Monday, June 29, 2015

Science Fiction's Journey From Pulp to Prestige

Robert A. Heinlein and the Transformation of a Genre

Science fiction, as defined by the online version of Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.

Science, as defined by The Science Council, is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.

That systematic methodology based on evidence is the scientific method.  The scientific method, as taught in nearly every grade school in the country, involves the following principles: observation, purpose or question, research, hypothesis, experiment, analysis, and conclusion.  Bottom line is your statement must be supported by evidence, and your results must be able to be replicated by others.

These are tough concepts for any society where individuals define truth as whatever they want to believe and facts as any statement offered on the topic by another individual or organization that holds to the same belief.

Of course, if you live in a society where people actually view it as a virtue to use the brains they were born with, dealing with the unfortunate results of such skullduggery with reality is a non-issue.  

Science fiction makes you think, it makes you question, it makes you wonder.  Will the future bring utopia or dystopia?  Will we flourish or die out as a species?  What technologies loom over the horizon, and how will they be applied?  Are we all alone, or just one amongst the multitude? Why are we even here?

And finally, how did it happen that science fiction, a genre that's based in science and addresses the big questions of life, spent decades as one of the unwanted cousins at the literary family reunion, balancing precariously on an uncomfortable folding chair at a card table near the door with a draft, year after year denied a seat at the main table, where all the real literary genres had a place?  

There's a fair amount of discussion on the origins and evolution of the science fiction genre.  In terms of modern science fiction, the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Olaf Stapledon, among others, are acknowledged by most as establishing the foundation. (For an in-depth look at the history of the genre, see the Encyclopedia Britannica's article.)

The science fiction genre took off in the early twentieth century when in 1936 Hugo Gernsback founded the Amazing Stories magazine, publishing only science fiction stories.  The stories fell into two categories: those that highlighted legitimate scientific principals, and those that pushed the sensational with little basis in reality. Those stories did nothing to improve the genre's reputation. Other magazines publishing along similar lines followed, two examples being Weird Tales and Astounding Stories.  These magazines often had fantastic artwork on the covers, but the pages inside were composed of cheap, or pulp paper, making them inexpensive to produce. (For a quick but interesting history of pulp fiction magazines, read the article at The Vintage Library.)

Science fiction was building a fan base with these magazines and exerting for many readers a positive influence to pursue science as a career.  Robert A. Heinlein was one of those readers so inspired. And when his first career as a naval officer was derailed, it was through another magazine, John. W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction, that he established himself as a writer of science fiction.

Campbell came on board Astounding Science Fiction in 1938.  While there, he published stories by writers who went on to become the biggest names in the genre: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Damon Knight and Robert A. Heinlein. This was a period known as the Golden Age of science fiction,  featuring stories that focused on hard science and celebrated scientific achievement and progress.  After World War Two, the nature of science fiction would begin to change, with less focus on the hard sciences of physics, astronomy, chemistry and biology and more on the soft sciences of anthropology, sociology and political science.

Robert A. Heinlein began writing science fiction in the late 1930s.  Originally focused on a naval career, he graduated from Annapolis and served four years before being invalidated out of the service due to illness. Several other careers followed, but eventually he took to writing, publishing his first story, "Life-Line", in the August 1939 edition of Astounding Science Fiction. Many other stories followed.  Heinlein's stories included hard science, but they also focused on social issues, with the recurring themes of individual liberty, the obligations of the individual to society, the influence of institutions on the individual, and the consequences of espousing non-conformist thought.  Heinlein was fascinated with space travel and that was the focus of many of his stories and later novels.

During World War II, Heinlein worked as an aeronautical engineer for the U.S. Navy, and was a life-long advocate for the space program.  On July 20, 1969, Heinlein was in the studio as a commentator with Walter Cronkite and Arthur C. Clarke when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.  It was, as Heinlein told Cronkite, "…the greatest event in all the history of the human race."

After the war, Heinlein had four stories published in The Saturday Evening Post, the first science fiction writer to ever do so. More stories followed.  In 1947, Heinlein contracted with Charles E. Scribner's Sons for a series of juvenile science fiction novels, beginning with Rocket Ship Galileo in 1947 and ending with our book review for today, Have Space Suit - Will Travel in 1958.

Book #23:  Have Space Suit - Will Travel (1958) by Robert A. Heinlein. 184 pages.

High school senior Clifford "Kip" Russell wants more than anything to go to the Moon and live at the Lunar Base, or at least one of the satellite stations.  One way would be to get an appointment to the Air Academy at Colorado Springs, graduate and be selected for the Federation Space Corps. Not likely.  Kip's an okay student but his school is not the best.  Another would be to study engineering, and then get picked as one of five from the millions of willing applicants for a job on the Moon.  Also not likely.

Kip's father, Dr. Russell, offers advice but leaves it up to Kip to figure out a way.  Dr. Russell is retired from a job with the government, Kip's hazy on the details and his father isn't inclined to fill in the blanks, but whatever the job was it must have been important, because the government keeps sending people to their home to try and convince Dr. Russell to return.

Then one day, an ad for Skyway Soap appears in the newspaper.  The company is holding a jingle contest, and first prize is a trip to the moon.  Kip goes into overdrive, sending in hundreds of entries and hoping for the best.  He doesn't win a trip to the Moon, but he does win a space suit, a previously owned space suit. And that's just fine.

The space suit becomes his project.  Already spurred on to expand his studies on his own by Dr. Russell, Kip goes even further, learning all there is to know about space suits and refurbishing the one he has - Kip's named him Oscar - until it's in prime condition.  Kip then tests it out, taking longer and longer walks until he's as comfortable in the suit as he is in his own skin. 

