Robert Heinlein wrote several stories in 1939 that he couldn’t sell to John W. Campbell. This is when he started submitting to the lesser markets, but some stories still didn’t sell. When Ray Bradbury asked Heinlein for a contribution to his fanzine, Heinlein gave Bradbury the short short “Heil!” It was later reprinted in 1970 by Sam Moskowitz in his anthology, Futures to Infinity. Then in 1980 Heinlein included in his grabbag collection, Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein renamed the story “Successful Operation.”
In the introduction to the story in Expanded Universe Heinlein said he wrote “Heil!” right after “Life-Line.” Heinlein then goes on to complain about people asking writers to contribute free work to various projects. He points out that people don’t ask for free rides from taxi drivers or free food from their grocery stores. The intro has Heinlein talking about the importance of saying no to such requests, and he takes a snipe at science fiction fans, “The chutzpah is endemic in science fiction fans, acute in organized SF fans, and at its virulent worst in organized fans-who-publish-fan-magazines.”
Heinlein really should have said no to Ray Bradbury. “Heil!” is not badly written, but it’s extremely slight, and pulls off a gimmick that only an amateur would think was a good idea. You can read the story in Bradbury’s fanzine, futuria fantasia, v. 1 n. 4 (Spring, 1940). Heinlein doctored the story when he retitled it.
It is common in literary history to read accounts of writers burning unpublished work before their death. Or heirs destroying it right after an author’s death. This horrifies fans and scholars. But reading stories like “Heil!” suggests it might be a worthwhile practice. Not everything a great writer writes will be great.
On the other hand, writers write to make a living, and at the beginning of his career Heinlein was churning out his product. And eventually “Successful Solution” made him some money. Heinlein had 5 Rules for Writing:
- You must write.
- You must finish what you start.
- You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
- You must put it on the market.
- You must keep it on the market until sold.
Heinlein blazed onto the science fiction world following these rules, proving quality isn’t always required. Several of Heinlein’s clunkers were published early in his career, but he hid them with pseudonyms. “Heil!” was originally published by Lyle Monroe.
“Successful Operation” is currently in print in paperback, ebook, and audiobook in Expanded Universe: Volume One. For many years Expanded Universe was sold as a single volume, but in recent years it’s split in two. Probably most buyers consider that a ripoff but was probably required for a small publisher like Phoenix Pick. However, the volume will appeal only to hardcore fans of Heinlein and probably shouldn’t be read by casual fans and readers just checking out Heinlein. Much of the content was dredged from stories and essays not previously published, obscurely published, or seldom reprinted.
Anyone visiting an average new bookstore today will probably find few Heinlein titles. This is not the time to promote the dregs of his career.
Yet, that brings up an important question: What works by Heinlein should be on shelves for readers new to Heinlein to discover? Heinlein’s estate and a good editor should really come out with The Best Short Stories of Robert A. Heinlein. That was tried a couple times in England in the 1970s, but their selection was not the best. Most of Heinlein’s classic original collections are still in print, but they are a mixture of great, good, and not-so-good stories.
Of the four short stories I’ve read and reviewed so far, including “Successful Operation,” I might include “Life-Line” and “Requiem” in a best-of volume. But that depends on the page size of the volume. Definites that I’ve reread recently would be “The Menace From Earth” and “All You Zombies …” but I need to keep rereading.
James Wallace Harris, 10/21/22
2 thoughts on ““Successful Operation” by Robert A. Heinlein”
“What works by Heinlein should be on shelves for readers new to Heinlein to discover?” I’m still working my way through Heinlein’s early works, and haven’t yet gotten to his work after 1960, but I think the lengthy collection The Past Through Tomorrow should be reprinted. It was my introduction to Heinlein, and I think this collection may contain much of Heinlein’s best work, and is at any rate a good introduction to Heinlein, especially with the introduction by Damon Knight. I also think Heinlein’s juveniles–most of them, at least–should be in print. The entry on Heinlein in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction comments that some of his juveniles may be his finest work.
I also think the novel Double Star should be–and I think, is–in print, and also some of Heinlein’s stand-alone collections of short stories. Fortunately, I think many of Heinlein’s earlier works have been kept in print by Baen.
Jim, your remark about the inferior unpublished work of Heinlein and other writers reminds me of a remark by the late Czech writer Milan Kundera. He wrote that the least writers can do is clean up after themselves.
I like Kundera’s comment.
Heinlein is still in print, especially at Amazon with Kindle editions and Audible with audiobook editions. But whenever I visit a new bookstore I check on the Heinlein titles available and it’s usually Stranger, Troopers, and Mistress, the books Heinlein wanted most for readers to remember him by. And that might be Heinlein’s legacy. But I believe there’s a better Heinlein for people to read.
You’re right about The Past Through Tomorrow. That collection should stay in print. It’s been reprinted many times, but not lately. Finding old copies can be expensive. Baen sells a mass-market volume that combines The Green Hills of Earth and The Menace From Earth that has many of the stories from The Past Through Tomorrow. But I never see it at bookstores. I wish there was a Kindle version. They also have a Kindle version of a combined volume The Man Who Sold the Moon and Orphans of the Sky. So if you buy those two along with Revolt in 2100 you’ll have most of the stories in The Past Through Tomorrow. But you’ll end up with one mass-market paperback, and two Kindle books.