|Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of
Time Enough for Love, Part II
5. Heinlein Speaks
In 1939 and 1940, all of Heinlein's stories but "The Devil Makes the Law" ("Magic, Inc.") were Future History stories. They were published under his own name and were the basis on which he was chosen to be Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver in 1941: his thirty-fourth birthday present.
He gave his Guest of Honor speech on the Fourth of July, 1941. He said, "I'm tired and confused and nervous and quite frankly considerably stirred up by the fact that I was selected as Guest of Honor here. It embarrasses me and at the same time I enjoy it."
Heinlein used the opportunity to speak to say all that was most important to him. "l'm preaching--sure; I know that," he said."I could have filled up a speech with wisecracks and with stories and anecdotes; but I feel very deeply serious about this. I mean it."
He proceeded to speak in a rambling fashion and what he said has the greatest bearing on the fiction he published in 1939 and 1940, the other fiction he wrote before World War II, and what he has done with his life and his writing since that time.
I myself have been reading science fiction oh, I don't know, when did Gernsback start putting them in Electrical Experimenter? ["1913" from floor] --well, I've been reading about that long. And then I used to read it in Argosy and I dug up all that I could of that sort of thing out of the Kansas City Public Library ... And, never had any particular notion of writing it until about two years ago when a concatenation of peculiar circumstances started me writing it, and happened to hit the jackpot on the first one, so I continued writing. It amazed me to discover people gave money away for doing things like that--it beats working.
Heinlein began his talk by speaking of the particular virtues of science fiction, which he called time-binding:
The operation of time-binding consists of making use of the multitudinous records that we have of the past and on the basis of those records, on the basis of the data that we have collected directly and the data that we get from others by means of our time-binding techniques, including reading and writing, sound movies ... by means of those techniques, figuring out something about the way the universe looks and making predictions on which we can plan our future conduct. And it means that we have lived mentally in the past and in the future as well as in the present.
This, effectively, is a description of where Heinlein had been. It is a description of the Future History. And Heinlein spent some time elaborating on the anticipation of change that time-binding permits. This from a man who desperately needed to change, desperately desired to change, but who could not change.
Heinlein then said that science fiction
--even the corniest of it, even the most outlandish of it, no matter how badly it's written--has a distinct therapeutic value because all of it has as its primary postulate that the world does change, and I cannot overemphasize the importance of that idea in these days. Unless you believe in that, unless you are prepared for it--as I know all of you are--you can't retain your sanity these days; it's an impossibility. When a man makes predictions and they keep failing to come out, time and again, things don't come out the way he wants to, he goes insane, functionally insane--it's been proved in the laboratories time and again. It's been proved with respect to men ...
Heinlein then went on to predict that a large portion of the world, large portions of the human race, will be in a condition of insanity for years to come:
Five years, ten years, it may go twenty years, it may go fifty years--you and I may not live to see the end of it. l personally have hopes--wishful thinking--I have hopes it will terminate quickly enough so that l can pass the rest of my lifetime in comparative peace and comfort. But I'm not optimistic about it. And during such a period it is really a difficult thing to keep a grip, to keep a grip on yourself ...
Heinlein saw but one way to survive this period:
There's a way out, there's a way out, there's something that we can do to protect ourselves, something that would protect the rest of the human race from the sort of things that are happening to them and are going to happen to them. It's very simple and it's right down our alley: the use of the scientihc method.
I'm not talking about the scientific method in the laboratory. The scientific method can be used to protect our sanity, to protect ourselves from serious difficulties of other sorts--gettin' our teeth smashed in, and things like that--in our everyday life, 24 hours of the day.
I should say what I mean by the scientific method. Since I have to make the definition in terms of words, I can't be as clear as l otherwise might be, if l were able to make an extensional definition on it. But I mean a comparatively simple thing by the scientific method: the ability to look at what goes on around you ... listen to what you hear ... observe ... note facts ... delay your judgment ... and make your own predictions. That's all, really all there is to the scientific method: To be able to distinguish facts from non-facts.
And Heinlein concluded with this thought:
I don't suppose I'll be writing very much longer. Things shaping up the way they are, I''ll probably have other things that I'll have to do. A lot of us here will have other things that we're going to have to do, whether we like it or not. And I may not come back to it. But I hope to be a fan of science fiction for at least another fifty years, if I can hold myself together that long and keep from getting my teeth kicked in.
