1. Story Elements
One of the things that every writer runs into, or
at least, having accepted the folklore of the writing trade, expects to
run into at any time is the fellow who comes up and says, "Listen, I have
the greatest ideas. I just don't have the time to write them down.
Let's split fifty-fifty. I give you the ideas and you write them
and sell them for us." The eternal, inevitable, necessary answer
is a hollow laugh, and the reason is that story ideas count for absolutely
nothing ninety-nine per cent of the time. Almost anything can prompt
a story -- a character, a setting, or a situation -- but none of these
is a story in itself. The idea is nothing, the writing is all.
When the story is done, the original idea may or may not even be there.
I hesitate to state categorically what a story is
because tastes and definitions change. Any definition is a line drawn
in the dirt that dares someone to step over it and make you enjoy his doing
it. My own idea of a story is the statement of a problem that involves
human beings together with a resolution of the problem. The trappings
of a story that make it interesting, entertaining, and dramatic are dialogue,
characterization, description and details of action. Like any list
standing by itself, bare and alone, this is bound to sound bloodless, and
it is, in the same way that the list of beef, potatoes, carrots, peas and
spices that go into a stew gives no indication of the hand of the chef
in the process and the final flavor of the dish. Writers, like chefs,
have their own ways of doing things, and although their stories are made
of elements that are similar or identical to the elements of other writers,
the stories themselves are marked as individually their own.
this chapter, I mean
to discuss Robert Heinlein's handling of some of the common elements of
every story -- context, people, problems, and story structure -- and his
attitude toward his material. The import of the common elements is
clear. Every story has a context, a physical and social setting.
An exposition of this is important in any story, but particularly important
in science fiction since most science fictional contexts are invented ones
with which the reader must be made familiar. Since my idea of a story
involves human beings, consistent and interesting characters must also
be invented and set down as story population. The crux of any story
is the central problem which arises from the interaction of people within
the story context, and which must be resolved (or, in a gimmick story,
illuminated -- see "Columbus Was a Dope," for instance) to bring the story
to a satisfactory conclusion.
I'm using the word,
structure is the plan of the action of the story. This can generally
be represented by a diagram showing the direction of story movement from
the opening of the story problem to its resolution. Edgar Rice Burroughs,
the creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, for instance, was fond of
using a two-pronged structure: that is, he would split his two central
characters and follow one until she or he got into a terrific pickle and
then cut back to the other and do the same thing again, the cliff-hangers
coming at the end of every chapter and the two story lines converging at
the climax. The total number of possible plans of action is immense,
but most writers seem to prefer to restrict themselves to a favored two
Attitude toward material is tremendously important
to the final story. Almost any sort of story -- satire, buffoon comedy,
melodrama or high tragedy -- can be made of the same basic material --
the dispossession of a Danish prince, for instance. The difference
lies in the attitude of the author to his material, the things he emphasizes
and the things he discounts, the complexity or simplicity of the story
he makes from the basic material, and his seriousness or lack of seriousness.
These things are half of what makes a writer individually
himself. The other half is the words he sets on the page -- what
he actually does with the materials he has assembled. Included in
this are such things as style and dialogue on one hand and on the other
the degree to which the writer realizes the potential of the situations,
characters and problems he has assembled. But these things will be
taken up in the next chapter.
has always been one of Heinlein's strongest points, and I think it is safe
to say that he has always done better with developing his societies than
he has with developing individual characters. The reason for this
seems to lie in Heinlein's engineering interest in how things work.
Describing what people do and letting it go at that is not enough to satisfy
in fiction. We demand reasons for what people do. Heinlein
does give us reasons but he doesn't dwell on them and examine them
It isn't a thing he cares deeply about and he doesn't labor at the
On the other hand, telling how a society operates, giving detail, is quite
enough to satisfy since nobody is quite sure why even our society is the
way it is. Look at the internecine warfare that goes on in the social
sciences, and almost any science fiction story that purports to tell why
things work as they do is bound to seem superficial and less than
convincing. Heinlein in general has preferred to show
things work in such
consistent detail that his societies speak for themselves; they don't need
to be explained or justified. Mark Reinsberg, in his introduction
to Heinlein's Future History volume,
The Green Hills of Earth,
written that Heinlein has given the future a daily life, which may be another
way of saying the same thing.
attempt to create a context is his Future History (newly republished in
1967 in one volume), a body of work that taken as a whole some people consider
his most important.
essence, what Heinlein
did was to give a detailed picture of the next two hundred years and a
sketchier picture of five hundred years more. This is an amazing
and ambitious undertaking involving twenty stories written and rewritten
over more than twenty years. Other writers -- such as H. Beam Piper,
James Blish, Poul Anderson, and Isaac Asimov -- have attempted similarly
detailed futures in the years since Heinlein began his, and I think that
most of them owe credit to Heinlein for scouting the territory for them.
