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 Roads Must Roll” by Robert A. Heinlein

“The Roads Must Roll” is one of Heinlein’s most famous shorter works, yet I’ve never been very fond of it. Science fiction writers love to be inventors. They often imagine a gadget and then write a story around their imaginary invention. Secretly, I think they want to think up things before anyone else, and then get credit for them in the future after real inventors get around to building their fictional machines.

In “The Roads Must Roll” Heinlein envisions giant moving walkways, called Roadways or Roadcities, that carry people over vast distances at high speed. Just picture an airport slideway scaled up to take people throughout cities, between cities, and even across the country. To me, it’s always been one of the dumbest ideas Heinlein ever had.

Just contemplate a moving roadway that carries a million passengers a day. If one thing goes wrong, a million people are stranded. It’s much saner to have one car break down and allow 999,999 people to keep on schedule. And what about freight shipping? How do you push boxes or freight containers onto the roadways? Heinlein has passengers getting onto these moving roadways by stepping onto a slow-moving 5-mile-per-hour belt and gradually moving across a series of faster belts until they reach a wide 100-mile-per-hour belt where people can sit, shop, or eat while they travel.

The energy expenditure for such a system would be far greater than having individual cars and trucks. However, Heinlein did imagine these roadways being powered by solar panels. And it’s interesting that Heinlein, who was such an individualist, promoted mass transit for the future.

Once again Heinlein begins his story with a public discussion, a union meeting with an agitator. Heinlein loved public discussions because they give the illusion of drama and action. The plot involves Shorty van Kleeck, the Chief Deputy Engineer, convincing union members they are more important than any other worker in America, so they should be the leaders of America making the important decisions. Van Kleeck proposes a “New Order” in which he plans to be the leader. Concurrent with this action, Larry Gaines, the Chief Engineer of the Diego-Reno Road Town, has to entertain the Minister of Transport for Australia, Mr. Blekinsop, who wants to learn about the rolling roads technology. This allows Heinlein to do a lot of infodumping and describe how the roadcities work. While taking Blekinsop on a trip on a roadway, there is a catastrophic failure, and Gaines leaps into action. Eventually, Gaines meets up with van Kleeck and learns the failure was intentional, a demonstration of power by van Kleeck and his revolutionaries.

Most of the action sequences involve Heinlein showing Gaines’s importance. He’s able to snub the mayor and governor because his experience and knowledge trump everything. This is an annoying trick Heinlein often uses. Heinlein likes to set up superman-like characters who answer to no one. I can’t help but feel that’s how Heinlein felt about himself. It’s rather ironic that Heinlein worshipped the military and often used its structure in his stories, but personality-wise, he was a go-your-own-way kind of guy.

Heinlein was involved in California politics in the 1930s, and he saw a lot of violence, especially union and political violence. I assumed that experience inspired this story. Plus Heinlein was also obsessed with the American Revolution and revolutionaries. My hunch has always been that Heinlein wanted to design a better society. Heinlein pictured the roadway system being managed by the United States Academy of Transport, with workers having ranks.

Heinlein also likes to read books about social theory, and quite often used such theories in his stories. In “The Roads Must Roll” Heinlein even mentions a book by name, Concerning Function: A Treatise on the Natural Order in Society by Paul Decker, published in 1930. In this case, Heinlein is using “The Roads Must Roll” to attack the book.

I can’t find this book on ABEbooks or Wikipedia, nor in a quick search on Google. Google’s top returns deal with “The Roads Must Road.” So I don’t know if this was a real book or not. If anyone knows, leave a comment.

Overall, “The Roads Must Roll” flows along, full of action, and good world-building, with 1940s slang, and wit. Heinlein is a good storyteller, even when I disagree with his speculation. “The Roads Must Roll” was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, where science fiction writers voted for their favorite science fiction stories that were published between 1929 and 1964. “The Roads Must Roll” actually came in 7th in the overall voting after “Nightfall,” “A Martian Odyssey,” “Flowers for Algernon,” “Microcosmic God,” “First Contact,” and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” and tieing with “”Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” “Coming Attraction,” and “The Cold Equations.” Obviously, “The Roads Must Roll” is a well-loved story by the first generations of science fiction writers.

[I sure would love to know which stories from 1929-1964 science fiction writers working in 2022 would vote for today.]

