Baby Boomer Science Fiction

Science fiction stories are fairytales for teenagers that fuel their imaginations about the future. Science fiction creates myths about tomorrow for each new generation. And science fiction offers both hopes and fears about what’s to come. Readers from each new generation embrace their own flavor of science fiction.

The World Turned Upside Down is an anthology where the editors picked science fiction stories that wowed them when they were teens. Currently available in print for the Kindle for $8.99 or free online for misers and the poor. And for collectors, the hardback is readily available used. I dearly wish there were an audiobook edition because I’d love to hear these stories read by a professional reader.

David Drake (b. 1945) and Jim Baen (b. 1943) are from the Silent Generation (1925-1945). Eric Flint (b. 1947) is from the second year of the Baby Boomers (1946-1964). I was born in 1951, the fifth year. All three editors started reading science fiction in the 1950s and I started in 1962. I believe science fiction fans that discovered the genre in the 1950s and 1960s during the Baby Boomer era imprinted on a certain type of science fiction that’s distinctly different from later generations’ science fiction. I believe the stories in The World Turned Upside Down will appeal the most to Baby Boomers.

One significant extra to this anthology is the personal recollections from the three editors. The introductions and follow-ups are bite-size memoirs. The editorial comments added extra enjoyment to reading this anthology. And I felt on the same wavelength as the editors.

Picture a graph with a bell curve stretched out on the trailing edge. Each year hundreds (thousands?) of science fiction stories are published, but only a small number become popular and are embraced as favorites by a generation. The newest stories are the leading edge of the curve. Then the long stretched-out trailing edge is where stories are remembered as they fade away in pop culture memory. Growing up I mostly read science fiction short stories that were at the peak of the curve. They were mostly 5-20 years old. Now those stories are 55-70 years old.

As I’ve gotten older, that bulge has diminished. In The World Turned Upside Down 5 stories are from the 1930s, 5 from the 1940s, 15 from the 1950s, and 4 from the 1960s. You should be able to visualize the curve just from that tiny bit of data. Readers today from the current generations will like or know very few of these stories. They are now far away from the leading bulge of popular stories. In 20 years, that bulge in the 1950s will thin away in future anthologies. Anthologists whose teen years were during the 1980s or 2010s will seldom pick stories that old.

For the past couple of months, our Facebook group has been reading and discussing the 29 stories from The World Turned Upside Down. I thought the age of the group member had an impact on which stories they liked. Current with reading these old stories on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, we read newer stories from The Good New Stuff edited by Gardner Dozois on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I also thought the contrast to it in the comments was age-related. Austin Beeman reviewed The World Turned Upside Down on his blog and overall liked most of the stories, but the stories he responded to best were a bit different from my favorites. And I thought he liked stories in The Good New Stuff a lot more than I did. I believe he’s 25-30 years younger than I am. Jeppe Larsen reviewed the anthology on his blog and liked fewer stories. My hunch is he is younger. But it’s also possible, he’s not young, and like many people, just likes to keep up with the times. I actually prefer the older stuff, even if it feels old. And to also skew my impression, most of the active members are hardcore SF fans that love a wide range of science fiction.

Generally, a great story is usually liked by any age group, but less famous stories seem to have a generational appeal. My guess is writers write under the assumption they are speaking to the current generation but some of them end up speaking across the ages.

The stories in The World Turned Upside Down were first published from 1933 through 1967, but the most common decade represented was the 1950s. Here are the stories with my ratings (1-5 stars).

1930s

  • Shambleau • (1933) • novelette by C. L. Moore (*****)
  • Who Goes There? • (1938) • novella by John W. Campbell, Jr. (*****)
  • Black Destroyer • (1939) • novelette by A. E. van Vogt (*****)
  • Heavy Planet • (1939) • short story by Milton A. Rothman (***+)
  • Spawn • (1939) • novelette by P. Schuyler Miller (****+)

My father (b. 1920) would have been a teen when these stories came out. He was from the Greatest Generation (1901-1924). These are also stories that appeared with the generation of First Fandom. Those were the old guys of science fiction when I was a teen. I’m not sure if any of them are around anymore. The star of that era was E. E. “Doc” Smith. Most of the fiction from then felt dated in the 1960s and even more so in the 2020s, even to me, a guy who loves to read old science fiction.

