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Sympathy for the Devil 
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Heinlein Biographer

Joined: Thu Apr 10, 2008 1:33 pm
Posts: 1024
Post Re: Sympathy for the Devil
Eric Picholle wrote:
Nick Doten wrote:
OK folks , after the dissection of A.P. and our criticisms of his works focused
upon RAH, I have a question. Where do you think A.P. was right on in his analysis'
of RAH and his writings?

Alexei Panshin's basic thesis, as far as I understand it, is that Heinlein
is the closest thing to literary greatness that science fiction has offered yet,
but that he still falls short of it. Then he starts nitpicking at the various literary
shortcuts Heinlein, as a commercial writer, has sometimes allowed himself
to use.

Well — I basically agree with him here. Heinlein isn't in the same class
as Shakespeare, Homer, or even Victor Hugo. Very few authors are,
and none in modern SF.

The most serious problem with Panshin's thesis as you have accurately (IMO) stated it is that "literary greatness" is completely meaningless, an undefined term. (Nor need a writer be in the same class as Shakespeare, Homer, or even Victor Hugo to be literarily significant and worth consideration). If we ask the more interesting and perhaps more relevant question: is Heinlein a significant writer outside his role as a purely genre writer, then we might have material to work with.

Furthermore Panshin's "analysis" is full of "flaws" that are failures of Panshin's understanding rather than actual failures of Heinlein's execution.

Here is an example of an actual flaw of Heinlein's execution, so you can see what I mean: In Misfit, Heinlein has two anecdotes that don't naturally connect for storytelling purposes -- the drama of Libby's first muster, and the drama of Libby saving the progress of the project, not to say the lives of the people who might have been hurt or killed by the excessive explosive charge; he has to tapdance the intervening six months or so, and the story does not exhibit the recommended single dramatic arc for a short story, so the unity of point of view is weak. Here's another example, if I can keep it short: In Coventry, Heinlein introduces a reference to Shakespeare's The Tempest with the Doctor and Persephone, but the mechanics of Heinlein's story lacks the Roman comic devices Shakespeare used of the faithful slave (Ariel) and the base slave (Caliban) and so he cannot make any solid use of the intertextual reference; it just hangs there, tantalizingly but not advancing the story in any significant way (that is, pulling in The Tempest doesn't shed any additional light on what is going on in Coventry). He might have done things with the conspiracies within conspiracies in The Tempest, but he doesn't have the story material in Coventry to make the same connections. It's a reference that doesn't do what it could do.

Now here is an example of an imaginary flaw. In Blowups Happen, Panshin says Heinlein fails to solve his story problem because he does not find a way to prevent the explosion from happening. By characterizing the reactor explosion as the demonic, Panshin holds that Heinlein failed to deal with the demonic and this indicates a loss of faith in the efficacy of human effort on Heinlein's part. But Panshin has simply misunderstood the story problem and consequently gotten Heinlein's position exactly backwards: that blowups happen is accepted and is not part of the story problem. The story problem is to contain the effects so they do not become an overwhelming catastrophe, and this story problem is completely disposed of and the fact that the problem is solved by all the disparate groups in the story working together and contributing an organized effort to the solution despire social barriers andhierarchical problems, shows human beings cooperatively overcoming those problems and barriers, and thus demonstrates the faith in the efficacy of human effort and goodwill. Even looking just at the gross level of plot action, it's clear that Panshin has not understood what is going on -- and when you start looking at ancillary supporting evidence, it's really clear: At the crisis, one of the physicist-engineers whose mathematical ability had died within him, recovers the ability. One of the cooperating young physicists, Harper, is paired not with Erickson, his usual partner, but with Green -- a spring metaphor is being acted out in the secondary material. None of this secondary material was considered at all -- and as a general rule, Panshin has the flawed methodology of proposing a hypothesis but never checking it against the story materials for how well or badly his hypothesis fits with all the levels of material that is being presented. Sometimes Panshin's thesis is excruciating and embarrassing -- as when he suggests that If This Goes On shows Heinlein in a struggle with his own personal individuation crisis, completely forgetting that it was a story written by a 32-year old aimed at a teen-aged readership. In general also, Panshin leaves out all considerations of marketplace and audience.

It is a key factor completely missing from HID that science fiction was at the time Heinlein entered it, a purely commercial genre with a nominal address to adolescents. Heinlein's efforts helped transform the genre (along with others, but in this he was generally acknowledged as primus inter pares)) into a form capable of much wider public significance. By the 1970's, the reviews of SF books were not only appearing in the New York Times, but they were moving from the back pages to the front pages. That's one gross measure of the success of that transformation.

