||IX. THE FUTURE
There is an amount of presumption in any critical book, and perhaps altogether
too much in any critical book that deals with a particular author, especially
one who is still living. The final presumption in such a case is
a chapter of conclusions. On the one hand, the form of a book demands
that having spent 70,000 words in sketching a writer's career and discussing
his methods and his attitudes, a critic should put some sort of capstone
in place. On the other, the writer may not be ready for any sort
of capstone, let alone a monument and epitaph. It may well be that
Heinlein has a Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Period ahead of him. He may
even be in a new period right now that I am too near to discern clearly.
If I were to guess where Heinlein is going from
here and were wrong, I would look foolish. If I were to guess where
Heinlein is going from here and were right, I would sound either sycophantic
or impertinent -- and possibly both. I prefer to look on this book
as an interim report, and one that can and should be argued with.
Even in the ground that it covers, there remains much to be said. I hope
others will take the time to say it.
Still, I think this book demands a conclusion.
Rather than talk of Heinlein's immediate future, however, I'd like to leave
his career still open-ended and talk instead of Heinlein's ultimate place
in science fiction and his final stature as a writer, something remote
enough to be relatively unembarrassing.
It is clear right now that
even if his career were to be over, Heinlein would retain a historical
place in company with Wells and Stapledon. Awards would be named
after him, his name would be cited, and his health would be drunk. This
historical position has two bases.
The first of these is
the story-telling techniques that Heinlein developed and that have been
generally copied within the field. It is these, I think, that caused
de Camp's eighteen leading writers in 1953 to name Heinlein as the only
contemporary science fiction writer who had influenced them. I can't
help but believe that a similar poll taken today would again acknowledge
Most of the stories of the thirties were not basically
extrapolative. They depended on color, flash, movement, and raw idea,
and they were comparatively lacking in detail and a concern for consequence.
Heinlein showed that it was possible to have both detail and consequence
without any loss of dramatic impact and with a very definite gain in verisimilitude.
The last twenty-five years
of science fiction may even be taken in large part as an exploration by
many writers of the possibilities inherent in Heinlein's techniques.
It is this shift from basically speculative stories to basically extrapolative
stories that accounts, I think, for Sam Moskowitz's lost sense of wonder.
I think there are evidences now of a shift back toward speculation, but
these new speculative stories differ from the old ones in being built on
an extrapolative base. Heinlein's insistence in talking clearly,
knowledgeably, and dramatically about the real world destroyed forever
the sweet, pure, wonderful innocence that science fiction once had.
However, it cost it none of its range of possibility, and in fact, even
extended its range. It simply killed innocence. In a sense,
Heinlein may be said to have offered science fiction a road to adulthood.
The second basis for Heinlein's importance in science
fiction is his position as the first, and so far, the most serious exponent
of a particular sort of story.
It is fair, I think, to say that there are four
general types of science fiction stories, plus various hybrids. The
four are adventure, satirical, extrapolative, and speculative. The
techniques of extrapolation that Heinlein developed are equally applicable
to all four.
Heinlein himself has
most often applied his techniques to extrapolative stories. Other
authors have done as much -- Mission of Gravity is an extrapolative
story that is totally unlike anything Heinlein has ever done -- it is a
particular type of extrapolative story that Heinlein can take credit for.
Most science fiction, even basically extrapolative
science fiction, has concentrated almost as a matter of course on the atypical
situation, the abnormal, the extraordinary. It has never been willing
to stand still and examine the ordinary person functioning normally in
a strange context. Yet life today and life yesterday have both been
composed most commonly of the routines of living. There is no reason
to suppose that tomorrow won't be the same.
The problem has been that
science fiction has been a pulp literary form, and without any question
by anyone has automatically served us pulp plots, pulp motivations, and
pulp action-for-the-sake-of-action. We want variety in our fiction,
to be sure, but the future is already strange. We don't have to compound
the strangeness by tossing in monsters, revolts, chases, fights, torture,
Imperial Guards, people-eating machines, and fertility rituals. There
is room enough for drama without them. As Damon Knight has said,
"Let us sit still, and unroll our mats, and tell our
tales."* There is true drama and unlimited possibility
in stories about people who live lives that are strange to us, but normal
Robert Heinlein is the
one science fiction writer who has regularly dealt with the strange-but-normal.
Most often this has been in terms of chapters, or in short stories.
Occasionally, as in Farmer in the Sky, it has been in whole books.
He may not have taken this sort of story as far as it can go, but he has
made possible those first-rate stories on this model that are yet to be
written. If there is as much potential in this vein as I believe,
it is added reason to honor Heinlein's name.
To be a historical figure, however, says nothing
about literary currency. What sort of reputation is Heinlein likely
to achieve? Which of his books are likely to continue to be read
This depends in part on the future of science fiction.
Heinlein is bound so inextricably with science fiction that if the field
were to fail, so would Heinlein.
Science fiction will probably never become much
more widely popular than it is now, but I think it is likely to receive
increasing amounts of serious critical attention and regard, and its unique
possibilities and qualities are likely to be more widely recognized than
they presently are. This should happen when science fiction loses
its pulp odor -- and that, I suspect, will occur when the science fiction
magazines finally die. If science fiction does eventually attract
serious consideration, then necessarily so will Heinlein. Heinlein
is bound inextricably with science fiction, but the bonds are just as clear
the other way: Heinlein is a dominating figure in science fiction.
I would not be surprised
to see Heinlein's reputation come eventually to resemble that of Kipling.
I am far from the first to notice their similarities. Their temperaments
seem similar. Their attitudes toward life seem similar. I think
their reputations may come to be similar, too, specifically in two regards.
I think English letters will grant both small, secure places. I think
that security will be increased by the fact that unlike many important
writers of the past -- including some of greater importance than either
Kipling or Heinlein -- both men will continue to be read, and by a similar
audience. Today, Kipling is principally read by children -- if any
of his work is neglected, it is that which was written specifically for
adults. Kim, "Captains Courageous," The Jungle Books, and
of Pook's Hill are the Kipling that continues to live. In the
same way, if Heinlein becomes neglected, I think it is his work for adults
that will suffer. I have no doubt that Red Planet, Starman Jones,
and Have Space Suit--Will Travel will continue to hold readers
for a good many years.
This assessment is merely a conjecture, of course
-- but I can't help thinking that Kipling would enjoy having Heinlein in
his corner. They'd have things to talk about.
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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 Search of Wonder, 2nd
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