1940s

  • Quietus • (1940) • short story by Ross Rocklynne (****)
  • Environment • (1944) • short story by Chester S. Geier (***+)
  • Rescue Party • (1946) • novelette by Arthur C. Clarke (*****)
  • Thunder and Roses • (1947) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon (*****)
  • The Only Thing We Learn • (1949) • short story by C. M. Kornbluth (***+)

These stories came out during the teen years of the Silent Generation. This has been called The Golden Age of Science Fiction, but people who felt that are mainly dead. Stories collected in anthologies stay around for a few decades, and I was reading these stories as a teen in the 1960s. I thought 1940s SF was science fiction from the good old days. They felt somewhat dated when I read them in the 1960s, but they were still fun. Today, even to me, they feel quite quaint.

1950s

  • Liane the Wayfarer • (1950) • short story by Jack Vance (****)
  • Trigger Tide • (1950) • short story by Wyman Guin (***+)
  • A Pail of Air • (1951) • short story by Fritz Leiber (****+)
  • All the Way Back • (1952) • short story by Michael Shaara (***+)
  • Thy Rocks and Rills • (1953) • novelette by Robert E. Gilbert (****+)
  • Answer • (1954) • short story by Fredric Brown (*****)
  • The Cold Equations • (1954) • novelette by Tom Godwin (*****)
  • Hunting Problem • (1955) • short story by Robert Sheckley (****)
  • A Gun for Dinosaur • (1956) • novelette by L. Sprague de Camp (****)
  • The Last Question • (1956) • short story by Isaac Asimov (****+)
  • The Gentle Earth • (1957) • novella by Christopher Anvil (***+)
  • The Menace from Earth • (1957) • novelette by Robert A. Heinlein (*****)
  • Omnilingual • (1957) • novelette by H. Beam Piper (*****)
  • St. Dragon and the George • (1957) • novelette by Gordon R. Dickson (****)
  • The Aliens • (1959) • novelette by Murray Leinster (****)

Now, these were stories that were often anthologized in the 1960s when I was a teen and a number of them are considered classics. They seem just a little bit old to me when I was a teen. Like 1950s Rock and Rollers, who were in their twenties when I was a teen in the 1960s, but they were still so cool!

1960s

  • Code Three • (1963) • novella by Rick Raphael (***+)
  • Turning Point • (1963) • short story by Poul Anderson (***+)
  • Goblin Night • (1965) • novelette by James H. Schmitz (****)
  • The Last Command • (1967) • short story by Keith Laumer (****)

It’s interesting that these stories did come out when I was a teen, but they were some of my least favorites in the anthology, although still a lot of fun to read. I’m surprised Flint, Drake, and Baen picked them because none of them became classics. These kinds of stories were the salt of the Earth content of the SF magazines in the 1960s, but not the stories I thought defined the generation. At the time, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard, and Ursula K. Le Guin were the bright stars in the sky.

Even though fiction being called science fiction was around in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the general public recognized it. The 1950s was a boom time for science fiction when it regularly began appearing in book form – both paperback and hardback. Plus, it became popular in the movies and in the early days of television. In 1953 there were three dozen science fiction magazine titles being published. When I grew up stories from the 1950s boom felt like they defined the genre.

I felt the most famous SF from the 1950s would be the classics all my life and into the future. However, I’ve now lived long enough to see those stories age and fade away. It sometimes hurts me to see my favorite science fiction novels and short stories being forgotten, rejected or even vilified. This is why it’s difficult to recommend The World Turned Upside Down to younger readers. But I feel its stories capture an era so nicely. The stories aren’t the most famous Baby Boomer science fiction stories, but then the most famous stories are often over-anthologized while so many other good stories need to be remembered. I’m guessing Drake, Flint, and Baen wanted to preserve a picture of our era taken from a different angle. Of the stories I hadn’t read before, I was very glad to be introduced to them.

I would love to review each story one by one and natter about how they each aged and guess how each appealed to their generation. But this post is already longer than what 99% of internet readers read. I know, I’m way too verbose.

JWH

“Blowups Happen” by Robert A. Heinlein

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

“Coventry” by Robert A. Heinlein

“Coventry” by Robert A. Heinlein first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in July of 1940 and marks the end of his first year of publishing science fiction with eight stories. “Coventry” is also part of his Future History series and was first published in book form in Heinlein’s collection Revolt in 2100, which is still in print, including audio and ebook.

