science fiction is particularly
difficult to write well has been recognized by almost every critic of the
field. Note that I said "to write well." Bad science fiction
is very easy to write, which might be why there is so much more of it
Heinlein himself has gone so far as to say that speculative fiction is
the most difficult of all prose forms, and to explain why. John W.
Campbell, in his introduction to Heinlein's collection,
The Man Who Sold the Moon,
has also explained why, succinctly and accurately:
Briefly stated, the science-fiction
author must put over to the reader (1), the mores and patterns of the cultural
background, (2), interwoven with that -- stemming from it. and in turn
forcing it into existence -- the technological background and then, finally,
the characters. He may not use long descriptive passages for any
of this necessary material.
These requirements mean that most good science fiction
short stories are going to depend on trick endings and gimmicks for their
effect. It is difficult enough, God knows, to do the things Campbell
is talking about in a novel. In a short story they are almost impossible
to do -- that is why so many sf shorts depend on stock backgrounds, Galactic
Empires and such -- and suffer because of it.
raise the point not
for its own interest, but because it throws an interesting light on Heinlein's
short story, "The Menace from Earth" (F&SF, August 1957).
Having given up the short story for the most part, presumably to take advantage
of the added room in a novel, Heinlein here returned to it and did a truly
brilliant job of presenting a strange background with strange mores --
combined with a stock slick fiction plot. Quite the opposite of what
you might expect.
The menace of the title is a beautiful third-rate
actress in her middle thirties who comes as a tourist to the Moon and
dazzles the boyfriend of Holly Jones, the bright but completely humorless
fifteen-year-old narrator of the story. Forget the plot. Luna
that's what is important. The jewel of the piece,
however, is the account of flying in the city air storage tank, an underground
volcanic bubble two miles across. Flying is made possible by air
at normal pressure combined with one-sixth normal gravitation. All
the trappings are here: wing design (including brand name snobbery for
sauce), how the flying works, beginners' areas, rules of the road.
The idea is brilliant and believable.
October 1957) is a mistake, a sloppy, sentimental fantasy
that I suspect was written at the very beginning of Heinlein's career and
then went without a buyer until 1957. It is about a fat, fatuous,
fair-loving retired salesman who spends his time in traveling, attending
his beloved fairs. As an excuse to travel, he purports to sell
He is killed in a bus wreck and goes to Heaven to find it a super-fair.
His dear dead wife Martha is there, and so is his dear dead dog Bindlestiff,
who "had been called away, shortly after Martha." And the salesman
is hailed by one and all -- at the close he is leading the parade in an
elephant-drawn carriage with wife and dog beside him. In the language
of the story, you might say that he has Passed On to his Great Reward.
of the Galaxy
October, November and December) is another of Heinlein's adult juveniles.
It is the longest and the last Heinlein story to appear in
The story is about many things, among them these:
slavery seen from the inside, the slave trade, begging, education, spying,
anthropology, trading, life in the military, and corporate business.
The scale of the story is broad, too: there is the Terran Hegemony,
a loose federation three thousand light-years in circumference; and outside
this many human and non-human worlds at every level of civilization.
There are properly four parts to
Citizen of the Galaxy.
In the first, Thorby, a small, scared, dirty and sore-covered
little boy, is sold as a slave to a one-eyed, one-legged beggar in the
city of Jubbulpore, capital of the Nine Worlds, a notorious and repressive
little empire outside the Hegemony. Baslim, the beggar, is unusual.
During the day he sits at his usual place in the Plaza of Liberty and begs
for alms. In his warren at night, he puts on an expensive artificial
leg. Over the years he gives the boy a thorough education.
He is engaged in some sort of illegal activity, and he sets Thorby to running
messages for him, though to what purpose Thorby is not sure. Then
Baslim is caught by the Sargon's police and "shortened," and Thorby has
to run for cover. He has a set of messages memorized in languages he doesn't
understand for delivery to any one of a number of trading ship captains
-- one of these is in port at the moment and Thorby delivers his message.
