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Reflections: Rereading Heinlein
by Robert Silverberg
 

 

The summer of 2007 saw the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Robert A. Heinlein’s birth—an event well worth celebrating for those of us who love science fiction, because Heinlein is the writer from whom all that is significant in modern science fiction descends. It behooves me, therefore, to take a look at Heinlein next in this ongoing series of rereadings of science fiction classics, and the book of his that I’ve chosen to revisit is one of his earliest—Beyond This Horizon, his third novel. It was first published in the April and May 1942 issues of Astounding Science Fiction and is still in print in book form.

 

Heinlein was so prolific back then at the beginning of his career that he needed to put a pseudonym, “Anson MacDonald,” on Beyond This Horizon so that it wouldn’t seem to the readers of Astounding that one man was writing the entire magazine. He made his debut there in 1939 with two short stories, and then his fiction was present in six 1940 issues, eight of the twelve 1941 issues (with two serialized novels and eight short stories), and four 1942 issues before he went off to do military research in World War II. By the time Beyond This Horizon appeared, his distinctive writing style must have been so familiar to Astounding’s readers that no one could have failed to recognize the Heinlein touch behind the “Anson MacDonald” false whiskers. These are the novel’s astonishing opening lines:

 

Hamilton Felix let himself off at the thirteenth level of the Department of Finance, mounted a slideway to the left, and stepped off the strip at a door marked:

BUREAU OF ECONOMIC STATISTICS

Office of Analysis and
Prediction

Director

PRIVATE

He punched the door with a code combination, and awaited face check. It came properly, the door dilated, and a voice inside said, “Come in, Felix.”

 

What is so astonishing about that passage, which must seem to modern readers as though anybody could have written it, is that no one had ever written science fiction like that before. Mounted a slideway. Heinlein doesn’t describe it. He just tells you that that’s how you move around in the future. Awaited face check. The door is scanning people. The door dilated. It didn’t simply open; it dilated. So we know that we are in a future where iris-aperture doors are standard items. And we are only a dozen lines or so into the world of Beyond This Horizon.

 

In an essay on Heinlein that I wrote on the occasion of his death at the age of seventy-nine, in 1988, I said this, which needs no rephrasing now, about the way Heinlein wrote:

 

In one flabbergasting two-year outpouring of material for a single magazine, Heinlein had completely reconstructed the nature of science fiction, just as in the field of general modern fiction Ernest Hemingway, in the 1920s, had redefined the modern novel. No one who has written fiction since 1927 or so can fail to take into account Hemingway’s theory and practice without seeming archaic or impossibly naïve; no one since 1941 has written first-rate science fiction without a comprehension of the theoretical and practical example set by Heinlein.

The nature of his accomplishment was manifold. His underlying conceptual structures were strikingly intelligent, rooted in an engineer’s appreciation of the way things really work. His narrative method was brisk, efficient, and lucid. His stories were stocked with recognizable human beings rather than the stereotypes of the mad-scientist era. And—his main achievement—he did away with the lengthy footnotes of the Gernsback school and the clumsy, apologetic expository inserts of the pulp-magazine hacks and found an entirely new way to communicate the essence of the unfamiliar worlds in which his characters had to operate. Instead of pausing to explain, he simply thrust character and reader alike into those worlds and let communication happen through experience. He didn’t need to tell us how his future societies worked or what their gadgets did. We saw the gadgets functioning; we saw the societies operating at their normal daily levels. And we figured things out as we went along, because Heinlein had left us no choice.

 

Hence that slideway. Hence that dilating door. We all write that way today. But no one had written like that before Heinlein.

