Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Adventures in Time and Space: Robert A. Heinlein's "Requiem"

Adventures in Time and Space post series introduction and table of contents

This definitive (or maybe better: defining) collection of "golden age" science fiction stories begins with one by Robert A. Heinlein and contains two more by him (only two other writers are represented three times: A.E. van Vogt and "Lewis Padgett"). In the introduction to my edition the superlative-crazed philistines Healy and McComas call him "possibly the greatest of the giants of those days" — those days being "that best of all possible times in science fiction." Heinlein, we can safely say, was important in the 1940s, and Healy and McComas were determined that he stay that way.

His importance to sf is still contentious, as witness the recent, utterly stupid, "you're not a fan if you haven't read him" kerfuffle.* Before that, more personally, Jonathan McCalmont's response to a pathetic attempt at canon-ossification by Gary Westfahl (today's heir to the superlative-crazed philistine throne) was the impetus behind the post that really got this blog going for me (though at this point I half want to repudiate that post, half want to extend it). But salutary as I find polemics like McCalmont's, and though I would never stand in their way, I can't really agree. Heinlein is central to this thing we call science fiction even today; from where I stand to insist otherwise, though it may be useful or even essential to an attempt to take sf in a different direction and therefore quite justified, is nevertheless simply counterfactual.

*About which I am considering writing a post being cranky at "both" sides, but we'll see. There's only so much thinking about Heinlein and the minds of sf people that I can take.

Funnily enough, I tend to see the ghost of Heinlein most strongly in those areas of sf that would most seek to evade him. The writers who find sf's tendencies toward didacticism distasteful or embarrassing, who wish to bring sf stylistically more in line with "the mainstream", and who (erroneously) think they can do this by valuing "incluing" (as I identified it in that above-linked early post, stealing the term from Jo Walton) over infodumping are using techniques that Heinlein played a (maybe the) major role in developing — this despite Heinlein's well-earned reputation for didacticism. Sf poetry's major award, the Rhysling, is named after a Heinlein character (without whom I wonder if the young Samuel R. Delany would have had the courage to write his early poet protagonists). And those writers who find the term "science fiction" inadequate, inaccurate, or too laden with negative connotations to describe what they do and so call themselves writers of "speculative fiction" — these writers being by and large as far from the pro-Heinlein camp as can be imagined — are, whether they know it or not, quoting Heinlein (who coined the term for these precise reasons) almost verbatim.

For me Heinlein's importance is unquestionable — but my god, how I hate him. I put off starting Adventures in Time and Space, which I am otherwise eager to read and write about, for months simply because the first story in it is by him. Of all the writers that I for whatever reason feel a need to read, he is by far the one I dread reading the most. As such, despite everything that I've said about his importance, I have actually read very little of his work. I pushed my way through his collection The Past Through Tomorrow last year, though I more sort of held it pinched between two fingers at arm's length and stared at it in nose-wrinkled distaste than actually "read" it; I yawned my way through Farmer in the Sky when I was about eleven (when almost any sf excited me); I have started and quickly stopped reading any number of his other stories and novels; and I think that's it for me and the man Delany names as one of his favorite novelists.

I've been trying for a long time to figure out why I dislike him so strongly. There are a number of obvious possibilities, but for me they all seem insufficient. It could be his politics, which are repellent; but then again I can read and find great beauty and illumination in countless other writers, both in and out of sf (e.g., Lovecraft, Heidegger), whose politics I find just as or even more unpalatable (indeed if vile politics were on their own enough to put me off a work or a writer I wouldn't be able to find the value in any "golden age" sf that I do). It could be the "traveling-salesman banter" (as James Blish incredibly accurately described it) that passes for dialogue in his stories, but no, I'm able to pass lightly over similar problems in writers like Asimov or McCaffrey to get at what's important. It could be the bizarre quotidianness of his imagination, where he so often seems to be spanning galaxies and millennia and introducing us to wondrous worlds and aliens and technologies merely to say "but nothing has changed, everything is just everyday, everything is boring", which often is a problem in other writers — but no, this is one of the things that, for me, Heinlein actually, occasionally, pulls off well and makes intriguing.* And it can't be the didacticism, since that's a big part of why I am drawn to sf in the first place! Reading "Requiem", though, I think I finally figured it out, or at least came upon the beginnings of understanding it. Let's take it slow.