6. The Freakiest One, the Seeker
The self-portrait that Heinlein painted in his 1941 Guest of Honor speech was of a man who had turned to writing science fiction only for a time and for limited urgent purposes. In July 1941, two years into the Second World War, it was clear to Heinlein that his time was growing short. He had to use his time to best advantage while he had it, to say his say, to solve his problem. He had, at best, until the end of that year.
As it proved, he had a little longer than that--he continued to publish stories through 1942. The stories he published were not Future History. They were too strange to fit in any framework. They were the purest statements that Heinlein could conceive of his problem, in symbolic terms, and the soundest symbolic solutions. They were the stories that the Future History had made possible--stories that mixed the known and the unknown in potent combination. They were the truest, freakiest stories that science fiction has ever seen. Heinlein only had a limited final time in which to work, and he searched deeply within himself. Heinlein, the notorious rational man, then showed himself to be freakier than Phil Dick has ever dreamed of being.
This was not realized at the time, and it has never been noticed since. The reason is this: of Heinlein's eight major stories published in 1941 and 1942 outside the Future History series, only the earliest and shortest, "They" (Unknown, April 1941), appeared under Heinlein's own name. Four were by Anson MacDonald. One was by Caleb Saunders. One by Lyle Monroe. One by John Riverside. The cumulative effect of these stories was lost in the confusion of pseudonyms. These stories finally appeared in book form in the late Forties, in the early Fifties, as late as 1959--scattered, lost in collections, lost among newer and more restrained Heinlein stories. Never placed. Never truly noticed.
Here are the eight:
"They" is a statement of the situation. A brilliant and able man whose chief haunts are New York City and Harvard University is being treated in a mental institution. He believes that he is not like other people. Other people never do or talk about things of importance. They have no interest in the meaning of existence. The protagonist claims to be able to see through the sham that surrounds him:
"I saw all around me this enormous plant, cities, farms, factories, churches, schools, homes, railroads, luggage, roller coasters, trees, saxophones, libraries, people and animals. People that looked like me and who should have felt very much like me, if what l was told was the truth. But what did they appear to be doing? 'They went to work to earn the money to buy the food to get the strength to go to work to earn the money to buy the food to get the strength to go to work to get the strength to buy the food to earn the money to go to--' until they fell over dead. Any slight variation in the basic pattern did not matter, for they always fell over dead. And everybody tried to tell me that I should be doing the same thing. I knew better!"
"The doctor gave him a look apparently intended to denote helpless surrender and laughed. 'I can't argue with you. Life does look like that, and maybe it is just that futile. But it is the only life we have. Why not make up your mind to enjoy it as much as possible?"
"'Oh, no!" He looked both sulky and stubborn. 'You can't peddle nonsense to me by claiming to be fresh out of sense. How do l know'? Because all this complex stage setting, all these swarms of actors, could not have been put here just to make idiot noises at each other. Some other explanation, but not that one. An insanity as enormous, as complex, as the one around me had to be planned. I've found the plan!"
He noticed that the doctor's eyes were again averted.
"lt is a play intended to divert me, to occupy my mind and confuse me, to keep me so busy with details that l will not have time to think about the meaning. You are all in it, every one of you." He shook his finger in the doctor's face. "Most of them may be helpless automatons, but you're not. You are one of the conspirators. You've been sent in as a troubleshooter to try to force me to go back to playing the role assigned to me!"
The character is alerted to the hollowness of ordinary reality one day when he notices that it is not raining out of the back of the house when it is raining in front. On this slim evidence, he rejects conventional reality. If this were a mimetic story, the character would be mad. But this is an sf story, and the character is not mad.
Notice that his situation is the same as the situation of the seeker in "Universe." Hugh Hoyland, who is called a "scientist" and who unknowingly echoes Galileo when he maintains his truth of a larger universe, is only different from the protagonist of "They" in being called a heretic rather than a madman, and in not taking his situation personally.
But the character in "They" is right to take his situation personally. He has caught them out, the conspirators. They fear that he will remember the truth, so they "adjourn this sequence." ln the next sequence he may be given the Taj Mahal, which he values for reasons the conspirators cannot understand.
This is a first-rate statement of the problem, but the solution is not a true solution. In his own quest, Heinlein cannot see through the sham, call the conspirators to book, and end the game. The universe Heinlein knows may be a sham, but he is still stuck.
