The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson

The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson was first published in 1936 when very few science fiction novels were published in book form. That’s for two reasons. First, not many science fiction novels were being written, and second, the term science fiction was not widely recognized outside the tiny audience who read science fiction magazines. It wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s that science fiction emerged as a publishing category.

D. E. stands for Dorothy Emily. She was a Scottish writer of over forty books, published between 1923 – 1970. Most were light romantic novels, so it is surprising that The Empty World is science fiction. I wasn’t going to review The Empty World because I already mentioned it in my essay on post-apocalyptic novels. Then I got to thinking about how it represents a kind of writing, a proto-genre novel. However, I started listening to a second novel by Stevenson, Miss Buncle’s Book which has a very clever plot, and realized that she is a much better writer than I imagined. And that’s making me rethink the value of The Empty World. Maybe more people should give it a read, and give D. E. Stevenson a try.

Barbara Buncle lives in a quaint little English village during the depression. Her investments are not paying dividends, so she decides to write a novel to make some money. However, she is not very imaginative and writes a book about all the people that live in her village but under the name of John Smith. Barbara is, however, very talented at observing details. The townspeople become outraged at her photographic portrayal of themselves in words. The book within a book is clever and I’m enjoying it quite a lot. I have a feeling I will be reading more D. E. Stevenson books in the future. By the way, many of her books are available on Scribd if you want to give them a try. (I’m partial to forgotten English writers. I maintain a website for Lady Dorothy Mills, who is far more forgotten. She also wrote a couple science fiction books published in the 1920s.)

This is strange, but in the first week of 2023, I discovered two science fiction novels that were first published in the 1930s and are mostly forgotten today. The first was The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff which I’ve already reviewed, and The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson. It is currently available on Amazon for the Kindle for $3.99. I enjoyed it but I would only recommend it to two types of readers. First, to science fiction readers who love to find forgotten science fiction novels from the past, and second to Anglophiles who like cozy books from England in the 1930s. However, I wished other science fiction readers would read them and let me know if they deserve more recognition.

This also makes me wonder just how many more forgotten science fiction novels are waiting to be rediscovered? Right now I’m focused on the 1930s. If you look at which books from the 1930s in our CSFquery.com database you won’t see many. And if you use our Show Citations feature you’ll see that most of them with just one citation come from the Radium Age list of science fiction or the library reference book Anatomy of Wonder. Neither novel is widely known to science fiction readers.

The Hopkins Manuscript nor The Empty World is in our database. That’s telling since our database is built on dozens of recommendation lists. This is disappointing since I believe The Hopkins Manuscript is a minor masterpiece and The Empty World is a rather fun book and surprisingly science fictional for its time. The main difference between the two is The Hopkins Manuscript is literary in writing style, and The Empty World anticipates genre writing.

I say that about D. E. Stevenson because, in The Empty World, the characters are shaped to convey the plot. That’s typical of genre writing. In The Hopkins Manuscript, the characterization of Edgar Hopkins is the best aspect of the story. That’s typical of literary writing.

The main character in The Empty World is Jane Forrest, a writer of popular books of history. We don’t know her exact age, but she’s older but still very attractive. The novel starts with her taking a commercial transatlantic flight from New York to London. This is before the first actual commercial flight on August 11, 1938. The novel is set in 1973. During the flight, the pilot flew at the plane’s upper altitude to avoid a storm, but even then the plane suffered tremendous turbulence. They lose all radio contact. When they land they find no people or animals left on Earth. They remember a scientist had warned the world would be destroyed when the Earth passed through a tail of a comet. This makes me wonder if Stevenson had read London and Verne. Both of these old SF books are based on hogwash science.

Stevenson covers many plot issues that later post-apocalyptic novelists will consider. How to scrounge canned food from stores and homes and figure how long such stores of food can last. How to rebuild. How to assign jobs. How money becomes worthless. How does life after the apocalypse affect class, education, gender, etc? What happens when there are more men than women?

However, Stevenson’s first plot problem is not one I’ve seen before. There are 16 men, and 6 women, but two of the women are elderly. Most of the men are in their twenties. Now, I have seen this problem before in after-the-collapse stories, but Stevenson takes an interesting tack. The higher-class men tell Jane they must get all the women away from the lower-class men. At first, she doesn’t understand, but then five of the men pull guns and tell the group they want to divide up the women. Much of the middle of the book deals with women escaping a fate worse than death.

That’s about as much as I want to tell you about the plot. The last half goes in a totally new very fun direction, but again, the women are at risk from a new threat. And much of the book is about the women finding the husband they want. Stevenson tries to surprise us by having the women pick men we wouldn’t think they’d pick.

The novel does wrap up with a happy ending, but Stevenson disappointed me because she didn’t deal with the details of rebuilding the species and civilization. She assumes just a few couples making babies will be enough to be the new Adams and Eves of the next human civilization. Of course, we know now that it would take many more people to give us the proper genetic diversity to survive. What’s amusing is there is a scientist among the survivors who advocates eugenics and a form of animal husbandry for the survivors.

After thinking about The Empty World for a while I saw how a science fictional idea could be worked out by a writer who probably neither read science fiction nor plan to write it. The collapse of civilization is a rather mundane concept unlike space travel and robots. Hell, it’s really just another version of the Noah and the Ark story (note the book cover above). But if you observe the writing in The Empty World you realize each character is there for the purpose of exploring the plot idea. That’s what science fiction has always done. Ditto for mysteries and thrillers. It’s even true for romances. Science fiction writers come up with an idea, then figure out a plot to present that science fiction idea, and then invent characters to unfold the plot.

Now that I’m reading a second D. E. Stevenson’s novel, Miss Buncle’s Book, I see that happening too but with a twist. The main plot is driven along like a genre novel, but it’s based on the idea that one character wrote a literary novel. I don’t think the concept of genre novels existed much before WWII. If you went to a bookstore in the 1930s novels were all lumped together in the fiction section. I’m guessing there was a division of readers between popular novels and literary novels but not because they were shelved in different locations in the bookstore. Sometimes and I’m assuming after WWII, and maybe not until the 1950s, booksellers started dividing up their shelves by what readers wanted to read. Then publishers followed suit and genres were born.

This is why there are science fiction books published before the war that are often forgotten today. They were never grouped with science fiction books, so they never were embraced by the science fiction genre. There’s no telling how many pre-WWII science fiction novels were written and published. And it might also be a factor that these two post-apocalyptic novels were English rather than American. The Empty World was reprinted in America in 1939 as A World in Spell.

James Wallace Harris

What Would You Do If You Were Among The Last Humans on Earth?

Once again I’m gorging on post-apocalyptic novels where a few people survive a horrific civilization-destroying catastrophe. Usually, they hope to rebuild civilization. But not always. I recently finished The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff first published in 1939 which I’ve already reviewed. And I just finished The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson first published in 1936. This has gotten me to think about all the books, movies, and television shows I read or watched because of this theme. I’ve listed and rated all that I can remember in the table below. But what I want to talk about first is the appeal and common plot elements of this sub-genre of science fiction. I have written about this a number of times before and have linked to those essays at the end — just in case this essay got you interested. I do know that other science fiction fans love this theme too.

[HBO just started a new series based on this theme. It appears people never get tired of it.]

There are many kinds of post-apocalyptic novels. See the long comprehensive overview on Wikipedia on Post-Apocalyptic fiction The ones I like best are those that focus just on a few survivors. You might call this version of the theme the Robinson Crusoe Post-Apocalypse. Some people also call them Cozy Catastrophes — but the exact definition is often argued over. For example, I disagree with many of the choices in “Jane Rogers’s top 10 cozy catastrophes” from The Guardian.

Here are my favorite elements in a cozy catastrophe:

Few Survivors

I like stories that follow just a few characters who survive the end of the world and try to rebuild. I would even enjoy it if it was just one person, which happens in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, but usually, these stories start with one survivor who eventually finds a few more.

How They Survive

I also love the details of how they survive, whether it’s raiding grocery stores, becoming a hunter, or starting a garden. I love seeing how people start over from scratch and accomplish all the things we depend on civilization to give us now. This appeals to my younger self who wanted to move back to nature and subscribed to Mother Earth News. I loved the idea of being self-sufficient on five acres.