Heinlein’s legacy suggests he was hardcore libertarian, and that might have been true at times, but not always. “Coventry” shows a streak of liberalism or even utopianism. The “Coventry” of the title refers to land set aside for those citizens who do not want to abide by the Covenant, a future constitution of what the United States became after the Crazy Years. Under the Covenant, all citizens are guaranteed the freedom to pursue their happiness so long as they don’t commit violence against another citizen.

The story begins with the trial of David MacKinnon who is convicted of damaging another citizen’s freedom. David freely admits he punched out a guy but rationalizes he committed no offense because the guy had insulted him. The judge tells him that’s no excuse. I thought this was rather amusing because, in later Heinlein novels, Heinlein’s characters often claim that rudeness should be a capital offense, and sometimes his characters do kill people for being offensive.

David is given a choice: go to Coventry, or submit to psychological reeducation. David has a big ego, and he’s quite self-righteous about his actions, so he accepts being sent to Coventry. However, he has the illusion that it’s a wide-open frontier and he can go there and live in peace like a pioneer of old. He is allowed to take anything he wants into Coventry and converts his savings into fancy camping equipment.

Coventry is behind a giant force-field, and well guarded. David is told he can ask to leave at any time if he’s willing to undergo psychological reeducation. He swears that will never happen, and they open a portal in the barrier just large enough for David to drive his all-terrain vehicle through it. At first, Coventry seems like open free land, but soon David arrives at a guard station where he’s told he must pay customs duty. This enrages him and he refuses. The guards, which he thinks of as thugs, take all his possessions and start dividing them up. Once again, David goes before a court. He soon discovers that there are governments and laws within Coventry, three of them, each with their own approach to how things should be run. David is outraged that Coventry isn’t the unspoiled frontier he imagined. Again, he refuses to cooperate with the local laws and gets himself imprisoned. Eventually, David realizes he was wrong and wants to leave Coventry, but it’s not that easy.

It seems to me, Heinlein uses Coventry to model America in 1940, and the country of the Covenant to model how he imagines life should be in the United States. Heinlein also imagines another near utopia in his early novel Beyond This Horizon (Astounding, April and May 1942). Heinlein’s unpublished novel, For Us the Living written in 1938-1939 is also near utopian. Much of it was recycled for his early stories and Beyond This Horizon.

But after WWII, I’m not sure Heinlein ever imagined a positive big government again. Many of his stories, maybe even most, had characters trying to escape a big government by becoming a space pioneer, or by overthrowing a government. So it’s quite interesting to see Heinlein imagining a large well-run government. Wait — I’ve thought of one exception, Starship Troopers. If you can recall another, leave a comment.

And when I said Heinlein was being near utopian, I don’t mean he was advocating a perfect society, but one that was very well designed and had few problems. Heinlein obviously thought we could do much better than we were in 1940.

One of my friends regularly tells me she wishes the states could be divided up between conservatives and liberals so we didn’t have to live with each other. “Coventry” is Heinlein imagining this wish in a way. Most people accept the big government of the Covenant, while the anti-government folks are sent to a reservation where anything goes. What Heinlein does in the story is say anything goes leads to power structures run by strong men and gives three examples. One is a theocracy made of renegades from his earlier short novel, “If This Goes On—.”

Heinlein’s collection Revolt in 2100 includes “If This Goes On—,” “Coventry,” and “Misfit.” But you really need to read all the other early Future History stories, and to get them you need to track down a used copy of The Past Through Tomorrow. See my “Heinlein’s Super Collections” about which short stories collections to buy used.

Of course, what I’m calling a near utopia Heinlein might call a libertarian society. However, it is a big government running things so everyone is given the maximum freedom to pursue their happiness. I’m not sure theories about small government existed back then, not in the way some conservatives think about it now.

For those Heinlein fans who really want to get into Heinlein’s politics and philosophy, I highly recommend reading “Chapter 5: Heinlein and Civic Society” and “Chapter 6: Heinlein and the Civic Revolution” in Farah Mendlesohn’s The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein. I was at first somewhat disappointed with her book because she didn’t go story by story and write about each in depth. But as I write these reviews, I can see of the value of her writing about them theme by theme, referencing the stories by how each fit into Heinlein’s beliefs. It makes it hard to quote her about any particular story, but if you read each of her chapters as a whole, it has an overall cumulative summation of all of Heinlein’s stories.

