Stories "Life-Line" (Opus 002) (April 1939/August 1939)
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Author:  BillPatterson [ Tue Jul 29, 2008 9:16 am ]
Post subject:  Stories "Life-Line" (Opus 002) (April 1939/August 1939)

It seems to me that one of the useful things we can do is to go more-or-less systematically through each of the stories and see what there is to be observed about them -- we can bring in other peoples' observations, look at them on their own, whatever -- discuss individual points in context. As we go along we will thus accumulate a body of "see what is there" that is missing from Heinlein criticism at this stage of things. So we will be compiling a kind of "preliminary" or prolegomena to criticism -- and that suggests that this particular set of threads should look at both structure and interpretation.

Anyone -- feel free to post about any story you feel moved to make an observation about. I suggest these threads be kept identifiable by first word of subject line "Stories" followed by the title. I've put the opus number and would have put the G number if I could remember it (my copies of RAH:ARC are in storage) I've also included the written during date followed by the first publication date, but that may be overnice; don't feel you have to do that.

I've written a depth-study of "Life-Line" and will be kicking in observations from that. Let me start it off, however, with a transcription of a note about the story I found in the Archive -- obviously a note made well before the writing began.

Story idea found in "Story Stuff -- Misc" file under the "Thars Gold in Them Thar Hills" tab. Must have been composed between March and April, for reasons which will become clear: "Write an "Unknown" story [terminus a quo: first issue of Unknown was March 1939] based on what could happen if persons knew when they were to die, but nothing else of the future. [Note the paper is a low grade not-quite newsprint three-hole punched with rounded corners, never seen anything like it again in his files.]

For example, what would Alice McB[ee] [his fiancee early in USNA days -- she died in January 28, of appendicitis or of the lingering effects of a car accident, there are two stories] have done?

What would I do.

Denouement must of course be the extinguishing of this knowledge.

[added in a later hand in pencil: This story was written and sold as "life-line" [terminus ad quem: April 1939], but it might be given a vastly different treatment for "Weird" or "Unknown."

Author:  beamjockey [ Tue Jul 29, 2008 11:31 am ]
Post subject:  Stories "Life-Line" (Opus 002) (April 1939/August 1939) G.00

Bill, Jim Gifford's New Heinlein Opus List can be downloaded from this very site, in PDF form:

He assigns "Life-Line" opus G.005c (in the revised-for-books version most of us have read; the magazine version is G.005b).

Author:  BillPatterson [ Fri Aug 01, 2008 8:03 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Stories "Life-Line" (Opus 002) (April 1939/August 1939)

I think the revised version was for the 1950 publication of The Man Who Sold the Moon and Other Stories and was Heinlein's last "take" on the story. I haven't done a detailed, line by line comparison, but my impression is that the revisions are so minor and superficial that there is really no reason to prefer one over the other. IIRC the main revision was to move the date forward.

So that raises the meta-question: ought we to "privilege" the 1950-1953 revision for purposes of reworking the dating of the Future History -- leaving aside questions where the revisions made substantial changes in the stories (e.g., "'If This Goes On --'") He did not make further revisions in the stories despite an opportunity to do so in 1967 (of course he was busy building the Santa Cruz house at the time . . .).

The question to ponder is this: apparently Heinlein made a decision when the stories were to be collected for the planned and aborted Shasta series to try to keep the Future History a projection from the then-current date of 1949-1950, but he abandoned and in at least one instance ("Blowups Happen") actively repudiated the attempt later when the stories as fiction became more enduring than any projective value they might have.

But also note, this did not apply just to the Future history: when he collected some fantasies for Assignment in Eternity in 1953, he made some revisions -- in some case cosmetic -- to bring the stories "current" for 1953 readers -- i.e., the addition of jets to "Elsewhen."

So how are we to regard the revisions made for non-literary purposes (i.e., not to strengthen the story, but to keep them "current.") given that Heinlein later (Expanded Universe) repudiated this agenda?

Author:  JamesGifford [ Fri Aug 01, 2008 11:09 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Stories "Life-Line" (Opus 002) (April 1939/August 1939)

Bill Patterson wrote:
So how are we to regard the revisions made for non-literary purposes (i.e., not to strengthen the story, but to keep them "current.") given that Heinlein later (Expanded Universe) repudiated this agenda?

As purely commercial actions having nothing to do with story content or canonicity, to be noted and set aside for critical purposes.

I don't think resolving the internal chronology of the FH adds much to the analysis. It's bug-hunting.

Author:  EricPicholle [ Fri Aug 01, 2008 8:58 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Stories "Life-Line" (Opus 002) (April 1939/August 1939)

Bill Patterson wrote:
He did not make further revisions in the stories despite an opportunity
to do so in 1967 (of course he was busy building the Santa Cruz house at the time . . .).