Social Dynamics

I also love reading about how people get along. In American fiction written by men, the stories can get rather violent. American guys believe the collapse of civilization means no laws, grab your guns, and everyone out for themselves. Think Mad Max or The Postman. Female Americans see starting over as a lot less violent. Consider Station Eleven. English writers of either gender, see post-apocalyptic affairs as being much less violent.

I just read The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson, first published in 1936. D. E. is for Dorothy Emily, and her books were light romances aimed at shop girls. The Empty World did have some violence. Right after the catastrophe we are told two-thirds of the surviving group of men are civilized and one-third are not, and the civilized men must get the few surviving women away from the uncivilized. Stevenson seemed to enjoy showing how the brutish lower-class Englishmen would fight and kill to possess a woman. Stevenson’s early cozy catastrophe anticipated many of the common elements that would emerge in this sub-genre, but her focus seemed to be on the women finding the right husband. Her premise for how civilization was wiped out was mumbo-jumbo science but that didn’t seem to hurt the story. Jo Walton gives a short review of the novel in her Tor.com column. I wonder if Stevenson had read London’s The Scarlet Plague?

My all-time favorite novel of this theme, Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart tells about how Ish, the protagonist wants to educate the first generation after the collapse. He was a college professor who wanted to preserve knowledge but realized the vastness of human learning couldn’t be passed on. My favorite TV show that covers this theme, Survivors (1975 BBC) focuses on how a few people can work together to start a farm, and eventually, build coalitions between survivor groups. Survivors the TV show has an excellent novelization by Terry Nation. It’s currently for sale at Amazon for the Kindle for just $1.99. The complete series on DVD is just $22. But a warning, the production was low-budget and modern TV watchers might not like it. Episodes of the show are available in low-resolution on YouTube, but not streaming anywhere else.

How Would You Do It

Probably the most fun aspect of this genre is picturing myself in the same situation as in the story and fantasizing about how I would have dealt with it. I have to admit, those fantasies have changed over the years. When I was younger, I pictured a post-apocalyptic world as more of an adventure. As I got older, it became more about how to farm and take care of myself. Now that I’m old, I realize if I found myself becoming one of the last people on Earth, my solutions for how to live would be much different. I don’t have the strength to farm. I now see myself just hiding out, scrounging for preserved food, and reading books, while contemplating the end of the world.

Hope for the Future

Another thing I love about this theme is seeing how the characters hope to rebuild things. I believe part of the appeal of this genre comes from disliking the way things are now. And readers love to imagine a better society. One thing I was very impressed with in Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript is how he predicted that people don’t change and we’d just quickly go back to our bad ways. That’s depressing but I believe philosophically correct.

Some stories, like On the Beach by Nevil Shute and The Road by Cormac McCarthy imply there is no hope for mankind.

MisanthropicA Subconscious Urge For Fewer People

I also believe these stories appeal to us because deep down we wish there were a lot fewer people on Earth. The question is how fewer? Would you want to be the last person? Just a few friends? A small community? Maybe a world where the total population is just ten million? And do we want to bring back civilization?

Post-Apocalyptic Stories I Remember

Rating Year Title
*** 1826 The Last Man by Mary Shelley
tbr 1885 After London by Richard Jefferies
**** 1901 The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel
**** 1912 The Scarlet Plague by Jack London
**** 1913 Goslings by J. D. Beresford
*** 1936 The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson
***** 1939 The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff
***** 1949 Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
***** 1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
***** 1955 “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
**** 1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher
***** 1957 On the Beach by Nevil Shute
***** 1959 Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
***** 1959 On the Beach U.S. film
***** 1959 The World, the Flesh, and the Devil MGM
**** 1962 The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard
***** 1975-1977 Survivors BBC
***** 1976 Survivors by Terry Nation
***** 1985 The Postman by David Brin
**** 1985 The Quiet Earth New Zealand film
**** 2006 Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
***** 2006 The Road by Cormac McCarthy
**** 2008-2010 Survivors BBC remake
**** 2012 The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
** 2012-2014 Revolution NBC
***** 2014 Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
*** 2015-2018 The Last Man On Earth Fox TV
**** 2021 Y: The Last Man FX on Hulu

Essays About Post-Apocalyptic Fiction I’ve Written Before

James Wallace Harris 1/17/23

Babel by R. F. Kuang

Normally I avoid reading fantasy books but will make an exception for outstanding works of the genre, such as Babel by R. F. Kuang. I became intrigued by this novel when reviews described it being a fantasy about language translation, set in Oxford at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. I love reading about how books are translated, and I’m fond of poking around in the 19th century. Then I saw that LitHub found Babel on 7 best-books-of-2022 lists. That convinced me to try it.

I find most fantasy novels to be mediocre. This is due to the genre being flooded with works, and because exceptional works of fantasy have set the bar so high that reading anything less is boring. Babel reminded me of Harry Potter books, The Golden Compass trilogy, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Babel is mostly set in Oxford, England in the 1830s. Follows four students who study at the Royal Institute of Translation – known as Babel. It is the most powerful college at Oxford in Kuang’s fantasy world. Babel is a fantasy novel rather than a historical one because silver can be embued with powerful charms via knowledge in language translation. This magical silver powers the industrial revolution and is a metaphor for capitalism. Actually, for the evils of capitalism.

I would call this a YA novel except that the protagonists are college students. Kuang is impressively creative in her writing and plotting but I was somewhat disappointed with her characterization. I would say they were excellent for genre writing — because genre fans will love them. But I thought her characters lacking compared to literary writing. The main character, Robin Swift, is half Chinese and half English and grew up in Canton, China before being taken to England to study languages. He never felt Chinese. He always felt English. Ramy is a Muslim kid from India, his cultural background doesn’t come through either. People are prejudiced against these two for their physical appearance, but I never felt they were different from the English characters internally. The only character that emotionally acts a bit different is Victoire, a girl originally from Haiti. Letty, the fourth in the cohort, is a privileged English girl and acts exactly that.

Even though this is a fantasy it focused on the historical sins of England in the 19th century. It judges Imperial England harshly, which it deserves. Actual history is like studying the Holocaust — full of horrors. There is an infinite amount of history to hate, but finding any real understanding is rare. I question making an attack on the past for the basis of a fantasy novel, but then I don’t take fantasy novels seriously. I feel they are mostly fun, and mostly for young people.

The story comes across as another YA tale of Blows Against the Empire that’s no more realistic than a Star Wars sequel or The Hunger Games. It’s hard to take its plot seriously since it involves magic. But maybe young readers will be inspired to read nonfiction history about the period, such as Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert. On the other hand, the plot is compelling from a reading point of view.

And I do believe R. F. Kuang is deadly serious. That makes me worry about her solution supporting violence. Her novel is really a metaphor for our times. It asks: How can we enjoy the fruits of evil when we know the price of them will be so much suffering? But the woken judge the past so severely without realizing the future will judge them just as harshly. We all need to read What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill. I’m afraid the future will look back on the 21st century and judge anyone who flew in an airplane or ate meat like we feel about 19th-century slave owners.

If Babel is just a fun fantasy that mixes in history and uses the English imperialists as its bad guys, how should we judge it? But what if it’s a philosophically deep challenge to history? Then, how should we judge Babel? Does it condemn the past fairly? Or is it more complicated? How many nonfiction books will we have to read to really answer that question?

James Wallace Harris, 1/15/23

The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff

Short Review: If you loved George R. Stewart’s 1949 classic novel Earth Abides then there’s a good chance you’ll love to read R. C. Sherriff’s forgotten 1939 novel The Hopkins Manuscript.

I bought the new Scribner audiobook edition that came out on January 6, 2023, because of Alec Nevala-Lee’s review in The New York Times. Right now, the Scribner edition is only available as an ebook and audiobook edition. An older, 2018, Penguin trade paper edition is still for sale. This apocalyptic novel first appeared in 1939 and has been reprinted a number of times since, yet it’s never achieved much notice.

