IV. THE PERIOD OF ALIENATION
1. Heinlein's Third Period
the time that he began
to write in 1939, one of the hallmarks of Robert Heinlein's writing has
been his concern with facts. He doesn't just like facts, he relishes
them, and he sprinkles them through his stories with a liberal hand by
means of dialogue, demonstration, and if all else fails, omniscient
There is a very tender line beyond which factual lectures become tedious
irrelevancies in fiction, and Heinlein has occasionally come close to this
line, but if there is anything that is amazing about his writing it has
been his ability to write for, say, ten pages, as he does on space suits in
Have Space Suit--Will Travel,
without losing or even seriously slowing his story.
If there is one thing that marks the six novels
published so far in Heinlein's third period, it is a change in those things
he has lectured about in his stories. Instead of concerning himself
with facts, he has written about the morality of sex, religion, war and
politics, but he has treated his opinions as though they were facts.
More than this, he has so concentrated on presenting his opinions with
every narrative device he knows that he has neglected story construction,
characterization, and plot as though they were completely subsidiary to
the main business of his opinions-as-facts. Why this change has come,
I cannot say exactly, but I suspect a combination of financial independence
and a desire to say the things that he most strongly believes has caused
Heinlein to pour himself out on paper. The result from an artistic
point of view is a mistake.
Certainly, any man's strongly held beliefs will
be likely to turn up in his fiction, and most of the ideas that Heinlein
has recently presented have previously been present in his fiction, but
in reading fiction we can accept these beliefs only if they turn up in
certain ways. That is, either a character, acting as spokesman for
the author, can present the belief -- if it is relevant to the story --
or the story itself can serve as a case for the belief. The important
point is relevance to the story -- a dialogue that continues for five pages,
ten pages, or twenty pages, as dialogues have continued in recent Heinlein
stories, solely for the purpose of presenting the author's opinions with
no necessity for them existing within the story, damned well shouldn't
Let's take an actual example of an idea that Heinlein
has put forward on at least five different occasions: Man is a wild
animal, the roughest, meanest critter in this neck of the universe. Cross
him at your peril.
predicts in an article entitled "As I See Tomorrow" in the April 1956
this point of view will eventually be generally recognized. In its
context, this is clearly legitimate. The context is an article giving
Heinlein's personal opinions.
idea appears at the end of
The Puppet Masters,
and again it is clearly legitimate. First,
it suits the narrator's character that he should think this: he is
a secret agent, used to finding violent solutions to his problems.
Second, the opinion comes as a culmination to a set of events that seem
to demonstrate its aptness. Third, it is not presented as fact but
only as the point of view of the narrator.
notion is presented editorially as a comment on the need of beasts of burden
to accommodate themselves to man or perish. The idea is tossed off
in passing. It is not necessary to the story, but neither is it dwelt
next fictional use of the idea comes in
Tunnel in the Sky.
In this case,
it is presented as the opinion of the instructor of the Advanced Survival
course. It is in character for him to hold such an opinion and a
good part of Heinlein's book is an attempt to make a case --
-- for the opinion. I think the case is not made convincingly
-- within an hour of the start of a survival test scheduled to last from
two to ten days, the hero comes on evidence of a murder and theft whose
only reason for existence seems to be to provide evidence of man's
untrustworthiness -- but the opinion is clearly not out of place.
last appearance of the idea comes in
the first novel written in Heinlein's
third period. Heinlein has his narrator "prove" as a class assignment
that war and moral perfection derive from the instinct to survive, thereby
putting a stamp of approval on war. Rico, the narrator, concludes:
Man is what he is, a wild
animal with the will to survive, and (so far) the ability, against all
competition. Unless one accepts that, anything one says about morals,
war, politics -- you name it -- is nonsense. Correct morals arise
from knowing what Man
--not what do-gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellies would like him to be.
it may not seem to be,
this is really the old argument that might makes right. It is hard
to say whether it is in character for Heinlein's narrator to deliver this
argument because the narrator is never defined closely enough for us to
tell his attitudes and capabilities. The story itself only partly
offers evidence for the argument given: that is, we only know that
Heinlein's men are willing to fight. Most important, the argument
does not belong of necessity to the story -- it is tossed in solely as
an off-the-cuff remark. In other words, the presence of this opinion
in this story as it is given is of a different order than its presence
The Puppet Masters
Tunnel in the Sky
and is a digression in a way that it is not in
is frequent extended editorials of this sort that have damaged Heinlein's
recent stories beyond any repair.
The universe will let us know --
later -- whether or not Man has any "right" to expand through it.
The impression Heinlein has given by this change
in emphasis is of a man standing in a pulpit delivering sermons against
an enemy that no one but he can see clearly. Since these opinions
he has delivered are obviously of primary importance to him, negative reactions
to these stories of his have seemed only to cause him to state his opinions
all the more strongly. The novelists of the last century, particularly
the bad ones, are difficult and dated reading because they continually
moralized and their moralizations have not aged well. My own belief
is that Heinlein's moralizations will look just as odd to our descendants
and read as poorly.
