Heinlein's plotting has probably been the most continually
criticized element in his writing, and to me there seems to be justice
in the criticism. In fact, we use the word "plot" to cover a multitude
of things, and Heinlein has had his problems with at least two of them.
thing that is usually
meant by the word "plot" is the plan of action of a story, the thing that
I discussed earlier as "structure." Heinlein had his problems with
this when he first started writing. Stories like "Life-Line," "Misfit,"
"If This Goes On--"
are severely flawed because they
aren't told crisply. They begin with an end in mind and eventually
get there, but the route they take is a wandering one. Overcoming
this is in part a matter of deciding what the story is really about and
learning to pick only significant details, and in part a matter of planning
the end of his first
period, Heinlein was no longer troubled by this kind of plot weakness,
as "By His Bootstraps" amply demonstrates. A man who couldn't plan
the structure of a story could not have written "By His Bootstraps,"
" 'All You Zombies--,' " or
The Door Into Summer,
to name just three
that are extremely involved but which do take the shortest routes to their
end of his first period, another and very different sort of "plot weakness"
had become apparent in Heinlein's writing. This was not a failure
in structure but a failure in providing all the details that the structure
demands. Boucher and McComas, for instance, had this to say in reviewing
"Waldo": ". . . 'Waldo,' while being his best concept, illustrates
the basic weakness in most of Heinlein's work, a tendency to rush the ending
and to shirk final
in other words, is one of execution, not of plot structure
has been a continuing
problem with Heinlein. It hasn't been present in every story, but
it has been present often enough to make it obvious that Heinlein, if he
doesn't keep close control, can let his stories trail away, in de Camp's
words, "as if the author had simply
"Gulf," for instance,
Heinlein spends one day in time and thirty-six pages in enrolling an
He then spends six months, skimmed over in another thirty-odd pages, in
training the agent. Then, just to end the story, he kills his agent
off in a job that takes him one day, buzzed over in a mere four pages.
The gradual loss of control is obvious.
in the Sky
in close focus and then gradually slips away until large amounts of time
are covered in sentences. Heinlein then tries to recover his story
with a large chunk of closely detailed action. The same thing exactly
is true of
and true again of
Time for the Stars.
another aspect of this
same problem, Heinlein has also tried to force his stories to go on farther
than their plots will carry them.
Beyond This Horizon
example, but since the extra words are spent on a very interesting society
in action, the flaw is a minor one.
example; and since the extra words are spent mainly in discussing the theory
of sexual and political morality, the flaw is more than the book can stand.
Heinlein were consistently
troubled by his plots, he would be relatively easy to discuss and to sum
up, but the trouble is that he has shown such a wide variance in his plots
that he becomes very difficult to categorize. On the one hand there
is a story like
Podkayne of Mars
that comes dangerously close to
being without any structure at all, let alone a flawed one, and on the
other there is a story like
that is more than adequately built and one like
Have Space Suit--Will Travel
that is beautifully
built. The only thing that I can say is that given a Heinlein story
and asked to guess before reading it what its most serious problem might
be, I would guess that Heinlein had had some trouble with his plot.
And about sixty per cent of the time I would be wrong.
5. Some Examples
section, I intend to briefly discuss three of Heinlein's stories, "Coventry,"
Have Space Suit--Will Travel,
one from each of
his three periods, in light of what I have said about Heinlein's construction
context of "Coventry"
is the libertarian society developed in the last half of the Future
One of the advantages of using a general background in several stories
is that a complicated context can be given in a short length without need
for great explanation. Having established his new society in
"If This Goes On--,"
Heinlein is here free to treat it as a given and then
show what happens to those who are unwilling to accept it. He has
them placed in an area kept separate by a force field and left to themselves,
and allows that any man who cares to can rejoin the United States by acceptance
of its social contract.
There are only two developed characters in the story,
both aspects of the Heinlein Individual. One is the protagonist,
David MacKinnon, a literary critic who answers criticism of himself with
punches in the nose, and who is sent to Coventry when he refuses psychological
treatment. The other is an agent of the United States operating secretly
in Coventry who takes MacKinnon under his wing and keeps him out of
MacKinnon is the naive young Heinlein Individual. The agent is the
slightly older, more knowledgeable and more cynical version.
There are two story problems. One arises primarily
from the context of the story, and the other primarily from the nature
of the protagonist. The contextual problem is how to warn the United
States of a planned breakout by the dissident little states within
The other problem is the rehabilitation of MacKinnon. Unfortunately,
Heinlein solves this second problem twice. He does it once by
to MacKinnon that the sort of rugged individualism he dreams of just doesn't
exist, and that for better or for worse he is a member of society.
He shows that even the crippled personalities within Coventry find government
necessary and that their government is a mess because of their sickness.
However, Heinlein then gives MacKinnon a flamboyant chance to demonstrate
his new self by sending him off to warn the United States of the potential
Since Heinlein's two problems are not really closely
related, his structure is a divided one and he has to close with an attempt
to pull them together. This he does by MacKinnon's flamboyant
This isn't quite satisfactory, however, because Heinlein's realism insists
that the potential revolution cannot be a serious threat, that the United
States government would be well aware of the situation, and that therefore
MacKinnon's journey is not as important as he believed it was. He
refocuses attention on MacKinnon's rehabilitation by throwing away the
revolution, but the cost of the adjustment is that the rehabilitation seems
like an anticlimax.