I listened to The Hopkins Manuscript and thought it a science fiction masterpiece. However, I’m reluctant to recommend you buy it because it does not have even one citation in our Classics of Science Fiction database. If I believe The Hopkins Manuscript is so incredible why wasn’t it cited by any of the dozens of sources we used to build the database, including recommended reading lists from science fiction writers, polls from fans voting for their favorite novels, or lists of books admired by critics and scholars?

I loved The Hopkins Manuscript and can’t understand why it isn’t a well-known classic of science fiction. See the scans below from various reviewers in the past. I’d love to read what Michael Moorcock said about The Hopkins Manuscript in the September 2005 issue of The New York Review of Books (#205) if anyone has a copy. But in Thrilling Wonder Stories, from January 1940, H. K. recommended readers put it on their “Must” list. But in the April 1940 issue of Astonishing Stories, Donald A. Wollheim concluded the novel conveyed nothing new, nothing hopeful, and nothing very real. I disagree completely. Avram Davidson in the January 1964 issue of F&SF said the novel was first-rate and ended with “Don’t just read it — buy it.” P. Schuyler Miller damns it with faint praise in the April 1964 issue of Analog, concluding “The book first came out in 1939 and lives well.” Finally, Neil Barron did not recommend The Hopkins Manuscript in his library resource book Anatomy of Wonder.

Nevala-Lee spends most of his review talking about cozy catastrophes, giving Sherriff’s biography, and describing the story. I felt he told too much, but then I consider almost everything in a story to be spoilers. Nevala-Lee’s most positive statement is “Reissued this month, this wonderful novel should powerfully resonate with readers whose consciences are troubled by inequality and climate change. As Aldiss wrote, ‘The essence of cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time … while everyone else is dying off.” I disagree with by Nevala-Lee and Aldiss. This novel isn’t just for the woke and poor Edgar Hopkins suffers tremendously.

The Hopkins Manuscript is my kind of science fiction. I deeply resonated with Edgar Hopkins’ story, even though he is stodgy, vain, and frequently seeking to prove his self-importance. His memoir gives us a quiet and personal account of what was almost the end of the world. And I love stories about a few people trying to survive a worldwide catastrophe. If you loved the 1970s British TV shows Survivors, you might to get this book. I recommend the audiobook because the narration is pitch-perfect for the story. If you loved The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, also consider reading The Hopkins Manuscript. (Survivors is available on YouTube for free in low resolution. It doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere. Amazon sells a complete series DVD set for $22. It’s one of my all-time favorite TV shows.)

The Hopkins Manuscript is what some call a cozy catastrophe – a first-person account of the end of the world. The story is set in rural Britain before WWII and imagines the fall of Western civilization due to impending celestial events. Edgar Hopkins, a never-married retired teacher who raises show hens describes a very personal account of the end of the world. What made his story great is he’s a flawed but very realistically drawn character, and Sherriff’s philosophical take on humanity follows my own philosophy – especially that we don’t change. And that’s the tragedy of the novel, we don’t change even when faced with epic incentives.

The novel opens with a Forward from The Imperial Research Press, Addis Ababa telling us how the Hopkins manuscript was discovered two years earlier by the Royal Society of Abyssinia. It is assumed to be over 700 years old. The Forward also tells us how Western Europe is a dead civilization and the Hopkins manuscript is one of the very few artifacts left of the English Empire. The others are an iron tablet that says KEEP OFF THE GRASS, and a stone inscribed with PECKHAM 3 Miles. Except for old Roman roads, the entire history of England is gone. Since I read a three-volume history of the world last year, this felt very real. Civilizations come and go and we can’t expect ours to last forever.

American post-apocalyptic novels tend to involve a lot of violence and guns. British post-apocalyptic novels are genteel and quiet. If you’re looking for Mad Max, read elsewhere. The first half of the novel deals with how the British faced the coming doom. If you like stories about Britain between the wars, that’s another indicator you might want to buy The Hopkins Manuscript. That’s a big interest of mine. I’m not sure you need to be an Anglophile to enjoy this story but it might help. If you read Brian Stableford’s New Atlantis, a four-volume history of scientific romance, he shows how British science fiction evolved differently from American science fiction. I agree with him, and I’m partial to British science fiction. That’s probably another factor in explaining my love of The Hopkins Manuscript. Unfortunately, Stableford doesn’t cover The Hopkins Manuscript. That disappoints me. That’s just more evidence that my love of this novel might be unique to me. I hope not.

Even though The Hopkins Manuscript remains a mostly forgotten work, and has little critical support, I hope people rediscover it with the new Scribner edition. If you read it, please leave a comment below.

James Wallace Harris, 1/9/23

Near vs. Far Science Fiction

I’ve recently turned 71 and beginning to realize, once again, that my taste in science fiction is changing due to aging. I’m in a Facebook group where we read and discuss one science fiction short story a day. That exposes me to many different kinds of science fiction, both old and new, covering the endless possible themes that science fiction explores.

I push myself to read every story, even when I’m not enjoying them. I try to give each story the best possible chance but things are starting to change. That could be for several reasons. After reading a couple thousand SF short stories over the last five years, I might be burning out on certain kinds of science fiction. And I’ve been having health problems, and I only have half the vitality I did just a few years ago. Meaning, I might not have the psychic energy to consume as much science fiction. Ultimately, I believe it’s because getting older is making me more down to Earth, changing what I want from science fiction. Then again, I might be getting old and just losing my patience.

For some of my Facebook comments, I’m starting to use the excuse that I didn’t like the story because it’s science fiction is too far away for me. By that I mean, the setting is too far away in space or time. I’ve never been much of a fan of fantasy, and science fiction that’s far away in space or time feels like fantasy fiction. Some of these stories are beautifully written, with fantastic world-building, and wonderful character development. I should like them just for the storytelling, but I don’t. I feel like I’m wasting my time. I just don’t care about characters that live in unbelievable settings.

I’m not sure this attitude is entirely consistent. I’ve been meaning to reread Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, which is set in the far future and is very fantasy-like. I’ve read it twice in the last half-century, and it’s a beautiful tale. Would I still like a book I loved before if its setting is too far away? I don’t know, but I’ll report if I ever reread it again. Right now, I tend to be forgiving of old science fiction. I’m harder on new science fiction.

I keep trying to read the New Space Opera writers, and I just can’t get into them. I want to read the Culture novels by Ian M. Banks. Theoretically, they’re something I think I’d love, but I just can’t get into them. They are too far away.

This week I started listening to The Mountain in the Sea, Ray Nayler’s first novel I believe. I’m loving it, but then its setting is very near, on Earth, in the foreseeable future. The basic plot is about discovering a species of octopus that are social, tool-making, and developing a language. Since I’ve recently read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery and watched My Octopus Teacher on Netflix, Nayler’s speculation is very realistic. And that makes his science fiction very near.

A second major theme of The Mountain in the Sea is artificial intelligence, and Nayler handles it in a very realistic way too, again making his science fiction very near. I’ve been admiring Nayler’s short stories for a while now, but sometimes they are about AI and downloading human minds into machines or people, and I find that science fiction too far away for me. In fact, I dislike the whole theme of brain downloading and uploading.

One thing Nayler does in his novel is quote two future nonfiction books: How Oceans Think by Dr. Ha Nguyen and Building Minds by Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan in chapter headings. These two authors are also characters in the book. This gives Nayler a clever way to infodump in his story and injects his story with philosophy and science.

There are several other themes in the novel that are valid to us today, slavery, over-fishing, exploiting the environment, loneliness, self-destruction on a personal and species level, and so on. This is a heavy book. I have a few hours left, so I can’t give away the ending, but I’m most anxious to find out what happens.

The Mountain in the Sea reminds me of other great near science fiction novels, such as Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, Timescape by Gregory Benford, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, and The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. It also reminds me of the popular science books by Dr. John C. Lilly, who was a famous dolphin researcher back in the 1960s, and who went on to explore states of inner space. I’m especially reminded of The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence and Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments. Books I read when I was young that has made me think about some of the things which Ray Nayler is making me think about again now that I’m old. It’s interesting that in the 1960s we thought dolphins were the closest intelligent species to us, but now we’re thinking it might be octopuses.