Northrup Frye suggested that the prestige literary forms of one era draw their basic materials from subliterary forms of prior periods -- as the "workingmen's language" of Wordsworth's seminal "Lyrical Ballads" of 1818 derives from broadsides and street cries and popular entertainments of late 18th century London, and the novels of the early 19th century derive from gothic tales and travel romances of the 17th and 18th century -- subliterary materials. Science fiction of the 1920's and 1930's was subliterary. and Heinlein was one of the craftsmen engaged in staging that subliterary material into mainstream markets.

If we ask, in terms of T.S. Eliot's "order of literature," whether Heinlein's works engage works acknowledged as to their place in the order of literature, irrespective of the engagement with the literature of speculative fiction, it is clear that they do. Friday engaged Robinson Crusoe and Candide. Job engages Mark Twain, Milton, and James Branch Cabell. And so on. And, furthermore, that engagement can be traced back at least as far as Coventry with its gigantic list of literary references starting with Zane Gray and Emerson Hough and Jack London and drawing heavily on A Tale of Two Cities and Elbert Hubbard's "Message to Garcia." This kind of "intertextuality" is one measure of what we mean by "literary" qualities -- not the only one, certainly, but the prsence of such intertextuality means that the question: is Heinlein a writer worth investigating in literary terms has to be answered in the affirmative

When I started doing depth-studies of the earliest stories, I found an astonishing amount of literary structure that cannot be reconciled with commercial magazine fiction standards.

Heinlein was writing non-pulp material passing for pulp material, and it was eventualy accepted as core-canon by non-genre readers. Heinlein's last seven or eight books were read the way Sinclair Lewis' last books were read.

And as a final remark on this subject, I have been studying the structure and literary sociology of the menippean satire -- Frye's "Anatomy" -- for about thirty five years. I know of no formal way of distinguishing Stranger in a Strange Land from the top level of menippean satires. Whether it in fact survives 500 or a thousand or two thousand years is going to be a matter of chance and not of merit. We rarely read one of the finest exemplars of the form -- Sartor Resartus -- nowadays because the early Victorian whimsy with which Carlyle wrote it is so out of fashion now. But we do read The Satyricon and Candide -- and why one rather than the other is a matter of fashion and sociology, and not of intrinsic quality. Stranger is one of those pinnacle works for the satire form, correct, original, and elegant -- and on that basis alone, Panshin's thesis must, in my opinion, be soundly rejected on all points.

Heinlein was the Lazarus Long of science fiction -- in the third generation of the Howard Families, there would be no reason to suspect the ultra-long-life gene to manifest; it stands outside the trustees' breeding program. So Heinlein busts the rules of literary development for the genre. The judgments of mandarins are of no consequence to those who have entered Eliot's order of literature. Now, whether Heinlein is actually one of the Elect is not given to the reprobate to discern. But the signs are there -- for the proof of the eternal conversation is the influence -- and even the anxiety of influence -- of succeeding generations. Certainly within the genre that influence is perpetuating itself. I just today finished Charles Stross' latest book, Saturn's Children. Stross was one of th emost promisig of the new generation, and he has not shown any consciousness of Heinlein before this book, but here he has put on display a fair reading of at least many of Heinlein's late works, and the entire book may be regarded as a kind of dialogue with Friday -- in just the way that The Forever War was a kind of dialogue with Starship Troopers. The boundaries bleed: Robert Crais, a mystery writer, tucks references to Heinlein works in every one of his books. That Heinlein is of enduring literary interest is a proposition at least worth investigating rather than dismissing out of hand.

Sorry for my long absence from this forum. The Virginia Edition's completion schedule was accelerated again and I haven't been able to do more than look at forums every now and then for the last three months.

Sun Jul 13, 2008 6:46 pm
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Joined: Thu Jun 19, 2008 3:57 pm
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Post Re: Sympathy for the Devil
Bill Patterson wrote:
Heinlein was the Lazarus Long of science fiction -- in the third generation of the Howard Families, there would be no reason to suspect the ultra-long-life gene to manifest; it stands outside the trustees' breeding program. So Heinlein busts the rules of literary development for the genre.
I like very much the analogy with Lazarus Long. The youth or maturity of a genre (or an art) does not strictly determine the qualities or depth of its practitioners. And if we imagine John W. Campbell as the Howard Families' trustee, then JWC surely realized that he was both right and lucky in his plans for Astounding in coming across so early Sturgeon, van Vogt, Asimov, de Camp, Leiber, and especially Heinlein.

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Thu Jul 17, 2008 1:03 pm
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