On the other hand, he took "Let There Be Light" away from The Past Through
— maybe not a "revision", in any case not a time-consuming one,
but still, in my opinion, a significant attempt to " keep the Future History
a projection from the then-current date", as you put it : what had been an
impressive intuition of the laser in 1942 (he obviously missed the "stimulated
emission" part, but insisted on the radio analogy, thus the key resonant cavity,
for "cold light" emission) might have sounded like rather poor popularization
after Charles Townes' invention of the maser (1954) and laser (1958).

So how are we to regard the revisions made for non-literary purposes
(i.e., not to strengthen the story, but to keep them "current.") given that
Heinlein later (Expanded Universe) repudiated this agenda?

I basically agree with Jim here : there are several slightly different
versions of the History of the Future — it might be fun to hunt down
the differences, but of little significance for most readers, and even
most critics...

Author:  BillPatterson [ Sun Aug 03, 2008 10:27 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Stories "Life-Line" (Opus 002) (April 1939/August 1939)

Fundamentally I agree with Jim on these points, also -- to be noted, but "bug hunting."

There is such a large overlap between literary and non-literary (or perhaps "other") subjects, though, in a systematic examination, that they do have to be noted.

Author:  BillPatterson [ Mon Aug 04, 2008 10:19 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Stories "Life-Line" (Opus 002) (April 1939/August 1939)

Most of the commentators for "Life-Line" talk more about its "contents" than about its technique (and I think offhand the major commentators are Panshin in HID, Slusser in Classic Years, Franklin, Stover, and Gifford's ARC, and I guess I'm one now for the Journal article -- though nearly everyone has made some comment about Heinlein's first story) (my texts are in storage and I can't get to them). Most of them seem to think the story is not well structured. Slusser calls it "wandering," and Gifford seem to follow Slusser on this point. So I made a special intention to look closely at the structure.

It's certainly true that this is not a straightforward commercial story structure, which is perhaps what one is led to expect by the prose, which is a fairly straightforward commercial magazine fiction of the 1930's prose, with very little of the awkwardness of rhetoric and so forth we would normally expect to see from a beginning writer.

The model for developing a commercial magazine story is given in many places, but the one given by Uzzell in Narrative Technique is considered a standard. Uzzell was a magazine editor for the decades just after the turn of the 20th century, and the book became an instant classic when it was published in 1923. It was revised several times after that and continued in use for a good forty years or so.

Uzzell is very definite about taking a single idea, bringing out the emotional and dramatic conflict in the idea. heightening it, and making a single, tight story arc with nothing superfluous. "Life-Line" clearly does not do that: at the very least, there are converging story lines going on, which Uzzell regards as suitable for the longer forms but not for the short story. Uzzell's book develops element by technical element, with examples drawn from teaching short-story writing illustrating each point.

Heinlein did not actually consult Uzzell when he sat out to write commercially; instead he read Jack Woodford's Trial and Error (1933, rev. 1937). Woodford was a highly successful short story writer for magazines and newspapers during the same period Uzzell was editing, who had made a successful transition into longer lengths (albeit not prestige productions -- he was in fact regarded as a kind of soft-core porn writer in the 1930's and into the 1950's) (curiously, Woodford was living in RAH's district when he was campaigning for the Assembly District 57 seat in 1938; there is no indication that they ever met). Woodford's book has little to do with story structure, though he does talk a great deal about choice of subject. His advice was to find out what your market wants to hear and give them what they want to hear. Heinlein did not follow Woodford's advice literally -- which was to stick with boy-meets-girl stories to start with -- but adapted it creatively for the SF market he was trying to break into.

So -- people like Blish and Panshin make pronouncements like "consistent point of view is mandatory for commercial fiction" derived from formula-books like Uzzell's; they apply to a certain narrow range of early 20th century American magazine fiction that provided prose models during the time SF was getting started as a commercial genre. Heinlein's prose models obviously don't derive entirely from that tradition. And in fact if you look at the stories he talks about in his writing and in his essays, it's fairly clear that he is just as influenced by European fiction as he is by American. In fact, when Spider Robinson asked him to select and discuss one of his favorite short stories, he chose "Our Lady's Juggler" by Anatole France. Now that's a very interesting choice, and that by itself is a potential subject for another discussion. However, what's relevant here is that this particular story has absolutely none of Uzzell's qualities, _including dramatic conflict or resolution._ The story makes a highly abstract point - that the gift you make to whatever you honor gets its value from its personal meaning to you. If what you can do is juggle, then juggling for Our Lady is as acceptable (to Her) as gold and fine linen. There is no development of dramatic arc, because the story doesn't have any.