James Wallace Harris, 11/27/22

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

I was in the mood for a really good science fiction novel. One I hadn’t read before. My hunger was for the kind of science fiction that excited me as a kid, so it might need to be old, but it could be new. I find a lot of modern science fiction is often set too far away from now or reality, making them not relevant. I like science fiction when it’s meaningful and not just some fun fantasy. I found the perfect book to satisfy all those desires, The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham. That novel was first published in 1953, but still impressively relevant in 2022.

I stumbled onto The Kraken Wakes when I glanced at “The First Climate Fiction Masterpiece: On John Wyndham’s 1953 Novel ‘The Kraken Wakes’” from the LA Review of Books. But I just barely looked at that review because I didn’t want any spoilers. I did read that review after reading the novel and it does a thorough job of explaining why the novel is great, however, it does so with many many spoilers. I’ve reached a stage in life when I don’t want to encounter any spoilers for the fiction I read. I’ve come to admire how writers unfold a story, letting us readers absorb what we need to know step-by-step. Too often reviewers ruin that process.

However, not telling what a book is about, makes it hard to review fiction. The Kraken Wakes wowed me. But will knowing that convince you to read it? Most readers like to read certain kinds of novels about certain kinds of subjects. That means I need to tell you just enough to hook you but not enough to spoil any of the fun John Wyndham intended.

Have you ever read The War of the Worlds? I don’t mean seeing any of the movies but actually reading what H. G. Wells wrote. Wells’s writing was excellent. Both books share many similarities, and The Kraken Wakes is a kind of literary reply to that classic novel. However, Wyndham adds a good bit of humor. The story is told from the point-of-view of a very charming young married couple, John and Phyllis Watson. That aspect reminds me of certain movies from the 1940s which featured delightful married couples. The charm and humor are used sparingly because this is a grim tale.

The plot is about an alien invasion but it’s not like American movies about alien invasions. What impressed me was Wyndham’s political and social awareness savviness. This 1953 novel is about science denialism, conspiracy theories, how fake news travels, the ways media shapes a news story, and many other ideas that resonate with today’s world. I don’t know if Wyndham was being satirical or just matter-of-fact about human nature, but he shows more maturity than most SF writers from that era.

I was thoroughly delighted by the novel, and grateful to find there are still science fiction classics from the past I haven’t read. I have read Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Chrysalids (1955), The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), and Chocky (1968), so I knew the odds were good I’d love The Kraken Wakes.

The Kraken Wakes was retitled for American readers as Out of the Deeps, and I’ve learned this morning it was significantly changed for American readers. I find that fascinating. Mark R. Kelly has written about the differences at Black Gate. You’ll want to read that after you’ve read the novel. I listened to the Audible edition read by John Sackville, who does a fantastic job of dramatizing the story. Audible Studies has new editions of many of Wyndham’s famous novels. Modern Library also has new editions, and I’m hoping they are the same, but the audiobook did not include the forward that’s in the Modern Library edition.

There have been several radio versions of the story produced over the years, as well as a video game.

James Wallace Harris, 10/20/22

For Us, The Living by Robert A. Heinlein

After reading this quote in Farah Mendlesohn’s book, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, I jumped back to reading Heinlein’s first work of fiction, For Us, The Living:

During 1938, Heinlein started casting around for work and, cushioned by that military pension, decided to try fiction. His first attempt, For Us, the Living, was an Edward Bellamyesque utopia, loosely plotted and heavy on the lectures, which never reached the public during his lifetime. However, for the rest of his life he would mine this unpublished manuscript for ideas, so that we can see the working and reworking of the thoughts of the young Heinlein using the skill and critical eye (and sometimes mature cynicism) of the older Heinlein. While it did the rounds of publishers Heinlein embarked on his first venture into the pulp magazines.

She was right. I could see where Heinlein pulled “The Roads Must Roll,” “Coventry,” and Beyond This Horizon from this trunk novel, as well as a good portion of his Future History timeline. Not only that, but Heinlein’s first novel sounds very much like his last novels. I always thought Heinlein’s later novels, which I dislike, were badly written because Heinlein was old and in decline. Of course, Heinlein could be like me now that I’m old when I spend a lot of time thinking about ideas I had when I was young.

At seventy I have this urge to go back and reread Heinlein to see why he made such an impact on me when I was a teen. It’s obvious from For Us, The Living, that Heinlein was preoccupied with the same ideas his whole life. But I also believe the writing techniques he used also revealed aspects of his personality. I don’t know if we males are allowed to call another male this, but Heinlein was one helluva of a mansplainer. Heinlein should have been a preacher because he loved to give sermons. I get the feeling that Heinlein was more than a little annoyed with our society and political system and was dying to redesign it.

I’ve been making fun of how often Heinlein brings up nudity and getting naked, and in For Us, The Living, nudism is a way of life. The book is like many of the utopian novels of the 19th century where a writer finds a way to put a character from their time into the future. The story becomes a travelogue through a utopia where the reader must listen to various people lecture about how the future society works.

The opening scene has Perry Nelson dying in a car crash and waking up in 2086. He’s rescued by a young woman, Diana, living alone in the mountains. When he wakes up Perry finds himself in bed, naked under the sheets, with Diana bustling around the house naked too. At first, Perry is embarrassed to get up when she asks him to join her for breakfast. Perry can’t understand why she’s not embarrassed too. Eventually, Perry assumes, when in Rome do as the Romans.

When I was a kid, and read Stranger in a Strange Land and The Puppet Masters, I was titillated at all the nudity in those stories, but I had not noticed how often Heinlein’s other characters in other stories went around in the raw. When I reread Methuselah’s Children recently I kept seeing scenes as Heinlein wrote them and I’d go “Eeeewwww” in my head. In For Us, The Living, the characters wear clothes sometimes, especially if it’s cold, but clothing is optional. Perry sometimes wears a kilt (evidently only a kilt), which was what Lazarus Long wore in Methuselah’s Children. Heinlein also had a thing about redheads – they are everywhere in his stories. In all the scenes where the characters are naked in For Us, The Living, I keep picturing how ugly that world would look. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few unclad females walking around a little more often than I do now, but a world full of visible scrotums would just be wrong. (I don’t know why all women aren’t lesbians.)

But maybe that’s Heinlein’s point. He wanted to spread the gospel of nudity, the glory of the human body. I’m afraid I’m an atheist of that religion too.

For Us, The Living is a clunky novel. There are a couple dramatic scenes, like when Perry dies, or when he goes into a jealous rage and punches Diana’s old boyfriend. But those are few and far between. The punch in the face is a setup to explain how the U.S. of 2086 is a libertarian utopia, where Perry is taken to be evaluated for mental illness. In this future society, any kind of violence is considered a mental illness, and violators are given a choice. They can get treatment or go to Coventry. Coventry is a reservation for people who do not want to follow the rules. In Heinlein’s later story, “Coventry” the main character punches someone out and selects Coventry. But he eventually learns he doesn’t like a totally free society. Perry chooses treatment.

As part of his treatment, Perry must study the ways of the future society. There’s a long painful section where Perry is lectured on economics that even includes a long algebraic formula. In this fictional future, everyone has a guaranteed income. It’s enough to live comfortably, but if you want more out of life, you earn extra money. Perry can’t understand why this society supports so many layabouts. This gives Heinlein a chance to lecture on how he believes our society should work.

At one point Perry meets Master Cathcart, a “Master of History.” Cathcart quizzes Perry on what he’s learned about American history from when he died in 1938, until 2086. I get the feeling from this section that Heinlein wanted to predict the future, or at least extrapolate it and show off how smart he was regarding world events. Heinlein fails but fails in an interesting way. Most of his projections sound a whole lot like his Future History chart. Here’s a sample.

“I am to assume, I take it, that you are for all practical purposes an inhabitant of 1939 A.D., well educated in your period, transported by some witchcraft to this period. Very well. You have been studying some records today? Which ones?” Perry ran through the list. “Good enough. Now suppose you summarize briefly what you have learned today and I will explain and amplify and answer questions as best I can.” 

