The Rise and Fall of Astounding Science-Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 26, 2018

AstoundingOn October 23, 2018, the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction was remembered in two ways. First, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series came in at #49 on the PBS Great American Read, and second, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee was published.

For a subgroup of the G.I., Silent and Baby Boomer generations, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was from 1939 to 1950, and mostly due to one magazine, Astounding Science-Fiction under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. There was one other book in the PBS Great American Read where Campbell was the first editor to buy – that was Dune by Frank Herbert, which came in at #35. So, Campbell had two books in the top 50, not a bad legacy. Dune appeared in his magazine just after the name changed to Analog Science Fact & Fiction.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s new book, Astounding, isn’t the first history of the magazine, and I doubt it will be the last. As I listened to the audiobook edition I thought about all the ways writers have tried to tell the story of Astounding and the golden age of science fiction. Alva Rogers in Requiem for Astounding did an issue by issue overview. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a memoir about how the magazine shaped his youth in Astounding Days. And Alexei and Cory Panshin focused heavily on Astounding, Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, and van Vogt in their Hugo winning book, The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence. All those books focused on the stories. Nevala-Lee focuses on Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, giving us the biographical background to the editor and his three most famous writers.

There’s been plenty written about Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, but other than tributes and collections of letters, I’m not sure how much has been written about John W. Campbell, and he is the real focus of Nevala-Lee’s book. However, his story is so intertwined with the magazine and his famous writers that Astounding is a history of the magazine and a biography of four men.

Reading Astounding was both rewarding and depressing. It’s depressing because we endure the painful deaths of all four subjects, but even worse than that, they all fall from grace. I’m not sure if I should reveal what they become. If I did, some would call it spoilers, but others might call them trigger-warnings. Let’s just say this is a tell-all biography where Nevala-Lee gives us the best and worst on each man. All four men were autodidactic know-it-alls. All four men were egomaniacs. Three, maybe four, had severe delusions of grandeur. All four were hard on wives and women, and at least two of them would have thrown out of pop culture if they lived during #MeToo times. One turns out to be white-supremacist and another started a religion and has been defied by his followers, even though Nevala-Lee makes it abundantly clear he was a pathological liar, and his church is often vilified and has a reputation of being a paranoid cult.

Despite all of this, Astounding is a valuable history book on an important era of science fiction. By combining the four biographies, Nevala-Lee shows us the wizards behind the curtain. Yes, in many ways, they were all humbugs, but in many other ways, they were genuine magicians. Campbell and all the writers of Astounding Science-Fiction created art that inspired a generation. Astounding Science-Fiction was essential to the evolution of the art form we know today as science fiction.

There has always been a problem calling 1939-1950 the golden age of science fiction because for many people it wasn’t. I’ve been systematically reading The Great SF Stories volumes 1-25 (1939-1964) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I’ve finished the first seven volumes, and I’ve got to say, many of the stories are forgettable. Nearly all the stories come from Campbell’s two magazines, Astounding Science-Fiction and Unknown. I’m sure these stories were mind-blowing back in the 1940’s, but there’s been much better science fiction written since using the same ideas and themes. In 1957 Peter Graham said in a fanzine called Void, that “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” That deeply perceptive observation has been accepted as truth ever since. I turned 12 in late 1963, and the science fiction I discovered was published in the 1950’s. Some of it was reprints from Astounding in the 1940’s, and others were stories that appeared in F&SF, Galaxy, and IF, the Young Turks that usurped Astounding’s reign in the 1950’s, as well as original science fiction books that began being published that decade. Today, I generally think of the 1950’s as the golden age of science fiction, and I’m sure people younger than I feel the same way about the decade they first read when discovering science fiction.

This alternate view of the golden age of science fiction will probably limit the audience to Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee, but it’s already the #1 book in Amazon’s Science Fiction and Fantasy section. Today it is quite common for young people, especially women and minorities, to dismiss older science fiction as being too white-male dominated from an unenlightened era. Nevala-Lee’s book will only reinforce those beliefs. However, I think it’s important to read this book. It does capture the ambitiousness of science fiction’s most ambitious proponents.

Science fiction changed dramatically in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and again this century. I routinely read science fiction stories from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Surprisingly, the ideas and themes remain consistent, but not the storytelling and characters. Science fiction authors have become much more sophisticated writers creating deeper and diverse characters. I see Nevala-Lee’s book as one piece in a very large puzzle. If you look for them, you’ll find plenty of books being written today on the history of science fiction. Most remain obscure and little read. I’m surprised that Astounding is getting all the attention it’s getting. Does it represent a tip of an iceberg of science fiction fans hungering to know more about the evolution of their favorite genre? Or, has all the science fiction fans from my generation suddenly become nostalgic for Astounding again?

I worry if younger science fiction fans read Astounding they may be turned off to 1940’s and 1950’s science fiction. All four men in Nevala-Lee’s book eventually come across as emotionally flawed, delusional, egomaniacal, and if not diagnosable with several DSM disorders, at least very nutty. Until the genre label “science fiction” emerged in the 1950’s, people would call it “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” I’m afraid the history in Astounding will only reinforce the crackpot reputation of science fiction.

This isn’t a criticism of the book, Nevala-Lee is just telling it like it was. But I believe readers need more context. I’m not sure people today have any idea what the psychological fallout the first atomic bombs, ICBMs, and Sputnik did to the citizens of the 1940’s and 1950’s. They all were looking desperately for answers to monumental existential threats. The stress was tremendous. Many thought the world was coming to an end. Psychiatry almost became a fad in the 1950’s, including experimental use of LSD under psychiatric supervision.

I’m not depressed that Nevala-Lee reveals how science fiction went nuts, but I wished he would have put its breakdown in the context of how everyone was going nutty back then. We look back with embarrassment to Campbell’s embrace of psychic powers, but a large segment of the country was doing the same thing.

I was born in 1951, so I grew up with the 1950’s. I remember my uncles raving about the psychic powers of Edgar Cayce and Jean Dixon, believing in the past lives of Bridie Murphy, excited by the multiple personalities of Eve, and dedicated followers the UFO nut, George Adamski. Nevala-Lee doesn’t mention how crazy America was in the 1950’s, so it seems Campbell is a standout nutter. He wasn’t. He was the mansplainer to mansplainers. He would pontificate to experts in their fields on their own subjects, telling them where they were ignoramuses.

I’ve also read other biographies of Heinlein as well as several biographies of Philip K. Dick, along with many interviews with SF writers of this era. It’s very hard to capture the crazy times from Hiroshima to Woodstock. And if you compare those times to our times, you’ll see that most people believed a lot of crazy crap by then. Of, sure, we still believe a lot of crazy crapola today, but those true believers in weirdness are far fewer now. And it is a fact that back then almost everyone had horrible prejudices and were unenlightened to equality. I’d like to believe society has evolved, and the percentage of crazy and prejudice people are down from those times. Of course, recent events suggest they were only hiding.