“The Roads Must Roll” came in second in the Analytical Laboratory (August 1940). But then serials usually come in first, and it was a big one, Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard. However, a letter writer praised the seriousness of Final Blackout, If This Goes On, and “The Roads Must Roll’ as proof that science fiction wasn’t just escapism. Another reader focused just on Heinlein:

It’s interesting, that on the cover of the June 1940 Astounding, which illustrates “The Roads Must Roll” we see individual vehicles shown in action. I assume they are the support vehicles the maintenance crews use below the rolling roads, and even then, they are not like how I pictured them in the story. The interior illustration got attacked in the letter column as being just a smear. It’s a shame that neither illustration pictures the roadway like Heinlein did in the story.

James Wallace Harris, 11/26/22

“Thy Rocks and Rills” by Robert Ernest Gilbert

How is it possible that I can rate a short story five stars out of five when it took 52 years to be anthologized for the first time? If countless editors passed it over for decades while looking for good SF stories to reprint, how can it possibly be any good? The story I’m talking about is “Thy Rocks and Rills” by Robert Ernest Gilbert. Ever heard of it? Ever heard of Gilbert? I haven’t on both counts.

“Thy Rocks and Rills” was originally published in the September 1953 issue of If. The first time it was reprinted was in 2005 in The World Turned Upside Down edited by Jim Baen, David Drake, and Eric Flint. You can also read the story on Project Gutenberg.

The goal of that anthology was to collect the stories that got the three editors excited about science fiction when they were teens. David Drake gave “Thy Rocks and Rills” this introduction:

I can understand why Drake responded to “Thy Rocks and Rills” that way, but it wasn’t how I reacted.

I’ve owned The World Turned Upside Down for years but I’m just now getting around to reading it because the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction is discussing its stories every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

When I read “Thy Rocks and Rills” yesterday I just thought, “Wow, oh wow!” However, others in the group have not been so enthusiastic. And I can understand that.

I don’t believe fiction can be rated on absolute terms. In fact, my subjective ratings will change every time I reread a story. There are elements in “Thy Rocks and Rills” that would have made me dislike this story on other days, especially the talking bull and calves. Yeah, it has talking farm animals and mules with Appaloosa coloring. If you read the descriptions closely, the male fashions in this future are as gaudy as any Elton John or Prince wore on stage.

“Thy Rocks and Rills” is over-the-top. And it’s from 1953. But it’s also weirdly prophetic. Gilbert predicts a painfully hot future. One where toxic masculinity dominates and everyone is gun crazy. In Gilbert’s future, people are quick-tempered and ready to duel. And most women are condemned to conform to male expectations, making their bodies tiny and slender, staying in their place, and sticking to chirpy women’s talk. Although, some women are different and get into duels with men. The hero of this story is Stonecypher, and this is how Gilbert describes his wife Catriona:

The villain of the story is Dan who makes a legal proposition to Catriona that enrages Stoncypher:

Oh, but the way, the story has ornithopters. I did say it was colorful. The reason we have talking farm animals is because of mutations from radiation. Gilbert is protesting bomb testing. He’s also protesting bullfighting or any kind of arranged animal fights. “Thy Rocks and Rills” is quite woke for 1953. The world-building in this novelette is quite impressive. The basic plot involves Stonecypher getting in a dual and not knowing how to use a gun, and his talking bull wanting to go into the bullfighting ring.

The results were not what I anticipated but they were very satisfying. However, the ending is brutal, but David Drake has already warned us about that. I’m afraid most readers won’t like the ending, but I think it’s realistic. I overcame my dislike of talking animals because this story is gritty and dark, and we’re living in a gritty and dark age, but then so was 1953.

I’m quite fond of science fiction short stories from 1953, especially the grim ones:

  • “Lot” by Ward Moore
  • Deadly City” by Paul W. Fairman
  • “The Last Day” by Richard Matheson
  • “One in Three Hundred” by J. T. McIntosh
  • “A Saucer of Loneliness” by Theodore Sturgeon
  • “A Case of Consciousness” by James Blish
  • “Four in One” by Damon Knight
  • “DP!” by Jack Vance
  • “Imposter” by Philip K. Dick
  • “The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn
  • The Model of a Judge” by William Morrison

If you know these stories, you’ll understand why I now list “Thy Rocks and Rills” among my favorites of 1953. I linked to the two that are available on Project Gutenberg. Six of them are in The Great SF Stories 15 (1953).

After reading science fiction for sixty years I’m having trouble finding new science fiction that wows me. Reading “Thy Rocks and Rills” Saturday morning gave me the kind of surprises I keep hoping to find in science fiction but seldom do anymore. “Thy Rocks and Rills” is perfect for an anthology called The World Turned Upside Down.

However, I can completely understand if it doesn’t work for you. The success of a story depends largely on what the reader brings to the story. I believe I’m just as cynical now as Gilbert was in 1953 and that made the story work for me. I was tuned into where Gilbert was coming from when he wrote it.