*In this connection I'm reminded indirectly of Stanisław Lem's comment on the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic, that though "earth is incapable of coming to grips with the consequences" of alien intrusion, "at the same time, the little world of humanity continues as before." There is also something of a connection here to what I find so endlessly fascinating about the stories of Cordwainer Smith, though the methods and the feeling there are utterly different.

The events of the story are as follows: an old man, Delos D. Harriman, who has devoted most of his life and his (conveniently) considerable fortune to making the dream of space travel come true, but has never gone himself, wants nothing more than to go to the moon; but because of his age and infirmity he is legally barred from doing so (there is much nonsense about how the very rich are oppressed because others seek to tell them how to spend their money). He finds some sympathetic pilots with their own ship and no class analysis who agree to take him. They go and he experiences the reality of space flight for the first time; they land on the moon and he steps onto its surface. After taking it in for a moment he dies, his body worn out by the strain of the trip, and one of the pilots buries him.

These events are simple, but structurally the story is quite complex. Delany compared the rhetorical variety of Heinlein's first story, "Life-Line" — which "embeds...a collection of newspaper headlines, telegrams, and court transcripts within its narrative in order to tell its tale" — to Dos Passos*, and "Requiem" behaves similarly. It begins with a poem (by Robert Louis Stevenson; if Heinlein is to be believed, it appears on Stevenson's gravestone in Samoa; me, I don't know these things) given not as an epigraph but just barely within the story proper; later on there is a sign advertising a fair attraction and a portion of a newspaper article, not to mention an extended series of flashbacks. The temporal structure, the play with time both within and without the story, is also complex and potentially interesting: Heinlein writes in "the present" about a man in "the future" who has accomplished x, y, and z in "the past" (from the character's point of view), but wants to do a, b, and c in "the future" (the future of the future, that is, which by the story's end is the present), and as he seeks to achieve this goal his mind plays over various other incidents in "the past", which is of course our future. In part this is merely the seldom-examined play of time created by sf's routine gesture of setting stories in "the future," but Heinlein seems to me anyway to be particularly interested in heightening the complexity.

*Yet another nail in the coffin, incidentally, of the many silly narratives told and re-told about the so-called "new wave", which is when most people say such techniques from the non-sf "avant garde" entered sf. John Brunner may have done it better, but if we're supposed to care who did it first — well, he didn't. The evaluation of the use of such techniques in sf as automatically good or automatically bad, well, that's a whole nother silly story.

As he does so, it quickly becomes apparent that he is also interested in making a metatextual commentary on sf itself. Harriman, a man living in an sfnal future, feels that he played an important role in causing this future to be sfnal, but nevertheless has been denied access to the sfnal aspect of this future. He looks back nostalgically at his life, dedicated to ushering in this sfnal future, as he plots his entrance into it — which he gains, and then dies. It does not take much to see Harriman as a (thinly-veiled) stand-in for the figure of the sf writer in the heroic Heinleinian mode, working tirelessly to bring about a techno-future he knows he will not live to see realized, looking back over his career and cursing a death that will come too soon. And here is where the problems come in, for me. Because Heinlein/Harriman always knows he's right. Others might think that dreams of space travel are silly or misguided, but he knows better. Others might try to convince him to devote what he no doubt thinks of as his capital to more prosaic pursuits, but he knows better.