My one criticism of Astounding is by focusing on the biographies of Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard Nevala-Lee didn’t convey the tremendous excitement and variety of the science fiction stories that Campbell published. And that probably wasn’t his goal. To most fans, Astounding Science-Fiction magazine was by far the best science fiction magazine of the times because of the stories. They didn’t care about the lives of the editors and writers. I hope future historians of this era include the other magazines like Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder, Startling Stories, Planet Stories, and Astonishing Science Fiction. I’m not sure Astounding deserves all of the attention and credit.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s book is one of a coalescing history. It is valuable because of its biographical slant. I wished he could have included more biographies of Campbell’s writers in his book, especially A. E. van Vogt, C. L. Moore, Clifford Simak, Hal Clement, Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, Ross Rocklynne, L. Sprague de Camp, and many more. Here is a list of all the stories that appeared in Astounding from July 1939 to September 1960.

Nevala-Lee’s book reminds me of the Beats. They were a literary subculture from the 1950’s that biographers can’t let go of. The Beat library keeps growing. I think the subculture of science fiction is attracting interest in the same way, and Alec Nevala-Lee is helping it by promoting the cult of the character. Heinlein, Asimov, Hubbard, and Campbell remind me of Kerouac, Cassidy, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Over time, I believe the science fiction generation of the 1940’s and 1950’s will be remembered in biographies like The Transcendentalists, The Lost Generation, and The Beats.

Finally, I would like to also recommend The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. It is coming to the Kindle next month and is currently just $3.99 for pre-ordering. And if you’d like to actually read copies of old Astoundings, click here.


The Great SF Stories 1 (1939)

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 5, 2018

I’m having BIG fun reading old science fiction short stories. However, are there valid justifications for spending so much time reading old science fiction when I could be reading shiny new stories instead?  Or even spend that time reading high-quality literary works or vastly more informative nonfiction? I have to confess a sense of guilt. I worry I’m wasting my time slumming in a pulp fiction past.



For some reason, I’m being drawn into a self-imposed project of sequentially reading annual anthologies of the best science fiction short stories starting with 1939. I picked that year because The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) is the earliest annual anthology series I could find. I’ve been soul-searching trying to understand why I want to do this, but so far my psyche hasn’t provided any conclusive insight. I have made these rationalizations:

  • I’ve been reading science fiction for over a half-century and want to make sense of that obsession.
  • I’m fascinated by the evolution of science fiction and its themes.
  • I think I actually get more science fictional bang for my buck out of short stories.
  • I’m trying to decide what’s unique about science fiction literature.
  • I’m trying to decide if science fiction has any value other than entertainment.
  • I’m wondering which stories are truly worth preserving.
  • As I progress through the years I want to see how cultural change is reflected in science fiction.
  • I wonder if old science fiction is worth preserving.
  • Finally, I wonder if this is a form of exorcism, where I’m trying to wrap up my relationship with science fiction. I assume if I study it thoroughly enough I’ll learn how all the magic tricks are accomplished.

Because the web now provides access to old pulp magazines I wish I had the time and patience to just read everything from each year — but I can’t. Most of those old stories are just crap. And even the best stories aren’t really that good by modern literary standards. I figure I have the time and patience to read one or two annual anthologies per month, covering 12-24 years a year. This means that I might have a pretty good knowledge of short science fiction by the time I’m 70.

The Great SF Stories series were edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. They began in 1979 with #1 (1939) and ended in 1992 with #25 (1963). I assumed Greenberg did all the work and Asimov added a bit of pithy memory under Greenberg’s short introduction to each story. These old DAW paperbacks generally run $10-60 on eBay. I got volumes 1-12 in a reprint hardback edition that collected two years for each volume. Those 6 volumes were renamed the Golden Years of SF. I think I was able to get all six for less than $40 including shipping. I’m working on buying #13-25. There is a certain symmetry of using this series because they cover science fiction 12 years before the year I was born and continue for 12 years after. They end just about the time I started reading the then current annuals edited by Judith Merril.

Here is the table of contents of #1 from ISFDB. The story link will take you back to ISFDB where you can see where the story has been anthologized over the years. That’s a good indication of its lasting value. Many were well anthologized in the 1950s and 1960s, and have since disappeared from cultural memory.

Were these the best science fiction short stories of 1939? Did Asimov and Greenberg leave out any better SF because they couldn’t obtain the reprint rights or weren’t to their tastes? I’m mostly going to talk about the stories I liked most, and if I can find some other stories from 1939 that I liked that Asimov/Greenberg didn’t collect.

My current favorite science fiction short stories for 1939 are:

  1. “Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp (not in GreatSF#1)
  2. “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey
  3. “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam
  4. “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt
  5. “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp
  6. “I, Robot” by Eando Binder
  7. “Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. “The Four-Side Triangle” by William F. Temple
  9. “Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore
  10. “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein
  11. “Pilgrimage” by Nelson S. Bond
  12. “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman

Jamie Todd Rubin discovered a letter in an April 1940 issue of Astounding by Isaac Asimov where 20-year-old Asimov listed his Top 10 stories of 1939. (Be sure to read Rubin’s “Vacation in the Golden Age of Science Fiction” if you love old SF short stories. I guess I’m not vacationing in the golden age of SF.)

Notice the overlap and difference between what was decided by Asimov/Greenberg in 1979 and the 1940 letter to the editor.

  1. One Against the Legion by Jack Williamson (serial novel)
  2. Lifeline by Robert Heinlein (in GreatSF#1)
  3. Gray Lensman by E. E. Smith (serial novel)
  4. Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak (serial novel)
  5. The Day Is Done by Lester del Rey (in GreatSF#1)
  6. Rope Trick by Eando Binder
  7. Nothing Happens on the Moon by Paul Ernst
  8. General Swamp, C.I.C. by Frederick Engelhardt
  9. Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam (in GreatSF#1)
  10. Smallest God by Lester del Rey

Back to The Great Short SF Stories 1, I wished Greenberg had not included the obvious fantasy stories. They could have included three more SF stories for 1939. “The Trouble with Water,” “The Misguided Halo,” and “Star Bright” just don’t belong in a collection called Great SF Stories.

Greenberg also included a second story by L. Sprague de Camp, “The Blue Giraffe” that had a nice science-fictional idea, but it paled in comparison to his standout story, “The Gnarly Man.” I would have used de Camp’s “Living Fossil” instead of “The Blue Giraffe” because it’s another standout story. “Living Fossil” had a much bigger SF idea — essentially prefiguring Planet of the Apes (1963). The idea was expanded by de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller in the novel Genus Homo that came out in 1941 in magazine form and 1950 in book form.

What if The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) could have included all the better SF stories from 1939 worth preserving? How many would that be? Asimov and Greenberg mainly focused on Astounding.

