“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

Methuselah’s Children by Robert A. Heinlein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 9/11/22

“Fair” by John Brunner

This review is a product of synergy and serendipity from what I’ve been reading from diverse sources over the last 40 hours. I’m going to try and reassemble all my influences before talking about my reading of “Fair” by John Brunner.

Yesterday, I got a tweet from Joachim Boaz about John Brunner (Modern Masters of Science Fiction) by Jad Smith and it intrigued me enough that I bought the Kindle edition and started reading it. I’ve read Stand on Zanzibar twice, once just after it came out, and again when it was published as an audiobook. And I’ve read a handful of Brunner’s short stories. Normally, that wouldn’t be enough to get me to read a monograph on an author, but I have a fond memory of spending an afternoon once with John Brunner. My college roommate was on the programs committee which brought in Brunner, Fred Pohl, and James Gunn for a morning panel at our school about science fiction. Greg was also their chauffeur, and I got to tag along. I mention this not out of name-dropping but because the authors took us to lunch and Greg and I sat and listened to them talk, Then afterward, we took Pohl and Gunn to the airport and Brunner asked if we’d take him down to see the Lorraine Motel. This was Memphis in the early 1970s before it was renovated into the National Civil Rights Museum. The key piece of information here is Brunner told us about being involved with the Martin Lurther King, Jr. Society in London. After, we went downtown Brunner took Greg and me out to eat at a Mexican restaurant. The impression he made on me came back when I started reading the Jad Smith monograph.

Joachim had also blogged “Future Media Short Story Review: John Brunner’s ‘Fair’ (1956)” but I wasn’t ready to read the story just yet. I was into the monograph, and the monograph inspired me to read Earth Is But a Star (1958) reprinted as an Ace Double The 100th Millenium (1959) and later expanded into Catch A Falling Star (1968). Jad Smith compared it to The Dying Earth (1950) by Jack Vance which I’ve recently read, but what really grabbed me is the inside cover blurb that quotes a passage at the beginning of the novel:

I know you’re wondering why I am digressing so much but stay with me. The sentiment of this quote is exactly what I’m worried about at the moment. But in the Jad Smith book on John Brunner, it’s what he worried about across his entire career, and in so many stories. It can be summed up by this question: What do we owe the future? My faint memories of meeting John Brunner retained an impression that he was both far more sophisticated than I was, and he was concerned about the future and mankind. He wanted us to solve our problems. It’s why he was involved with Martin Luther King, Jr. Society in London. I learned in the Jad Smith book Brunner founded that society.

Yesterday I also read “How To Do More Good” in Time Magazine. And twice yesterday I ran into reviews of What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill. Are you now getting the serendipity and the synergy of my reading? This topic was often at the core of what Brunner wrote. Like the fate of the humans in To Catch a Falling Star, we know our future too regarding climate change. Brunner could never understand why we don’t do something about all the problems we faced. In his later books he got quite cynical, and so am I. This is what draws me to him now.

All of this is important too for when I finally read his early story “Fair” an hour ago. I’ve now read 44% of the Jad Smith book on Brunner, and quite often Brunner’s plots are about saving the future. In his early stories, Smith said he would start out with a very bleak outlook but then end them with endless optimism. That applies to “Fair.”

Smith also summarized a common trait of Brunner’s where he would create an anti-hero, and that’s also what he’s done in “Fair.” Smith described how Brunner, a British author, had to write for the American markets to earn a living. Brunner grew up reading American pulps and understood how American science fiction was different from British science fiction. He tried to develop a style that merged the two. And he slowly worked toward developing a strong realistic attitude towards his subject matter even while using wild pulp conventions.

However, by the time he got to his most successful period of Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and Shockwave Rider, many reviewers felt he was too realistic, too mainstream. I think we can see a hint of this in “Fair.”

“Fair” is about a nasty future. “Fair” is about Alec Jevons, a man who has lost his job, been left by his wife, and is rejected by society because his mother wasn’t of the right nationality. It was written during the Cold War, but it’s set in the future that Jevons felt he help create. Actually, it is the future we are creating. (And isn’t Brunner always speaking to us?) The fair of the story is a sprawling science-fictional fair of the future where people go to escape their miserable lives. Jevons is older than the mostly young people at the fair and he impresses them with his physical abilities on one gigantic ride designed to throw riders off. But where he has his revelation is in a booth that provides mental experiences that feel real.

