Only dumbasses, egotists, and the delusional think they can predict the future, although there are a number of professions that try. I do believe Robert A. Heinlein was smart and sane enough to know he couldn’t see beyond the horizon of the moment, but he wrote plenty of stories that tried. “Blowups Happen” is one that stands out. Heinlein’s 1940 novelette imagines the dangers of commercializing atomic energy in peacetime. That was five years before Hiroshima.
I grew up being taught that atomic research during the war was an extremely well-guarded secret. What I didn’t know, and I assume most other people didn’t either, was how much atomic energy was widely discussed before the war. John W. Campbell, Jr. liked to brag about how the FBI came to his offices in 1944 because of Cleve Cartmill’s story “Deadline,” implying the G-men thought it gave away some of the secrets of the atomic bomb. I thought Heinlein’s story felt far more knowledgeable. I now have to assume the well-educated public before WWII knew far more than I ever imagined regarding atomic physics.
“Blowup Happens” is set in the near future from 1940 in the Astounding Science Fiction magazine version, and from 1950 as it was rewritten for the collection, The Man Who Sold The Moon. Those two dates are important because the story is about atomic power, and the magazine version was written before Hiroshima and the book version afterward.
The setup of the story is the United States has come to depend on atomic power even though a breeder reactor in Arizona could theoretically destroy the country or even the planet. The General Superintendent of the plant, King, has to hire one psychiatrist for every three engineers to monitor their work with the reactor because engineers have nervous breakdowns after a short career and must be continually replaced. King brings in Dr. Lentz, one of the country’s top psychiatrists to find ways that allow engineers to handle the stress.
Later in the story, Superintendent King learns that mathematical models that previously showed the reaction in the breeder reactor is probably controlled are wrong. New mathematics prove the reactor could go into a runaway reaction that would destroy the planet. If they bring down the breeder reactor the country would lose a good portion of its industrial power and ruin the economy. King knows the corporation that owns the plant won’t accept the new research because it would be financial ruin for it.
The solution to the problem has been emerging all along in a tangential subplot about two engineers, Erickson and Harper, developing atomic power for rockets.
“Blowups Happen” has a great deal of infodumping where Heinlein tries to educate his readers about the science behind atomic energy. Reading those passages today is tedious unless you are researching early speculation about atomic energy. So, how do we judge “Blowups Happen” as a story in 2022?
We want science fiction that is visionary. We want the future to be exciting. Ultimately, most, if not all science fiction becomes historical curiosities. Time has a way of eroding our genre. I didn’t like “Blowups Happen” when I first read it as a teen back in the 1960s. It was already too dated. Now that I’m rereading it in my seventies in 2022 I have to admire Heinlein’s speculation. “Blowups Happen” is an ambitious story. I’m starting to think science fiction writers are at their most ambitious when they are working closest to the present.
In “Blowups Happen” Heinlein explores the impact of atomic energy before the world is startled by the reality of Hiroshima. Sure, the idea of atomic power had been around since Einstein’s most famous equation. The reason why the science fiction of the 1950s had been so exciting is it just preceded NASA of the 1960s. And the reason why cyberpunk was so exciting in the 1980s is that it just preceded the World Wide Web in the 1990s. Science fiction writers get the details wrong, but they still anticipate the wonder and the chaos. This thought makes me rethink Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land anticipation of the 1960s.
When we judge an old science fiction story for its visionary qualities I think it’s important to look at the story’s original publication. “Blowups Happen” was first published in September 1940. It was first reprinted in The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin in 1946, and then in 1950, it was rewritten for The Man Who Sold the Moon. However, for that edition, Heinlein rewrote the story to include the knowledge of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. By 1950 the public and science readers knew much more about atomic energy. I’m guessing “Blowups Happen” was already outdated even in 1950.
Ten years makes a lot of difference in a science fiction story, although I doubt anyone in 1940 could have imagined what the next five years would bring, much less ten. Science fiction writers do not and cannot predict the future, but we do have to admire Heinlein for imagining the political implications of a country having atomic energy in 1940, and what the dangers might be for developing peacetime uses of atomic power. He gets the details wrong, but what he gets right is the essence of great science fiction. By the way, in the 1940 version, the power plant is called a bomb, but in 1950 the label was changed to pile. I’m guessing Heinlein imagined the power plant as being a controlled explosion.