Around and around we go again in "By His Bootstraps," a story by Anson MacDonald in the October 1941 issue of Astounding. Again a statement of the problem without a solution. This time, the problem is stated in terms of the dynamics of a character rather than as a societal situation, and consequently the failure of Heinlein's protagonist is more agonizing and painful than ever previously.
The central character of "By His Bootstraps" begins as a student in our own time, unhappy, confused and dissatisfied with life. He is writing a thesis entitled: "An Investigation into Certain Mathematical Aspects of a Rigor of Metaphysics." The thesis denies the possibility of time travel.
As he types, a time gate opens in the air behind him. Through it come variously ignorant older versions of himself. The gate signifies the opportunity to evolve, to escape this stale world and pass through into an unknown future. His older selves debate whether or not he should actually pass through the gate. The question is settled by an accidental blow.
The protagonist wakes 20,000 years from now in an all-but-empty palace. Palace and time machine, he is told, are the relics of mythic High Ones who came and ruled the human race for a time and then went away again.
The seeker is in the hands of an old and unpleasant man named Diktor who hustles him along and speaks glib words of a great future. At Diktor's direction, the seeker inevitably recapitulates the older states of himself that he has already met, passing back and forth through the time gate, arguing and fighting futilely with himself, from this experience learning only to fear Diktor. Eventually, he flees into the recent past of that far future, and with the aid of a notebook with notes on language that he has stolen from Diktor, he sets himself up as ruler of the local population.
But being the ruler of a sad, stupid and placid population is a bore. We are told of Bob Wilson, Heinlein's protagonist, that "his was a mixed nature, half hustler, half philosopher." Since his subjects offer him no challenge, he determines to hunt back through time in search of the mysterious Builders of the palace and the time machine.
At last, success:
He saw it.
lt was moving toward the Gate.
When he pulled himself together he was halfway down the passageway leading from the Hall. He realized that he had been screaming. He still had an attack of the shakes.
Somewhat later he forced himself to return to the Hall, and, with eyes averted, enter the control booth and return the spheres to zero. He backed out hastily and left the Hall for his apartment. He did not touch the controls nor enter the Hall for more than two years.
It had not been fear of physical menace that had shaken his reason, nor the appearance of the creature--he could recall nothing of how it looked. It had been a feeling of sadness infinitely compounded which had flooded through him at the instant, a sense of tragedy, of grief insupportable and unescapable, of infinite weariness. He had been flicked with emotion many times too strong for his spiritual fiber and which he was no more fitted to experience than an oyster is to play a violin.
He felt that he had learned all about the High Ones a man could learn and still endure. He was no longer curious. The shadow of that vicarious emotion ruined his sleep, brought him sweating out of dreams.
Heinlein has penetrated close to the truth that he seeks. He has provoked a confrontation with a true representative of the unknown, but the confrontation, as we have just seen, is a failure. Why?
The reason is this: when we confront transcendence, a true symbol of the unknown, we only get the successes we can visualize. It is Heinlein's problem that he cannot yet visualize what true success might be. The only success his protagonist can conceive is to become Diktor, the horrifying older man from whom he has escaped. Thus, because he has not prepared himself for the confrontation with transcendence, the seeker must scream and flee.
There is confirmation of failure of perception in a mistake made by Heinlein and Bob Wilson. High emotions are afoot in the experience, which Wilson and Heinlein feel are "too strong for his spiritual fiber and which he was no more fitted to experience than an oyster is to play a violin." These emotions are mistaken for the stuff of a higher evolutionary state. But they are not. They are evidence of the character's own self-limitation. The emotions that scar him are nothing less than his own emotions, highly amplified. It is the seeker himself who is held fast in the sticky net of tragedy, who is sad, grieving and weary.
And no wonder. Because he has no other image of evolution, because he does not seize his opportunity to evolve, the protagonist is doomed to become Diktor. As a result of his view of the High One, his hair turns gray and his face grave and lined, like Diktor's. The character has modeled himself on Diktor in order to usurp his place.
Now all that he can do is copy his worn-out stolen notebook so that it will be fresh for its purpose. And then he fishes back through time for his younger self, to entrap him as he has been entrapped in the futile round of existence. Only then does he realize that he is Diktor. No one else is.
Because he could not be the philosopher, the protagonist must act the hustler. He must hustle himself as once he was hustled by himself. He smiles and says: " 'There is a great future in store for you and me, my boy--”a great future!'"
And as his final, sad, weary, grieving, tragic narrative comment, Heinlein must echo ironically: "A great future!"