I won’t tell you anymore. By luck, my best reading copy of the story was in SF: Authors’ Choice 4 edited by Harry Harrison. I say luck because it has an introduction by John Brunner that tells us quite a bit about why and how he wrote this story. I’m going to reprint it here hoping I’m not violating copyrights too much, but these introductions are seldom reprinted, and often are very enlightening.

Read the ISFDB page for where “Fair” has been reprinted. I always enjoy it when I discover a story I’m searching for is already in one of the anthologies I’ve collected over the years. But you can also read “Fair” online in New Worlds (March 1956) where it was first published under the byline of Keith Woodcott.

I love that I’m rereading these older SF stories. I feel guilty about not reading new science fiction, and not knowing about the latest popular science fiction novels. But I’m retreading over territory I explored growing up. The first time around I read stories that appealed to the teenage me. I mainly focused on Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Dick, and Delany, but I read fairly widely. What I’m discovering in old age is I missed so much the first time around. There were so many writers I didn’t get to. Reading the Jad Smith monograph on Brunner tempts me to read a lot of Brunner that I just didn’t know was there.

The monograph also adds a sense of philosophy and intellectualism that I also missed in reading science fiction when I was young. John Brunner had quite a lot to say in “Fair,” and Smith is helping me see how Brunner developed as a writer.

James Wallace Harris, 8/16/22

Why Did I Stop Reading New Science Fiction?

Early this morning, before it got light, I woke up and wondered when did I stop reading new science fiction? And why? I assume my unconscious mind had been mulling over the feeling that I’d lost touch with science fiction in the 21st century. (See yesterday’s essay.) Before I went to sleep last night, my conscious mind assumed it was natural to stop reading science fiction as one got older. Evidently, my unconscious mind objected to that assumption and I awoke with several other possibilities to consider.

I read many new science fiction books as they came out in the 1960s and 1970s because of the Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC). I was also aware of new SF books as they were published because I subscribed to the science fiction magazines and fanzines and loved reading reviews. I bought new SF paperbacks and read them because of those reviews. I think I stop regularly reading reviews back in the 1990s. That might be the main reason I got out of touch with the genre and new writers.

I got married in 1978 and started working full-time at a job I’d stay in for the next 35 years. In 1979 I became obsessed with microcomputers and shifted most of my reading to studying computers. Sometime during the 1980s, I canceled my membership with the SFBC, and let my magazine and fanzine subscriptions lapse.

However, Susan and I loved going to the bookstore at least once a week, and I always went through the science fiction section. During the second half of the 1980s and into the 1990s I’d get nostalgic for science fiction and resubscribe to the SFBC, F&SF, and Asimov’s. Sometimes I’d even subscribe to Locus Magazine, and for a short while, I wrote for Lan’s Lantern. During those periods I’d try and catch up with what was new.

When I did return to science fiction periodically, I realized science fiction had changed and changed quite a bit. Books were now bigger, often huge. And trilogies became common, or even longer series. And by the 1990s most of the writers I grew up reading had died. Long books and trilogies turned me off – I just didn’t want to make the commitment. I grew up reading SF books that were often less than 250 pages, with many with less than 200 pages. Now new novels were two and three times that size. And the thought of having to read three of them to complete a story seemed absurd.

And the SFBC kept changing too. I just didn’t know all the new authors, and the SFBC kept offering other kinds of books, fantasies, media tie-ins, gaming — books that just didn’t appeal to me, so I’d quit. For many decades the SFBC’s two monthly selections seem to zero in on the core SF books everyone was reading – and then it didn’t.

My guess is the boom in SF and fantasy gave us too many choices so it was no longer obvious what to read. At the bookstores, the SF/F section just grew and grew. It was like a tsunami of new titles and authors. Not only was it impossible to keep up with reading the popular titles it became impossible to even keep up with a sense of the genre. SF had gotten too big. There seemed to be hundreds of new writers and I just didn’t know who they were. Even reading Locus Magazine didn’t help.