1959, Heinlein published only two stories, a short and a novel, both in
interesting. The short, " 'All You Zombies--' " (March 1959), seems
to belong in Heinlein's third period for the aggressive way it involves
sex and seduction, subjects Heinlein never touched on before but has dealt
with more and more frequently in his third period novels.
You Zombies--' " combines sex and time travel, a very interesting
combination indeed, fraught with possibility. Time travel has
always fascinated Heinlein, from "Life-Line," his first story, which involved
a skinned version of time travel, through
Have Space Suit--Will Travel,
story of his second period. The range of switches on the subject
that Heinlein has used is vast: men popping into the future, men
meeting themselves, men previewing their own deaths. " 'All You
Zombies--' " came up with an idea new for Heinlein, but one that
had been touched on a few years earlier by Charles Harness.
is a very interesting
writer, for all that I doubt that he has published more than a dozen stories
all told. His forte has been what James Blish calls the "intensively
recomplicated" story (Damon Knight calls it "the kitchen sink technique,"
which may be more accurate) -- the sort of story where idea is piled on
idea, complication added to complication, switch thrown on switch, until
nobody knows what in hell is happening, not even the author. Most
often, because they are so complicated, these stories are done poorly.
Van Vogt did them and almost always did them badly, like balance sheets
that never added to the same total. Harness was unique in that his
stories combined ideas, inventions, insights, complications and extravagances,
and still managed to make sense.
Harness's best stories was a time travel piece entitled
"Child by Chronos."*
Its punch was that the main character, a girl,
by ducking through a time machine became her own mother. Biologically
this doesn't seem to hold water since a child gets only half its genes
from each parent and a daughter should be only half what her mother was,
not identical. But then, both mother and daughter do have the same
parents. It isn't possible to prove Harness wrong. The story
is very tricky, and is all the better because the switching around in time
is not done solely for the sake of the final effect. There are problems
of character involved and the story, with all its switching, solves them
recomplicated story has never been Heinlein's interest -- although "By
His Bootstraps" is a neatly composed, if completely empty, example of the
type -- but " 'All You Zombies--' " combines the intensively recomplicated
involutions of a "By His Bootstraps" with an idea that goes Harness one
Shorn of its complications, the plot is as follows:
In 1945 a one-month-old girl is abandoned on the steps of an orphanage
in Cleveland. The girl grows up and at the age of 18 is seduced and
left pregnant. It turns out that she is both a functional female
and a potentially functioning male. She has the baby, but her female
organs are so damaged in the process that they have to be removed and she/he
is given hormone shots and turned into a male. The baby, meanwhile,
is stolen from the hospital.
The girl-now-boy becomes a confession story writer.
After seven years, he is picked up by a bartender with a time machine in
his back room and carried back to look for the seducer who done him wrong.
The bartender meanwhile hops forward a bit, steals the baby and takes it
back to the 1945 orphanage, then hops again to pick up the young man just
after he finishes seducing his younger female self. The bartender,
who is the young fellow grown older by thirty years, then takes himself
forward to 1985 where he recruits his younger self into a time police corps.
This is a wild story with every knot tied.
In about one-quarter of the length of "By His Bootstraps" it comes to a
far sharper point and assays out as considerably more of a story.
Biologically, it fires straighter than Harness.
Baby, bartender, girl and boy are all one -- what other baby could girl
and boy have than the one they do?
The end of the story goes even further:
came from -- but
where did all you zombies come from? . . . You
aren't really there at all. There isn't anybody but
me -- Jane -- here alone in the dark. I miss you dreadfully!
If ever a story was meant to be told in the first person,
this is it. In style and denouement it is pure Heinlein; in subject it
is a departure.
October, November as
Heinlein's 1959 Hugo award-winning
novel, has been widely taken as a militaristic polemic. I don't see
that any other reading is really possible. Not only does the story-line
actively put the military life in the most glamorous terms possible (note,
for instance, the emotional difference between the magazine title, the
editor's choice, and the book title, Heinlein's choice), but there are
numerous classroom interludes and asides by the narrator that attempt to
give a direct philosophical justification for government by veterans, and
militarism as a way of life. The book's nearest cousin is the sort
of recruiting film that purports to show the life of a typical soldier,
with a soundtrack commentary by earnest sincere Private Jones who interprets
what we see for us. The outstanding characteristic of a film of this
sort, and of Heinlein's book, is slick patness.
The story line of this book is actually quite simple:
the training of a "Mobile Infantryman" of the future and his participation
in a future war. However, Heinlein disguises the simplicity of his
story by employing a very involved order of narration that, clarified,
goes as follows:
One -- Mobile Infantrymen are dropped from a starship
during a future war. There is a quick strike, given in detail, ending
with the death of one of the armored, heavily-armed soldiers as they are
picked up from the raid. This, of course, is just what a recruiting
film would do, use a large slab of action as a narrative hook to arouse
interest and sympathy, with some death-and-glory to tickle those young
adventurers susceptible to its appeal.