Delany again, this time discussing the much later novel Farnham's Freehold:

Suffice it to say that what distresses one about the Heinlein argument in general, when it is presented in narrative form, is that it so frequently takes the form of the gentlemanly assertion: "Just suppose the situation around X (war, race, what-have-you) were P, Q, and R; now under those conditions, wouldn't behavior Y be logical and justified?" — where behavior Y just happens to be an extreme version of the most conservative, if not fascistic, program. Our argument is never with the truth value of Heinlein's syllogism: Yes, if P, Q, and R were the case, then behavior Y would be pragmatically justifiable. Our argument is rather with the premises: Since P, Q, and R are not the situation of the real world, why continually pick fictional situations, bolstered by science-fictional distortions, to justify behavior that is patently inappropriate for the real world? And Heinlein's unerring ability to see precisely how the real world would have to be changed to make such conservative behavior appropriate begins to suggest that his repeated use of science fiction to this end represents what existentialist critics used to call "bad faith."
Delany's concerns here are explicitly and specifically in the realm we call "political," and from what I understand about Farnham's Freehold the political stakes in that particular case are extremely high. But the general Heinleinian pattern he identifies* holds even when the stakes are significantly lower — even when they are not (so explicitly, so directly) political.

*Which, incidentally, is probably Heinlein's single most damaging literary legacy; whole schools of sf have built up around reproducing it.

So it is in "Requiem" that Heinlein has set up an elaborate structure on which to hang a contemplation of the nature and role of the sf writer (because, again, though Harriman is not literally an sf writer, he is so very plainly a stand-in for one), and he uses it only to brag about how heroic it is to be one. If it were the case that one had spent one's life advocating for a particular kind of future, and if it were the case that because of one's advocacy that future came to pass, and if it were the case that that future turned out to be every bit as great as one said it would be, and if it were the case that various small-minded fools tried to prevent one from...but no doubt you get the idea.

And the bad faith extends even further. For me it reaches its height at the moment when Harriman finally makes it to space — not yet to the moon, but en route, and he looks out the viewport for the first time. Indeed this was the moment when all of this crystallized for me:

There it was, all as he had imagined it so many times. The Moon swung majestically past the viewport, twice as wide as he had ever seen it before, all of her familiar features cameo-clear. She gave way to the Earth as the ship continued its slow swing, the Earth itself, as he had envisioned her, appearing like a noble moon....
And so on. "All as he had imagined it." "As he had envisioned her." Even "her familiar features," though factually more justified, is just the wrong tone. Harriman knew what it would be like to be in space all along. This is nothing other than Heinlein asserting that he is incontrovertibly and transcendently right about his projection of an experience he has never had — indeed at the time he is writing an experience that no one has ever had. "Science fiction was right — look, it says so in this science fiction story!" It is this blandly confident triumphalism that I dislike — no, more than than that; it is this triumphalism, this self-congratulatory certainty, that I find a fundamental betrayal of the science fictional (or, to give Heinlein his own word, the speculative) enterprise itself. From the perspective of 1940, the defining characteristic of space travel is that, though it is possible to make some technical statements about it with a fair degree of certainty and a number of other reasonable but less certain speculations, nevertheless no one has ever done it, and no one knows what, experientially, it will really be like. But for Heinlein, there is no "no one knows." Someone always knows, and that someone is always Heinlein.

All this considered, can it be any surprise that the supposedly hard-headed Heinlein here runs so counter to his reputation (but not, I suspect, his actual nature) and creates one of the most shmoopily sentimental stories I have ever read? From the moment we begin with some heinously colonialist and straight-up bad poetry (how embarrassing for Stevenson if it really is on his grave) to the moment we meet Harriman's "shrewish" wife*, from the lawyer's rousing speech arguing for the rich man's right to spend his money to the ending that all but unfurls the Delos D. Harriman flag on the surface of the moon to the accompaniment of the Delos D. Harriman National Anthem, the deck is comprehensively stacked. Oscar Wilde said that sentimentality is "the luxury of an emotion without paying for it," and we all know how capitalists hate to pay for their luxuries. For me the greatest of these unpaid-for emotions by far is what I earlier described as "cursing a death that will come too soon." Here we see the most basic of all of sf's bad faith, its original sin even, laid bare: the desire to know, with certainty, a world beyond the death of the — one's own — body.