When I retired in 2013 I came back to science fiction. But instead of trying to catch up on the new works, I jumped back in time to read the classics I missed the first time around. I focused mainly on books from 1950-1980. And then I got into short stories again and started my project of reading all the best-of-the-year SF anthologies from the 20th century. It was more rewarding to fill in my knowledge of a historical period than trying to keep current.

However, after years of gorging on classic science fiction, I’m back to craving new science fiction. The genre is even larger, and I’m still not interested in trilogies and book series. I read science fiction for its ideas. Following a character through endless obstacles book after book is just tedious to me. I hunger for standout standalone stories that convey a far-out concept. So far, I’ve had my best luck with Kim Stanley Robinson.

I believe one of the main reasons I don’t read new science fiction is because the genre is no longer based on new ideas. Quite often the first book in a trilogy or series will have a new idea and unique worldbuilding, but the sequels just grind that idea and setting into the ground. And sadly, I’m not sure there are that many new ideas anymore. Writers are having to rehash old themes. Sometimes they find fresh ways to present them, and that works, but all too often new stories just feel like slight variations on old tunes.

However, I haven’t given up. Breakthrough SF novels do come out. The problem is finding them. How I go about that will be a topic for my next essay.

James Wallace Harris, 8/10/22

The Challenge of Writing a Significant Time Travel Tale

My aim is to review a time travel novel, Time’s Last Gift, by Philip José Farmer, but I need to explain my attitude towards time travel stories before I can pass judgment. I bought Time’s Last Gift because I read on the cover blurb that four scientists from the year 2070 travel back to 12,000 BC to study the Magdalenian culture. Since I’ve recently read a number of books on prehistory that plot appealed to me. I even read a large book just on locating the origin of the people who produced the proto-Indo-European language.

Within Time’s Last Gift, one character, Robert von Billmann is obsessed with finding the people who created the Proto-Indo-Hittite language. If you’re not interested in pre-history or the origins of language you might not want to bother with Time’s Last Gift – unless another factor appeals to you, but I want to wait and mention that after the spoilers warning. Let’s just say that John Gribardson, who was made leader of the expedition at the last minute has a very interesting backstory.

Does Time’s Last Gift stand on its own as a solid story and as a good addition to the time travel theme despite any details related to actual history or literary plot gimmicks? To me, a worthy time travel story has to add something different to the theme, otherwise, it’s just a romance, thriller, or historical novel that jumps around in time.

There have been countless science fiction books about time travel, but for me, I find very few of them worthy of using the theme. Most throw their characters into the past or the future and develop a story about that new setting. What I love is a time travel adventure that also explores the wonder of time and time travel. H. G. Wells set the bar very high with The Time Machine in 1895. I’m not sure any work has ever surpassed it for its sense of wonder.

There are so many time travel stories that Michael Main has created The Internet Time Travel Database. Town & Country Magazine listed their top 35 time travel books but only three of my top favorites make their list. Read This Twice found 92 favorite time travel books, and they do list many of my favorites. About Great Books lists 30-time travel books they think are great, and seven of my favorites are there, but I don’t consider many of those books really time travel stories. But that brings up another issue.

What is time travel? Replay by Ken Grimwood is one of my all-time favorite novels, but does Jeff Winston time travel? He repeats his life over and over. I call such fiction time loop stories. Stories such as The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig are really time loop stories too, which I consider a different theme than time travel stories. I’ve written about it before.

Are such literary classics as The Time Traveler’s Wife, Kindred, Slaughterhouse-Five, A Christmas Carol, and Woman on the Edge of Time really about time travel? Don’t they just use the gimmick of time travel to reveal deep characterization or explore social issues in a clever way? These are great novels, but I don’t really want to lump them into the kind of science fiction novel I’m pointing to. Nor do I want to consider all the novels that use time travel to hook people up romantically.

Real science fiction about time travel should make us think about the nature of time travel. Time’s Last Gift does do this. Time travel has always been plagued by paradoxes, but I believe Farmer has found a neat way around them. If a time traveler goes into the past and changes the future, it’s already happened. Whatever exists now, whether affected by time travel or not, is what is. Speculations about what might be changed are no different from what was changed. If a time traveler shows up in 12,000 BCE there was never a 12,000 BCE without a time traveler. Of course, that means everything that happens is fixed. Or is it? Does this theory about time travel require predestination? It could mean everyone has free will, but whichever way history plays out it only plays out once.

