Did Fandom Take Note of Heinlein in 1939?

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

“Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein

“Misfit” (Astounding, Nov. 1939) was Heinlein’s second published story and his first about space travel. It’s also his first work of juvenile fiction, or what we call YA today. Heinlein renamed FDR’s New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) the Cosmic Construction Corps for this future space adventure. I thought that was a really neat idea. And Heinlein created one of his favorite characters, Andrew Jackson Libby, who would reappear in Methuselah’s Children in 1941, and yet again in four of Heinlein’s 1970s and 1980s novels. Eventually, Libby would become a woman, Elizabeth Andrew Jackson Libby, but we won’t get into that for a very long time. Some fans even consider Max Jones of Starman Jones a repackaging of the Libby character, but I don’t.

I never liked the way Heinlein reused his characters because he eventually turned characters I loved into characters I hated. But that’s another subject to deal with in future essays.

The plot of “Misfit” isn’t very complicated. Libby is a young man who we follow into space. Like many of the boys on the ship, Libby experiences space sickness at first but eventually adapts to living in free fall. His crew arrives at a small asteroid called HS-5388, or just Eighty-Eight. Their job is to build habitats and rocket engines into the rock. Their goal is to reposition the asteroid into an orbit between Earth and Mars to make it into an emergency shelter for space travelers.

There’s little conflict or drama in the story. The only surprise in the story is we learn that Libby has a savant’s ability for mathematics, and saves the day when their “computer” conks out. Heinlein calls Libby a lightning calculator and gives him the nickname “Slipstick” – a slang term for a slide rule. In this1939 story, the word computer was not used. They called their computer an “integral calculator.” Boy, wouldn’t Heinlein have wowed us today if he had imagined a handheld calculator instead of a slide rule? (I loved using my slide rule in my math classes back in the 1960s and 1970s. I wish I had kept it.)

This is why I said in my review of “Life-Line” that I thought “Life-Line” was a much better story than “Misfit.” In “Life-Line” Heinlein gets us hooked right away on whether or not Hugo Pinero’s invention is real, and the whole story focuses on that plotline. “Misfit” is a story where this happens, then this happens, and then another thing happens until we reach an end. It’s still a good story, but it doesn’t have a tight plot. Even the dramatic scene of Libby saving the day when putting the asteroid into its new orbit isn’t done with much drama. Still, the “Misfit” is readable and likable, but its deadpan style makes me think of the old TV show Dragnet.

Heinlein had a side to him that just enjoyed explaining how things worked. My favorite part of the story was Heinlein showing us what weightlessness would be like. I thought he got it very right for 1939. And I checked to see if he hadn’t updated the story later, but he hadn’t. I don’t know if any writer back then worked out what living in microgravity would be like. I was very impressed. They call Libby Pinky, I guessed because of his red hair and complexion.

The ship’s loudspeaker blatted out, “All hands! Free flight in ten minutes. Stand by to lose weight.” The Master-at-Arms supervised the rigging of grab-lines. All loose gear was made fast, and little cellulose bags were issued to each man. Hardly was this done when Libby felt himself get light on his feet—a sensation exactly like that experienced when an express elevator makes a quick stop on an upward trip, except that the sensation continued and became more intense. At first it was a pleasant novelty, then it rapidly became distressing. The blood pounded in his ears, and his feet were clammy and cold. His saliva secreted at an abnormal rate. He tried to swallow, choked, and coughed. Then his stomach shuddered and contracted with a violent, painful, convulsive reflex and he was suddenly, disastrously nauseated. After the first excruciating spasm, he heard McCoy’s voice shouting. 

“Hey! Use your sick-kits like I told you. Don’t let that stuff get in the blowers.” Dimly Libby realized that the admonishment included him. He fumbled for his cellulose bag just as a second temblor shook him, but he managed to fit the bag over his mouth before the eruption occurred. When it subsided, he became aware that he was floating near the overhead and facing the door. The chief Master-at-Arms slithered in the door and spoke to McCoy. 

“How are you making out?”  

“Well enough. Some of the boys missed their kits.”  

“Okay. Mop it up. You can use the starboard lock.” He swam out.  