How is preserving worthiness decided? That’s hard to say. There are stories like “The Cloak of Aesir” by John W. Campbell that just didn’t turn me on at all. Should the personal tastes of the anthologist be the deciding factor? If we go by literary quality I’m not sure any of these stories are worth remembering.

Even though these stories entertained me I’m not sure I would recommend them to my friends my age, or younger readers. Science fiction from 1939 represents such a unique perspective on reality that I’m not sure they will be meaningful to many readers. I expect only old hardcore SF fans like myself who grew up reading these stories in the 1950s and 1960s will actually enjoy reading The Great SF Stories #1.

The only reason I can find for reading these stories is for understanding their influence on science fiction’s evolution. In terms of entertainment value, they can’t compete with modern science fiction found on Netflix or Amazon Prime. To a young person watching TV science fiction, 2018 science fiction is like shooting fentanyl and 1939 stories are like a watery Coors.

Ultimately, I decided the value of reading old science fiction comes from the pleasure of being an archeologist of science fictional ideas and themes. Think about it this way. There was a time in your life before you knew the concept of time travel. Can you remember when you first encountered it? The first time you conceive of traveling in time is mind-blowing. Of course, science fiction is so pervasive in our society that most children encounter all the classic ideas of science fiction before they go to school. They probably can’t remember the first time.

When I read these old stories I pay attention to the idea put across, and the historical context in which it was first created. I’m hoping by reading all these years of science fiction short stories will help me compile a list of themes and cite the progression of ideas through the years in the stories.

Here are briefly some of the themes I noticed from 1939. Over time I wish to expand them into full essays. I’ll try to avoid story specifics in case there are people who actually want to still read these stories. Even if you can’t find a copy of The Great SF Stories #1, most of the original magazines are available online for free. I read them with my iPad Mini by loading them in Dropbox.


There are two robot stories in this collection. The subject of “I, Robot” by Eando Binder is the first intelligent machine. “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam is about the last three robots on Earth. Both stories use robots for their POV, with Adam Link in “I, Robot” even using the first-person. I previously wrote, “I, Robot” by Eando Binder” to explain why I thought it a standout story in the history of fictional robots. In 1939 few people knew about computers. In fact, the term computer was a job classification for humans. I also like that Adam Link tells us his limitations.

“Rust” combines several SF themes, including the extinction of humanity, the extinction of robots, the creation of artificial intelligence, and programmed behavior. The robots in the story wonder why humans couldn’t overcome their instincts and they regret that their programming makes them kill. This is an early story of fearing the consequences of military robots.

“Rust” is a wistful story about the last three intelligent robots after man has become extinct, reminding me of Clifford Simak’s stories about robots telling each other tales of mythical mankind. I assume Simak read Astounding Science Fiction since his serial novel Cosmic Engineers ran in the magazine during 1939, so he probably read “Rust.”

“I, Robot” and “Rust” make bookend robot stories to include in this anthology of 1939. “I, Robot” is about the first intelligent robot, and “Rust” is about the last. Men want to kill Adam Link, but X-120 regrets exterminating humanity but blames humans for designing him to be a weapon. At one point X-120 obliterates a poor rabbit only to feel terrible remorse.  Unlike Asimov’s robots, the robot X-120 was programmed to kill.


There are two stories in The Great SF Stories #1 about Neanderthals: “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp and “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey. Both are about the last Neanderthal, however “The Gnarly Man” develops another science fiction theme, immortality. So in one story, the last Neanderthal was in the distant past, and the second he’s still living with us today. This idea has been bouncing around ever SF ever since, including “The Alley Man” by Philip Jose Farmer in a 1959 issue of F&SF, and recently in the 2007 film, The Man from Earth.

“The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey really grabbed me emotionally and is about the passing of a Neanderthal man who was living on Cro-Magnon charity. “The Day is Done” suggests Neanderthals interbred with modern man, which wasn’t a common belief back in 1939, but is considered fact today. It’s a lovely story that’s been often reprinted. You’d think stories Neanderthal life would be filed under historical fiction, but for some reason, science fiction has claimed them. See “5 SF/F Novels About Neanderthals That Aren’t The Clan of the Cave Bear” that barely mentions a few of them. I think the first story I remember reading on this theme was Mists of Dawn by Chad Oliver from the old Winston Science Fiction series. Asimov and Greenberg even did a whole anthology of such stories called Neanderthals.

Dangerous Aliens

This is one of the wonderful benefits of reading old science fiction is discovering the origin of popular modern SF stories. Ideas in new stories we read today are often old ideas being recycled. Anyone who knows “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt assumes the film Alien (1979) is its descendant — and Van Vogt shows us Coeurl’s POV, which is missing from H. R. Giger’s horrifying being.

“Black Destroyer” is a wonderful story on many levels. It feels like an episode of Star Trek, and this 1939 novelette includes many ideas that the 1960s TV show would explore in multiple episodes. The crew doesn’t include women, but it did have an important Japanese member.

“Cloak of Aesir” by John W. Campbell is another kind of alien invasion story, where superior beings take over the Earth and enslave humans.  It also involves the SF themes of Far Futures, Super Science, Psychic Powers, and Matriarchial Societies.

Prejudice Against Science

Both “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein and “Trends” by Isaac Asimov are about anti-science prejudice. Of course, Heinlein’s idea was nutty, but he gave a decent enough explanation. I wondered if Heinlein and Asimov were reflecting anti-SF bias they felt from 1939 society. Science fiction and pulp magazines were considered trashy. Good parents didn’t let their kids reach such crap. SF fans often had to hide what they read, even though they thought of themselves as Slans (superior beings).

Both of these stories were about something else, predicting death and rocket travel, but I felt ultimately they were about prejudice to new ideas. When I was young I didn’t like “Life-Line” even though Heinlein was my favorite writer. But over the years, each time I reread “Life-Line” it gets better. For a first story, Heinlein was fairly savvy about storytelling, especially for writing for the pulps.

Mankind’s Extinction

Both “Rust” and “Living Fossil” a favorite story from 1939 not in this collection were about a time after humans went extinct. H. G. Wells started that idea I think in The Time Machine when he imagined the Eloi and Morlocks replacing us. Science fiction has often contemplated the end of humans, and well as our replacements.

“Living Fossil” did quite a lot for such a short story. De Camp nicely imagines monkeys from South America evolving our level of development millions of years after humans have disappeared. Even the interior illustration makes me wonder if Pierre Boulle ripped this story off for his novel Planet of the Apes. Evidently, L. Sprague de Camp isn’t as litigious as Harlan Ellison.

Living Fossil by L. Sprague de Camp - Astounding 1939 Feb

Matriarchial Societies

In “Pilgrimage” by Nelson Bond, we visit a far distant future after our society has long disappeared from the scene. Women rule. All the myths are about women gods. In “Cloak of Aesir” the alien invaders are ruled by the female of the species. I first encountered this idea in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman from 1915. Goodreads lists 115 such books. Wikipedia has an article on “Single Gender Worlds.”