Now "Life-Line" does have a dramatic arc. A problem is posed, developed, and resolved with a surprise ending, all in the very short span of 7,200 words. You can see how the idea that kicked off the story -- suppose you knew when you were going to die, but nothing else about the future -- enters into the construction of the story, but it does not govern the dramatic arc or the development. Instead, the development is governed by the progressive uncovering of hidden knowledge. Again, not as the typical SF thirties gadget story would do it, knowledge about the gadget or the discovery that would make it happen, but knowledge about the social context into which it emerges, and specifically, knowledge about the truth of the characters and their motivations versus the appearance they give to the world.

So this gives us a set of non-magazine story material that can mask as magazine-story materials. the elements that make it a stfnal gadget story, that fits i the frame of a 30's sf magazine are there -- but they are developed indirectly. I believe, after looking at everythign in the canon, that this is a key element of Heinlein's intellectual "method" -- indirect development.

I've run out of time today, so I'll just shorthand what I did find when I looked at the story not as an example of an American commercial magazine story, but just in terms of how the dramatic materials fit together. A fuller explanation is in the Study I did of "Life-Line" for the Heinlelin Journal.

There are three thematic threads in the story, woven together in a very tight fashion, with no surplusage at all. The story has eight scenes; each of the scenes advances one or more of those thematic threads with commendable economy; none could be omitted without damaging the story's structural unity. The seed idea is carried forward by the scenes with the Academy, as they are going to be the ones that reject and destroy the hidden knowledge about to be revealed. The last scene has most of the same characters as the first, and it is told in a three-point progression. In the first scene, Pinero tells the men of the Academy they are cowards; in the second hit on the Academy, they cannot escape dealing with it; in the third, the truth of Pinero's statement is graphically demonstrated.

The second thread also has a three-point structure. Bidwell is present in the first scene as a supposed benefactor of the Academy; he has a scene in the middle that sets up the courtroom scene and also reveals a bit more of what he really is; in the third scene, he sets in motion Pinero's destruction.

The third thematic strand is Pinero's testing of his own exposition: he says in the scene with the reporters that future is immutable; he tests it with the young couple; and then he accepts the inevitable gracefully.

Quouting from the Study: "We find in 'Life-Line' a symmetrical plot structure in three points carried by the appearance of the Academy of Science; we find story arcs created by duple presentation of plot points and then arranged parallel to the central plot strucutre. One of those arcs carries a secondary progression discoverying hidden knowledge, that parallels and reinforces the chronological progression of the principal story l ine.
In light of this abundance of technique, symmetry, and structure, comments . . .about a weak or 'meandering' story strucrur emake little sense. Nor can 'Life-Line' be regarded as 'loosely episodic.' It is inconceivable that an unskilled writer, meandering aimlessly through scenes until an end occurred to him, should arrive at this much journeyman symmetry of story structure and plot point exposition."

I have often remarked on critics who can look at a work without seeing material that is directly on the surface. That seems to be what has gone on here for nearly seventy years. Franklin, for example (who is in some ways the best of the rather sorry lot), tries to make Pinero the conventional "mad scientist" -- but that does not work; what it does suggest is that Heinlein has ironically inverted that stereotype, because Pinero is arguably the only fully sane person in the story. Not noticing an ironic inversion is a fairly basic critical failing.

Science fiction as a whole has never had the attentions of a really first-rate thinker, with two passing exceptions -- Frye made several very provocative remarks about SF, and nowadays Jameson is trying to deal seriously with the subject, albeit from a limited and not very congenial intellectual frame of reference. The attentions it has received, from untrained and not particularly insightful individuals, has not served it well. Heinlein studies in particular has been handicapped by the commentators.

Author:  RobertWFranson [ Wed Aug 06, 2008 2:47 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Stories "Life-Line" (Opus 002) (April 1939/August 1939)

Bill Patterson wrote:
[RAH:]"Write an "Unknown" story ..."
[added in a later hand in pencil: This story was written and sold as "life-line", but it might be given a vastly different treatment for "Weird" or "Unknown."
I think "Life-Line" just as it is would have worked well enough in Unknown had Campbell placed it there; the mysterious element is not resolved into the known when the plot is wrapped. Heinlein would remain comfortable with what we may call this "open horizon of knowledge" later in Astounding as well as elsewhere; and "Life-Line" (being a short story) doesn't have a lot of more realistic science-fictional material to balance or over-weight the mysterious.

Lazarus Long's comment on Pinero in Methuselah's Children gives the point another tap, also without resolving the mystery.

I believe that casual critics tend not to credit either Heinlein or Campbell with just how open is their horizon of knowledge.

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