"By His Bootstraps" is a truly meaningful and important story. Heinlein was able to assemble the materials for a successful quest in this story, which he has seldom been able to do, but he was unable to make a success of them. His character must fall back into the maze of ego, a maze self-made, unable to evolve. How might it have been otherwise?
For one thing, Diktor and his younger self both assume that the High Ones--the higher evolutionary state--are unapproachable. They assume without evidence that the relationship of the High Ones to the human race was lacking in love. But only true confrontation could have settled the point. Heinlein's protagonist could not bring himself to that test.
And Heinlein could not write it.
Second, there are only two real and continuing things in this story: the protagonist and the mysterious notebook without origin. In that notebook are many secrets which have been given to the seeker for his use. When he first comes to the future, he finds it "indispensable." He has copied the notebook, but has he read it with a mature eye? The answer is no. He carefully copies it over prior to his confrontation but "to refresh his memory of English rather than from any need for it as a guide." But Bob Wilson misuses the notebook. He uses it to cling to the past rather than to prepare himself for evolution. If Heinlein had been prepared for success, his protagonist would have found significant clues in that notebook.
Finally, if there is one thing that "By His Bootstraps" demonstrates, it is that attachment to the ego--the "Bob Wilson-ness of things," or the "Bob Heinlein-ness of things" is a delusion. The confusing profusion of "selves," quarreling and fighting, are a comedy play. The student does not inevitably have to be Diktor. He is not doomed. He can reject the necessity of becoming Diktor at any moment--not only by confronting the High Ones, but simply by choosing to use the time machine to go and be someone else somewhere else. He is trapped only by ego games. He fails and becomes Diktor because he chooses to fail and become Diktor.
"By His Bootstraps" by Anson MacDonald, in which confrontation with the unknown is evaded and no evolution occurs, and "Common Sense" by Robert Heinlein, in which no true confrontation with the unknown occurs and evolution is achieved by luck, both these two long stories were published in the same October 1941 issue of Astounding. Heinlein's time was getting urgently short. Consequently, in two other long stories that autumn--"Elsewhere" by Caleb Saunders in the September issue of Astounding, and "Lost Legion" by Lyle Monroe in the November issue of Super Science Stories--Heinlein attempted to skip past confrontation and get to the heart of the matter. He wrote directly of what he knew and he hoped about the far side of the evolutionary leap.
Both stories are fascinating botches. They are necessarily botches because fiction is about nothing but confrontations, failed confrontations, evolution and failure to evolve. Fiction is not about new securities of a higher order. Fiction tells about departures and arrivals, not about happy tours in other pleasant countries. But these "stories" are fascinating for what they tell of Heinlein's knowledge and hopes.
"Elsewhere," later "Elsewhen" in a Heinlein story collection, sets a group of philosophy students loose in eternity, which their savant calls "two-dimensional time":
"I must explain the theory of time I was forced to evolve in order to account for my experience. Most people think of time as a track that they run on from birth to death as inexorably as a train follows its rails--they feel instinctively that time follows a straight line, the past lying behind, the future lying in front. Now I have reason to believe--to know--that time is analogous to a surface rather than a line, and a rolling hilly surface at that. Think of this track we follow over the surface as a winding road cut through hills. Every little way the road branches and the branches follow side canyons. At these branches the crucial decisions of your life take place. You can turn right or left into entirely different futures. Occasionally there is a switchback where one can scramble up or down a bank and skip over a few thousand or million years-- if you don't have your eyes so fixed on the road that you miss the short cut.
"Once in a while another road crosses yours. Neither its past nor its future has any connection whatsoever with the world we know. If you happened to take that turn you might find yourself on another planet in another space-time with nothing left of you or your world but the continuity of your ego.
"Or, if you have the necessary intellectual strength and courage, you may leave the roads, or paths of high probability, and strike out over the hills of possible time, cutting through the roads as you come to them, following them for a little way, even following them backwards, with the past ahead of you and the future behind you. Or you might roam around the hilltops doing nothing but the extremely improbable. I can not imagine what that would be like--perhaps a bit like Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass."
"To one who believes in Bishop Berkeley's philosophy the infinite possibilities of two-dimensional time offer proof that the mind creates its own world, but a Spencerian determinist, such as good friend Howard Jenkins, would never leave the road of maximum probability. To him the world would be mechanistic and real. An orthodox free-will Christian, such as Miss Ross, would have her choice of several of the side roads, but would probably remain in a physical environment similar to Howard's. I have perfected a technique which will enable others to travel about in the pattern of times as I have done. I have the apparatus ready and any who wish can try it."