Psychic Powers

I thought psychic powers was an obsession of 1950s Astounding Science Fiction, but evidently, John W. Campbell had been thinking about it at least as early as “Cloak of Aesir” in 1939. “Star Bright” by Jack Williamson is a fantasy story about a man getting magical abilities from a meteorite piercing his skull and lodging in his brain.

“Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore is a powerful story about people in the far future projecting their thoughts to a man in our near future. Moore’s story is really about two roads the people of Earth could take in 1939. She just used psychic powers to show us two possible far-future outcomes–one a world united by power driven men (think Hitler), and the other a decadent world of peace and pleasure. Moore doesn’t want either, but she shows how both entice us.

Hard Science

There were two hard science stories in The Great SF Stories #1. The first was “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman that anticipates Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity. The second is Heinlein’s “Misfit” about a spaced based future CCC unit moving a small asteroid out of the asteroid belt into an orbit closer to Mars, making it into a long-term space station. Heinlein promotes the use of mathematics, discipline, and hard work. This could be his first juvenile SF story.


I really enjoyed these old stories, but I’m not sure younger people will. The storytelling is often crude. Modern science fiction on Netflix is far more sophisticated, colorful, exciting, and dynamic. I am constantly pleased while reading these old stories to unearth ideas we still use today. I feel like a science fiction archeologist piecing together the evolution of science fictional ideas. That’s very rewarding to me. Throughout this collection of 1939 stories, I found ideas that first amazed me in the 1960s when reading 1950s and 1960s science fiction. I thought those ideas were original back then. Evidently not. But were they original in 1939?

I assume if you live long enough you start thinking like the person who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes. I also assume if I could time travel back to 450 BCE I’d find people telling stories that contained the seeds of all the stories in The Great SF Stories #1 (1939).


What Writers Influenced Heinlein, Twain, Kerouac, PKD, and Alcott?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 29, 2018

I need some help. I’m trying to find out what writers influenced Robert A. Heinlein, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Philip K. Dick, and Louisa May Alcott. Bookworms love to talk about their favorite authors, but do we ever research our favorite writers’ writers? I especially want to know what they read before their first successful books.


I believe much of my thinking was shaped by what I read. The five writers above are the authors I’ve read about the most. I’ve read many books about each of them. I don’t necessarily mean these are my favorite authors, but their lives have become compelling reading for me. I even wrote about these writers before in “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.” My poor memory has not retained exact details from their biographies. I do have some vague memories of what they read, but instead of spending a lot of time rereading those biographies I thought I’d post a query here. I assume some of y’all might know a lot about these writers.

The writer I remember best talking about the books that influenced him was Heinlein. He often mentioned H. G. Wells and James Branch Cabell. But then, Heinlein wrote a book Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984) which riffs off of Cabell’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919). I also have to assume Heinlein loved Edgar Rice Burroughs and L. Frank Baum because of The Number of the Beast and his other “World as Myth” multiverse novels. Finally, I also have to assume Heinlein loved Jerome K. Jerome, because he includes references to Three Men in a Boat in my favorite Heinlein story, Have Space Suit-Will Travel. But this is a lot of assumptions. Does anyone know different about Heinlein? I have to wonder if Heinlein was influenced by Upton Sinclair or Ayn Rand.

Philip K. Dick is even harder. PKD was a voracious reader. My friend Mike found “List of Influences on Philip K. Dick” for me, but I’m not sure I trust it. The list cites quotes from Dick, but it seems like he’s putting on airs. I can believe A. E. van Vogt, because van Vogt was a major science fiction writer when Dick was growing up. And I might buy “The novels that influenced my writing when I was in my late teens and early twenties, were the French realistic novels…Flaubert, Stendahl, Balzac, et al…” because he mentions them more than once. And I can readily believe “I liked the short stories of James T. Farrell very much. They had a tremendous influence on me in the short story form” because of PKD’s short stories. He also said, “I was very very very influenced by Nathaniel West for a while…” which I can believe because I’ve read West. But why doesn’t he mention more science fiction writers since he wrote so much science fiction?  If you know more about what PKD read let me know.

I just can’t remember anything about Twain’s reading. Since he was born in 1835, his formative reading years would have been the late 1840s and 1850s. I know he skewered a lot of writers like James Fenimore Cooper. I don’t think Twain and Alcott liked each others’ work. We might assume Twain admired satirical writers like Swift, but I haven’t found anything to verify that. Alcott grew up knowing Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, but did they influence her? She loved the pulp fiction of her day.

I’ve read many biographies on Kerouac and I think I remember him liking Proust, Thomas Wolfe, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Again, I’m not sure. I can’t imagine Kerouac not being influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Joyce. Wasn’t the Beat Generation in reaction to the Lost Generation?

Searching Google for these answers is annoying. I have to constantly rephrase my query. When I finally asked: “What books did Jack Kerouac love to read?” I got Kerouac’s Top 40. But most of the other results were about the books Kerouac wrote. The same search didn’t work for the other writers.

I’m hoping this will reach fans of these writers and you might know what I want to know. Please leave a comment if you do. Thanks.


Waiting for Heinlein

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 14, 2017

Are you disappointed your life hasn’t turned out like the stories you love? Would I feel this way now if I had loved literary fiction instead of science fiction? In the last third of my life, I’m cherishing nineteenth-century English novels and early twentieth-century American novels, realizing they would have been better preparation for my life – the life I got instead of the one I wanted. Science fiction is as wondrous as any religion but as frustrating as a Samuel Beckett play. Of course, doesn’t religion and science fiction promise futures that will never arrive?

Robert Heinlein

I’ve been waiting a long time for the future to get here – sixty years by one reckoning. And I must admit, sometimes I feel the fringes of Tomorrowland when I use my smartphone, but for the most part, I’m still waiting for Heinlein to show up. Other writers have complained about not getting their jetpack, but they had such foolish gadgets back in the sixties.

I’m waiting for interplanetary rocketships with long sleek hulls, that land on four fins with thrusters, or interstellar spaceships like the U.S.S. Enterprise. Reading about extrasolar planets is encouraging, but it ain’t what Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke promised with tales of visiting them.

I’m also waiting for robots like Asimov and Simak promised. I do talk to Alexa, but she has no soul. And I enjoy seeing the little robots DIY people make with a Raspberry Pi board, but I think we should have robots well beyond the ones we saw in Forbidden Planet and Lost in Space.

Do we screw up kids by letting them read science fiction and fantasy? Even before I discovered Robert A. Heinlein at age 12 in 1964, I had absorbed a great deal of science fiction via an old black and white television my family bought in 1955. Should we judge reality by our dreams? Would we have invented everything that makes us human by accepting reality as it is?

Maybe fantasies are fine except we should be more discerning when creating them.