Two -- Just as the recruiting film would do, cut
back to pick up the eager young narrator on the day he enlists (instead
of going to Harvard, as his rich father would have him). The next
five chapters give an account of basic training: the tough sergeant,
the rigorous training, the hero fouling up and being straightened out,
and then graduation from basic.
Three -- Neatly eased into the above is a flashback
to the hero's high school class in History and Moral Philosophy, a course
that the society's rulers have decreed must be taken by all (though it
need not be passed). There is also a ruling that this course must
be taught by an ex-service man, and this class and the hero's teacher,
Colonel Dubois, are brought up again and again.
Four -- The early career of a raw young soldier.
This is where the raid that opens the book naturally fits. Following
it is an account of leave and the narrator's application for Officer Candidates
Five -- A very long chapter showing Rico, the narrator,
as an officer-in-training, and then as a student officer in an important
Six -- Close with the narrator as a seasoned officer
in a reprise of the situation that opens the book.
is in no way an account
of human problems or character development. There is no sustained
human conflict. The story is the account of the making of a soldier
-- or, rather, a marine -- and nothing more. The narrator goes in
as a boot and emerges a lieutenant, and that is all.
by the way, based on today's Marines, not on regular infantry. They
are a small, highly disciplined elite corps with a strong esprit who are
carried on board ships run by the Navy, and used on planetary raids.
Heinlein's officers are called "mister" and his basic training is called
"boot camp," both true of Marines, but not of the Army.
For all that the book is told in the first person,
Heinlein's narrator remains curiously anonymous. At the end you know
nothing of his tastes, his likes and dislikes, his personal life.
The course of the book changes him in no way because there is nothing to
change -- Rico remains first and last a voice reading lines about how nice
it is to be a soldier.
The other characters are even more sketchy, or are
simple expositions of an attitude. Rico's father, for instance, is
used at the beginning of the book to oppose his son's decision to join
the service, and then resurrected as the corporal who replaces Rico when
he goes off to OCS (I said the story was pat).
The slickness of the story is quite bothersome to
me. War in the story involves death and glory and that is all; disease,
dirt, and doubt are missing. All the soldiers we see are tough, smart,
competent, cleancut, clean shaven, and noble.
Who is Rico's replacement? His father, of
course. Who serves under him as platoon sergeant at the close of
the story? His father again, of course. When Rico is fighting
as a student officer, who is the sergeant under him? Why, his sergeant
from basic training.
When Heinlein introduces a character, it is with
this parenthetical paradiddle:
The Commandant had a permanent
rank of fleet general (yes,
Nielssen); his rank as colonel
was temporary, pending second retirement, to permit him to be Commandant.
Drum flourishes of this sort are frequent and, of course,
are irrelevant. Emotion should always be fairly earned, not prompted,
forced or manufactured.
It is, of course, Heinlein's intention to make war
glorious. He wishes to exalt the military and the common soldier.
He says explicitly:
A soldier accepts personal
responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member,
defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not.
In the society of Heinlein's book only ex-servicemen
have the right to hold office, to vote, and to teach History and Moral
Philosophy, a subject that presumably only they understand. The society
is defined as right. Heinlein bulwarks his position by making it
the supposed result of "a scientifically verifiable theory of morals,"
a stacking of the deck that seems an attempt to cut off all debate.
I have no final answers myself and I find disturbing
the ease with which Heinlein churns out his "right" answers, dismissing
all other possibilities.
an example, Colonel
Dubois, who teaches the scientific theory of morals and hence should know
what is what, says flatly that value is not an absolute ("Wrong," he says,
when Rico guesses it is). Value, according to Colonel Dubois, is
only in relation to living persons -- value is cost and use; if you value
freedom highly you must be willing to give your life for it. A lot
of other thinkers, including Plato, have held the opinion that value
an absolute, but Dubois is able to dismiss them out of hand. He is
see, and hence doesn't have to explain, refute, or argue, but simply expound
his correct opinions. This, I am all too afraid, is how rigid a government
such as Heinlein propounds would actually be. "Our system works better
than any used by our ancestors," says another teacher of History and Moral
Philosophy, and no doubt his definition of "better," like that of any contented
man, is "things as they are," in effect, saying, "Our system is more comfortable
and home-like than any used by our ancestors."
In one class in History and Moral Philosophy, the
reason is given why this "perfect" government has never been overthrown:
"If you separate out the aggressive ones and make them the sheep dogs,
the sheep will never give you any trouble." This, to my mind, is
the justification of a sheep-shearer. Luckily, of course, Heinlein
defines his government as altruistic, and since everything is done by definition
in this story, there is nothing to worry about.
I can't help but wonder what the story (recruiting
film) would be without a war. The war of the story begins after Rico
enters basic and no clear reason is ever given for its start. It
is simply needed for illustrative material. Starship troopers are
not half so glorious sitting on their butts polishing their weapons for
the tenth time for lack of anything else to do.
book was written
to be published by Scribner's as a juvenile, but they refused to accept
it, thereby ending their long and profitable association with Heinlein.
*Fantasy and Science Fiction,
June 1953. [
Border courtesy of
The Humble Bee