All of the students volunteer to go, led by one named Robert Monroe--Robert like Heinlein and Bob Wilson, Monroe like Heinlein's alter ego Lyle Monroe. All of the students find limited alternatives cut to the measure of the intentions they carry with them into the unknown. One becomes an angel. One becomes a temple prostitute. One becomes a mindless soldier. Robert Monroe becomes a gnomish engineer;
He had been short and slender before, but was now barely five feet tall, and stocky, with powerful shoulder muscles. The brown costume with its peaked hood, or helmet, gave him a strong resemblance to the popular notion of a gnome.
Only one of the students and the teacher are able to treat eternity as eternity, rather than as a new kind of limitation, and move about at will. The failure of the story is that the ability to travel through eternity is granted to teacher and pupils by fiat.
And, at some level, Heinlein realizes the fact. At the end of the story, the teacher is left in the uncertain state between wakefulness and sleep, musing of unfinished business:
Time enough for a little nap before lunch. Time enough ...
The other story, "Lost Legion"--reprinted by Heinlein as "Lost Legacy"--places three attractive young people, a doctor on a medical faculty, an instructor in psychology and a psychology student, in the hands of a community of Perfect Masters somewhere on the slopes of Mt. Shasta, where they are given instruction in the development of super-powers. These powers are the legacy of long-vanished High Ones, whom we remember as the gods of ancient legend, who left their records in various of the high places of the world. Again, the transition to a more evolved state is rendered trivial by being given rather than earned.
What is interesting in this story is the acts of the young people in their new state of perfection. First, they return with good news to their society, but like Hugh Hoyland in "Universe" they are discounted, disbelieved, ignored, opposed, and threatened with arrest, even when they are prepared to demonstrate their abilities. Second, they identify and dispose of the evil and benighted elements of society:
... the antagonists of human liberty, of human dignity--the racketeers, the crooked political figures, the shysters, the dealers in phony religions, the sweat-shoppers, the petty authoritarians, all of the key figures among the traffickers in human misery and human oppression, themselves somewhat adept in the arts of the mind, and acutely aware of the danger of free knowledge--all of this unholy breed ...
Third, they take the children of the world, those uncorrupted by their environment, and teach them the ancient arts. And, in time, there is the promise that humanity has escaped this Earth in pursuit of the vanished High Ones.
"Lost Legacy" is notable for this brief potent glimpse of the nature of self-limitation:
Jove's eyes rested thoughtfully on Vulcan's crooked leg, "You should let me heal that twisted limb, my son."
"No one can heal my limb!"
"No. No one but yourself, And until you heal the twist in your mind, you can not heal the twist in your limb."
"There is no twist in my mind!"
"Then heal your limb."
And "Lost Legacy" is notable for this brief potent glimpse of the nature of Heinlein's self-limitation:
"We see the history of the world as a series of crises in a conflict between two opposing philosophies. Ours is based on the notion that life, consciousness, intelligence, ego is the important thing in the world."
The attachment to ego is the twist in Heinlein's limb. The nuclear "I" is that thing that makes the "unholy breed" unholy. The confusion of ego with life and consciousness flaws the symbology of "Lost Legacy." And, at the end of the story, with man flown elsewhere, a great ape "with a brain too big for his need and a spirit that troubled him" must climb to a high place and be disturbed by the records of the High Ones. If "Lost Legacy" were as true as Heinlein's hopes, then Heinlein would not need to have this particular evolutionary jump repeated.
In December 1941, the United States entered World War II, as Heinlein had foreseen. ln the pages of Astounding, John W. Campbell announced the departure for war of a number of science fiction writers, led by Robert Heinlein and Anson MacDonald. They would, he said, likely not be writing again until the war was over. In fact, however, in the space before he went to war, Anson MacDonald found world enough and time to write three final stories. "Goldfish Bowl" (Astounding, March 1942), the first of these, was the least important of the various freaky stories that Heinlein published in 1941 and 1942.