McCoy touched Libby’s arm. “Here, Pinkie, start catching them butterflies.” He handed him a handful of cotton waste, then took another handful himself and neatly dabbed up a globule of the slimy filth that floated about the compartment. “Be sure your sick-kit is on tight. When you get sick, just stop and wait until it’s over.” Libby imitated him as best as he could. In a few minutes the room was free of the worst of the sickening debris. McCoy looked it over, and spoke: 

“Now peel off them dirty duds, and change your kits. Three or four of you bring everything along to the starboard lock.” 

At the starboard spacelock, the kits were put in first, the inner door closed, and the outer opened. When the inner door was opened again the kits were gone—blown out into space by the escaping air. Pinkie addressed McCoy, “Do we have to throw away our dirty clothes too?” 

“Huh uh, we’ll just give them a dose of vacuum. Take ’em into the lock and stop ’em to those hooks on the bulkheads. Tie ’em tight.” 

This time the lock was left closed for about five minutes. When the lock was opened the garments were bone dry—all the moisture boiled out by the vacuum of space. All that remained of the unpleasant rejecta was a sterile powdery residue. McCoy viewed them with approval. “They’ll do. Take them back to the compartment. Then brush them—hard—in front of the exhaust blowers.” 

The next few days were an eternity of misery. Homesickness was forgotten in the all-engrossing wretchedness of spacesickness. The Captain granted fifteen minutes of mild acceleration for each of the nine meal periods, but the respite accentuated the agony. Libby would go to a meal, weak and ravenously hungry. The meal would stay down until free flight was resumed, then the sickness would hit him all over again. 

On the fourth day he was seated against a bulkhead, enjoying the luxury of a few remaining minutes of weight while the last shift ate, when McCoy walked in and sat down beside him. The gunner’s mate fitted a smoke filter over his face and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply and started to chat. 

“How’s it going, bud?” 

“All right, I guess. This spacesickness—Say, McCoy, how do you ever get used to it?” 

“You get over it in time. Your body acquires new reflexes, so they tell me. Once you learn to swallow without choking, you’ll be all right. You even get so you like it. It’s restful and relaxing. Four hours sleep is as good as ten.” 

Libby shook his head dolefully. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.” 

“Yes, you will. You’d better anyway. This here asteroid won’t have any surface gravity to speak of; the Chief Quartermaster says it won’t run over two per cent Earth normal. That ain’t enough to cure spacesickness. And there won’t be any way to accelerate for meals either.” 

Libby shivered and held his head between his hands.

Heinlein, Robert A.. Revolt in 2100 (pp. 191-193). Spectrum Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

You can compare the current Kindle edition to the 1939 magazine edition:

This is pretty amazing when you think that most Americans at the time only knew science fiction from Buck Rogers and Flash Gorden newspaper comic strips, radio shows, and serials. But even in the hardcore science fiction of Astounding Science-Fiction, I just don’t remember reading anything from that era that dealt with this kind of realism. Over the years I’ve paid attention to illustrations of free fall in old science fiction magazines, and one of my favorites is the July 1941 cover of Cosmic Stories.

A fun essay to write for the future would be chronicling the history of how writers imagined weightlessness in space. I think even 19th-century writers knew about it, but I just don’t think any writer dealt with space sickness before. If you know otherwise, leave a comment.

Another example of Heinlein just explaining things is when he tells us how they found the asteroid:

Locating one asteroid among a couple of thousand is not as easy as finding Trafalgar Square in London—especially against the star-crowded backdrop of the galaxy. You take off from Terra with its orbital speed of about nineteen miles per second. You attempt to settle into a composite conoid curve that will not only intersect the orbit of the tiny fast-moving body, but also accomplish an exact rendezvous. Asteroid HS-5388, ‘Eighty-eight,’ lay about two and two-tenths astronomical units out from the sun, a little more than two hundred million miles; when the transport took off it lay beyond the sun better than three hundred million miles. Captain Doyle instructed the navigator to plot the basic ellipsoid to tack in free flight around the sun through an elapsed distance of some three hundred and forty million miles. The principle involved is the same as used by a hunter to wing a duck in flight by ‘leading’ the bird in flight. But suppose that you face directly into the sun as you shoot; suppose the bird can not be seen from where you stand, and you have nothing to aim by but some old reports as to how it was flying when last seen?

Heinlein, Robert A.. Revolt in 2100 (p. 193). Spectrum Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

Where did Heinlein learn this? Were there popular science books that speculated on space travel back then? Or did he just imagine it? Later on in the story, when they are trying to position the asteroid in its new orbit, we get a lesson on celestial mechanics. I believe Heinlein was a ballistics officer when he was in the Navy, so that makes sense. And I believe he was an amateur astronomer. Heinlein loved to have his characters use mathematics, and I remember Heinlein in interviews telling how he and his wife would get out butcher paper and calculate orbits for his stories.