“Coventry” came in first in the Analytical Laboratory but there were not any devoted letters about it in the letter column. I’ve been a little disappointed with the letter column because Campbell doesn’t give that much space to the discussion of stories. And quite often fans wrote about the artwork instead. At this time, Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard was still getting most of the story discussion comments. I need to read that novel. (“Brass Tacks” was divided into two sections. The first part was story comments, and the second section was devoted to science discussion. I think Campbell preferred spending space on this section more.)

James Wallace Harris, 12/3/22

“Thy Rocks and Rills” by Robert Ernest Gilbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 10/30/22

“Let There Be Light” by Robert A. Heinlein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 10/22/22

“Successful Operation” by Robert A. Heinlein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 10/21/22

“Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Harriman—” 

“Eh? What is it, Charlie?” 

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

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

“Huh?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I only found one letter that mentions “Requiem.”

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 10/14/22

J. G. Ballard’s Double Debut

J. G. Ballard made his science fiction debut in two magazines, New Worlds Science Fiction and Science Fantasy, both dated December 1956. These are the first two stories in The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard which I just began listening to on audio. You can borrow a copy of the scanned hardback from the Internet Archive for one hour here. Amazon has a Kindle edition for just under $15. Or you can read “Prima Belladonna” online here, and listen to “Escapement” here. Links to radio and film versions are here.

New Worlds also profiled Ballard on the inside front cover.

Ballard’s story for New Worlds, “Escapement” was a very early time loop tale. “Prima Belladonna” in Science Fantasy was Ballard’s first Vermillion Sands story. Both stories were well-written and entertaining and both struck me as pure storytelling. No message, no theme, no psychological insights. As far as I could tell, neither had a point other than being an interesting story.

I was completely satisfied with both short stories, but I wondered if I should dismiss them for having no depth? Right after reading those stories, I read “The Cinderella Machine” by Michael G. Coney, first published in F&SF (Aug. 1976). It reminded me of a Vermillion Sands story. I checked and Coney is a British writer from Ballard’s generation. It too was a pure story. I wondered if Coney had been inspired by Ballard, or if writers from that generation just tended to write those kind of stories.

I suppose in each of these stories I could dig around and find something insightful or meaningful about them, but they seemed complete and self-contained, so why bother? I feel little need to describing these stories because the very act of reading them are what they are about. “Prima Belladonna” and “The Cinderella Machine” are set in artist colonies, featuring a striking women character who is not necessarily nice, and both include an exotic science fictional creature. “Escapement” is about a man who can’t understand why his wife doesn’t notice technical difficulties in the television show they are watching.

I could say Ballard and Coney are expressing some science fictional ideas. These ideas aren’t meaningful, or significant, or even insightful. They are just some weird creative shit that both authors thought up.

All the best stories are stories that feature solid storytelling. But it seems to me, all great stories go one step further. A perfect example is Bob Shaw’s “The Light of Other Days.” It’s a solid story. It has a science fiction invention. But it’s deeply moving. You can listen to it here.

Ballard’s and Coney’s stories lack the moving part. Does that mean they can never be 5-star stories? I consider “Escapement” a three-star plus story. I consider “Belladonna” and “The Cinderella Machine” to be just squeaking by four-star stories. By the way, I give stories I believe are well-written and professional three stars. If I like them a lot, I add a plus. Four-star stories are ones I look forward to reading again. Five-star stories are classics that will stand the test of time, and are often ones I’ve read several times over my lifetime.

I really admire pure story stories. I just don’t know if I should recommend them to other people.

I do know one thing though. I’d rather read a good pure story without depth than a poorly told story that tries to be deep.

James Wallace Harris, 10/9/22

Did Fandom Take Note of Heinlein in 1939?

Robert Heinlein began publishing science fiction in 1939 but by July of 1941, he was the guest of honor at the 3rd Worldcon. How did he get so famous within fandom so fast? I always imagined he blazed upon the genre right from his first publication, but looking over the 1939 and early 1940 letter columns in Astounding gave no indication that was true.

Heinlein published just two stories in 1939 (Aug. and Nov.), “Life-Line” and “Misfit.” “Life-Line” came in second in the Analytical Laboratory columns and “Misfit” last. The letter writers barely mentioned Heinlein. Not quite a stunning debut. However, in the April 1940 issue of Astounding, there’s a letter from Isaac Asimov rating all the stories for 1939, and “Life-Line” came in second — even ahead of the serial Gray Lensman. (Asimov also jokes about his own debut short story, “Trends.”)