“Well,” replied Perry, “that’s a large order but I’ll give it a try. At the time of my accident, July 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his second term. Congress had adjourned after wrecking most of the President’s program. The war in Spain had been won by the fascists. Japan was fighting China and was apparently about to fight Russia. Unemployment and an unbalanced budget were still the main troubles in the United States. 1940 was a presidential year. President Roosevelt was forced to run for a third term through lack of an electable successor to carry on his policies. His nomination by the Democratic convention resulted in the defection of the conservative wing of the party to Republican Party. In the meantime the National Progressives had organized on a nationwide scale and put young Bob LaFollette in the field. The Republicans nominated Senator Vandenburgh. Vandenburgh was elected but polled considerably less than half of the popular vote and failed to get a majority in either house. His administration was doomed from the start. 

Very little was done for four years except for a half-hearted attempt to balance the budget by eliminating relief, but riots and hunger marches soon scared Congress into providing more and more for the dole. In the spring of 1944 the death in a plane crash of Mr. Roosevelt demoralized the remnants of the Democratic Party and most of them joined the Republicans or the Progressives. The Democrats adjourned their convention without naming a candidate. The Progressives named LaGuardia, the fiery little Mayor of New York, while the Republicans after many ballots picked Senator Malone. President Vandenburgh was as thoroughly discredited by circumstances he did not understand and could not control as President Hoover before him. Senator Malone was a midwestern politician, a typical demagogue of my period, if I’m any judge. The recordings show him red-faced and raucous, a man of the people. Malone ran on a platform of blaming everything on Europe and the radicals. He demanded instant payment of the war debts, which were pretty silly since the second European war was already on. He called for the outlawing of the Communist Party, protection of the American home, and a return to rationalism in education which he defined as readin’, ’ritin’, and ’rithmetic and a particularly offensive jingoistic patriotism. He advocated deportation of all aliens, laws to prevent women from holding men’s jobs, and protection of the morals of the young. He promised to restore prosperity and promised everyone the ‘American’ standard of living. And he won, by a narrow vote in the electoral college. LaGuardia said afterwards that since Malone had promised them the moon, all he could offer was the moon with whipped cream, which didn’t seem practical to LaGuardia. 

“Once in office Malone ran things with a high hand. Congress was willing in the first session to pass almost any law he desired. One of the most important was the Public Safety bill which was in effect a gag for the press and other means of public information. Inasmuch as it was first used to suppress news of labor troubles which resulted from the discontinuance of the dole, the capital controlled press submitted to it without really knowing what they were in for. Then a law was passed which greatly increased the scope of the G-men or Federal enforcement agents and making them directly responsible to the chief executive. Malone staffed these expanded and greatly changed corps from his home state political machine. In the meantime, in spite of his controlled press, the people were getting restless. Even those who were still economically fairly comfortable had had swarms of the hungry, dispossessed, and unemployed turned loose on them. Malone was apparently afraid to chance another election, even a mid-term. Perhaps he never intended to. In any case he declared a state of emergency, using the mobs of unemployed as an excuse, and took over the internal civil government as an absolute dictator. He used the army and navy to quell any local difficulties. With his new secret service and control over the means of communication and propaganda this was feasible. By the way, the record states that he was able to use the army and navy to destroy the democratic form of government. I find that hard to believe, Master Cathcart. You see I was in the navy myself and I don’t believe that the American Services were fascist minded. How do you account for it?”

For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (pp. 63-66). Scribner. Kindle Edition. 

Later on. he gets one interesting fact right:

“What happened to the dictators?” 

“Adolf Hitler committed suicide by shooting himself in the roof of the mouth. Mussolini got out much more gracefully. He submitted his resignation to the king he had kept around during his entire tenure and the king appointed a new prime minister, a social democrat. But to my mind the most interesting thing about the peace was the peculiar terms of the peace treaty.” 

“Some sort of a league of nations, all over again wasn’t it?” 

“Yes, and no. A very brilliant young Frenchman, a descendant of LaFayette, argued that a continental government or federation was necessary if a lasting peace was to come, and argued further that a constitutional monarchy was the most stable form under which free men could live. And so the United Europe was created. But the romantic part is the man who was chosen to head this polyglot creation. The Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns were out for obvious reasons of bad blood and bad records. The English king was suggested but he aroused no enthusiasm, being rather negative in character and further handicapped by his shyness and speech impediments. None of the pretenders in exile had any real following. But one prince was available, who had long before captured the world’s imagination. Edward, Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated the British throne in 1936 rather than accept the complete domination of his prime minister, became the choice.” 

“Well, I’ll be damned!” muttered Perry. “I don’t believe that was in the record.”

For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (pp. 69-70). Scribner. Kindle Edition. 

But where is the Heinlein that’s going to write all the books about exploring space? That’s the Heinlein that I loved as a kid. Well, towards the end of For Us, The Living, while Perry is still in rehab, he and one of his therapists, Olga, go on a tour of a rocket testing facility. In 2086, rockets are standard for traveling around the world, much as we now use jetliners, but they don’t go into space. At the testing facility, they are working on rockets that can achieve escape velocity. Perry and Olga witness a rocket failure, and this lights up Perry’s ambition.

Eventually, Perry discovers he’s cured. He ends up with a three-way relationship with Diana and Olga and is released from his reeducation. Perry then goes off to train as a rocket pilot, and at the end of the story, three years later, is heading to the Moon. The ending, by the way, reminds me a whole lot of the ending of the 1936 film, Things to Come. But Perry Nelson’s speech is nowhere as elegant as Oswald Cabal’s speech. Thus the ending of For Us, The Living sets us up for “Requiem,” and “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” The ending of For Us, The Living also feels like the ending to Tunnel in the Sky, and other Heinlein stories, where the main character is heading for a bright future on the high frontier.

If you only read Heinlein occasionally, you might not detect his pet ideas. But reading him solid like I am now, starting from the beginning and working forward as he published new stories, For Us, The Living is a fascinating clue to how Heinlein thought.

From reading all the biographies of Heinlein, and his work, I get the feeling he was deeply dissatisfied with our society and was burning to reshape it. Many of the lectures/infodumps deal with customs and beliefs that were common in the 1940s and are still embraced today. I think Heinlein resented the thinking behind them as impediments to his freedom. By the time I started reading Heinlein in 1964, when I was twelve, I had already decided to become an atheist. Maybe I felt a kinship with Heinlein’s quest to be mentally free. But I grew up in the sixties when youthful rebellion was required. We were way beyond Heinlein regarding free thinking.

What I loved about Heinlein as a kid, was all the gung-ho-ness for exploring space. What I’m seeing in my rereading is Heinlein had several ambitions as a writer, and the space stuff was only one of them.

Heinlein always told us that “Life-Line” was his first effort at writing. He’d brag how he read about a writing contest in Thrilling Wonder Stories that offered a $50 prize, but when he finished his first effort, it was good enough to sell to John W. Campbell for $70. He never mentioned For Us, The Living. I vaguely remember reading that Heinlein and his wife burned copies of it before he died because they didn’t want it published. But evidently, he had lent it to a biographer, and that copy was rediscovered. I’m glad his estate went against his wishes. It offers so many clues about Heinlein. It also tells us that Heinlein wasn’t quite honest. That he had secrets he didn’t want us to know. I think these essays I’m writing are a way to deduce some of them.

James Wallace Harris, 9/29/22

Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein

Sixth Column first appeared in the January, February, and March 1941 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction. For it, Heinlein used the pseudonym of Anson MacDonald, so it’s not considered part of his Future History series. Sixth Column is generally thought of as one of Heinlein’s bottom-of-the-barrel novels. Critics sometimes try to defend Heinlein by pointing out he wrote Sixth Column based on a story given to him by John W. Campbell, Jr., thus transferring some of the blame for this stinker to his editor. Also, it’s often dismissed as a racist Yellow Peril novel that was common back in the 1930s. Even if you ignore the racism, the story itself is silly and unbelievable. The story’s sense of reality is equal to a comic book.