In this story, a variety of odd phenomena have been correlated with the appearance of gigantic twin waterspouts that have been named the Pillars of Hawaii. These are five hundred feet thick and eleven thousand feet high, their tops lost in clouds. Water goes up one spout and eventually comes down the other.
lt is proposed that two men go up the rising pillar in a bathyscaphe to learn what may be learned in the unknown world at the top. Before that can happen, one of them is carried away to that world by a fireball. The other ascends the pillar in his machine and they are reunited at the top. They spend time captive there, never seeing their captors, never confronting them. Again, the seekers lack higher goals and fail to evolve. All that they can do is eventually die and be dumped into the other waterspout, the refuse drain.
The longer-lived of the two carries a message back with him, self-tattooed on his body: "BEWARE--CREATlON TOOK EIGHT DAYS." But this message that higher beings and higher states of evolution exist is not understood by men who cannot step outside the assumptions of their society. A final ironic comparison is made by Heinlein between us and goldfish with bored keepers.
This is a deadend. As final a deadend as the one that Pinero ran into, or the one encountered by Bob Wilson. As hard as he may try, Heinlein cannot conceive a higher role than those that society offers, roles he has already rejected as too limited. Without a conception of a higher state, Heinlein cannot trust those unknown High Ones from whom the boon of evolution is derived. He must imagine them in Gloucester's despairing terms:
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.
"Goldfish Bowl" is a minor story. The other two Anson MacDonald stories published in 1942 were not minor. They were in fact the centerpieces of his early writing career, the very best statements that he could manage, the soundest generalizations, of problem and solution.
Beyond This Horizon appeared directly after "Goldfish Bowl" in the April and May issues of Astounding. Like so many Heinlein titles, this one again signifies the enclosed universe and the necessity of evolution.
The central character, Hamilton Felix, is a genius, a man of overwhelming competence, the heir of the star line in a future where mankind is trying to breed the best possible race of man by selecting each man and woman's most fruitful characteristics for their children. Hamilton is told by one who knows, the District Moderator for Genetics:
"I could set you down on an island peopled by howling savages and dangerous animals--in two weeks you would own the place ... You've got the physique and the mentality and the temperament."
This is a future in which conduct must be defended by a willingness to instantly fight with hand weapons. This insures politesse and eliminates the unfit.
Like so many Heinlein characters, Hamilton looks at his society and finds its best opportunities unworthy. He employs himself, and earns his living, by amusing people. He builds games machines of which he is contemptuous--he diverts himself by building diversions.
The District Moderator for Genetics, Mordan Claude, seeks to enlist Hamilton's cooperation in the breeding program. He is, after all, the best of humanity, the star line. But Hamilton refuses. Life is a charade and he sees no point in assisting it to continue:
"I know of no reason why the human race should survive ... other than the fact that their make-up insures that they will. But there's no sense to the whole bloody show. There's no point to being alive at all. I'm damned if I'll contribute to the comedy. ... You can probably eliminate my misgivings [in my children] and produce a line that will go on happily breeding for the next ten million years. That still doesn't make it make sense. Survival! What for? Until you can give me some convincing explanation of why the human race should go on at all, my answer is 'no'."
Hamilton lives in a world with no High Ones that he can recognize to whom he might present his best answer to the riddle of life, and from whom he might receive his appropriate evolution. The nearest thing to the unknown that he encounters to confront is a half-assed revolution led by dilettantes, evil and banal, seeking personal power. This is easily put down, though nearly at the cost of Hamilton's life. There are interesting results.
When he and the District Moderator for Genetics, whom he has unselfishly come to warn and protect, are under fire and death seems close, Hamilton has an insight:
"Damn it--I don't want to die. Not just yet. Claude, I've thought of another joke."
"Let's have it."
"What's the one thing that could give life point to it--real point?
"That," Mordan pointed out, "is the question I've been trying to answer for you all along."
"No, no. The question itself."
"You state it," Mordan parried cautiously.
"l will. The one thing that could give us some real basis for our living is to know for sure whether or not anything happens after we die. When we die, do we die all over--or don't we?"
"Hmm ... granting your point, what's the joke'?"
"The joke is on me. Or rather on my kid. In a few minutes I'll probably know the answer. But he won't. He's sitting back there right now--in a way--sleeping in one of those freezers. And there is no way on earth for me to let him know the answer. But he's the one that will need to know. Isn't that funny?"
"Hmm ... If that's your idea of a joke, Felix, I suggest that you stick to parlor tricks."
But of course it is no joke. ln the face of death, it is the most serious thing Hamilton can think of, the best expression of what he has on his mind.