James Wallace Harris, 10/30/22

“Let There Be Light” by Robert A. Heinlein

In 1939 Heinlein wrote several stories that were rejected by John W. Campbell. Heinlein wanted to save his name for stories appearing in Astounding and invented pen names for “lesser” publications. I think that was a bad idea. He sold “Let There Be Light” to Frederik Pohl for Super Science Stories and it was run under the Lyle Monroe byline. But if you look at the table of contents below, you’ll see that L. Sprague de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller weren’t protecting their Astounding reputations.

Heinlein should have used his own name for all of his stories. It would have helped out the smaller markets. Frederik Pohl practically begged Heinlein to let him publish it under his real name. Heinlein evidently felt anything Campbell rejected wasn’t first-class and he didn’t want his name associated with such stories. Heinlein obviously wanted to shape his public persona. Doesn’t that reveal a kind of egotism that disassociates flaws from their self-identity? Heinlein is perfect. Who knows who those other guys are?

Even when Campbell published two stories by Heinlein in a single issue he should have put Heinlein’s own name on them. Heinlein would have been an even greater phenomenon than he was, even with his flawed stories. Using all those names split up his reputation and momentum. And Heinlein shouldn’t have assumed Campbell was the arbiter of quality in science fiction.

“Let There Be Light” opens with Dr. Archibald Douglas getting a telegram from Dr. M. L. Martin. Martin informs Douglas “ARRIVING CITY LATE TODAY STOP DESIRE CONFERENCE COLD LIGHT YOUR LABORATORY TEN PM.” Douglas is affronted at the presumption that an unknown character could barge into his lab. Douglas consults Who’s Who in Science, and discovers Martin has a string of degrees and many prestige appointments and papers but is a biologist. Douglas figured a biologist cannot possibly connect to his work in physics.

When Douglas finally meets Martin, M. L. turns out to be Mary Lou, and she’s a beautiful young blonde. This is rather amusing since Heinlein makes all beautiful women redheads after he marries his third wife Virginia. In the 1940 magazine version, Mary Lou is compared to Sally Rand, who Heinlein and his wife Leslyn knew. In the 1950 book version, she’s compared to Marilyn Monroe. I’m surprised he didn’t switch it to a famous redhead. And Mary Lou can’t believe Archie is Dr. Douglas because he looks like a gangster. In the 1940 version, he’s compared to George Raft, but in the book version, no person is mentioned.

Heinlein did some other minor tweaking to the story when it was reprinted in book form. Strangely, the magazine version used the word hell frequently, and I think a damn was in there too, and Heinlein removed them. He also took out some of the gooiest of the sweet talk.

“Let There Be Light” turns into an invention story, but instead of featuring a mad scientist, Heinlein gives us two movie star lookalikes whose dialog sounds like it was written for a 1930s Warner Brothers picture. There’s a fair amount of scientific infodumping which lets the couple invent lighting that sounds like the LED overhead panel in my kitchen, and then solar panels. Of course, this isn’t much of a plot, so Heinlein throws in the conflict of evil corporations keeping innovative inventions off the market to protect the economics of older technology. That’s still not much of a plot.

Heinlein had spent years involved with California politics and was still griping about corruption. Even in the 1960s, I used to hear stories, often from my uncles, about how inventions were kept off the market, such as car engines that could get 200 miles to the gallon. There have always been conspiracy stories. Heinlein expresses other leftist ideas in the story too.

According to William Patterson, “Let There Be Light” was originally titled “Prometheus ‘Carries the Torch'” and it was also rejected by Thrilling Wonder Stories.

“Let There Be Light” isn’t a particularly good story. Its pluses, at least for us today, is it features a positive role for a female character. And it predicts solar power. So why did Campbell reject it? Patterson quotes Campbell’s rejection letter to Heinlein:

So Campbell is afraid of brainy women? That could explain a lot about Astounding/Analog. Heinlein loved brainy women, Leslyn and Virginia proved it. It’s just a shame he couldn’t write better dialogue when it came to men and women. It often seemed like poor dialogue cribbed from B-movie screwball comedies, and in his later novels, flirty dialogue sounded like a twelve-year-old girl trying to write a grownup romance after studying porn films.

Still, I enjoyed the story. It has no lasting value. We can stick a star on it for having a smart woman character, and another for predicting the solar energy industry. But that’s hardly enough to make it a good story for modern readers. Heinlein should have published it with his own name. He should have owned up to it. No one expects a writer to hit one out of the park every time they’re up to bat. And isn’t it odd that he wouldn’t put his name on it in 1940 for a magazine that few people would read, but would admit paternity when it came to a hardback publication in 1950?