As a kid, Heinlein made me want to study math and science. I wished I could have been like Kip Russell in Have Space Suit–Will Travel who applied himself vigorously with disciplined self-study. I can say Heinlein made me wish that about myself, but I never did. I took a bunch of math classes, but I only applied myself in a half-ass fashion. I also bought a telescope and read popular science books, but I just never worked hard at learning what Heinlein expected of his characters. As I got older, I even wished I could live my life over so I could be more like the characters in Heinlein’s juveniles. When I retired, I even planned to study math again, and go back to college and get a master’s in computer science. I didn’t. I bought a bunch of math books and realized I had forgotten nearly everything I had once known about mathematics. I got onto the Khan Academy website and started over with third-grade math. By the time I got to six-grade math, I realized it just wasn’t going to happen. But that desire came from reading the Heinlein juveniles back in the 1960s.

“Misfit” came in dead last in the AnLab (Feb. 1940). But “Misfit” was in an issue with the Gray Lensmen serial. Evidently, the readers back then weren’t impressed with Heinlein’s speculations about space sickness like I am now. Maybe they never imagined space sickness and didn’t want to believe it. One reader in the letter column wrote to tell Campbell there were people who could math in their heads like Libby. But I didn’t find anyone else that got excited about the story.

Campbell does push Heinlein In Times To Come for his current serial If This Goes On—. That story might be considered Heinlein’s first novel, depending on its length in the magazine. When it was revised and slightly expanded for Revolt in 2100, it was considered a novel-length by ISFDB.

James Wallace Harris, 10/1/22

“Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein

The contrast is striking to read “Life-Line” right after reading and reviewing For Us, The Living. Did Heinlein hitchhike over to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for the 1939 Spring semester? “Life-Line” is a well-structured short story told dramatically, attributes sorely lacking in his trunk novel. How did he make such a quantum leap in writing?

“Life-Line” has a simple plot. Dr. Hugo Pinero invents a device that can give the date of a person’s birth and death. It’s based on the idea that every being exists in time as one long 4th-dimensional organism. Scientists think Pinero is a crackpot. When his machine works and causes havoc with the insurance industry they take him to court to get an injunction from using it. Pinero proposes to the court a scientific test which the judge accepts. One insurance CEO ordered a contract killing on Pinero. But before he dies we see one tear-jerking scene where Pinero tests a young married couple. The wife is pregnant. He refuses to tell the couple their results claiming his machine has become misaligned. He tried to keep them from leaving, but they eventually do and are killed outside his office by a speeding car. The scientists finally admit that Pinero’s technique was real when they find he accurately predicted his own death, and they destroy all the test predictions based on their own lives.

Farah Mendlesohn in her book, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein suggests Heinlein modeled his writing on the movies. I can believe that. The dialog in “Life-Line” feels like MGM films from the mid-1930s. It’s easy to picture Hugo Pinero played by Edward G. Robinson. Robinson sometimes played ethnic characters with accents, and Dr. Pinero has the same bellicose pugnacity that Robinson did in his movies. The gangster Mr. Bidwell of Amalgamated Insurance hired to kill Pinero comes across just like Humphrey Bogart in Kid Gallahad, even though Heinlein gives the gangster character just a couple of lines and a few words of description.

“Life-Line” also has several scenes that also remind me of 1930s movies, and they might be a clue to where Heinlein got his Public Argument writing technique I keep seeing in his stories. The story begins with Pinero arguing with a committee from the Science Academy. Next, he banters around with a group of news reporters. This reminds me of more than one Frank Capra film. Next, we see Pinero argue his case with a judge and lawyer for the insurance companies in court. I can see why he uses the Public Argument technique, it provides drama because it’s often used in movies, especially old movies from the 1930s, ones Heinlein should have seen — and studied.

I know when I first read “Life-Line” because in 1966 I bought a little Ace paperback for 40 cents, The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. I got the story again in The Past Through Tomorrow in 1967. It was first collected in Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon in 1950, but that was the year before I was born. By the way, my Baen Kindle edition of The Man Who Sold the Moon / Orphans of the Sky copy has an important missing section, the one where Bidwell hires the gangster. This time I listened to the Brilliance Audio edition of The Man Who Sold the Moon narrated by Buck Schirner — he did a fantastic job with 1930s-style voicing and accents.