And, immediately, he is presented with an answer, the whole answer to everything that Heinlein and Hamilton care about. The quest that Heinlein and the various surrogate Heinleins of his stories have undertaken is to understand the meaning of life, and to discover what, if anything, in life is a worthwhile occupation. Anything less Heinlein has rejected as rendering life a joke. Any of us who ask this question ourselves may possibly be content with any of a variety of solutions, any of a variety of occupations within the purview of society. But Heinlein has consistently rejected all temporal and partial answers. Nothing that society has to offer is enough to content Hugh Hoyland, or the unnamed protagonist of "They," or Bob Wilson, or the professor in "Elsewhen," or the various seekers in "Lost Legacy." Heinlein requires nothing short of ultimate answers and total certainty. He desires to know for sure, for once and for all, and the intensity of his desire is what makes him so fascinating a writer.
There is only one such answer that humanity has ever been able to present, and it is this answer that Robert Heinlein has approached in his fiction time and time again, only to shy away. And no wonder. The answer is an answer that society has never liked--because it denies the ultimate validity of society. The answer is one that men of strong ego have never liked--because it denies the ultimate validity of the ego. Nonetheless, if there is any answer that will satisfy Robert Heinlein, that could satisfy Robert Heinlein, it is this:
Call it the Mystical Solution. This solution says that all that exists is God. And the only way out of the illusion of less-than-Godliness is to identify completely with one's Godly nature and occupy oneself in love and service of One's Own True Purpose. At first inspection, this solution seems to be a rejection of existence in favor of solitary contemplation of one's own navel. In practice, however, sitting on a mountain top staring at one's own navel is not the true Mystical Solution, but an aberration. Because, if all that exists is God, including the individual human being, then true contemplation of One's Own Navel in love and service means engagement with Existence.
Here we have the solution that Heinlein seems to be aiming for, but never quite able to seize. Whether or not it is our own personal solution is irrelevant. It is the stuff of Heinlein's fiction and if we are to understand Heinlein, we must understand mysticism.
Following Hamilton Felix's serious joke, something very strange happens. Objectively, within the story, Hamilton is gassed and wakes in the hospital. The gas is deadly unless an antidote is given immediately. The various conspirators do not receive the antidote, but Hamilton, of course, more than qualifies. In the meantime, however, he has been treading in unknown places beyond the reach of consciousness, and there he has encountered the Highest of all possible High Ones.
This passage deserves extremely close reading because it is so central to the problem of understanding and assessing Heinlein's fiction:
It was pleasant to be dead. Pleasant and peaceful, not monotonous. But a little bit lonely. He missed those others--serene Mordan, the dauntless gallantry of Phyllis, Cliff and his frozen face. And there was that funny little man, pathetic little man who ran the Milky Way Bar--what had he named him? He could see his face, but what had he named him? Herbie, Herbert, something like that--names didn't taste the same when words were gone. Why had he named him Herbert?
Never mind, The next time he would not choose to be a mathematician. Dull, tasteless stuff, mathematics--quite likely to give the game away before it was played out. No fun in the game if you knew the outcome. He had designed a game like that once, and called it Futility--no matter how you played, you had to win.
No, that wasn't himself, that was a player called Hamilton. Himself wasn't Hamilton--not this game. He was a geneticist--that was a good one!--a game within a game. Change the rules as you go along. Move the players around. Play tricks on yourself.
"Don't you peek and close your eyes,
"And I'll give you something to make a surprise!"
That was the essence of the game--surprise. You locked up your memory, and promised not to look, then played through the part you had picked with just the rules assigned to that player. Sometimes the surprises were pretty ghastly, though--he didn't like having his fingers burned off.
No! He hadn't played that position at all. That piece was an automatic, some of the pieces had to be. Himself had burned off that piece's fingers, though it seemed real at the time.
It was always like this on first waking up. It was always a little hard to remember which position Himself had played, forgetting that he had played all of the parts. Well, that was the game; it was the only game in town, and there was nothing else to do. Could he help it if the game was crooked? Even if he had made it up and played all the parts.
But he would think up another game the next time. Next time ...
And Hamilton Felix wakes.
Mordan is awake before him, and immediately Hamilton turns toward him--not surprising in view of the places his head has just been. One would think he would urgently need to know what Claude feels the world is like. But--he forgets the question. "There was something he wanted to ask Mordan, but it escaped him."
Or, as he knew in his dream state: "You locked up your memory, and promised not to look, then played through the part you had picked with just the rules assigned to that player."