The basic plot is six American servicemen are the sole survivors of an overwhelming attack on the United States that completely destroys all our military. We are occupied by soldiers from an unnamed Asian country, that Heinlein refers to as Pan Asian. The six surviving soldiers were in a hidden mountain bunker doing secret scientific research, and one of them just happens to be smarter than Einstein who can churn out exotic weapons based on theoretical physics. The story is about how they conquered the invaders and freed America.

Heinlein’s Sixth Column falls into the category of invasion literature. These were an early form of science fiction that began in the last third of the 19th century and ran until WWI. In England, the common fear was Germany would take over. But every country had authors that wrote scary stories about invasions from other countries. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Well is considered inspired by the invasion literature genre.

Since Sixth Column was written in 1940, and Japan had been invading countries since 1931, I have to assume Heinlein meant Japan when he wrote Pan Asian. It’s a shame Heinlein just didn’t write Japan and Japanese instead as he typed. It would seem much less racist now, and probably a bit prophetic at the time. Were there legal issues back then?

The Pan Asians who occupied America in this story completely controlled every aspect of Americans’ lives. They only allowed one freedom – the freedom of religion. Heinlein’s six soldiers invent a religion to spread to all the major cities as a cover and then use secret super weapons to defeat the enemy.

Sixth Column is readable, but that’s about all I can say for it. I did think the idea of creating a fake religion was neat. In another serial Heinlein wrote in 1940, “If This Goes On—” he has the U.S. overthrown by a theocracy. I’m reading that one now. Heinlein sure did like to think big in his plotting. The idea of six men repelling an entire invasion was exciting stuff in 1941, at least to pulp magazine readers. Heinlein loved creating characters that were confident in their abilities and could essentially do anything. Heinlein plotted Sixth Column better than Methuselah’s Children, his second three-part serial of 1941. I think that was due to focusing on fewer characters and a smaller scale if you can envision six men fighting off millions being a smaller setting than the events in Methuselah’s Children. But I do since Heinlein’s imagination ran to even bigger whoppers to believe in that story.

But even with this faint praise, I can’t recommend reading Sixth Column, unless you’re like me and studying all of Heinlein’s work.

James W. Harris

Methuselah’s Children by Robert A. Heinlein

Methuselah’s Children first appeared 81 years ago this summer, in the July, August, and September 1941 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction. In 1948, Erle Korshak gave Heinlein a $200 advance to publish the serial at Shasta Press. The revised and slightly expanded version should have been Heinlein’s third hardback book, but it didn’t get published until 1958. In 1967 Methuselah’s Children was included in The Past Through Tomorrow, Heinlein’s giant collection of Future History stories. The Past Through Tomorrow was widely distributed by the Science Fiction Book Club, so I expect many people have read this novel. Methuselah’s Children was first reprinted in paperback in 1962, having an extensive reprint history.

This past week while convalescing after surgery, I got hooked on reading early Heinlein. I needed reading material I could consume on my iPhone, and I’ve been meaning for years to reevaluate my adolescent love of Heinlein’s fiction. This seemed like a good time, and it made me feel more productive while lying around all day. I’ve finished Methuselah’s Children and The Sixth Column and working on Revolt in 2100. These are Heinlein’s first three novels (depending on how you measure wordage).

I expect to read even more from Heinlein’s pre-war stories. I feel like an academic studying his early work. I used to think that Heinlein had four periods where the stories were distinctively different. I grouped them into the Pre-WWII stories, the 1947-1959 stories, novels from the 1960s, and the later novels. Some of his books from the 1950s I have read many times, and are my favorites. Heinlein’s books from the 1960s I’ve read at least three times each, I think. I read most of the pre-WWII stories only once, except for the more famous anthologized short stories. I’ve read those several times. For his later work, I’ve only read those books either once, or I didn’t finish them.

I’m now realizing that Heinlein changed far less from period to period than I previously thought. A lot of the perceived differences were due to the markets that published the stories. His work at Putnam showed Heinlein at his most verbose. I’m now seeing those personal pet ideas he expounded on at length in his later novels revealed in his earlier works as mere asides. Despite editorial restraint or the limits of length, Heinlein expressed himself one way or another.

Heinlein was incredibly prolific before WWII. One estimate suggested that 20% of Astounding Science Fiction in 1941 was written by Heinlein using his own name or under pseudonyms. After the war, five of those stories were published as novels, even though they were very short, or fix-ups. Most of the famous Future History stories were written during this period. Before Heinlein quit writing to join the war effort in 1942, he wrote five tales that would be published as novels. I’ve read the first and last three times each, but the middle three only once.

  • Beyond This Horizon (1948, Fantasy Press) (Astounding April, May 1942)
  • Sixth Column (1949, Gnome Press) (Astounding, January, February, March 1941)
  • Revolt in 2100 (1953, Shasta) (Astounding, February, March 1940)
  • Methuselah’s Children (1958, Gnome Press) (Astounding, July, August, September 1941)
  • Orphans of the Sky (1964, Putnam) (Astounding, May, October 1941)

When I first started reading Methuselah’s Children I thought I must have first read it when I got The Past Through Tomorrow in 1967. It was considered the last story in Heinlein’s Future History, and the one that was set second furthest in the future. The characters in “Universe” and “Common Sense” (reprinted as Orphans of the Sky) lived the furthest in the future in Heinlein’s fictional universe. When I started writing this essay I remembered borrowing and reading Methuselah’s Children from Homestead Air Force Base Library in 1965 because that library had all of Heinlein’s Gnome, Fantasy Press, and Shasta’s editions. I distinctly remember its cover (see above).

I have not read Methuselah’s Children since then, and I barely remembered it. I can’t say it’s a great story. You can tell Heinlein was just learning how to write a novel. It’s rather episodic, with three main story arcs that go along with being serialized over three issues. And Heinlein hadn’t figured out how to plot a long story yet, nor was he particularly good at developing dramatic scenes. I believe Sixth Column had better plotting, and Revolt in 2100 had some better dramatic scenes. However, Methuselah’s Children is full of exciting science fictional ideas, referencing many of his other early stories that fit within the Future History timeline.

I’m not sure I’d recommend Methuselah’s Children to modern readers, although at Goodreads there were many reviewers who raved about it. Now that I’m rereading old Heinlein I’m also pondering why as I go along.

First, let’s consider the science fictional concepts presented by Heinlein for the readers of 1941.

  • Longevity. The Howard Family (the collective name, there were many surnames) began selective breeding in the 19th century by only marrying spouses that had four living grandparents. By the 22nd century, many of them were living close to two hundred years. The oldest, Lazarus Long, was 213 at the beginning of the novel, and somewhere between 50-75 years older at the end. No one knows for sure because of the time dilation of space travel. In 1941 Americans were still interested in eugenics, but the techniques used to achieve longevity in this story were merely animal husbandry. Heinlein should have known this wouldn’t work because we’ve never bred any long-lived farm animals.
  • Political Utopia. The story is set after the Crazy Years and the Second American Revolution, under a new constitution called The Covenant. Maximum political freedom was guaranteed. However, The Covenant breaks down when the average citizen learns that the Howard Family has longevity and they want to suspend its freedom and torture the Howard Family members into revealing their secret. It’s a shame that Heinlein didn’t flesh out this semi-utopian period.
  • STL and FTL Space Travel. The Howard Family escapes Earth by stealing the sister ship to the one in “Universe” and “Common Sense”. Their ship, the New Frontiers, starts out slow, but Andrew Jackson Libby, a character from Heinlein’s second published story, “Misfit” finds a way to soup up the engines to travel near light speed. Eventually, he learns how to make it go faster than light. That means in two 1941 stories Heinlein explores several ways to achieve interstellar travel.
  • Psychic Powers. Even though the Howard Family breed for longevity they still have birth defects (assumed from all that inbreeding). Heinlein is careful to point out how well they take care of these children. Some of those handicapped offspring had psychic powers, and that figured in the plot in a couple of places. Children with birth defects and psychic powers reminded me of stories by Philip K. Dick from the 1950s and 1960s. Heinlein’s aliens also have various degrees of psychic powers. In one instance, reminding me of Arthur C. Clarke’s stories Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is interesting for 1941. SF in the 1950s was known for its ESP stories.
  • Vastly Superior Aliens. The Howard Family refugees first encounter an alien species called the Jockaira, a pleasant, vaguely humanoid people that welcomes them to their planet. Then the Howards meet the real rulers of the planet and it scares the shit out of them. This is very interesting because John W. Campbell supposedly had some kind of unwritten editorial rule that forbade stories with superior aliens. For the rest of his writing career, Heinlein always claimed humans were the meanest, toughest species in the galaxy, but in this story, we run away with our tails between our legs.
  • Lotus Eater Aliens. The next planet has extremely nice aliens. Too nice.