The Future History does not actually form a complete
whole. It was not planned as a unit in advance, and it belongs primarily
to Heinlein's adolescence as a writer. It was assembled by compromise,
chopping, and rewriting. The result is that the individual pieces
stand up well enough by themselves while the Future History they supposedly
form does not.
first notice of the Future History came in an editorial note in the March 1941
pointed out that all of Robert Heinlein's stories up to that time (except
for two fantasies published in
were based on common assumptions.
In the May 1941 issue, a detailed and involved chart was published that
listed the imagined dates of all his Future History stories, the life spans
of his various characters, and the technical, sociological and historical
outlines of his projected future. Adjustments in the chart were made
later and more stories were introduced into it, but what was recognizably
the same chart appeared as endpapers in the first four volumes of the Future
History to be published in book form,
The Man Who Sold the Moon, The Green Hills of Earth, Revolt in 2100,
though not in the last volume,
Orphans of the Sky.
A much revised version was published in
The Past Through Tomorrow,
chart covers the period
from 1950 to 2600 A.D. In the 1941 chart, there is a break from 1990
until 2070, with one exception, "Logic of Empire," the story about slavery
on Venus, which takes place about 2010.
the end of 1941, every
story which takes place after 2070 in the Future History had been
These cover the revolt against religious tyranny, the new constitution,
the breaking of the constitution, and the exploration of the stars:
the stories that appear in
Revolt in 2100, Methuselah's Children,
Orphans of the Sky.
They do form a whole, except for "Misfit," and I suspect were conceived as a group.
stories that are set
before 2010, on the other hand, do not form a whole and do not really connect
with the stories on the other side of the gap. Heinlein continued
to add stories to this front part of the Future History until 1962, but
he never attempted to bridge the sixty years between 2010 and 2070.
Those that come before are near-future speculation;
"If This Goes On--"
is set in a different world with an almost medieval tone.
This gap is one of the two things that reveal the
improvised nature of the Future History. The other is the visible
chopping and fitting that was carried out through the years.
He Built a Crooked
House,' " the story of the tesseract house, was originally listed in 1941
as a Future History story. It doesn't tie to any of the other stories,
however, and was eventually dropped.
Also Walk Dogs,' "
a 1941 Anson MacDonald story, was not originally included in the Future
History, but was later rewritten to make it fit. The fit is still
an uncomfortable one: the advances that are the subject of the story
appear neither in the chart nor in the later stories.
Green Hills of
Earth" was not originally thought of as a Future History story. There
are references to Rhysling and his songs in a definitely non-Future History
Farmer in the Sky,
and Mary Risling of
had to be changed into "Mary Sperling" to make room for this new Rhysling.
Long Watch," too,
was only finally fitted or shoehorned into the Future History. It
derives from Heinlein's juvenile
again definitely non-Future
History, and in fact is nothing more nor less than an expansion of a paragraph
on page 22 of that novel.
the whole Future History isn't even necessary to show its lack of unity.
The Green Hills of Earth
from cover to cover is enough
to show that this is no more than a collection of stories, some of them
quite good ones, that don't happen to have a whole lot to do with one
As Heinlein himself wrote in a note in
Revolt in 2100:
. . . These stories were
never meant to be a definitive history of the future (concerning which
I know no more than you do), nor are they installments of a long serial
(since each is intended to be entirely independent of all the others).
They are just stories, meant to amuse and written to buy groceries.
However, if the Future History as written fails to add
up to a whole, the chart of the Future History serves as a very impressive
example of developing a context, as a close reading of it will show.
It is so impressive, in fact, that its existence alone has been enough
to lend the impression of connection to a set of stories that would otherwise
not have seemed closely related.
More important than this
tour de force
to the question of Heinlein's strengths as a writer is his performance in
individual stories. Here, much less flamboyantly, and as his skill
grew, much more convincingly, he applied the lessons of his Future History
chart rather than those of his Future History.
some idea of his method,
let's take the short story "The Menace from Earth." The core of this
story is human beings flying under their own power. Heinlein quite
evidently started with this as an idea and wanted to make it plausible,
both in itself and as an element in society. A severely reduced gravity,
such as that of the Moon, combined with air under normal pressure and elaborate
wings solve the problem of possibility. He adds a volcanic bubble
underground on the Moon, serving as an air storage tank (its primary purpose,
in fact -- a shrewd stroke). This provides a physical setting.
The social context is the Lunar equivalent of the ski slope, and for this
Heinlein has invented rules of the road, learner's wings, flightmasters,
and a few other likely possibilities. For added conviction, before
Heinlein ever introduces his flying, he shows us the underground nature
of Luna City and the low gravity of the Moon in bits of pertinent action.
heart of Heinlein's
technique is the combination of actual fact (the Moon's low gravity) with
possible "facts" within the story (the volcanic bubble as air tank).