Heinlein never refers to this nightmare passage again. His characters pick up the story where they had left it and proceed as though nothing has happened.
But much has happened, and if we look at it closely in view of our knowledge of the Mystical Solution, we can understand it. We said at the outset that in a science fiction story, a character comes to face a totally unknown aspect of the universe, both frightening and desirable. If the character does not surmount fear and desire, he will be cruelly wounded (like Bob Wilson) or eaten alive by monsters (as the characters of "Goldfish Bowl" effectively are). But if he is able to surrender attachment to his accustomed behaviors, if he meets the unknown with courage, love and unselfish purpose, then he will receive a necessary new power from the universe. That is to say, science fiction tells us that our personal evolutions at various times in our lives are achieved by a fractional version of the Mystical Solution. We enlarge ourselves by trading a lesser identification for a greater one.
Hamilton Felix has faced death unselfishly for purposes larger than himself. He has earned the right to ask his boon. He asks, and as is always the case, his answer is implicit in his question.
At the point of death, Hamilton Felix says: "The one thing that could give us some real basis for our living is to know for sure whether or not anything happens after we die. When we die, do we die all over--or don't we?"
And immediately he is given the answer. The answer that he is given is that we don't. The universe is Himself, under various names, in various aspects, appearing as one partialness or another. Hamilton Felix learns this, but after he has learned it, he cannot hold on to the information.
Because of this, he must continue his search. At Mordan Claude's suggestion, his society determines to invest great resources in the attempt to scientifically investigate the serious metaphysical questions, including survival after death. And Hamilton Felix is enlisted in the investigation.
Hamilton Felix has one advantage that Robert Heinlein lacked in 1942 in his own similar investigation. Hamilton has time, all the time until he dies, in which to conduct his search. This opportunity to search is enough to satisfy him. It was the boon he asked for at the point of death, and it is enough to satisfy. He has the children society wants him to have. And after five years of slow earnest investigation, he is presented with an intimation that keeps him happy--the strong likelihood of reincarnation.
Hamilton's final thought is: "It was a good world, he assured himself, filled with interesting things." But the thought rings hollow to anyone who remembers the protagonist of "They." The assurance is not reassuring to anyone who remembers the experience that Hamilton and Heinlein have forgotten.
In effect, Hamilton has made the same compromise that Heinlein made in 1939 when he began writing science fiction. And the compromise has not been satisfying to Heinlein--not completely satisfying, which is what he must have.
Why isn't Hamilton truly successful? He has a larger answer--the very largest--and then must labor to recover the shadow of a fraction of it. Why?
The reason is this: Hamilton Felix's unselfishness is compromised by his attachment to Hamilton Felix, that partial aspect of the true reality--Himself. (Himself, who links the three viewpoint characters of the story; Hamilton, Mordan, and frozen-faced Cliff, whose significant name in full is MonroeAlpha Clifford.) When Hamilton asks "do we die all over?" he is not asking about the true reality, Himself. He is asking about that temporary matrix filled by Himself--Hamilton Felix, who must perish.
Now, early in the story, Hamilton Felix sees through mere survival. "Survival! What for?" Survival for its own sake seems futile to him. But when the crunch comes, all that he knows to ask for is survival--survival in order to do more investigation of the reason for life. That is what he asks for and that is what he gets. Hamilton's and Heinlein's attachment to the ego--which blinds them to their Himselfness--is apparent in the central scene. In this scene, Heinlein doubts the Himselfness of some human beings: "That piece was an automatic, some of the pieces had to be." But there are no automatic pieces. All that exists is Himself. And all humans have the potential to recognize that fact. lt is what makes us human. Hamilton Felix is given the opportunity to recognize that fact as consequence of his unselfishness. But he cannot hold on to it. No one can who believes that his ego is ultimate. Hamilton's selfishness is his limitation.
As the Mystical Solution, truly recognized, has it: If one remembers one's true nature and can be continuingly above ego, constantly unselfish, there is no limit to what can be requested of the universe and received. But if one forgets one's Himselfness and clutches the ego, then necessarily memory will be locked away and one will be doomed to play through "the part you had picked with just the rules assigned to that player."
The sad, grieving, weary, tragic quality that infects Hamilton's central and soon forgotten vision is not accidental. Beyond This Horizon is ultimately as much a story of unnecessary failure as "By His Bootstraps."
Background courtesy of Eos Development