many young science fiction readers today know of them, or even heard of the writers who wrote them? Asimov and Heinlein are still big names, well to some, but you’d have to be an aficionado of the genre to know the others.
Our CSF database contains 34 short stories from 1939, but only 8 got 3 or more citations, and only one (“Black Destroyer”) made our final list. By our criteria, “Life-Line” and “Misfit” aren’t well remembered. (But there’s another issue here, the trailing edge of pop culture memory. My guess is the 1930s and 1940s are generally being forgotten. But that’s another essay for another time.)
The earliest poll I have for short stories is the “1971 WSFA-Analog Poll of Best Pre-1940 SF Short Stories” by Michael T. Shoemaker. It remembers these stories from 1939:
What stories did the fans love back in 1939-1940? Fanac.org has a treasure trove of fannish history with its archive of old fanzines but I can’t tell how they are indexed. Fanac.org has a link to Google, but I’m not sure how useful it is. I’ve looked around for a fanzine with short story reviews, but so far haven’t found one. If anyone knows of one, or how to use the archive better, let me know. However, often the content of fanzines is not about science fiction.
As far as I can tell, there has been no Retro Hugo Award for 1940 (1939).
My next source for information about the best science fiction stories of 1939 comes from A Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers. Of course, it only covers Astounding. Rogers discusses Heinlein, but this is long after the fact. Follow the link to read his review of 1939.
This brings me to my final source of information for the popularity of science fiction short stories that came out in 1939: The Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the beginning to 1950 by Mike Ashley. This is a fantastic history of science fiction magazines, but I didn’t find what I was looking for. It may have more of what I want covering later years.
Years later, 1939 would be remembered as the beginning of Science Fiction’s Golden Age. John W. Campbell, Jr. will be remembered for discovering three new writers that year: A. E. van Vogt, Heinlein (August), and Theodore Sturgeon (September). Van Vogt had two stories that year and got the cover for both. Heinlein and Sturgeon would have to wait to get such recognition. Asimov is considered a protégé of Campbell’s, but he was first published by Ray Palmer (“Marooned Off Vesta”, Amazing Stories, March 1939.) “Trends” was his first story for Campbell.
However, Campbell published new writers all the time. It’s only in hindsight that he gets credit for discovering Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, and van Vogt.
I’m already reading the 1940 issues of Astounding and I believe this year will be when Heinlein is discovered. However, the first Worldcon was in July of 1939, although fandom had existed for years before that. Was fandom small enough that everyone knew everyone else? Did every writer who made it onto the table of contents of a science fiction magazine encounter fandom?
Still, there are quite a few questions I’d like answered.
- Why did Heinlein start writing science fiction?
- Why science fiction and not the other genres?
- Did he read science fiction magazines?
- Did he know about fandom?
- Was he a member of a science fiction club?
- Did he know any science fiction writers or fans?
I just remembered I should reread Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, the two-volume biography of Heinlein by William H. Patterson, Jr. Maybe Patterson has done all this work for me.
James Wallace Harris, 10/2/22