Heinlein wasn’t the only contributor showing powerful women, the cover artist paints a fully-clothed woman shooting a BEM.

James Wallace Harris, 10/22/22

“Successful Operation” by Robert A. Heinlein

Robert Heinlein wrote several stories in 1939 that he couldn’t sell to John W. Campbell. This is when he started submitting to the lesser markets, but some stories still didn’t sell. When Ray Bradbury asked Heinlein for a contribution to his fanzine, Heinlein gave Bradbury the short short “Heil!” It was later reprinted in 1970 by Sam Moskowitz in his anthology, Futures to Infinity. Then in 1980 Heinlein included in his grabbag collection, Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein renamed the story “Successful Operation.”

In the introduction to the story in Expanded Universe Heinlein said he wrote “Heil!” right after “Life-Line.” Heinlein then goes on to complain about people asking writers to contribute free work to various projects. He points out that people don’t ask for free rides from taxi drivers or free food from their grocery stores. The intro has Heinlein talking about the importance of saying no to such requests, and he takes a snipe at science fiction fans, “The chutzpah is endemic in science fiction fans, acute in organized SF fans, and at its virulent worst in organized fans-who-publish-fan-magazines.”

Heinlein really should have said no to Ray Bradbury. “Heil!” is not badly written, but it’s extremely slight, and pulls off a gimmick that only an amateur would think was a good idea. You can read the story in Bradbury’s fanzine, futuria fantasia, v. 1 n. 4 (Spring, 1940). Heinlein doctored the story when he retitled it.

It is common in literary history to read accounts of writers burning unpublished work before their death. Or heirs destroying it right after an author’s death. This horrifies fans and scholars. But reading stories like “Heil!” suggests it might be a worthwhile practice. Not everything a great writer writes will be great.

On the other hand, writers write to make a living, and at the beginning of his career Heinlein was churning out his product. And eventually “Successful Solution” made him some money. Heinlein had 5 Rules for Writing:

  • You must write.
  • You must finish what you start.
  • You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  • You must put it on the market.
  • You must keep it on the market until sold.

Heinlein blazed onto the science fiction world following these rules, proving quality isn’t always required. Several of Heinlein’s clunkers were published early in his career, but he hid them with pseudonyms. “Heil!” was originally published by Lyle Monroe.

“Successful Operation” is currently in print in paperback, ebook, and audiobook in Expanded Universe: Volume One. For many years Expanded Universe was sold as a single volume, but in recent years it’s split in two. Probably most buyers consider that a ripoff but was probably required for a small publisher like Phoenix Pick. However, the volume will appeal only to hardcore fans of Heinlein and probably shouldn’t be read by casual fans and readers just checking out Heinlein. Much of the content was dredged from stories and essays not previously published, obscurely published, or seldom reprinted.

Anyone visiting an average new bookstore today will probably find few Heinlein titles. This is not the time to promote the dregs of his career.

Yet, that brings up an important question: What works by Heinlein should be on shelves for readers new to Heinlein to discover? Heinlein’s estate and a good editor should really come out with The Best Short Stories of Robert A. Heinlein. That was tried a couple times in England in the 1970s, but their selection was not the best. Most of Heinlein’s classic original collections are still in print, but they are a mixture of great, good, and not-so-good stories.

Of the four short stories I’ve read and reviewed so far, including “Successful Operation,” I might include “Life-Line” and “Requiem” in a best-of volume. But that depends on the page size of the volume. Definites that I’ve reread recently would be “The Menace From Earth” and “All You Zombies …” but I need to keep rereading.

James Wallace Harris, 10/21/22

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

“Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein’s third published story, “Requiem” (Astounding Jan. 1940) is a salute to science fiction fans, or at least that’s how I read it. John W. Campbell, Jr. thought it overly sentimental but decided to run it anyway to see what his readers thought. They didn’t seem to like it either. “Requiem” came in next to last in March’s Analytical Laboratory. “Requiem” even lost to “Robbie” by Isaac Asimov in 2016’s Retro Hugo Awards for 1941, and that’s another overly sentimental tale.

In both cases, my evidence isn’t reliable since the Analytical Laboratory is based on mentions in letters to the editor, which generally favor comments on the serials, and Retro Hugo award voters seldom read all the finalists. They tend to vote for their favorite authors. But it’s the evidence I got, and it’s evidence Heinlein used to measure his success at the time.