There is a mild romantic interest, lightly sketched,
in which MacKinnon moons after a fifteen-year-old girl, but little is made
of this. The story itself is told briskly and straightforwardly.
What clever wisecracks are included are restricted to the appropriate character
-- the middle-stage Heinlein Individual secret agent.
In sum, the context of the story and the problem
of the would-be anarchist are the best things about "Coventry." Heinlein's
biggest problem is in deciding what the story is really about -- in other
words, plot structure.
framing context of
Have Space Suit--Will Travel
is a near-future Earth in which
there is a human colony on the Moon but in which hot rods, malted milks,
soap slogan contests, and high schools with empty curricula still figure.
The story begins with this and returns to it at the end, and it puts parentheses
around the novel, but Heinlein concerns himself with a larger context,
too, a confederation that unites various races throughout this galaxy and
the Magellanic Clouds.
There are three central characters in the story.
One is the Mother Thing, perhaps the most charming of Heinlein's aliens,
and a representative of the confederation. Heinlein characterizes
her as "the cop on the beat," the epitomal policeman. The second
is an eleven-year-old female genius, perhaps a little too knowing to be
quite believable, but good fun. The third is the narrator, a typical
young example of the Heinlein Individual, though not as naive as some.
The rest of the characters are background figures, either competents or
The main story problem is really handled quite subtly.
It is, in fact, nothing less than the determination of the nature of the
contact between Earth and the confederation, something to be settled by
the thoughts and actions of the little genius and the narrator. Stated
flatly, this would be just too much to swallow, but Heinlein leads up to
it by very neatly misdirecting his readers with immediate problems and
adventures that only in retrospect are seen to be necessary predicates
to the central problem.
The story is beautifully plotted. Starting
from a mundane tomorrow morning, Heinlein begins a series of little adventures,
each one carrying the characters a little farther from that mundane tomorrow,
until hardly knowing how one has gotten there, one is set face to face
with the confederation and accepts it. The structure on which this
plot is built, returning full circle to exactly the point at which it left
Earth, is very neatly done, too.
There is a hint of romantic interest to come between
the little genius and the hero, but it is again very mildly stated, just
as one might expect.
Heinlein's taste for the pithy remark is confined
for the most part to description; not inappropriate since his narrator
is a Heinlein Individual.
. . . I was like the Army
mule at West Point: an honorary member of the student body but not prepared
for the curriculum.
At times, of course, it does sound more sophisticated
than might be expected from an eighteen-year-old boy, but that is a minor
. . . We lived like that "Happy
Family" you sometimes see in traveling zoos: a lion caged with a
lamb. It is a startling exhibit but the lamb has to be replaced
Have Space Suit--Will Travel,
probably as close to an even balance between characters and background
as Heinlein has ever managed. Though the continuing import of the
background is greater, the import of the characters within the story is
re-emphasized by the return to Earth and to the original context.
The story is theirs. What comes after belongs to the context.
of the major flaws of
is that (unusually for Heinlein) it lacks
a clearly-defined context. The present-day world is destroyed by
bombs by the end of the second chapter. The woodsy-idyll context
is shown to be an illusion. The slave society to which the characters
are taken is not seen in detail; all that is seen is one portion of one
household. This leaves very little for the main characters to function
Only one character is dwelt on at length and that
is Farnham himself. He is a Heinlein Individual somewhere in between
the stage that knows what-is-what and the stage that knows why. Strangely,
however, his competence is questionable, for all that Heinlein asserts
There is no story problem in Farnham's Freehold
except that of mere survival: survival of the bombs, survival in
the woods, survival in a slave society, survival of the aftermath of the
bombs when Farnham and his wife return to their own time. For some
reason, Heinlein has always regarded sheer survival, as a thing in itself
regardless of any other factors, as a comforting and sufficient end.
Farnham's survival, however, is an accident and nothing that he himself
causes and so on an overt level the story seems pointless.
Part of the problem, of course, is that Heinlein
uses the better part of his space in formal little debates on the subjects
of freedom and race and family relations, and these tangential things substitute
for the story instead of adding to it.
However, if one wants to carry a search for meaning
beyond the overt level, another idea of context
and story problem does emerge. If the context of the story is really
an unheeding universe that treats Farnham like a bemused boy toying with
a grasshopper and making it "spit tobacco," then Farnham's futility takes
on new meaning. The story may be Heinlein's unconscious way of saying
that competence is not enough. The point of the story then becomes
the persistent attempt by Farnham to escape from whatever it is that is
mistreating him so casually and to find a haven for himself.
In fact, the book may even be taken as the search
of a solipsist for a universe in which to be God. If this seems
perhaps the following chapter will make it seem less so.
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.
*Fantasy and Science Fiction,
Border courtesy of
The Humble Bee