Rereading Early Heinlein, part 1

I reread three early Heinlein volumes in the past few weeks, and as with my Asimov rereads, these were revisits to stories I first read some 30 or 40 years ago, and mostly have not read since. Both Asimov’s and Heinlein’s stories had implicit “future history” over-arching narratives, which greatly influenced or at least informed later SF, as Donald A. Wollheim explained about Asimov in his book The Universe Makers, which I summarized here.

I was triggered to explore Heinlein again because of his early story “Universe”. (Asimov’s robot stories => Harlan Ellison’s “I, Robot” script => Harlan Ellison’s other scripts, including “Phoenix without Ashes” => other stories about the idea of a “generation ship” in which its inhabitants do not realize they are living in an isolated world => the daddy of all such stories, Heinlein’s “Universe”.) And its theme’s relevance to my current thinking.

I reread the volume The Man Who Sold the Moon about 3 years ago — but before I had formulated my “Provisional Conclusions”, which are now channeling and informing my thinking, providing perspectives about what older stories mean today and might have meant then — and just reread volumes Orphans in the Sky, The Green Hills of Earth, and Revolt in 2011 in recent weeks. (I do not own first editions of those volumes; my collection consists of a set of a full dozen Heinlein titles published by Signet in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with very cool, abstract, cover paintings by Gene Szafran, as shown here.)

First of all, it’s extraordinary to look back at the bibliographic history of Heinlein’s and Asimov’s early stories. They both began publishing in 1939, as did other writers who became associated with John W. Campbell’s Astounding magazine, and they are principle reasons why in retrospect 1939 is identified as the beginning of the “Golden Age” of science fiction, when standards were raised in the field as it moved beyond its pulpish past. Asimov published a couple stories elsewhere before he cracked Astounding in July 1939 with “Trends”; Heinlein’s first published story, “Life-Line”, appeared there in August 1939.

I think it’s fair to say that Heinlein was by far the more mature writer, from the very beginning. As I’ve said, Asimov’s were often simply puzzle stories. Heinlein’s stories, in contrast, exhibited a familiarity with the real world, an understanding of politics and psychology, that surpassed Asimov’s perception.

Heinlein struck swiftly, producing some two dozen stories from 1939 to 1942, including many eventual classics, from “The Roads Must Roll” and “And He Built a Crooked House” to “Universe” and “By His Bootstraps” and “Waldo” and “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”, before he was distracted by service in World War II and published nothing for the subsequent five years. While there have been similar blazing debut streaks by authors over succeeding decades – Larry Niven in the late 1960s, John Varley in the mid-1970s, William Gibson in the mid-1980s – I doubt that anyone’s record has matched Heinlein’s for quality and scope in so short a time.

Orphans of the Sky is the book form of two novellas from that early period, “Universe” and “Common Sense”, published five months apart, in May and October 1941; they weren’t published as installments of a serial, though they might as well have been. The book version wasn’t published until 1963! In contrast, among Heinlein’s earliest book publications were three from Shasta Press, a fan outfit: The Man Who Sold the Moon in 1950, The Green Hills of Earth in 1951, and Revolt in 2011 in 1953. (It’s odd how this last title is left out of some bibliographies, including the list of Books and Stories at the Heinlein Concordance (!), as if it were somehow illegitimate, while the central big story in that book, which was published as a serial in the February and March issues of Astounding, “If This Goes On—“, *is* included, though as far as I can tell that short novel has never been published in a separate book form.) These three books were compiled as forming the core of Heinlein’s “Future History”, diagrammed on a chart in the second and third volumes, which ranged from the earliest exploration of space, to a reactionary period dominated by religious zealots, to a revolution that led to the first colonization ships to the stars.

The novella “Universe” and its book completion Orphans of the Sky was the first major canonical story about what has become known as the enclosed universe version of the generation starship. That is, a way to send human colonists to other stars, without magical warp drives. The trip takes so long that you build an enormous starships with a livable environments inside, and the trip takes so long that generations pass aboard ship before it reaches its destination. (A durable theme – this year’s Kim Stanley Robinson novel, Aurora, is the latest consideration.) The consequence that Heinlein, and later SF writers, perceived was that after so much time, the inhabitants of the ship might forget their original mission, or even the idea that they’re on a ship, and instead, as each new generation is raised, assume that the reality of the shipboard life consists of the entire known universe.

(This is one prominent example of my Provisional Conclusion #2 — that for any of a number of reasons, you can’t count on ordinary human perception of reality, e.g. “common sense”, to be an accurate take on what is real.)

Heinlein’s “Universe” concerns inhabitants of such a starship. The story is crafty in that it indicates early on to the reader that the characters are in some kind of environment that is unlike ordinary planetary life – in the first couple pages, our hero Hugh “settles slowly” to the deck, and as he and his pals descend decks, they get heavier. They think nothing of it; but we understand what this means – that they are in a ship that is spinning to produce an artificial gravity.

The plot of “Universe” involves our hero Hugh climbing to the upper decks to contact the “muties” (a term we come to understand is short for both mutants and mutineers) who live near the center of the ship where artificial gravity drops to nothing; being shown the reality of the outside universe, outside the ship; and then returning to the lower decks to try to convince others that the conventional wisdom of their culture is a lie. The sequel, “Common Sense”, ironically employs that phrase to defend the common assumptions about what people on the lower decks assume is real, until a small band of rebels, including Hugh, escape the ship in order to complete its original mission: to colonize the planet that the ship was intended to reach.

There are two striking parallels between this story and a couple stories by Isaac Asimov: “Nightfall”, published in Astounding in September 1941, and “Reason”, the early robot story, published in Astounding in April 1941 – both so contemporaneous with Heinlein’s two stories, given lead times between submission and publications for any stories in that era (or even now), that it can’t be anything but coincidence… or perhaps, the influence of earlier forgotten stories that are lost to time.

First, both stories employ the idea that ancient truths, lost to the current generation, have been preserved in religious texts. Both stories, in fact, quote large passages of such texts! Asimov and Heinlein portray this situation differently. In Asimov’s story, the religious zealot strongly objects to any new evidence that might provide substantiation to the ancient narratives – because to provide evidence would be to remove the need for faith! In Heinlein’s story, an elder to Hugh calmly explains that the ancient texts [physics textbooks!] can’t be understood in any literal sense, but only metaphorically – in a bizarre passage about how the idea of “gravity” is only a poetic metaphor about romantic love (!).

Second, the passage in Heinlein’s “Common Sense”, in which Narby dismisses his vision of pinpoints of light visible outside the ship, is almost identical to the explanation by the creationist robot ‘Cutie’ in Asimov’s “Reason” (which I blogged about in detail here). Mere illusions, pinpoints of light on a black velvet background.

Will continue on next post. The stories in The Green Hills of Earth, and how “If This Goes On—“ (in Revolt in 2100) eerily presages current American politics.

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