I love “Requiem”. It’s a solid, well-constructed story, with vivid characters and a satisfying ending, one with an emotional punch. The story is quite simple. D. D. Harriman is a rich old man who made his pile commercializing space travel. He contacts a couple down-and-out space jockeys, McIntyre the pilot, and Charlie the mechanic, about taking him to the Moon. Harriman has a weak heart and is legally forbidden to travel to space. Harriman promises to finance the whole deal and they get to keep the rocketship which would put them back into space too. The law was correct, Harriman couldn’t handle space travel, and he died right after they land on Luna. But he dies happy and satisfied.

I figured Harriman was a stand-in for Heinlein. Going to the Moon was Heinlein’s lifelong dream, even back in 1940. Heinlein uses Harriman again in 1950 for “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” I bet Heinlein cast himself as Harriman in his own Walter Mitty fantasies, at least until he created Jubal Harshaw. This quote from the story is Heinlein projecting his own personal feelings into the future:

“Captain, it’s the one thing I’ve really wanted to do all my life—ever since I was a young boy. I don’t know whether I can explain it to you, or not. You young fellows have grown up to rocket travel the way I grew up to aviation. I’m a great deal older than you are, at least fifty years older. When I was a kid practically nobody believed that men would ever reach the Moon. You’ve seen rockets all your lives, and the first to reach the Moon got there before you were a young boy. When I was a boy they laughed at the idea. 

“But I believed—I believed. I read Verne, and Wells, and Smith, and I believed that we could do it—that we would do it. I set my heart on being one of the men to walk on the surface of the Moon, to see her other side, and to look back on the face of the Earth, hanging in the sky. 

“I used to go without my lunches to pay my dues in the American Rocket Society, because I wanted to believe that I was helping to bring the day nearer when we would reach the Moon. I was already an old man when that day arrived. I’ve lived longer than I should, but I would not let myself die . . . I will not!—until I have set foot on the Moon.”

Heinlein, Robert. The Man Who Sold the Moon and Orphans of the Sky (pp. 292-293). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.  

William Patterson, Jr. documents two cases that showed Heinlein was an early supporter of space travel outside of science fiction.

Late in January Heinlein joined the new American Interplanetary Society that had been formed in December 1930 in New York, with fourteen charter members. Heinlein had membership number 22. He told people about it in the Navy—Buddy Scoles, especially—and found that he was considered something of a “goof” because rockets were “crazy Buck Rogers stuff”—toys, at best.12 The first bulletin he received from the society contained a report of a visit by French Academician Robert Esnault-Pelterie13 on January 27, 1931, saying he thought it might be possible to travel to the Moon and return as soon as fifteen years from now—1946.

Patterson, William H. . Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 (p. 148). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition. 

In 1934 after the American Interplanetary Society changed its name to the American Rocket Society. We need to remember, in the 1930s, there was very little rocket development, and Robert H. Goddard’s rockets barely got into the sky, much less leave the Earth. Heinlein had zeroed in on this industry at almost the beginning.

One day at the Denver Athletic Club when he was judging a fencing match, he met Robert Cornog, a young engineer working on Boulder Dam and about to apply for graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley; they found they had the same birthday, five years apart (Cornog was born in 1912)—and both had joined the American Rocket Society. They became friendly thereafter.

Patterson, William H. . Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 (pp. 166-167). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition. 

And the story, “Requiem” attacks one of Heinlein’s most hated foes, the Nanny State. Luckily, for us, Heinlein didn’t lecture about this but showed it. That’s why writing teachers always bitch about show don’t tell. And it’s the second reason why I admire this story because I did love the sentimentality for my first reason. I admire Heinlein most when he constructs a proper short story, and “Requiem” is one for sure.

Heinlein was an enigma. Throughout his life and work, he rebelled against excess control in the government, yet he worshiped the military way of life, which is extremely regulated. Heinlein’s characters love to follow the rules and find ways to skirt them. The illegal moon rocket site in “Requiem” was later reused in Rocketship Galileo.

But there is a third aspect to “Requiem” that I detect from reading about Heinlein. Heinlein tried his hand at politics in the mid-1930s. And one of the things I’m sure he learned was how to flatter the voters. I believe “Requiem” was a statement of Heinlein’s beliefs and a bit of flattery for science fiction fans. Heinlein was campaigning to be the leader of science fiction. To do that he had to impress the fans with his stories, and himself. This is my first bit of evidence:

They smoked in silence for a while, each thinking about the coming trip and what it meant to him. Old Harriman tried to repress the excitement that possessed him at the prospect of immediate realization of his life-long dream. 

“Mr. Harriman—” 

“Eh? What is it, Charlie?” 

“How does a guy go about getting rich, like you did?” 