Years later, in 1979, Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg published The Great SF Stories 1 (1939), the first in a series that collected the best science fiction short stories for every year from 1939-1963. Three of the ten stories he picked in 1940 are included, and he adds “Misfit.” Here’s the complete table of contents:

• The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton • short story by Robert Bloch
• Trouble with Water • short story by H. L. Gold
• Cloak of Aesir  • novella by John W. Campbell, Jr.
• The Day Is Done  • short story by Lester del Rey
• The Ultimate Catalyst  • novelette by John Taine
• The Gnarly Man  • novelette by L. Sprague de Camp
• Black Destroyer  • novelette by A. E. van Vogt
• Greater Than Gods  • novelette by C. L. Moore
• Trends  • short story by Isaac Asimov
• The Blue Giraffe  • novelette by L. Sprague de Camp
• The Misguided Halo  • short story by Henry Kuttner
• Heavy Planet  • short story by Milton A. Rothman
• Life-Line  • short story by Robert A. Heinlein
• Ether Breather  • short story by Theodore Sturgeon
• Pilgrimage  • novelette by Nelson S. Bond [as by Nelson Bond]
• Rust  • short story by Joseph E. Kelleam
• The Four-Sided Triangle  • novelette by William F. Temple
• Star Bright  • novelette by Jack Williamson
• Misfit  • novelette by Robert A. Heinlein

These are the stories that have survived the test of time — at least with two people very familiar with the genre in 1979. How many young science fiction readers today know of them, or even heard of the writers who wrote them? Asimov and Heinlein are still big names, well to some, but you’d have to be an aficionado of the genre to know the others.

Our CSF database contains 34 short stories from 1939, but only 8 got 3 or more citations, and only one (“Black Destroyer”) made our final list. By our criteria, “Life-Line” and “Misfit” aren’t well remembered. (But there’s another issue here, the trailing edge of pop culture memory. My guess is the 1930s and 1940s are generally being forgotten. But that’s another essay for another time.)

The earliest poll I have for short stories is the “1971 WSFA-Analog Poll of Best Pre-1940 SF Short Stories” by Michael T. Shoemaker. It remembers these stories from 1939:

What stories did the fans love back in 1939-1940? Fanac.org has a treasure trove of fannish history with its archive of old fanzines but I can’t tell how they are indexed. Fanac.org has a link to Google, but I’m not sure how useful it is. I’ve looked around for a fanzine with short story reviews, but so far haven’t found one. If anyone knows of one, or how to use the archive better, let me know. However, often the content of fanzines is not about science fiction.

As far as I can tell, there has been no Retro Hugo Award for 1940 (1939).

My next source for information about the best science fiction stories of 1939 comes from A Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers. Of course, it only covers Astounding. Rogers discusses Heinlein, but this is long after the fact. Follow the link to read his review of 1939.

This brings me to my final source of information for the popularity of science fiction short stories that came out in 1939: The Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the beginning to 1950 by Mike Ashley. This is a fantastic history of science fiction magazines, but I didn’t find what I was looking for. It may have more of what I want covering later years.

Years later, 1939 would be remembered as the beginning of Science Fiction’s Golden Age. John W. Campbell, Jr. will be remembered for discovering three new writers that year: A. E. van Vogt, Heinlein (August), and Theodore Sturgeon (September). Van Vogt had two stories that year and got the cover for both. Heinlein and Sturgeon would have to wait to get such recognition. Asimov is considered a protégé of Campbell’s, but he was first published by Ray Palmer (“Marooned Off Vesta”, Amazing Stories, March 1939.) “Trends” was his first story for Campbell.

However, Campbell published new writers all the time. It’s only in hindsight that he gets credit for discovering Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, and van Vogt.

I’m already reading the 1940 issues of Astounding and I believe this year will be when Heinlein is discovered. However, the first Worldcon was in July of 1939, although fandom had existed for years before that. Was fandom small enough that everyone knew everyone else? Did every writer who made it onto the table of contents of a science fiction magazine encounter fandom?

Still, there are quite a few questions I’d like answered.

  • Why did Heinlein start writing science fiction?
  • Why science fiction and not the other genres?
  • Did he read science fiction magazines?
  • Did he know about fandom?
  • Was he a member of a science fiction club?
  • Did he know any science fiction writers or fans?

I just remembered I should reread Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, the two-volume biography of Heinlein by William H. Patterson, Jr. Maybe Patterson has done all this work for me.

James Wallace Harris, 10/2/22

“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