Within the 1940 version, Heinlein described a nuclear explosion as “forty million times as explosive as TNT. The figure was meaningless that way. He thought of it, instead, as a hundred million tons of high explosive, two hundred million aircraft bombs as big as the biggest ever used.” To give his readers a better picture, Heinlein has his character say to himself about ordinary big bombs, “He had once seen such a bomb dropped when he had been serving as a temperament analyst for army aircraft pilots. The bomb had left a hole big enough to hide an apartment house. He could not imagine the explosion of a thousand such bombs, much, much less a hundred million of them.”
Then in the 1950 version, the same character thinks of it as “a hundred million tons of high explosive, or as a thousand Hiroshimas.” Heinlein didn’t need to write anything more. By then, readers had seen films about atomic explosions. They knew exactly what that meant, but in 1940 I doubt readers could imagine anything close to reality.
Psychiatry and psychology are so commonly talked about today that we also forget that it was new at one time. I’m an old movie fan, and psychiatry became a hot subject matter for films after WWII and into the 1950s. I’m guessing Heinlein was doing just as much speculation about the future impact of psychiatry as he was doing for atomic energy in “Blowups Happen.” But how sophisticated his Heinlein’s expectations about the field? Heinlein loved popular scientific speculations published in popular books of the 1930s. But he also was a fan of many pseudo-scientific works too, stuff we’d consider New Age today. In his Future History stories, Heinlein seemed just as interested in the soft sciences as the hard sciences.
Heinlein describes Dr. Lentz, the top psychiatrist of the day this way:
Notwithstanding King’s confidence, Lentz did not show up until the next day. The superintendent was subconsciously a little surprised at his visitor’s appearance. He had pictured a master psychologist as wearing flowing hair, an imperial, and having piercing black eyes. But this man was not overly tall, was heavy in his framework, and fat—almost gross. He might have been a butcher. Little, piggy, faded-blue eyes peered merrily out from beneath shaggy blond brows. There was no hair anywhere else on the enormous skull, and the apelike jaw was smooth and pink. He was dressed in mussed pajamas of unbleached linen. A long cigarette holder jutted permanently from one corner of a wide mouth, widened still more by a smile which suggested non-malicious amusement at the worst that life, or men, could do. He had gusto. Heinlein, Robert. The Man Who Sold the Moon and Orphans of the Sky (p. 131). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.
Is Heinlein serious about giving us a shrink that goes around in public in his pajamas? Is Heinlein just imagining a colorful future with odd fashions? Or is this satire? Would 1940 science fiction readers believe the fashions we see on TV today? Heinlein had his sociological speculations too. There is another scene at a bar where the atomic energy scientists go to unwind, that features a B-girl who is also a prostitute. Such women were common in the 1930s, but it was a lower-class thing. I got the feeling that Heinlein expected society would change its attitudes toward these women in the future.
But, we’re back to my original question. Is “Blowups Happen” a fun science fiction story to read in 2022? I don’t think so. Scientific lectures can slow a story, or even ruin it, but scientific lectures about out-of-date science are even harder to endure. Would “Blowups Happen” read better today if he had left out all the lectures? They weren’t needed for the story. Lester del Rey’s “Nerves” is another story about atomic energy from the 1940s that’s outdated, but it still works dramatically. It has problems with length, and some plotting, but overall, I remember it being a better story. I don’t know if Heinlein wanted to be educational, show off his knowledge, or provide evidence for his speculation, but I don’t think the story needed those infodumps.
“Blowups Happen” does offer one lesson for would-be science fiction writers. Speculating about the near future will have the greatest impact on current readers, but you risk writing a story with a limited shelf life. Most stories never become classics anyway, so I think Heinlein boosted his career significantly in 1940 by writing “Blowups Happen.” And there is a downside to writing far-future science fiction that’s pure storytelling. I find science fiction that feels like fantasy fiction far less appealing. Although “Blowups Happen” is now just a historical curiosity I still admire it for Heinlein’s ambition. I seldom find science fiction stories with that kind of ambition being written today.
Near-future SF stories with serious speculation do show up but are rare. I am impressed with The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler, and even though it just came out, I’ve already heard good things about it from several readers. There’s something exciting about science fiction that speculates about the near future with ideas that could come true.
James Wallace Harris, 12/12/22