“Getting rich? I can’t say; I never tried to get rich. I never wanted to be rich, or well known, or anything like that.” 

“Huh?” 

“No, I just wanted to live a long time and see it all happen. I wasn’t unusual; there were lots of boys like me—radio hams, they were, and telescope builders, and airplane amateurs. We had science clubs, and basement laboratories, and science-fiction leagues—the kind of boys who thought there was more romance in one issue of the Electrical Experimenter than in all the books Dumas ever wrote. We didn’t want to be one of Horatio Alger’s Get-Rich heroes either, we wanted to build spaceships. Well, some of us did.” 

“Jeez, Pop, you make it sound exciting.” 

“It was exciting, Charlie. This has been a wonderful, romantic century, for all of its bad points. And it’s grown more wonderful and more exciting every year. No, I didn’t want to be rich; I just wanted to live long enough to see men rise up to the stars, and, if God was good to me, to go as far as the Moon myself.” He carefully deposited an inch of white ash in a saucer. “It has been a good life. I haven’t any complaints.”

Heinlein, Robert. The Man Who Sold the Moon and Orphans of the Sky (pp. 300-301). Baen Books. Kindle Edition. 

Just before Heinlein wrote “Life-Line” he made contact with Los Angeles science fiction fans. This could have encouraged him to get into writing for science fiction magazines, or Heinlein might have been on a recon mission to get to know the fans. This is from the column “Far West Facts” in the Ad Astra #4, a Chicago fanzine published in November of 1939 by Farwest Jack Erman.

Then from the same column, in issue #5 dated January 1940, we get this tidbit.

I believe Heinlein was older than many of the LASFS fans, and he and Leslyn made an impression by writing up some fake news stories and having them printed as from the local paper. They also impressed the younger fans by hosting a meeting and being gracious and sophisticated hosts. These two instances were before “Misfit” would appear, and a couple of months before “Requiem” would hit the stands.

Heinlein had instant success with “Life-Line” but Campbell returned the first version of “Misfit.” And Campbell had been bouncing other stories Heinlein had been cranking out and so Heinlein was looking at other markets to sell them to, including Fred Pohl’s Astonishing Stories, a bottom-of-the-barrel market. My guess is he felt elated with “Life-Line” but then had a string of rejections, which blew his confidence, and Heinlein started studying the markets and fans. My guess is Heinlein wrote “Requiem” to endear himself to his audience. To show them he was one of them, and he believed in their cause.

Early fans were true believers in the potential of space travel. It’s almost impossible for people today to understand how the average American felt about science fiction. It was that “crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” And if you’ve ever seen a Buck Rogers serial, you’ll know what I mean. And rocket research in the U.S. was barely beginning. It wasn’t until the end of WWII when the world was shocked by atomic bombs and V-2 rockets that science fiction had any public validity. Science fiction fans felt they could see the future.

“Requiem” was Heinlein’s way of telling science fiction fans that they were special. When Heinlein wrote a letter thanking Campbell for buying “If This Goes On—” he submitted “Requiem” and said, “Enclosed is a short [“Requiem”]. I hope you like it. In a way, it’s my pet.”

Campbell bought it right away in August 1939, but said he didn’t like it, but would use it as an experiment to see if the readers would. But evidently, it didn’t go over like he expected. First, Campbell spoiled the story by adding four lines at the end that Heinlein thought completely spoiled the tone of the ending. They were:

Charlie looked toward the relaxed figure propped up on the bed of Lunar pumice, face fixed toward the Earth. "Well,' he grunted, "he hit the Moon—"

I only found one letter that mentions “Requiem.”

That was in the March issue. “If This Goes On—” started serializing in February, and that’s when Heinlein started getting some real notice in the letter column. But again, it was a serial, and they usually got the most attention. It also got him his first cover.

“Requiem” is one of my favorite Heinlein short stories, maybe second to my favorite, “The Menace From Earth.” However, that order might change as I haven’t read many of them for years, and might discover forgotten gems as I reread all of Heinlein’s short stories for this project. I believe Farah Mendlesohn also admired “Requiem” a great deal because she spent many pages in The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein discussing the story in her Rhetoric chapter. I would reprint it except its length would probably trigger a copyright violation, but I will copy the first two pages. Campbell wanted to reject “Requiem” because it was too sentimental, but Mendlesohn recognized sentiment as one of Heinlein’s major virtues as a science fiction writer:

As I reread Heinlein, I’m trying very hard to forget the older Heinlein that dominates my memories. We need to remember the young Heinlein. Actually, we need to picture Heinlein as he was when he wrote each story. Most readers expect a story to be self-contained and work as a stand-alone work of art. That’s fine for superficial enjoyment. But I see Heinlein as wanting to influence or even shape the future, and he used science fiction as his tool.