Most of Time’s Last Gift is about living in 12,000 BCE. The four scientists immediately befriend a small tribe of humans and learn their language. John Gribardsun even wears their clothing and hunts with their weapons, although he often uses his rifle when necessary to help feed the tribe. The main conflict of the story deals with the two scientists who are married, Rachel and Drummond Silverstein, and their breakup. Farmer suggests that time travel has a psychological effect, like a larger case of jet lag, and it wears on three of the scientists. Gribardsun seems immune. In fact, he thrives in the past, and his vitality attracts both Rachel and the young women of the tribe. Much of the novel is about whether or not Drummond is out to kill Gribardsun because of jealousy. I didn’t care for this part of the story. It felt like a contrived conflict to move the novel along. However, the story is very readable and kept me reading.

Beyond Here Lie Spoilers

In the 1950s Philip José Farmer wrote some very innovative science fiction stories – “The Lovers,” “The Alley Man,” “Sail On! Sail On!” and others. Then he created two series that were fairly successful, the Riverworld series and The World of Tiers. Farmer won the Hugo award for best novel for the first Riverworld story, To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971). I loved that novel when it came out because the main character was Sir Richard Francis Burton, the 19th-century explorer, and translator. And I loved the second book, The Fabulous Riverboat (1971) because it featured Mark Twain. I had read biographies of both men and that made me partial to those Farmer’s novels.

Over the decades I have come to feel that using a famous historical person as a character in a novel is a cheat, a way to sell books. But I also consider writing book series as a crutch for writers. For the rest of his life Farmer mostly churned out books for various series, and they were just so-so. He later refined the famous person gimmick by switching to writing about famous fictional characters, and this is where Time’s Last Gift comes in. John Gribardsun is Tarzan. It’s never said within the novel, but I guess it fairly quickly. If you’ve ever read a Tarzan novel, Time’s Last Gift feels like one and could have been Tarzan’s Time Machine.

There’s nothing wrong with book series, they do help writers to pay bills, but each book feels like just another episode in a TV series to me. If you love a series, that’s great. But for me, usually, only stand-alone novels can be great.

I assume Farmer didn’t use the name Tarzan in the book because of being sued by the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, but ISFDB even lists Time’s Last Gift among the Tarzan novels. Philip José Farmer wasn’t the only writer to continue the character. More importantly, it’s part of Farmer’s Wold Newton series where he brings many famous characters from literature into the real world. If you really like this kind of publishing gimmick, then Time’s Last Gift might excite you.

I find the Wold Newton idea fascinating in conception, but lackluster in execution. It capitalizes on the readers’ love of famous books and characters and I consider that exploitation. Heinlein did the same thing in his later books bringing back his own favorite characters and tieing them into his favorite fictional worlds. The idea is neat, but again, the execution was horrible.

As a time travel novel, Time’s Last Gift is mediocre – readable and somewhat interesting. The plot moves along well enough. The John Gribardsun character is appealing but his adventures back in 12,000 BCE aren’t that significant. If you enjoy the idea that it’s an alternate origin story for Tarzan, and Farmer makes him immortal, then you might enjoy the book more.

I judge time travel stories by how creative they are at dealing with time travel. For example, Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—” uses time travel and gender reassignment in a unique way. David Gerrold uses The Man Who Folded Himself to allow a time traveler to really get to know himself. Jack Finney in Time and Again used historical photographs to enhance his novel. Kurt Vonnegut combined memoir and fiction brilliantly. Connie Willis has explored both drama and comedy in her time travel novels. Of course, Wells illustrated both evolution and cosmology to his 19th-century readers. Wells inspired the Dying Earth genre and the idea that humanity will spin off different new species. Olaf Stapledon ran away with that idea with his novel Last and First Men.

With time travel stories, writers need to go big or go home. Philip José Farmer knew this. This is why he tacked on the Wold Newton afterward in a 1977 later edition. If you think Wold Newton is cool, then that might make Time’s Last Gift a good time travel story. If not, you might want to pass on it.