I don’t know if this is too sick to admit, but as a kid, I was disappointed that WWIII didn’t happen. All those 1950s movies about mutants and last people on Earth had its allure. Living like Harry Belafonte in The World, The Flesh and the Devil seemed great, especially after Inger Stevens arrives. (Like Harry’s character, I could have done without the Mel Ferrer’s character.)

And even though the robots in Target Earth were scary, I liked them, although I didn’t love them like I loved Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was a shame learning in the 1960s that our 1950s flying saucers dreams were flaky and fake. It was somewhat redeeming when we got to see Closer Encounters of the Third Kind in the 1970s, but it really was too late, at least for believing in Have Space Suit-Will Travel adventures.

It was crushing in 1972 when we stopped going to the Moon. From reading Heinlein I was positive humans would reach the red planet by the end of that decade and build colonies there in the 1980s. I thought before I died (which I imagined being around the mid-21st century), I’d leave life knowing that interstellar travel was in the preparation phase.

I’ve written this essay before. I’ll probably write it again many times before I die. The feelings that inspire these thoughts come out again and again. I wanted more science fictional dreams to come true in my lifetime. Of course, I also expected more of my liberal dreams to unfold before I died too, but Donald Trump has crushed them. Books, especially those we read when we’re young give us a kind of hope that never goes away. I know the hopes I got from science fiction are no more practical than the hopes the faithful get from reading The Bible. Does needing the impossible mean we’re stupid? Or do those desires shape our souls?

The thing that distinguishes science fiction from religion is the belief that humans can build rockets that will take us to the stars. The faithful believe God will take them to heaven. Maybe my frustration with the future is it takes longer than a lifetime to get where I dream of going.

I still embrace three science fictional hopes that could come true before I die. The first is SETI. I’m not sure humans will ever travel to other star systems, but we might get messages from beings living light years away. Second, even if we don’t get a message from ET, I hope astronomy will eventually detect atmospheres with spectrographic evidence of advanced life on extrasolar planets. Finally, I hope AI minds arrive. Many people fear artificial intelligence will wipe out humans, but I hope they will help us evolve. Our species is smart, but I don’t think we’re smart enough to survive self-extinction. AI minds could save us from our own stupidity.

I’ve been waiting my whole life to live my favorite stories of Robert A. Heinlein. That’s quite childish of me. On the other hand, I could have followed in my father’s footsteps. He died an alcoholic at age 49. I always assumed he drank because he couldn’t achieve his childhood aspirations. I’ve often wondered if science fiction was my alcohol. At least science fiction has kept me alive longer.

Like Vladimir and Estragon, my old friend Connell and I have been arguing about the future since 1967, waiting for Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov to arrive.


What Are The Most Useful Concepts You’ve Learned From Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 1, 2015

Science fiction has always thrilled me with far out ideas, giving me a life-long sense of wonder. Science fiction constantly reminds me that reality is immense and my everyday life is just one limited view. For the most part, science fiction has been entertainment, yet, I often find myself solving problems in everyday life by applying a concept acquired from my reading.

I’ve been reading SF for over fifty years, and it has programmed my thinking just as much as any Bible thumper has been influenced by their good book. Science fiction has tinted my view of reality, even though I know most of its ideas are far from scientific. When I was young science fiction fueled my hopes for the future, but now that I’m old, I’m curious what useful knowledge I actually acquired from this genre I love so much. For example, when I look back on high school, I see that a six-weeks typing course helped me get more jobs than anything else I studied. Now, I wonder if I found anything in science fiction that has been equally useful.

My favorite science fiction growing up was Heinlein’s twelve juvenile novels he wrote for Charles Scribner’s Sons.  Heinlein worked to teach his youthful readers to prepare for the future by studying math and science. Yet, when I look deeper, I got my best lessons about reality from two stories from Samuel R. Delany, the short novel Empire Star and the novella, “The Star Pit.”


Delany taught me three useful concepts in these two stories. I’ve expanded them with my own interpretation, as all readers do. But I credit Delany with presenting me with these three philosophical observations:

  • People think in three modes: simplex, complex and multiplex
  • No matter how original you feel you will always meet people who have already discovered everything you did
  • We all live within barriers we can’t escape, like fish in an aquarium, and we’ll always meet other people who can go beyond our barriers

In Empire Star, a boy, Comet Jo, from a backwater moon is thrust into a galaxy spanning adventure. Before he leaves home, he is warned that he has a simplex mind, and once he goes into space he will encounter complex and multiplex thinking. I was a young teen when I first read this story, so I was in a transition phase between what my parents taught me and learning to think for myself. This was the 1960s, and so it was a very complex time. We like to assume we’re all working from the same page, have equal thinking ability, and the standards by which we judge reality are the same standards by which other people see the same reality.

Simplex thinkers believe everyone should convert to their way of seeing things. Complex thinkers understand reality is very complicated, and there’s a certain amount of negotiating and compromise involved with coexisting in reality. Multiplex thinkers often let simplex and complex thinkers be themselves, and work around them. Take for instance religion. Fundamentalists are simplex, ecumenical believers are complex, and our Founding Fathers were multiplex.

Ever since reading Empire Star I always ask myself if the person I’m trying to communicate with is coming from a simplex, complex or multiplex thought process. It does no good to use complex or multiplex logic on a simplex thinker. And it’s all relative. If we ever encounter an alien civilization, no matter how much commonality we can find, our parochial humanness will make our initial approach to them simplex. We’ll have to progress through stages that involve complex and multiplex thinking.

When dealing with individuals or cultures, using this concept will help understand various social realities. People can be simplex, complex and multiplex simultaneously on different beliefs. Just watch the news. People who refuse to negotiate are coming from a simplex take on reality. Willingness to bend reflects an understanding of others. Multiplex thinkers will come up with King Solomon like solutions that can satisfy both simplex and complex thinkers.

Comet Jo begins his travels feeling everything he discovers is unique to him. He feels special. Then he meets Ni Ty Lee who has done everything Comet Jo has, and even has the ability to predict what he will experience. This shatters Comet Jo’s ego. I’ve always wondered if Delany was a child prodigy who wrote this after meeting older child prodigies.

Finally, in “The Star Pit” we meet Vyme, a man with a long tragic past who owns a starship garage out on the edge of the galaxy. In this story, humans have discovered that travel between the galaxies is impossible except for a very few people who have a special psychological makeup. They get labeled The Golden. Vyme takes in a street kid named Ratlit who hates he’s not Golden. Between the two characters we learn how each discover the limits of their aquarium, and how they learn to deal with the barriers in their life. I’ve written about his before – “The Limits of Limitations.”

The older I get, the more I realize that humanity is probably confined to living on Earth. And for the most part, we each evolve through the same stages as those who came before us, and like King Solomon observed, there’s nothing new under the sun. Finally, nearly all our conflicts are due to the failure of simplex, complex and multiplex thinkers not being able to communicate. I’ve often wondered if simplex and complex beings are two different species, and Homo Sapiens have already forked, and we’re already seeing signs of Humans 3.0.