James Wallace Harris, 10/14/22

What Motivated Heinlein to Write Science Fiction?

To get the most out of my rereading Heinlein project, I figure I need to hold up on reading the stories and get an idea of why Heinlein wanted to write. There are two schools of thought on studying literature. One holds that a work of fiction must stand on its own. I can buy that. But second, believes in knowing as much as possible about the context in which the work was created. And I can buy that too. For my rereading Heinlein project, I’ve decided to get to know as much about Heinlein as possible and to study what others have written about Heinlein.

This effort is going to be rather haphazard because I don’t plan to devote all my time to studying and reading Heinlein. Nor am I scholarly or disciplined enough to systematically collect and analyze data. I shall alternate between reading about Heinlein, reading a story by Heinlein, and writing about my reaction to the two. I will probably revise what I blog as I go along and learn more.

Over the years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with reading Heinlein. As a kid, I wanted to grow up and be like him, a science fiction writer. He was my hero. But, by the time I graduated high school and started college, I realized Heinlein was on the far side of the 1960s generation gap. He was now the enemy. Heinlein was pro-Vietnam war. I was against it. Heinlein was in the Old Wave of science fiction writers. I sided with the New Wave writers. When I was young, Heinlein felt like a liberator of thoughts, but by my late teens, he seemed like an oppressor. What really turned me off to Heinlein was I Will Fear No Evil which came out in 1970. He had changed. But then, so had I.

My father died in 1970 when I was 18. We often locked horns over the same social and political issues that turned me against Heinlein. When I got older, I often wondered what my dad was really like because I eventually realized I had never gotten to know him. I had rebelled against his older self, and one I judged too quickly because I was young and impatient. I had no clue about my dad’s younger self. The same was true for Heinlein. Now that I’m old myself, I believe I need to go back and figure out these men. What did they originally want? I don’t have much evidence for who my father was, but I do for Heinlein.

While reading Heinlein’s early stories I get the impression he wasn’t like the other science fiction writers. I assumed he had grown up reading science fiction and science fiction was the obvious choice when Heinlein decided to make money by writing. Samuel Johnson is famous for saying, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but that doesn’t explain what they choose to write about. I’m starting to doubt if Heinlein was a trufan of science fiction because he had so many other interests. I wondered if he considered writing in other genres or even writing nonfiction? I know Heinlein read science fiction, but he also read lots of other kinds of fiction and especially nonfiction. Heinlein had diverse interests, and even though he read and wrote science fiction, and occasionally interacted with fandom, I’m not sure if he really thought of himself as a science fiction fan and writer.

All the details I cite below about Heinlein’s life come from Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 by William H. Patterson.

From 1925 to 1934 Heinlein’s goal was to be a naval officer. In 1934 he was forced to retire because of TB. This military experience provided great knowledge for his later writing career, but I don’t think he would have become a writer while in the Navy. Although he did get experience writing for his ship’s newspaper. Heinlein trained as an engineer at Annapolis and became a ballistic officer with special training on a new computing machine. Heinlein like doing.

In the 1920s Heinlein started reading science fiction when The Skylark of Space was serialized in Amazing Stories. Over the years he read various SF magazines, but I don’t know how often. Heinlein was widely read in other areas. But most writers end up writing what they like to read, so I assume Heinlein had a science fiction addiction too.

In 1930 Heinlein became the 22nd member of The American Rocket Society. Right from the beginning, they were thinking about traveling to the Moon. Quite a few of Heinlein’s stories were set on the Moon.

In 1932 Heinlein met and married Leslyn MacDonald, who was 26, and he was 23. Leslyn had a master’s in philosophy, was very liberal politically, acted in local theatrical productions, directed workshops in experimental theater, was a published writer, had a job as Assistant Director of the Music Department at Columbia Pictures, and maybe even did some script doctoring for them. The Heinleins had an open marriage, and belong to nudist colonies in Colorado and California. Leslyn was an equal partner, even though she was probably better educated, smarter, and far more philosophical. And she probably had more worldly experience. Leslyn also had an interest in mystical and spiritual traditions, and her mother was a Theosophist. Heinlein read to her The Time Stream by John Taine which was being serialized in Science Wonder Stories (December 1931- March 1932). She got him to read Tertium Organum by P. D. Ouspensky, a student of George Gurdjieff. Leslyn had a tremendous impact on Heinlein becoming a science fiction writer, and even the subjects we wrote about. At the time both were left-leaning socialists who shared progressive political ideas and New Age and occult philosophies.