The second part of the story takes place aboard
the Free Trader "Sisu" and is the longest part of the book. Baslim's
message asks, for the sake of the debt owed to him, that the captain take
Thorby aboard the ship and treat him as his own until the boy can be delivered
to a ship of the Hegemonic Guard, since Baslim has reason to believe that
the boy originally came from a planet of the Hegemony. The traders
have a very rigid, heavily-stratified society with no place in it for an
outsider, so Thorby is accepted with reluctance, and adopted.
Almost as soon as he has succeeded in making a place
for himself in the Trader society, however, opportunity and necessity conspire
and Thorby is handed on to a ship of the Hegemonic Guard. They have
no place for him, either, short of adoption, so he is duly enlisted.
At this point, Thorby learns that Baslim was a high officer in the Hegemonic
Guard who had gone into the Nine Worlds to report on the slave trade, which
the Guard views as pernicious and intolerable. Baslim was allowed
to go in only because he could get messages out by way of the Free Traders
who owed him a debt for saving some of their people in the same action
that had cost him his leg and eye. The begging was his own idea.
As soon as he arrives, the Guard attempts to find
out who Thorby is, and eventually succeeds. He turns out to be heir
to both a vast fortune and a manufacturing empire on Earth, and accordingly,
off Thorby goes again. It takes him some time to discover himself
for the fourth time, but finally he succeeds and then is left with a very
difficult job to keep him busy.
If this sounds disunited, in some ways it is.
Two threads tie it together. The lesser is the process of Thorby's
finding a solid and final place where he
-- it seems to be
his fate to be always a stranger in a strange land, always out of place,
always naive. At the end he does have some understanding of himself
and what he is doing, and that is a resolution. The second theme
is even more solid, as well as typical of Heinlein: freedom and slavery.
One of Baslim's conclusions before he lost his head was that one of the
largest manufacturers in the Terran Hegemony was abetting the slave trade
in the worlds outside. Thorby becomes more and more certain as he
learns about Rudbek, the great holding company he has inherited, that this
manufacturer is Rudbek itself, and this is one of the reasons he is willing
to involve himself in a struggle for corporate power when his inclinations
are to chuck the whole thing and go back to the Guard. The company
is such a vast amalgam of enterprises that only a few employees in appropriate
positions have to be aware of the business the company is involved in.
And there is strong reason to believe that Thorby and his parents were
originally disposed of because his father, on an inspection trip, was beginning
to come too close to the truth. At the end, Thorby is assisting the
Guard in developing weapons to make it uneconomical for raiders to attack
vessels for slaves and loot, and planning to comb out the lice from Rudbek.
The traders are, if anything, an ironical comment
on the problem of freedom. They, the most free in movement, are the
least free personally of almost any people, since, in order to live as
they do, their society must be very restrictive.
I have some minor bones to pick with the story.
It seems an incredible coincidence that Thorby -- the lost heir to Rudbek
-- should ever encounter Baslim. And why does Baslim buy Thorby at
all? This happens so early in the story that the reader cannot really
assess it, but looking back the question remains unanswered. And
finally, the book is clearly disunified -- the wrenches from one place
to another are almost as severe for the reader as they are for Thorby.
However, the book is so successful on so many other counts that these points
Citizen of the Galaxy,
if not the most successful
of Heinlein's juveniles, is certainly the most ambitious. The point
of view is an omniscient one -- the interest is not just in Thorby or in
what Thorby sees, but in Thorby in a context, and the reader sees far more
than Thorby does, or any of the characters for that matter. This
lifts the book far out of the simple adventure category.
Out of all that is rich and good about
Citizen of the Galaxy,
I want to pick out just two things to mention briefly.
One is the elaborate social system of the Free Traders with its moieties,
its involved family relationships, its inbred self-satisfaction, its rigidity,
and its adoptions of superior talent into the line of command. The
other is Heinlein's restraint with Baslim. When you see the character
directly, you don't know enough about him and his activities to appreciate
him. Appreciation only comes later, and then the character is seen
as a man who has been doing a dirty, nasty, difficult job. Heinlein
doesn't try to make him glamorous or dashing, and that is admirable restraint.
only two stories in 1958, both juveniles. "Tenderfoot in Space" was
a serial in
like "Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon"
in 1949, it was written directly for the magazine and has never been reprinted
in book form. The other story was
Have Space Suit--Will Travel,
which for all its title is a fine book and in my opinion ranks with
Beyond This Horizon
as Heinlein's best work. It is probably the most
beautifully constructed story he's ever done.