Yet, I still have hope because of one concept I got from a science fiction movie written by Robert A. Heinlein.


When the astronauts in Destination Moon discover they don’t have enough fuel to return to Earth after making the first Moon landing, their solution is to throw out enough mass to make their rocket light enough to match their fuel. Throughout life I’ve had moments where I couldn’t take off, and I realized that I needed to jettison the extra weight. Now that I’ve gotten older, and my body isn’t as energetic as it was, I’m learning to get further in my social security years, I need to throw out the past, all that extra mass is holding me down.

If humanity is ever to take off it will have to jettison a lot of mass from its past. To reach the next stage, whether Humanity 2.0 or 3.0, we need to give up religion and most of philosophy. Their mass keeps us from launching. Even on an individual level, I realize I have my own mental baggage that weighs me down. Much of it comes from reading science fiction.

Learning that I have limited mental fuel offers all kinds of philosophical parallels to rocket travel and Newton’s famous laws. And it’s not just energy, but cognitive ability. We all love the idea we have unlimited potential, but we don’t. Science fiction taught me that too.

Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner

Stand on Zanzibar came out in 1968, and was about the world of 2010. I read it in 1968, and I’ve lived through 2010. We can never know the future, but some science fiction writers can make us seriously think about the possibilities. I remember being a kid reading this book and horrified at the terrorism that takes place in the story. I wasn’t savvy enough then to know that terrorism is common in all times, or that in 1970 there would be over 450 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Since 2000, there’s been less than 50 a year. What science fiction teaches us is to understand our fears, even when it’s wrong.

To value science fiction I also need to know its limitations.

Stand on Zanzibar and Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! scared me into thinking the future would be an overpopulated nightmare. What’s funny, our world is suffering horribly from overpopulation, but not how science fiction imagined. Science fiction failed to see climate change and the Internet. It also failed to see we’d never leave low Earth Orbit for 43 years. Nor did it imagine The Hubble Telescope and renaissance in astronomy.

It’s strange to credit science fiction being a success for failing to predict, but that’s also a valuable lesson.

The Long Tomorrow - Leigh BrackettOn the Beach - Nevil ShuteAlas Babylong - Pat Frank

The real question we should ask: Does science fiction warn us away from following paths into bad futures? Did all those 1950s books about nuclear war keep us from blowing ourselves up? Or is it just another case of science fiction being bad at predicting the future? I’d like to think science fiction made us wiser in this case. I can’t help but believe Nineteen Eighty-Four is a great lesson in how not to govern. Yet, if you study how Republicans use rhetorical trickery to dispute science, you can’t help but wonder if Orwell’s story isn’t coming true. Dystopias are handbooks on how to avoid certain futures.

Using multiplex thinking science fiction can predict and fail to predict the future and still be a success. It’s much too simplex to assume a specific future will come to pass. It’s complex to think we should look at all the possibilities. It’s multiplex thinking to perceive how science fiction is both wrong and right at the same time.

— If you have the time, post a reply about how science fiction has been useful to you. —


The Many Robert Heinleins We Remember

When I was twelve and other kids were getting religion, I got science fiction.  Robert A. Heinlein was the prophet of my faith—the Jesus that explained reality.  I was a geeky kid who moved around a lot because my father was in the Air Force.  Because my dad always worked extra jobs and I didn’t see him much, Heinlein and science fiction became the father figure guiding my adolescence.  Now that I’m older I can say using fiction as my Bible is no more practical than using holy books.  Substituting  outer space for heaven, and aliens for superior beings is just as crazy as seeking life after death.

I just finished reading the second volume of Heinlein’s authorized biography, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 2 The Man Who Learned Better | 1948-1988 by William H. Patterson, Jr.   Imagine, if you will, getting to read an authorized biography of Jesus based on his diaries—you’re going to want to read it, but it might reveal that your prophet lived a much more mundane life than revealed in his parables and gospels.


William H. Patterson gets to chronicle Robert A. Heinlein’s life by the details Heinlein left behind in file cabinets.  Sadly, Mr. Patterson died April 22nd this year, just before the publication of the second, and last volume of his biography on Heinlein.  Patterson was born a month before I arrived on Earth in November of 1951, and in a way that explains a lot, because I identified with his passion to know Heinlein.  For science fiction fans of a certain generation, Heinlein was a very influential writer.  Growing up I always hungered to know more about Heinlein, and wished that I had met him.  After reading this large, two-part biography, I realize it was probably well that I never got to meet my prophet face to face, or even correspond with him.  Heinlein was overwhelmed by his followers, and he really didn’t need another sappy fan bugging him, plus I probably would have pissed him off with my politics and beliefs.

Heinlein never wanted his fans to pry into his life, and this authorize biography reflects his wishes, and that of Heinlein’s widow Virginia Heinlein.  Patterson was given complete access to Heinlein’s papers and got to know Ginny Heinlein who died in 2003, and who was Heinlein’s pit bull protector in life and death.  Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century is an excellent defense of Heinlein and a summary of his life through his papers, but not the kind of intimate biography that fans crave, especially if you were a true believer.


I believe William H. Patterson was completely sympathetic to Heinlein’s wishes for the most part, until the very end in Appendix 2, volume 2, “The Good Stuff” where he quotes letters from a woman that had known Heinlein during his breakup with his second wife.  I’m positive that Heinlein and Ginny would have hated this addendum, but it’s about as close as readers are going to get to an uncensored view of Heinlein in this biography.  And even then, the letters only have a few lines that hint that Heinlein had faults.

I liked Patterson, and his work, and I understand the constraints he worked under.  His biography of Heinlein provided a huge amount of details about Heinlein for me.  I subscribed to the Heinlein Journal when Patterson was publishing it, and I always envied him his access to Heinlein history.  I’d have loved to have gone through Heinlein’s papers, but luckily Patterson did all the work for me and put them into a very readable summary.  I’m very sorry that Patterson didn’t interview more people who knew Heinlein.  There’s a few, but not many.  I got the feeling that Virginia Heinlein told Patterson much of the glue that holds the facts together.  I would have loved to have heard other people’s opinions, but I assume that wasn’t allowed.  We’ll have to wait for Heinlein’s next biographer for that.

Heinlein and his books have always inflamed people’s opinions, and Patterson deals with many of the famous brawls in his book.  He carefully presents Heinlein as the rational man, while not giving other people their chance to have their say.  Patterson tries to resolve much of the criticism Heinlein has received over the decades, but there’s one problem.  If Heinlein was right, and rational, why did he get into so many personal battle of words?  The two volumes of biography end up being a long lists of incidents where Heinlein butted heads with other people.  As a blogger I know it’s very easy to get into arguments over nothing, but Heinlein seemed to take everything very personal.  Evidently he was an emotional man, because the book often mentions his anger, and that he often cried over romantic and heroic incidents.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading these two books, but I was also disappointed.  I wanted more information about Heinlein writing his books.  Patterson provides a lot of publishing information, but little about the content.  Usually when he did, it was about how Heinlein got the idea for each book.  Evidently Heinlein didn’t leave much in his papers about thinking his way through plots and character development, or what they meant to him later.