For 1941, this is some impressive science fiction, but is it for 2022? And was the writing all that impressive, even for 1941? Heinlein has a reputation for blazing onto the pulp scene as a far superior writer. I have my doubts in places. This is where I wonder if this story will survive the test of time. Heinlein loved writing stories where people had huge meetings in large halls to argue about their problems using Robert’s Rules of Order. These group meetings happened several times in Methuselah’s Children. To me, this was a cheating kind of infodump. And quite often it allows Heinlein to spout his philosophy using his protagonist. Lazarus Long is a popular character but could be a holier-than-thou know-it-all.

At the beginning of the novel, Mary Sperling is the leader of the Howard Family because of her age. It’s a shame Heinlein didn’t stick with this woman protagonist. Mary was the chairman of the board and the moderator at meetings where the various families send their representatives. But when Lazarus Long admits he’s older Mary gives him the gavel. From then on Lazarus conducts the meetings. Heinlein tries to make him sound like a cross between Mark Twain and Will Rogers, but in my mind, he failed. I never felt Lazarus showed the wisdom that a man of 213 years should have.

Heinlein loved his character Lazarus Long and brought him back in several stories. We’re told Lazarus wears a kilt with a gun (blaster) strapped between his legs. The jokes I could make about that. I was never sure he wore anything besides a kilt, but every chance he gets Lazarus will shuck his skirt. I’ve read that Heinlein was a nudist, and that concept shows up over and over again in his stories. I tried to imagine a hundred thousand naked people in a spaceship in zero-g and it brings out the Puritanical prude in me. The thought of being in a cabin with Lazarus long while floating in free space and being forced to stare at his two guns hurt this story.

Also, Lazarus often acted like he was ready to shoot first and ask questions later. Throughout Heinlein’s fiction, his characters ignore laws and often commit capital punishment for offenses that the law would seldom execute.

Lazarus Long has an ego the size of Texas. I’m sure Heinlein used all the incidents I saw as egotism as a way to prove that Lazarus was a competent man who could do anything. At one point, Lazarus shows how any man with moxie can bully his way through the telephone system to talk to the world leader. I wonder if Heinlein thought he could call up FDR anytime he wanted?

In another story arc, Lazarus steals an interstellar spaceship, buys a giant cargo vessel, and rescues over a hundred thousand people – all by himself. This really hurt the novel because it’s absolutely unbelievable. Methuselah’s Children would have been a much better story if the Howard Families totaled fewer than a thousand people. At one point Lazarus is moderating a meeting of all hundred thousand using televisors. That just seemed ridiculous to me. Try imagining Donald Trump interacting with a hundred thousand of his fans concurrently who wanted their say too.

And maybe Lazarus Long isn’t Heinlein, but I imagine this character is the person Heinlein wished he could be. Ditto for Jubal Harshaw, and all the other characters people think of as standing for Heinlein. The William Patterson biography of Heinlein hints that Heinlein was an unpopular cadet at the Naval academy and that he was very thinned-skinned.

Heinlein fans have often accused critics of not understanding that writers aren’t their characters. But for Heinlein, I believe he created a dominating character that he wished he could be. For some readers, this works. I’m guessing they’d like to be those characters too. And maybe I did too when I was a kid. Now, Heinlein’s supermen are unappealing, to say the least.

Still, I found Methuselah’s Children to be very readable and thought-provoking. The way the story handles the resentment over genetically enhanced humans was done better with Nancy Kress and her novel Beggars in Spain, so I’d recommend it before Methuselah’s Children.

In 1941 Heinlein was dealing with several ways of achieving interstellar travel. That was amazing at a time when most Americans pictured space travel like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordan series, where alien planets seem no further than the Moon. Heinlein worked to get his readers to imagine the immense distance between the stars and the limitations Einstein had put on space travel. Unfortunately, all that has been done countless times since. So I don’t know if young readers need to dig this far back in science fiction to find rewarding stories on those science fictional topics.

My main enjoyment in reading Methuselah’s Children is finding all the easter eggs linking to earlier Future History stories. Also, I liked that Heinlein kept imagining the United States being overthrown by various other forms of government. Even though I believe this 81-year-old story is unworthy of future pop culture recognition, it still entertained me because I’m a life-long Heinlein fan.

But I’m also seeing that I never really paid attention to Heinlein’s philosophy and politics. What mattered to me were the science fictional ideas. When I was young I wanted Heinlein to be read and loved by everyone. I wanted him to become a classic author like Charles Dickens. That just isn’t happening. If 10,000 novels are published every year, 99.999% of them will be forgotten, leaving about ten to fight for a slot in our long-term pop culture memory. If you look at Wikipedia’s list of 1941 fiction, Methuselah’s Children is there (probably because of an editor who is a Heinlein fan), but so are a bunch of books already forgotten. It’s funny, but from the list, the most memorable pieces of 1941 fiction for me were Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain and “Nightfall,” by Asimov. If we look at Wikipedia’s remembered films of 1941, I see far more that have retained some pop cultural vitality – especially Citizen Kane.

People probably wonder why I obsess over remembering the past, worrying about what will be remembered and what won’t. I’m just fascinated by what history and world culture retain from pop culture. What works of art can speak the furthest across time.

I started reading Heinlein when I was twelve, so maybe I’m now finalizing the project twelve years before I die. I’m seeking both closure and exorcism. When I retired I got heavily into reevaluating my past, but I’ve been doing that for a decade and I realize I don’t want to spend my last years looking backward. I want to get back to thinking about the future.

James Wallace Harris, 9/11/22

Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Why read an old science fiction novel? Maybe a friend recommended it. Or maybe you discovered an author you like and you’re reading all of their books. Or it was on a list of great science fiction novels. Or a YouTuber reviewed it. Maybe even, it was assigned in a class. In my case, and I think it’s true of most people my age, we’re rereading old SF novels we loved in our youth.

A better question to ask: Which old science fiction novels should we read? The obvious answer is the true classics. But what makes a book classic? I once calculated there were less than one hundred famous books from the 19th century that are regularly read today. Scholars and fans of 19th-century lit are familiar with more titles but I’m talking about the average bookworm. I’m going to assume as the 21st century progresses, we’ll collectively forget about most of the science fiction published in the 20th century.

I’m reading and rereading old science fiction because of nostalgia and to fill in the gaps in my knowledge about 20th-century science fiction. But as I do this I’m thinking about which books might survive long term. Doing that requires analyzing books for their various qualities. One way to do that is to recall what made me love a book then and try to figure out why it might be loved or hated today.

If I was thirteen years old today and read Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein which was first published in 1949, would I love it like I did when I read it at thirteen in 1964? I’m not sure I can answer that at 70 because my mind is clouded with nostalgia. Probably any 13-year-old today would laugh at Heinlein’s attitude toward women. But would kids today, especially those science-savvy kids, dismiss the book because Heinlein has Mars populated with life, even with beings more intelligent than humans? Or would they forgive him in the same way we forgive 19th-century writers like Jules Verne, and assume Heinlein was from some pre-scientific dark age and just didn’t know better?

Would the core story in this 1949 science fiction novel still be entertaining to any reader in 2022? People still find Journey to the Center of the Earth immensely entertaining even though they know Verne was full of lala regarding his science.