The difference between this and the "facts" on economics, say, that Edward
Bellamy presents in
is that Bellamy presents his
facts statically in lectures while Heinlein uses his actively. In
this case, we see people flying, flying is used as a background within
which human problems are developed and come to a conclusion, flying provides
a plausible, believable, possible context for people and their problems.
A large part of Heinlein's ability, and a large
part of his appeal, lies in the possible but not obvious nature of the
trappings of his contexts. Given the actual and the possible, and
flying on the Moon follows, but not obviously. Most of us have encountered
moments in fiction that carry an emotional shock of recognition.
These usually come when there is perfect emotional communication between
writer and reader: the writer has his character do, or say, or think,
or feel exactly the right thing for the situation, and that thing is so
right that although looking ahead it can't be seen coming, looking back
it seems inevitable. Heinlein's forte has been not the emotional
shock of recognition, but the intellectual shock of recognition.
given the natures of the Moon and Mars, think of a plausible cargo to be
carried from a settlement on one to a settlement on the other. The
things that come to my mind are obvious and dull -- ore of some sort,
Heinlein came up with a good answer in
The Rolling Stones;
at it objectively, a beautiful answer: used wide-tired bicycles,
to be repainted and refurbished in orbit. A bicycle makes perfect
low-gravity transportation, so bicycles are plausible. It is cheaper
to send bicycles from the Moon to Mars than from Earth to Mars in terms
of fuel cost, so bicycles from the Moon to Mars is plausible. And
Heinlein makes a demand for bicycles on Mars plausible by providing two
applications for them, prospecting and tourism, the second application
invented by the protagonists of the story when the first turns out to be
less important than they had thought. To come up with an answer like
this requires not only facts about the Moon and Mars, but certain sorts
of societies in both places. Heinlein's strength is such that I am
quite sure that he could have invented any number of other cargoes, all
just as unobvious and just as believable.
The two most central requirements of any context
are that it be self-consistent and that it be used. The more complex
a context is, the more believable, but also the more difficult to build
consistently. The fault of too many science fiction stories of the
cheaper variety is that their contexts involve little more than the obvious,
the cargo of ore from the Moon to Mars, and the little that isn't obvious
-- say, the drink of zlith that the hero gulps down in the second chapter
for a quick lift -- comes from nowhere, serves no purpose except to add
false color, and thereupon disappears never to be heard of again.
has by and large
been able to build complex, consistent societies, the complexity coming
from individual elements that fit together at the same time that they are
used to further the story action. "The Menace from Earth," while
a nice little example, is actually minor stuff. One of Heinlein's
longer stories, say,
Beyond This Horizon,
provides a much better sample of what Heinlein can do.
The society of
Beyond This Horizon
planned. It is not threatened from without. Everyone has a
basic living wage. Mankind is being gradually improved by the selection
of favorable genetic traits. Life in the society is safe and sane
for anybody who simply wants to continue living and die at a ripe old age.
This is, of course, the typical utopian dream that
as given in a standard manner seems like nothing so much as a vision of
eternal boredom. Heinlein has realized this: in fact the problem
is implicit throughout the entire story. The people in this society,
as people are wont to do, chafe at its strictures. They gamble.
They search for thrills. They take to wearing sidearms and invent
an involved code of behavior, violations of which lead to duels, simply
to keep things lively.
More than this, however, malcontents seek to overturn
the society. Revolution is a common theme in science fiction but
seldom if ever for such a plausible reason as boredom. In fact, the
return to a more primitive life in which there is obvious point is one
of the appeals of the revolutionaries. Heinlein, however, rejects
this. Revolutions usually settle very little and a return to the
simple life is not likely. Heinlein has the revolution defeated as
summarily as it would actually be, led as it is by dilettanti. He
offers instead an alternative solution -- setting to work on some of the
larger, less obvious, perhaps impossible-to-solve problems that have kept
men awake nights wondering. In other words, Heinlein's answer to
a static situation is not to retrench, but to find new goals.
This picture is built consistently and subtly at
all points, subtly enough, certainly, that much of the picture I've just
given is set down only in background detail and never explicitly stated.
For instance, as an indication of stagnancy, Heinlein shows men comparing
nail polish. Football, re-introduced, is accepted wildly, but only
after it has been beefed up so that deaths are involved. A scientist
just back from Pluto is used for effective contrast; his little outpost
society is engaged in solving real problems and not in wasting time fighting
duels so that he finds himself at something of a loss when expected to
carry a gun again. A fading dance star is so anxious to have something
to do that she undertakes a long jaunt to entertain the outposts on Mars
and Pluto. These details are not pounded home -- the fingernail polish
is used just once and dropped -- but they do form a consistent picture.
They form a genuine, solid, three-dimensional context.
*" 'Let There Be Light' " and the
unwritten stories have been dropped from the canon, and "Searchlight" and
"The Menace from Earth" have been added. There are other changes
in the body of the chart. [
Border courtesy of
The Humble Bee