I wished the Patterson had included an Appendix 3, one where he interviewed Alexei Panshin.  Panshin was the fan I wanted to be.  He wrote the first book on Heinlein, Heinlein in Dimension, which Heinlein hated—not because he read it and disliked it, but because he hated Panshin and didn’t want Panshin to write about his life or work.  Heinlein and his close followers have always closed ranks in their hatred of Panshin.  I always thought Heinlein in Dimension was a love letter to Heinlein.  When USENET News came out, the carried on the grudge match decades later.  Panshin is mentioned several times in volume 2, angering Heinlein several times over a period of years, and it was obvious that Bob and Ginny hated to even hear the name Panshin mentioned.  Which is sad, because Rite of Passage, Panshin’s Nebula Award winning novel is as close to reading another Heinlein juvenile as I’ve ever read.  I thought Panshin deserved to be heard from in this biography, but I guess Patterson felt that Heinlein did everything to keep Panshin out of his life while he was alive, he wouldn’t want him intruding into his authorized biography after he died.

But this brouhaha explains a whole lot.  Heinlein was loved by millions, but Heinlein didn’t always love his fans.  Nor did he think the science fiction community understood his books.  The biography suggest that Heinlein tried to separate himself from the genre during the last decades of his life, and resented always being known as a science fiction writer.  Heinlein wanted to be remembered like Mark Twain, just an American writer.  I doubt that will ever happen.  Patterson works hard to promote Heinlein as a significant figure in the 20th century, but he wasn’t.

Heinlein’s books are still shelved in the science fiction section, and Philip K. Dick’s books were the first to be collected into volumes of The Library of America.  When Heinlein finally made it into the LOA, it was with one of his lessor known titles, Double Star, as one of nine science fiction books that the Library of America collected into two volumes to remember 1950s science fiction.  I’m not sure Heinlein is going to be remembered outside his hardcore science fiction fans like me.  Volume 2 came out June 3rd, nineteen days ago and it’s only #7,313 on Amazon’s Best Sellers Rank.

I often write about Heinlein at Auxiliary Memory but those posts get very few hits.  I guess the way I will remember Heinlein is not by trying to get to know the man, but by rereading the Heinlein books I love.  What’s interesting is the number of Heinlein books I keep rereading has dwindled over the last fifty years.  I find it fascinating when encountering other Heinlein fans that we all have such different favorites.  There are Heinlein books I hate that others love.  Whoever Heinlein was, and what his books meant, it’s very hard to figure out.

And do you want to know what’s hilariously ironic?  Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin, published in 1966, still gives me the best biography of Heinlein I’ve ever read.  The Heinlein I loved was reflected in the stories, and not the one who walked the Earth.  Heinlein hated Panshin with a passion, yet Panshin’s summary of his work up until The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is exactly how I knew Heinlein in my youth.  Patterson’s biography chronicled the writer, the man who married three times, often got sick, worried over bills, fought with his editors and publishers, had feuds with his fans, gave money to needy writers, built houses of his own design, but completely missed the magic of the books.  Heinlein in Dimension summarizes the stories and novels in a way that rekindles memories of the sense-of-wonder Heinlein I discovered at age twelve.

Heinlein and his true fans hated that Panshin pointed out there were clunky places in Heinlein’s stories.  The trouble is, if you’re a prophet and you and your followers think you can do no wrong, then I can’t trust you.  Heinlein would have been a much better human if he had just endured Panshin as an over zealot young fan, read his book and said “Thanks kid, good job.  You found all the holes in my stories, now go write you own books that don’t make those mistakes” and then just forgot about Panshin.  Panshin was Heinlein’s St. Paul, and all Panshin got for his love was a kick in the balls by his master.  Man, that must have hurt.

If you go to Google and search for reviews of Patterson’s biography of Heinlein, you’re going to read a lot of varied responses.  Heinlein was an elephant to all us blind folk feeling him up.  None of us ever see that he’s an elephant, but we all chronicle, sometimes in great detail, what we did discover from our fondling a small section of his hard hide.  Unfortunately, there are many Heinlein haters who only got to finger his asshole.  There was much about Heinlein I didn’t like, especially in the later books, but I saw no reason to vilify the man.  Like most of us, Heinlein did the best he could, and his best was often far better than most, but occasionally he made some fuck-ups, like we all do.  Too many in our society judge people only by their mistakes.

The complexity of Heinlein in my memories is vast.  We all need to deprogram ourselves of the religions that infected us in our youth, and Patterson’s biography helped me clean out years of clutter in my head.  Ultimately, we Heinlein fans each will remember a few books we loved, and eventually, the literary world at large will decide if any of his books are worth remembering at all.  I don’t think Heinlein, Patterson, I, or any of his other fans, knew, or know which Heinlein books will become classics in one hundred or two hundred years.  But I find it fascinating to imagine humans hundreds of years from now seeing the 20th century through Heinlein’s eyes.


Ultimately, I have to say that Heinlein convinced me that heaven is colonies on the Moon and Mars.  That’s the promised redemption of his religion.  The emergence of private space programs is the real legacy of Heinlein’s prophecy.  I don’t know if anything else matters.

Other Takes On Valume Two

JWH – 6/23/14

Is Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel Satire?

Over at Locus Online, Gary Westfahl has proposed a new theory about Robert A. Heinlein in his essay “The Joke Is on Us:  The Two Careers of Robert A. Heinlein.”  Westfahl proposes:

Thus, I wish to argue instead that there were, in fact, only two periods in Heinlein’s career: from 1939 to 1957, Heinlein wrote science fiction, and from 1958 until his death in 1988, Heinlein wrote satires of science fiction. Or, if that language seems too strong, say that from 1939 to 1957, Heinlein took his science fiction very seriously, and after that, he no longer took his science fiction seriously.

Now Westfahl didn’t say Heinlien wrote satires, but satires on science fiction, and even makes a case that Heinlein is parodying his own earlier work.  Westfal starts his essay by claiming Heinlein is a golden age science fiction writer that still has impact:

Still, there is at least one classic writer that every science fiction reader must come to terms with; for when you visit a bookstore today, the science fiction section may have only a few books by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, or even Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and there may be few signs of their influence on other writers. But the works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable.

I don’t agree.  Heinlein has always been my favorite SF writer, but I’ve watched his reputation’s slow decline in recent decades.  I am totally open to reevaluating Heinlein’s work like Gary Westfahl has done, but not to explain Heinlein’s continued success, but to rescue Heinlein’s work for contemporary readers.  I think we need to find and recognize Heinlein’s best work that will appeal to new readers.  In our Classics of Science Fiction Book Club we have many Heinlein fans but far from most, and his popularity is on the wane, especially with younger readers.