Heinlein’s ambition after leaving the Navy was to start on a master’s and work up to a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy at Caltech. Unfortunately, at the time he graduated from the Navy college at Annapolis, it didn’t confer bachelor’s degrees, so he couldn’t go directly into graduate school. If he could have followed this path he might have eventually become an SF writer on the side, but I tend to doubt it. Again, Heinlein’s drive was to do. However, the failure to become a scientist seems to be a common trait among science fiction writers.

Next, Heinlein and Leslyn threw themselves in the 1934 election for California’s governor. The Heinleins backed Upton Sinclair, the famous muck-raking writer and socialist turned democrat to run for governor of California. The Republicans launch an all-out smear campaign against Sinclair. This taught Heinlein a lot about dirty politics. After Sinclair lost, he pushed ahead with EPIC (End Poverty in California) and the Heinleins joined that crusade. They worked with Sinclair and got to know him, and Sinclair admired their dedication to the cause and put Heinlein in some higher-up positions. Heinlein got to work with Oakies and immigrants, as well as Hollywood star do-gooders. He saw the horrors of how the poor were treated. Heinlein even ran for a local position and lost, but learned a great deal about grassroots politics. All of this was grist for the meal of his first novel, For Us, The Living. Heinlein had gotten more writing experience working on EPIC publications. That experience was starting to add up.

The Heinleins had bought a small house in Laurel Canyon, but one they really couldn’t afford on just his military retirement paycheck. Heinlein’s health depended on a low-stress life, so he couldn’t handle regular work. This is when he decided to try writing for a living. He wrote For Us, The Living, but it failed to sell. That novel really wasn’t science fiction, even though it was about the future. It was Heinlein presenting ideas on how to create a better America. The novel promoted concepts like guaranteed incomes and psychiatric rehabilitation instead of prison for criminals. Heinlein could have become a nonfiction writer instead of a fiction writer. This explains why there is so much infodumping, lecturing, and even preaching in his books.

There was practically no science fiction being published in book form in the 1930s. Heinlein wanted to be a futurist, but they didn’t exist back then. Being an officer in the Navy, or a politician meant being a leader, a man of action, and a doer. I felt from the biographical material I’ve read, that Heinlein wanted to lead, influence, build, and especially, invent. However, he was out of options. Maybe he could at least be an influencer by writing.

All along, Heinlein had been reading science fiction, but I’m not sure how much. When he sold “Life-Line” to Astounding for $70, he discovered he had a platform for his progressive ideas and a way to pay his mortgage. John W. Campbell, Jr. had higher ambitions too. Both men wanted to do something real but found their niche in writing and publishing fantasies about the future.

As I reread Heinlein’s fiction I need to remember what Heinlein really wanted. I’m sure this bled out in his stories. Samuel Goldwyn is famous for a quote he probably didn’t say, “If you have a message, call Western Union.” Heinlein always had a message. Sometimes I’ve held that against him, but I realize now, all the best stories do have a message.

Some fiction is just a story. Something entertaining to occupy your time. But all the best writers have something to say. The true art of fiction is to communicate a great deal without the reader feeling they are being lectured.

In judging Heinlein’s stories as I read them, I need to decide how well he wove his message into his fiction. I need to come up with a method to evaluate stories on several levels at once. But that’s another essay.

James Wallace Harris, 10/8/22

Books About Robert A. Heinlein

There have been quite a few books about Robert A. Heinlein published since the 1960s, however, only two of them are devoted to biography. The rest are about his writing. The main biography to read is the two-volume Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century by William H. Patterson, Jr. It’s still in print. Alec Nevala-Lee’s book, Astounding, is a biography of John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, but it does have a significant amount of material on Heinlein. Farah Mendlesohn’s book, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein does interweave biography with its focus on Heinlein’s writing, but she admits she got most of that biographical information from the Patterson book. Both the Nevala-Lee and Mendlesohn books are in print.

If you want to know about Heinlein the man, read the Patterson volumes and the Nevala-Lee. If you want a modern take on Heinlein’s work try the Mendlesohn. If you want an interesting take on science fiction in the 1940s, I recommend The World Beyond the Hill. It makes an interesting compaion to Astounding by Nevala-Lee.

I’m going to list the books about Heinlein in reverse chronological order. If they are in print, I’ll link the title to Amazon. The out-of-print books can be found on Abebooks.com and eBay, as well as other online book dealers. Some of these titles cover more than just Heinlein, but they do cover him in a significant way.

James Wallace Harris 10/6/22

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