 

Beyond This Horizon is short, as novels go—sixty thousand words or so. It covers an amazing amount of thematic ground: a society built on mandatory eugenic manipulation that enforces civility in daily life by legal and ritualized duels with hand weapons, plus an examination of how telepathy works, plus the search for the meaning and purpose of life, plus the exploration of a post-capitalistic non-socialist economic system, and much more. About five pages into the book Heinlein shows us—in 1942!—a computer collecting and processing economic data so that production and consumption can best be balanced by the bureaucracy in charge of such matters. (“All of these symbols, the kind that jingle and the kind that fold and, most certainly, the kind that are only abstractions from the signed promise of an honest man . . . passed through the bottle neck formed by Monroe-Alpha’s computer, and appeared there in terms of angular speeds, settings of three-dimensional cams, electronic flow, voltage biases, et complex cetera. The manifold constitutes a dynamic abstracted structural picture of the economic flow of a hemisphere.”) This is followed by a quick trip through the futuristic economic system and then a demonstration of how that archaic weapon, the Colt .45 pistol, worked. All this in the first half-dozen pages.

A few pages later, just in passing, Heinlein invents the waterbed. (“The water rose gently under the skin of the mattress until he floated, dry and warm and snug.”) And we see the way legitimized dueling serves to maintain common courtesy. (“An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.”) Anyone who was driving the Los Angeles freeways in the early 1980s, when angry drivers were likely to express their displeasure with pistol-shots, will understand that principle. Blasting away at drivers who annoy you is not the best way to encourage safe driving, perhaps, but the fad, while it lasted, did tend to make everyone extremely aware of the rules of the road. Heinlein saw that forty years before.

 

Beyond This Horizon, short as it is, is a sprawling, chaotic novel. By the usual conventions of plot construction it’s downright disorganized. (The first two thirds of the book, covering perhaps a couple of months, deal with the attempt by government eugenicists to convince the superman-protagonist that he really ought to pass his superior genes along to the next generation. Then, after a brief and strikingly clumsy depiction of a failed revolution against that government, the final third of the story takes five years to show the protagonist marrying, siring two superchildren, and involving himself in a project that seeks to determine whether there is life after death.)

Flaws in narrative technique abound. A man who has been in suspended animation since 1926 is brought back to life, and one expects Heinlein to use him the way Huxley used the character known as the Savage in Brave New World, a foil against which the special features of his futuristic utopia can be more clearly depicted. But in fact Heinlein does almost nothing with him, forgetting him for nearly a hundred pages and then bringing him back in the most perfunctory way. There are sudden shifts in viewpoint, too. Crucial scenes take place off stage. Coincidences coincide. Et cetera, et cetera.

One can explain this odd excuse for conventional narrative method by saying that Heinlein in the fourth year of his career was still a novice writer who didn’t really know what he was doing. Maybe so: no doubt that his plotting skills would improve vastly over the decades, as a glance at such mature work as 1966’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress will prove. But I think that’s too glib a dismissal. What is going on in Beyond This Horizon, I believe, is that Heinlein’s basic intention is to take us on a tour of a fascinating future society built out of many of his own libertarian social concepts, and he does it by putting his characters through the rudiments of a standard pulp-magazine story, just well enough constructed so that we move willingly through event after event toward some understanding of what his future world is all about. He was concerned, in all his novels, with the Big Issues: How can we construct a workable commonwealth? How must we conduct ourselves within such a society? Why, for that matter, are we alive at all? His novels are moral parables. He asks the same sort of hard questions that Socrates did, couching them in the form of science fiction rather than as philosophical dialogues. And he holds us, as did Socrates, through his personal charm, through the clean lines of his efficient unfancy prose, and through the sparkle of his ideas—not through the tightness of any kind of unified plot.

 

It’s a lively book. It’s a funny book. It’s not a perfect book. But it captured my attention just as firmly now as it did when I first read it more than half a century ago. It’s pure Heinlein, the real thing in one of its earliest incarnations. As I wrote soon after his death, he was “a great writer, an extraordinary man, a figure of high nobility; there was no one else remotely like him in our field.” Beyond This Horizon, for all its quaintnesses of style and its flaws of plotting and its occasional outmoded social assumptions (the absurd boy-meets-girl sequences are stunning examples of that), nevertheless shows why so many of us still revere both the man and his work.

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"Reflections: Rereading Heinlein" by Robert Silverberg , copyright © 2007 Agberg, with permission of the author.

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