I don’t think repackaging Heinlein as a satirist will sell or fly.


Claiming Heinlein’s later work is satire is not new, William H. Patterson Jr. was the first one I remember proposing this idea in his book The Martian Named Smith back in 2001.  But I’m sorry, I just don’t buy the satire theory of Heinlein.  To me Heinlein was always as serious as a rattlesnake, and even when he was being light hearted, as he was in Have Space Suit-Will Travel, a book for children, he was dealing with kidnapping, murder, torture, genocide and destroying planets.  Heinlein worked awful hard to make that book realistic, even though it had a silly title.

Westfahl believes Citizen of the Galaxy, the 11th juvenile was the culmination of Heinlein’s expansion of stories moving away from Earth starting with Rocket Ship Galileo.  However,  Have Space Suit-Will Travel went further than Citizen of the Galaxy, by leaving the Milky Way.  Have Space Suit-Will Travel is the logical conclusion of the series.  Starship Troopers is the first retreat.   Starship Troopers is the first of the preachy Heinlein novels.  Starship Troopers it the first of Heinlein’s books where Heinlein is flat out on his soap box arguing his philosophy and politics to the reader.  Starship Troopers is Heinlein’s first Putnam novel.

And that preaching has always been in Heinlein’s work, but I believe editors always reined Heinlein in until he went to Putnam.  Once Heinlein moved to G. P. Putnam, we finally get to see the naked Heinlein.  I don’t think he wanted to wear court jester attire, he was a nudist.  When Heinlein’s characters propose killing people for being rude I don’t think Heinlein was trying to be funny or satirical.  I think he really meant we should shoot rude people.  And this horrifies me.

Even at the end of Have Space Suit-Will Travel, when Kip is before the galactic tribunal and Earth is being judged, Kip gets mad and tells them, “All right, take away our star–  You will if you can and I guess you can.  Go ahead!  We’ll make a star!  Then, someday, we’ll come back and hunt you down—all of you!”

That wasn’t satire.  Heinlein meant it.  Heinlein has always believed that homo sapiens are the most dangerous creature in the galaxy.

The Daily Show is satire.  Saturday Night Live is satire.  Satire is something liberals do.  I don’t think deadly serious conservatives do satire.  When Heinlein was younger he had some liberal in him, but I’m pretty sure most of it was gone by 1958.

If you read Heinlein from beginning to end, over and over again, you’ll see he had certain pet ideas that were always present in his stories.  I believe Heinlein changed his writing style to fit his publisher.  In the early days those were pulp magazine editors.  Then he started writing for the slicks after the war, and finally snagged a lucrative deal at Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1947 and wrote twelve amazing juvenile novels.  Heinlein’s writing was confined by Alice Dalgliesh, his editor while at Charles Scribner’s Sons.  In the 1950s he also wrote a handful of adult books for Doubleday, and they were different from the Scribner titles.  Finally he went to Putnam, and his writing changed again.  I think Putnam let Heinlein be Heinlein.

Heinlein always claimed his number one reason for writing was money.  But after he got money, I think he wanted to express his own ideas.  As he got older, I believe Heinlein started expressing his personal fantasies.  I think all his later books are his own personal power and sex daydreams.  I don’t think Jubal Harshaw was Heinlein, but I believe Heinlein wanted to be Jubal Harshaw.

I believe Heinlein changed after Sputnik too, like Gary Westfahl suggests, but for different reasons.  Heinlein was savvy enough to realize that NASA was going to invalidate much of science fiction before the 1960s.  Heinlein knew space science was going to change science fiction and he wanted to be ahead of the curve, so he started writing social science fiction, political science fiction, sexual science fiction, fantasy science fiction, and got away from writing space travel science fiction.

Personally, I believe Heinlein’s writing got sloppy as he got old, and lost his ability to write structured novels.  He never was great at the structure of fiction, but the editors at Putnam let him run wild.  I don’t think Heinlein ever wanted to be Jonathan Swift but Patrick Henry.  Later in life Heinlein claimed his essential books were Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and A Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Oh, I agree some of Stranger does seem satirical, like the scenes with the angels, but I believe that was Heinlein being sentimental, more like A Wonderful Life for grownups.  Most of Heinlein’s political drama is simplistic, like out of a 1930s Frank Capra flick.

I believe all the scenes with Harshaw are Heinlein talking straight.  I believe the scenes with Mike are Heinlein’s power and sex fantasies.  The Fosterite Church scenes could be labeled satire on 1950s television preachers, but what is he satirizing?  One of Heinlein’s pet ideas was proving that the soul existed after death.  Do people attack beliefs they want to be true?  Mike, Foster and Digby become archangels in the end.  Is this satire or sentimentality?

Is Heinlein attacking “Thou art God” philosophy or proposing it?

Satirical writers have a target in mind for their writing.  They want to destroy people and ideas with humor.  Heinlein was cynical and angry, and didn’t think much of the average man, but I don’t think he was trying to kill people with humor, if Heinlein wanted to kill people he’d use a gun.  Heinlein was as funny as William F. Buckley, Jr.  Heinlein never struck me as a George Carlin, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or even a Mark Twain.

Although Heinlein is my favorite writer, I’ve always felt he went downhill after he went to Putnam.  None of the Putnam books strike me as funny or satirical.  Heinlein is attacking people, ideas, customs and society, but I don’t believe its with humor.  Humor is a funny thing in that what I might not laugh at someone else will.  Maybe I’m just missing the satire.  Heinlein always seemed to be about getting what he wanted.  He was bad about developing conflict, and generally created faceless straw men to knock over.  Satire is all about the details of the enemy, and Heinlein was always about the details of people who got ahead and took what they wanted.


Have Space Suit-Will Travel has always been my favorite book because its about the overwhelming desire to go into space.  It’s about a boy wanting to go to the Moon, and I grew up wanting to go into space myself.  I took this novel seriously, even though it had a funny title.  Have Gun-Will Travel was a favorite show as a kid, and it wasn’t funny either.  Much of Have Space Suit-Will Travel is about space suits.  I loved those details.  Have Space Suit-Will Travel was a power fantasy for me at 13.  It was a story I wanted to live.

It never occurred to me to think Have Space Suit-Will Travel is satire.  What I worry about now is modern minds looking back on those old books and thinking them silly, and concluding the author must have written them for laughs.   And I can even see why Gary Westfahl claims Have Space Suit-Will Travel is poking fun at science fiction because in modern eyes the story might seem quaint, goofy and naïve, but back in 1964 it was my Bible, my dream, my fantasy for the future.  I would have exchanged places with Kip in a heartbeat.

I don’t consider Have Space Suit-Will Travel poking fun at science fiction, I consider it the ideal expression of science fiction.

JWH – 11/30/12