* "I feel a headache coming on. Please try to be a little quiet when you come to bed," she says when he presents his having put all of their money into the development of space travel as a fait accompli and refuses to budge. Women! Can't make heads nor tails of 'em!

Perhaps it is for the best after all that Adventures in Time and Space starts with this story. I still insist that there is much beauty in sf's "golden age," and that it still speaks to us, but for such a, again, defining and definitive volume to begin with a story that declares so openly all of the bad faith, all of the lapses, all of the self-importance to which this era of sf was so prone — indeed that it built itself upon — and that at the time and still to this date threaten to submerge entirely what was good about this writing...well, it's only honest. With this fair warning, I, we, can be on the lookout. We know what dangers lie ahead.


Ken Schneyer said...

Again, you teach me something. I've read this story only once, and it was nearly 30 years ago, but I find your arguments fascinating.

The whole "sentimentality" thing interests me. (NB, Heinlein had some nasty things to say about Wilde, as I'm sure you know.) I've always thought that Heinlein wanted get at a particular feeling, the feeling of someone who's always wanted something and was never able to have it, getting it only at the moment before death. You may think of it as sentimental, but I think there are many people who experience their "moment" as coming too late in life, when they cannot derive from it the pleasure or comfort they wanted. Ultimately it will all come to an end, and where is the comfort there?

I agree that the conceits he used to get there (the stupid people keeping Harriman from getting to the Moon) were clunky, and I imagine he'd have done a bit better later. I have experienced exactly that compositional problem myself -- I want to produce a certain emotional effect, and I tear my hair out trying to think of a sequence of events that will result in that effect without seeming utterly artificial and contrived. (NB, that's not the way I write most of the time. Usually I start with the conceit, and follow where it leads me.)

I pause, though, when I consider that this is early Heinlein. This story was published only a year after "Life-Line", before any of his novels (unless you count For Us, the Living, which I don't). In that context, it's difficult for me to imagine this story as any sort of summative statement of his work or of his perception of the SF field. He was a recent entrant into the writing of SF. He wasn't someone who'd "known all along", because he'd only been doing it for a short time. I imagine he might be voicing all the SF writers who came before him, but I doubt it. (By contrast, I do think that his novel Friday is every bit a meditation on the evolution of his own work.) The story is a partially-failed exercise in emotional progression.

If there were a Heinlein short story I'd have put into a collection, it would be "All You Zombies --" which gets at a genuine spiritual problem that the time-travel metaphor allows us to examine: our own culpability in the horrors of our own lives.

Ethan Robinson said...

Oh, I think the effect Heinlein was going for--or at least the aspect of it you single out (the "moment" coming too late)--is far from sentimental on its own, and actually I wish more sf would deal with loss, regret, etc... It's his specific choice of too-late moment, and the ways he gets to it (which I think I'd disagree are "clunky", or at least the clunkiness is not what is bad about them; I think the stacked-deckness is fundamental to what he's doing here) that I object to.

Very interesting observations on the earliness of the story in Heinlein's career, which I don't think I was taking sufficiently into account. I still think there's a major science-fiction-as-hero aspect to the story, but perhaps less of a science-fiction-writer-as-hero than I made out. For me though this story just screams to be read in the context of the bizarre cultism of early American magazine sf, the "fans are Slans", vanguard-party, superior-class attitude so many of its partisans had at the time.

I know I must have read "All You Zombies--" but I remember nothing about it (beyond what I've read about it elsewhere). I should try it again. That, and some of the later Heinlein, which I don't think I've ever attempted. I really would like to like him...