Although "Tenderfoot in Space" ran for three months
it is no longer than an ordinary novelette
of the sort that run two or three to an issue in adult science fiction
magazines. The story is about a young Boy Scout and his dog on
The dog is the hero and about a fifth of the story is told from its point
time to time, almost
everybody who reads science fiction finds himself asked by someone who
doesn't to recommend a story so that they "can find out what this science
fiction stuff is all about." On one hand, you may proudly hand over
a story that is completely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't speak
the language, and on the other hand, you can be too careful and hand over
something that looks enough like the stories he is used to reading -- "It's
Great to Be Back," for instance -- that the new reader can't see any difference.
idea of what makes science
fiction worth reading is that it prepares people to accept change, to think
in terms of change being both natural and inevitable, and that it allows
us to look at familiar things from new angles. My choice of a science
fiction story to hand a non-reader would be one that combines the unique
virtues of science fiction with a comprehensible, attractive, entertaining
plot. I give them Robert Heinlein's last novel for Scribner's:
Have Space Suit--Will Travel.
novel starts gently enough for anyone unfamiliar with science
fiction: there is an eighteen-year-old
boy who wants to go to the Moon, and who aims to get there by entering
a soap slogan contest with a trip to the Moon as first prize. What
he wins is a stripped-down space suit. That isn't quite what he wanted,
but he spends a summer putting it into working order in his spare time.
Heinlein tells you how he does it and in the process you learn what space
suits are like -- the account makes the description of space suits in
Rocket Ship Galileo
or any other story you ever read seem elementary -- and
it is all interesting, all pertinent.
weakness has probably been his story construction. His very earliest
stories were badly engineered -- an odd criticism to make of an engineer
-- and even in
Citizen of the Galaxy
you have an example of a story
whose parts don't hang together closely. On the other hand,
Have Space Suit--Will Travel
is put together amazingly well. It is pure magic.
Once you have accepted the space suit, the story
opens a little: you are taken to the Moon. Once you have accepted
the Moon -- and Heinlein makes it painfully real; the Moon is his old stomping
ground -- the story opens again. And then again. First the
Moon, then Pluto, then a planet of the star Vega, then the Lesser Magellanic
Cloud. Each new place arises out of the last, each new thing implicit
in what has gone before. Then the story closes together and comes
full circle, back home again.
The difference between this and
Citizen of the Galaxy
is that Thorby becomes a part of each new culture so that it
is a wrench to leave it before all the possibilities are explored; the
Have Space Suit--Will Travel
remain on Earth. The
traveling simply demonstrates that the world is bigger than it once seemed
to be. If you want, you can take it as a guide to acceptance of the
It is fun to read. The three main characters are
all fine: Kip Russell, the boy with the space suit; Peewee, an
eleven-year-old girl who is smarter than anybody; and the Mother Thing,
an alien who is small, furry, warm and protective, like the ultimate Security
Blanket, but who is a lot more than that.
For frosting, the story turns a number of science
fictional clichés this way and that, as though to show there is
a lot of delightful mileage left in them -- flying saucers, bug-eyed monsters,
the Galactic Council where Earthmen Are Judged -- and it has a fine old
time in the process. I like to look at the story as the ultimate
in fairy tales: the knight errant rides forth to save the fair maiden from
the all-time champion dragon -- and so what if the damsel is only eleven?
The story is an entertainment, but not a mere
It has something to say about the value of brains, perseverance, and
They aren't lectured about -- they are demonstrated and present by
They are there if you look. The story is multi-leveled enough to
be enjoyed by almost anyone, and it bears re-reading.
Only a misanthrope could dislike
Have Space Suit--Will Travel.
It marks a good end to Heinlein's most productive period.
Bibliography -- Heinlein's Second Period
Note: The print edition of
Heinlein in Dimension
is still available from Advent:Publishers, PO Box A3228, Chicago, IL 60690
$17 for a hardcover copy, $10 for a paperback. I charge for shipping
and handling, Advent doesn't.
For those who may be interested,
the circumstances surrounding the writing of this book are described elsewhere
at this site, in
The Story of Heinlein in Dimension.
Border courtesy of
The Humble Bee