Red Planet was immensely appealing to me in 1964. It was about a boy, Jim Marlowe, and his friend Frank Sutton, living in a colony on Mars. Jim also had a pet Martian “rounder” that is somewhat intelligent and could speak some English. Because Mars is so cold the colonists must migrate between the south and north to avoid Martian winters. The plot involves Jim and Frank going away to boarding school and learning the corporation that owns the colony secretly wants to end the practice of migration to save money. Jim and Frank sneak away and travel across the Martian landscape to warn their parents, which eventually causes the colonists to revolt against the corporation. The plot also deals with the Martians and the conflict of intelligent species, so it’s very exciting.

In 1965 with the Mariner IV flyby probe we learned that Mars was much closer to being like the Moon than Earth and there would be no advanced life forms found there. Ever since then science fiction writers have been writing quite differently about Mars. Some readers felt NASA invalidated all the older science fiction about Mars, and some readers didn’t mind at all. I wonder what young readers growing up in the 21st century think when reading such stories. I know they are often quick to reject stories for woke reasons, and that’s understandable. I sometimes wonder if they ignore the less evolved attitudes of our ancestors, and the science we know about Mars, could older stories gain fans just because of their storytelling virtues?

I can overlook bad science and some lack of wokeness. I even wrote an essay – “I Miss Martians” because I get a kick out of stories where the solar system is full of life and intelligence. But I remember a time before NASA’s probes when many people hoped that would be true. Will readers growing up after that time feel the same way? Is The War of the Worlds still a popular book with young readers?

Books are like people, they survive death in the memories of folks who loved them. But as those people die, who will keep the memories going? History keeps the memory of significant people alive. For a book to keep being read requires a similar kind of historical significance.

Red Planet was the first Heinlein story I read. That was back in the autumn of 1964 just before I turned thirteen, and before Mariner IV. My eighth-grade English teacher required us to read three books for each six-weeks grading period. Red Planet was on her approved list, and maybe the only science fiction title. I wished I remembered her name because I’ve always been thankful to her for introducing me to Heinlein. By the end of 1965, I believe I had read all of Heinlein that had been published in paperback and hardback up to that time.

The Heinlein juveniles won library awards and were recommended for young adults. In the late 1940s when few science fiction writers got published in hardback, Heinlein sold his young adult novels to Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publisher of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. After WWII Heinlein also broke into slick magazines with several SF stories published in Saturday Evening Post, and he even had a Hollywood movie, Destination Moon, made in 1950. And I have met countless people on the web testifying how much they loved the Heinlein juveniles growing up. I think they are why those twelve books stay in print. But after they die, do those twelve books have any literary or historical significance to keep them in print?

Heinlein’s words had a certain amount of respect around the time I was born in 1951 but I’m not sure his same words would be respected today. While liberals shame-censor books with woke concerns and conservatives seek to actually have books banned from school and public libraries I’m not sure how the books I loved as a kid would be judged today.

Red Planet made a great impact on me as a kid. Conservatives today would probably completely approve of Red Planet — the only fault they might find in it is I grew up to be a liberal. I’m afraid my liberal friends would not approve of this novel because Heinlein had a completely 1940s attitude towards the role of women in society. But his attitudes didn’t rub off on me because I completely embraced feminism in the 1960s. I did wince at all of Heinlein’s patriarchal sentiments when I reread Red Planet this weekend. What’s strange is just a few years later, in the 1950s Heinlein changed his attitude completely toward what jobs women could hold. Wonder what made him change? And should we retroactively forgive him for his 1940s attitudes?

I’ve wondered if Heinlein’s third wife, Ginny, changed Heinlein’s mind about women. Or did his science fictional instincts make him ask: What if women had the freedom to be who they wanted? In the 1950s Heinlein made women rocket scientists, spaceship pilots, and combat soldiers. He put them in leadership positions. Did he think of that himself? Or were there feminists in the 1950s who changed his mind? Is a feminist change in SF significant enough historically to keep Heinlein’s 1950s books in print?

My favorite part of Red Planet is the Martians. They appear to be the same Martians Heinlein uses in his 1961 novel Strange in a Strange Land. However, they don’t seem to be the same Martians in his 1956 novel, Double Star. And there’s even a recursive SF joke in Red Planet. Willis turns out might be a princess of sorts, bringing in an Edgar Rice Burroughs allusion. In Red Planet, the Martians have a ceremony with water and call Jim their “water friend” but in Strange in a Strange Land, Mike undergoes the same water ceremony and is called a “water brother.”

In other words, I don’t care if the real Mars is lifeless, but it’s amusing to see how Heinlein gave Mars an intelligent species for his books. Alan Brown in his review of the novel said he thought Stranger was actually a prequel to Red Planet. If Stranger in a Strange Land stays in print, will it help Red Planet be remembered by science fiction scholars as a footnote?

Actually, many themes that Heinlein covered in other books are touched upon in Red Planet. Heinlein was a nudist, and the men in this novel only wear jockey shorts on the inside and describe women wearing what Earth women would wear to the beach. A lot of cheesy 1950s science fiction movies pictured such skimpy attire for the future. Will some science fiction books be remembered for their bad visions of fashion of the future? I doubt Red Planet has enough of those.

The revolution in Red Planet has a lot of similarities to the revolution in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Many of Heinlein’s stories involve revolutions or overthrowing some kind of tyranny. And they often have a big committee meeting where everyone argues and abuse Robert’s Rules of Order. And all these stories involve innocents being killed to ramp up the emotions and justify the revolutionaries using deadly force. Heinlein loved replaying the American revolution. I’m pretty sure MAGA people, and even preppers would find Red Planet appealing for its politics.

What’s funny is Jim Marlowe throws fits over minor school rules claiming it violates his freedom. Heinlein loved the Navy Academy and Jim would have been considered a whiner there. The way freedom is defined in Red Planet is the same kind as people who didn’t want to wear masks during the pandemic defined it. Heinlein also spends a fair amount of time promoting gun ownership in this book. He also promotes a kind of frontier justice that many conservatives today would love.

I was disappointed with this rereading of Red Planet because Heinlein failed to make his Martian colony realistic, or even spend much time on how a colony would be built. Heinlein saw Mars as a solution to Earth’s overpopulation and a place for people wanting to be free to be pioneers. Both are absolutely ridiculous assumptions.

The Martians in Red Planet have the same ability to make people disappear as Valentine Michael Smith did in Stranger in a Strange Land. I find that concept extremely unethical in the way Heinlein uses it. It gives his characters a god-like power which Heinlein assumes his characters know what’s right and wrong and can make god-like judgments. In more than one novel Heinlein has stated that bad manners should be a capital offense. Again, this will probably appeal to the MAGA crowd.

In recent decades I’ve developed a theory that Heinlein wanted to be another Ayn Rand, especially after the success of Atlas Shrugged. He switched from writing short YA novels to long preachy adult novels after Ayn Rand became famous. And Heinlein promoted a similar kind of political philosophy. Before he died, Heinlein said in many places he wanted to be remembered for three novels: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I see those as his Ayn Rand novels, but the same political sentiments exist in Red Planet. I believe Heinlein knew most of his novels would be forgotten in the 21st century, and he intended to winnow out the ones he wanted and why. I never liked Heinlein’s politics, so as I’ve gotten older, I jettison his 1960s and later novels too. I love a lot of his 1940s work, but I know they have woke problems. And from 1960 on, they have had political and literary problems. That leaves me with his 1950s work. And as I reread it, I might revise my opinions on those stories too.

Heinlein also likes writing stories about advanced aliens judging humanity. Red Planet parallels Have Space Suit-Will Travel in this regard. I’m not sure this theme is strong enough in Red Planet to ensure its long-term survival.

I still enjoyed reading Red Planet this weekend. I’ve read it several times over my lifetime. It’s a nostalgic favorite, but not a top favorite. It’s too quaint for modern readers, but I don’t think it offers enough historical or literary value to last. And I can see why it would offend many readers.

When I was young I loved Heinlein’s books so much that I thought they would become classics, but I doubt that now. I wanted Heinlein to be the H. G. Wells of 20th-century science fiction. I’m starting to think he might be remembered like Edward Page Mitchell.

James Wallace Harris, 8/23/22