To check the August 1939 Astounding edition to the current edition, I listened to the audio version while eye-reading a digital scan of the magazine. For the most part, the story was the same. Heinlein tweaked a few paragraphs to read better, and he changed one date from 1939 to 1951. I’ll try to use this comparison technique whenever I can. I wished I had used it on the few stories I’ve already reviewed.

The first time I read “Life-Line” I didn’t like the story. In fact, I remember being disappointed. I was used to Heinlein juveniles from Scribners and Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land from Putnam. And I just didn’t like the idea of a machine that predicts when people would die — it didn’t seem scientific. However, over the years, whenever I’ve reread “Life-Line” the story has gotten better and better. And when I listened to the audio version, with the dramatic reading, I’ve been very impressed with how well-written the story is, and how dramatic Heinlein made the scenes. I also thought the dialog was impressive too because it reminded me of MGM movie dialog. “Life-Line” isn’t James Joyce or even Ernest Hemingway, but it’s pretty damn good 1939 pulp fiction.

I just discovered there’s a student film version of “Life-Line.” It’s just now being released. This suggests the story still has impact and validity. That’s great.

“Life-Line” shows Heinlein could write. And write better than the average writer for science fiction magazines at the time. I have to wonder how much editing John W. Campbell did on the story. It seems whenever Heinlein isn’t reigned in, he pontificates. “Life-Line” does have a few short infodumps, but they are legit, fitting within the story’s logic.

I can’t tell what kind of impact Heinlein made with Astounding readers with his first story. He came in second in the AnLab poll, to a Lester del Rey story. Campbell did not single Heinlein out for any special praise in the editorial content, although in the AnLab (Oct. 1939) he did say there were three first-published writers in the August issue. I found two readers in the letter columns that mention the story. One wished for more stories like “Life-Line,” and the other said the story was well-written and dramatic and wished it had been novel length.

Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg picked “Life-Line” to include in their The Great SF Stories 1 (1939), but that was decades later. Alexei Panshin was rather hard on the story in Heinlein in Dimension. Of Heinlein’s first two stories, he thought “Misfit” the better of the two, and “Life-Line” wasn’t particularly good. I just read “Misfit,” and disagree. It’s a good story, but I think “Life-Line” is much better. It’s more unified. “Misfit” is a bit episodic.

“Life-Line” is not a favorite in the retrospective anthologies, most editors and readers prefer other Heinlein stories. I’m curious if it holds up with young readers today. It has an average of 3.91 stars out of 5 on Goodreads, with 906 readers rating it. 268 gave it 5 stars, and 338 gave it 4 stars. Not bad.

James Wallace Harris, 9/30/22

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

“If This Goes On —” by Robert A. Heinlein

A science fiction story’s impact depends on when it’s read. Readers reading “If This Goes On —” by Robert A. Heinlein in the February and March 1940 issues of Astounding Science Fiction would have reacted to the story much differently than I did reading it in the mid-sixties. I felt like I was living in the “Crazy Years” that Heinlein predicted for America in his Future History, and I could believe a second American revolution followed by a theocracy could be in my future too. And I can still believe that happening today. Are we still in the “Crazy Years?”

I’m watching Ken Burns’s new documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, which reveals a much different America than I was taught in history classes, but one that those 1940 readers of Astounding would have known as real life. That documentary series is an excellent companion to my study of early Heinlein.

Reading “If This Goes On —” today changes the story’s impact again. Not, because anything has changed politically, but because I have a lifetime of reading under my belt and I know of much better-written stories on the same theme.

“If This Goes On —” is the perfect example of why science fiction goes out of fashion. Science fiction keeps evolving. Yes, Heinlein gave us the startling idea of a theocracy overtaking the United States, but since then Margaret Atwood took the same idea and devised a much better story with The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s worldbuilding, writing, characterization, and storytelling far exceed Heinlein’s.

“If This Goes On —” was later revised and expanded for the collection Revolt in 2100. In 1967 it was included in The Past Through Tomorrow which collected Heinlein’s Future History stories. Revolt in 2100 is currently in print for the Kindle and Audible, and contains two other short stories, “Coventry” and “Misfit.” It’s a shame that The Past Through Tomorrow hasn’t stayed in print. I wish I had both an ebook and audiobook edition of it.