Here's a list of my favorite time travel stories.

1895 - THE TIME MACHINE by H. G. Wells
1934 - "Twilight" by John W. Campbell
1935 - "Night" by John W. Campbell
1941 - "Time Wants a Skeleton" by Ross Rocklynne
1941 - "By His Bootstraps" by Robert A. Heinlein
1943 - "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
1946 - "Vintage Season" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore 
1951 - "I'm Scared" by Jack Finney
1952 - "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury
1952 - "Hobson's Choice" by Alfred Bester
1953 - "Who's Cribbing" by Jack Lewis
1956 - "A Gun for Dinosaur" by L. Sprague de Camp
1956 - "The Man Who Came Early" by Poul Anderson
1957 - THE DOOR INTO SUMMER by Robert A. Heinlein 
1957 - "Soldier from Tomorrow" by Harlan Ellison
1958 - THE TIME TRADERS by Andre Norton
1958 - "Poor Little Warrior!" by Brian Aldiss
1958 - "The Ugly Little Boy by Isaac Asimov
1958 - "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" by Alfred Bester
1959 - "All You Zombies---" by Robert A. Heinlein
1964 - FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD by Robert A. Heinlein
1964 - "When Time Was New" by Robert F. Young
1965 - "Traveller's Rest" by David I. Masson
1966 - "Behold the Man" by Michael Moorcock and BEHOLD THE MAN (1969)
1967 - "Hawksbill Station" by Robert Silverberg
1968 - THE LAST STARSHIP FROM EARTH by John Boyd
1969 - SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
1970 - TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney
1970 - THE YEAR OF THE QUIET SUN by Wilson Tucker
1971 - DINOSAUR BEACH by Keith Laumer
1973 - THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF by David Gerrold
1976 - "The Hertford Manuscript" by Richard Cowper
1967 - "Infinite Summer" by Christopher Priest
1980 - TIMESCAPE by Gregory Benford
1982 - "Firewatch" by Connie Willis
1985 - "Sailing to Byzantium" by Robert Silverberg
1988 - "Ripples in the Dirac Sea" by Geoffrey A. Landis
1992 - DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis
1995 - THE TIME SHIPS by Stephen Baxter
1995 - FROM TIME TO TIME by Jack Finney
1998 - TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis
2003 - THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger

Time Travel Anthologies

The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF and The Time Travel MEGAPACK is currently 99 cents at Amazon for the Kindle edition.

James Wallace Harris, 7/30/22

“The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden

What if our pleasure in life is wallowing in the minutiae of our favorite subject? I follow a lot of YouTubers and most of their channels are about going deeper and deeper into a beloved special interest. When we are young we pursue pleasures of the flesh, but as we get older we follow our Alice of interest down a rabbit hole. This lets us find our true tribe, our people.

I feel like I’m among a few survivors of a tribe that is dying out. I lament that our culture and language are disappearing. My tribe is those beings who grew up reading science fiction magazines in the mid-20th century. I know that tribe was never very large and that all the various tribes of pop culture eventually fade from the collective memory of the present. But this sense of passing is why I find myself enjoying recursive science fiction so much now. Recursive science fiction is science fiction about science fiction, and quite often it remembers the genre’s past. And to enjoy such stories requires either a direct experience of the past or a good education about that past.

One of the funniest recursive science fiction stories I’ve ever read is one that seems to parody/remember more of the genre than any other recursive science fiction story I’ve read. The story is “The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden (Eric Pelletier 1899-1979). Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since this story has been reprinted, meaning if you want to legally read it, it will require tracking down a used copy of F&SF for September 1980, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction 24th Series edited by Edward L. Ferman in 1982, or Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories about SF edited by Mike Resnick in 1992. If you have a free account with the Internet Archive you can check out The Best of F&SF 24th for one hour. Since this story hasn’t been reprinted in 30 years, and its author has been dead for 43 years, I hope their heirs won’t mind me offering you a pdf copy. (If you do, let me know and I’ll take it down, but I doubt if six people will read it.)

Of course, not everyone will find this story funny or meaningful. It depends on you knowing a good deal about the genre’s history. I thought I’d review the story by providing links to the pertinent bits of history that knowing will let the reader appreciate the story.