“If This Goes On —” as revised is considered a novel, but I’m not sure how long the two-part serial was in 1940. It may have been just a long novella. It would have been Heinlein’s first published novel if it was novel-length.

The setting for “If This Goes On —” is three generations after a theocracy has taken over the United States and is about an underground cabal that works to overthrow it. The focus of the story is all over the place. The story is told in the first person by John Lyle, a West Point trained guard at the Palace of the Prophet Incarnate in New Jerusalem. While on guard duty he has a brief encounter with Sister Judith, a virgin on her way to service the Prophet. As in many Heinlein stories, Lyle falls in love with her immediately.

Judith is able to avoid a fate worse than death twice with the implication she wants to be with John Lyle, and Lyle and his roommate Zeb concoct a plan to rescue her. This plan goes awry and John and Zeb must join the opposition cabal. From there the story becomes a thriller with John Lyle acting like a proto-James Bond for a chapter. That part of “If This Goes On —” reminded me of “Gulf” which Heinlein would write at the end of the 1940s. This chapter lets us know that America’s theocracy is a well-developed police state, but one where most people are happy.

The story then slows down for many chapters allowing Heinlein to preach about freedom and some of his other pet subjects, including nudism. I never noticed what a nut Heinlein was about naked bodies when I was a kid. I wonder if readers in the 1940s picked up on that? Heinlein uses John Lyle as an innocent who must learn the ropes from his world-wise friend Zeb. So the rest of the story is a kind of a letdown. Sure, Heinlein has the cabal overthrow the theocracy, but it’s all done too quickly and easily. And the dying love that John Lyle felt for Judith, is unsatisfactorily waved off. That was annoying because Heinlein asked us to believe at the beginning of the story that John Lyle would throw away a promising military career and a faith he completely embraced after one encounter with Sister Judith.

That’s something I’m learning about Heinlein from this current study. Throughout his writing career, he produced stories where people fell instantly in love and even married right away, yet he never gives us believable reasons for their love. Heinlein also expects us to hate his bad guys with little justification too. In his later novels, he just refers to them as the Black Hats.

Even though I’m complaining about the parts I didn’t like, I have to also mention that Heinlein had a way of jumping in and immersing the reader into a completely new world. Most of my disappointment with the story came from Heinlein not delving deeper into this world. Here’s the opening page from the original 1940 version that was significantly rewritten for the book version.

When I first read “If This Goes On —” when I was a young teen, just the idea of an American theocracy was enough to make me admire the story. And the idea that the United States went through the “Crazy Years” was enough to make me excited about Heinlein’s Future History concept. But now, after decades of reading more evolved science fiction, I can see what little world-building Heinlein put into these stories. And after decades of reading literary novels, I can also see what little characterization he put into them too.

I assume if a young person today reads “If This Goes On —” and they’re not very picky or sophisticated about what they read, they might like this old 1940 novel. It has a number of elements popular in modern YA dystopias. The important when factor applies to both when in the development of the reader, and when in the development of our society. Since we’re politically in a time when some people want a theocracy “If This Goes On —” becomes relevant again. And if you’re young, naive, and unsophisticated, and feel oppressed by the current political situation, “If This Goes On —” could be a relevant read to you too.

I just think it’s a shame that “If This Goes On —” is so poorly written and underdeveloped. Novels like The Handmaid’s Tale or Little Brother by Cory Doctorow would be much better substitutes for young readers today. John Lyle and Zeb are in their early twenties, graduates of West Point, so “If This Goes On —” is not a YA novel, however, it feels like one. If Heinlein had fleshed out his American theocracy and truly developed his young characters fighting against it, “If This Goes On —” could have been a significant novel that we should remember. It’s not.

I think readers of 1940s Astounding sensed that Heinlein was onto something. “If This Goes On —” threw out enough ideas to excite those readers. And since they were pulp readers, they didn’t expect much in the way of literary development.

While watching the Ken Burns documentary, I wondered how close we were to a Protestant theocracy in 1940? I’m also reading The Plot Against America by Philip Roth which covers the same time period as the documentary. I’m not sure Heinlein had the writing chops, or the guts to write a novel like Roth’s, but can you imagine what readers of Astounding would have thought if The Plot Against America was serialized in that magazine in 1940?

James Wallace Harris, 9/20/22

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