The story is an exchange of letters between Oginga Nkabele, a young man from Africa studying in America, and Edward L. Ferman, the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF). Nkabele, from the tribe of Diolas in Senegal, Africa, was educated by French and Belgian missionaries who he refers to as the Holy Ghost Fathers. One of his teachers, Father Devlin brought three steamer trunks containing over five hundred pulp science fiction magazines from 1936-1952. Nkabele has read these magazines so thoroughly that he’s even memorized some of his favorite stories. Nkabele feels he’s an expert on science fiction and decides to become a rich science fiction writer while in America.

Unfortunately, the stories he submits to Ed Ferman are modeled on the writing styles that were heavily criticized for bad writing when they were new and are now so out of fashion as to be glaringly awful. Ferman is appalled by Nkabele’s stories and rejects them immediately. Nkabele feels the rejection letter is a mistake and keeps pestering Ferman with more letters. In fact, he never accepts any rejection and keeps trying to convince Ferman his stories are brilliant and will make him famous and promises they’ll help sell more copies of F&SF.

Through the exchange of letters, two fun plots emerged. One is a horror tale for SF magazine editors which is hilarious if you’re not an editor, and the other is about how the genre has changed drastically from its past which is still wistfully nostalgic for some.

First, it’s important to know the magazines Nkabele admires. It’s notable that Father Devlin did not subscribe to Astounding Science-Fiction, the magazine revered until recent decades (another irony of this tale). Nkabele’s favorites are:

Nkabele’s favorite writers are Richard Shaver, L. Ron Hubbard, and Stanley G. Weinbaum, but is also a fan of Robert Moore Williams, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Nelson Bond, Ray Cummings, Eric Frank Russell, P. Schuyler Miller, and Raymond Z. Gallum. Although not specific to this story, if you know about The Shaver Mystery you’ll have a sense of the kind of thinking fans of these magazines pursued.

Most telling of all is that Nkabele’s favorite editor is Raymond A. Palmer. That’s quite revealing. Young science fiction writers today want to erase the memory of John W. Campbell, but when I was growing up, science fiction fans wanted to forget Ray Palmer’s impact on the genre.

To understand Nkabele’s taste in science fiction, even more, is to know the names of the three stories he keeps submitting:

  • “Astrid of the Asteroids”
  • “Slime Slaves of G’Harn”
  • “Ursula of Uranus”

The magazines Nkabele loved were the ones that appealed most to adolescents featuring exotic interplanetary adventure stories told in purple prose. The exact kind of science fiction John W. Campbell was fighting against in our Golden Age of Science Fiction. But Nkabele considers his science fiction the actual Golden Age of Science Fiction. Over the decades, different generations have defined their own Golden Age of Science Fiction. Youth always reject the past. Nkabele can’t fathom why Ferman is rejecting his Golden Age.

It helps to know a little about Edward L. Ferman since he’s a major character, but it’s very important to know about Harlan Ellison. Ferman panics and gives Nkabele Ellison’s address and phone number to get rid of him. Ferman tells Nkabele about Ellison’s legendary SF anthology Dangerous Visions. Now Harlan Ellison starts writing letters and Eric Norden parodies Ellison’s writing style in an over-the-top style that wasn’t far from Ellison’s own. They even rope in Isaac Asimov. Norden does a great job of making each letter writer sound like a distinct personality. Sometimes the epistolary caricatures aren’t so flattering and it’s a wonder Norden didn’t get sued by Ellison who was known for his litigious wrath.

It also helps to know about BEMs – Bug Eye Monsters – especially SF covers that showed BEMs running off with mostly naked Earth women. BEMs in SF anticipated the whole abductee theme of UFO fanatics. And Ray Palmer turned his SF magazines into UFO fanaticism.

Parodying science fiction has been around for a long time, and Norden mentions a classic, Venus on a Half Shell by Kilgore Trout. Kilgore Trout is a character in many of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. But I’ll have more to say about such other fun novels and stories soon.

I’m not sure how many current SF readers will enjoy “The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden. Is the pop culture that it skewers too oldy moldy? I tend to think the people who will enjoy it most are the people of my tribe.

James Wallace Harris, 7/24/22