But Kip needs money for college, so Oscar will have to be sold.  Kip decides to take one final walk with Oscar, and it's while he's on that walk that he receives a distress call from a spaceship.  Thinking its a joke, Kip supplies landing directions, and is astounded when a real, life flying saucer lands in the field in front of him.  A small figure disembarks, then collapses on the ground.  When Kip runs over to help, he's knocked out cold.

When he comes to, he discovers that he, along with two others, are prisoners on the ship.  One of the others is the Mother Thing, an alien with a disturbing resemblance to a lemur, but in whose presence one feels safe and protected.  The other is a ten year old girl. Her name is Patricia Wynant Reisfeld, a.k.a. PeeWee, and she's a genius. Her father is a very important scientist, and she's been kidnapped in an attempt to lure him to the moon, where the Wormfaces, the alien race that kidnapped Kip, PeeWee and the Mother-Thing, can utilize his abilities.

The Wormfaces resemble insects and are very, very scary. They are advanced technologically from humans, and as such view humans the same way humans view chickens. Dumb animals and a potentially tasty dinner, if prepared correctly.  The Wormfaces employ two human thugs to keep Kip and PeeWee in line, and they do their job enthusiastically. 

This is bad news for Kip and PeeWee. When the spaceship lands on the Moon, in a section undetected by the Lunar base, the three try to escape, but are thwarted just minutes before reaching the Lunar Base.  Things look hopeless, but then a second escape is attempted, and that one is successful. Unfortunately, Kip is seriously injured, all his limbs were frozen solid and destroyed. But, back at the Mother Thing's planet, they have the technology to heal him, and though it is a slow process, it is a successful one.

But once Kip is healed, he and PeeWee are taken by Mother Thing to the court of the Three Galaxies at the planet Lanador, where the fate of the human race will be decided. The Three Galaxies are similar to Earth's current Federated Free Nations, and like the previous United Nations.  The people of Lanador are the Old Race, where all civilization began.  Mother Thing is actually something close to a galactic cop, assigned to galaxies with the charge of ensuring that no upcoming civilization poses a threat to the Three Galaxies.

If the Three Galaxies judge your civilization to be a threat, you will be eliminated (no suffering, just here one moment and gone the next).  Kip and PeeWee, along with a Neanderthal and a Roman Legionnaire from the 3rd century AD, must convince the court to let them live.

In the end, the court is convinced to come back to Earth in another 80,000 years and make a judgement then.  Kip and PeeWee are sent back to Earth with some technological presents from Mother Things people, the Vegans, and Kip gets a full ride scholarship to M.I.T., courtesy a grateful Dr. Reisfeld.

Have Space Suit - Will Travel was a 1958 Hugo nominee and won the Sequoyah Children's Book award in 1961.

Have Spacesuit was a terrific read and chock full of science.  Everything you've ever wanted to know about how space suits work, how it is to walk on the moon, and much much more is in this book.  Kip and PeeWee are fully realized characters, Kip a typical 1950s teen who comes gradually comes to realize that he's got a great deal more to offer than he thought.  PeeWee is a genius and nobody's fool, she tough and more than willing at times to demand to take the lead when qualified, forget your 1950s stereotyped female.  The relationship between the two is realistic, with an ending that hints for more in the future.

This is an optimistic book, one that paints a positive future for mankind, and is a solid pick for the genre for the middle school and up crowd.

Have Space Suit - Will Travel at Amazon

Prior to this entry, I never realized that Heinlein wrote anything other than adult science fiction. My only exposure to his work was an obilgatory encounter in the 1970s with Stranger In A Strange Land, which was thrust at my person with the admonishment that I just had to read it.  Well, no, no I didn't.  I gave it a couple of chapters, and then tossed it into the pile with the other obligatory reads of The Magic Mountain and The Fellowship of the Ring. All great books, just not my cup of tea.

Starship Troopers, a film where Ken and Barbie battle giant bugs in the near future, was also based on a Heinlein novel. I sat through it to prove I was a good sport, but, really? This dreck was the product of the first Science Fiction Writer's Grand Master? 

The truth was that is most certainly wasn't.  Very little of Starship Troopers as written by Heinlein found its way into that film, and as far as the major point of the novel, the producer missed it entirely.  As Stephen King says, it's my book but it's their movie.  Another prime example.  Don't judge Heinlein by this movie.

Robert A. Heinlein was a huge presence in the science fiction genre, and a controversial and influential figure in American history.  Even the most superficial of searches for information on the man reveals a vast spectrum of opinions on his work, his philosophies, his lifestyle and his politics.  I'm not even going to try and address any of that here. There are multiple websites devoted to Heinlein, and a very thorough (if somewhat fannish) two-volume biography on his life by William H. Patterson Jr. to which you can avail yourselves for more information.  I urge you to do so, he was a fascinating man who had a significant impact in the shaping of the twentieth century.

And while you're at it, pick up a copy of Have Space Suit - Will Travel.  You won't regret it.

Robert A. Heinlein was born in 1907 in Butler, Missouri, the third of seven children of Alva and Bam Heinlein.  He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929, leaving the Navy 
in 1934 due to illness. Heinlein was married three times, no children. He was he recipient of numerous awards for his writing and advocacy of the space program. Heinlein died in 1988, following a long period of illness.

The Life and Works of Robert A. Heinlein at the Heinlein Society

Robert A. and Virginia G. Heinlein Papers at the University of California - Santa Cruz

July 2, 2015:  Per Farah M. a great source for information on science fiction is which will point them to a treasure trove of sources. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction is a good start as well. 


  1. Hello, Carol--nice review! A few factual bobbles/typos: AMAZING STORIES began in 1926, rather than '36; WEIRD TALES actually began publishing in 1923, and while it included some sf in its mix of fantasy, it was always more focused on horror and adventure fantasy. John W. Campbell began editing ASTOUNDING STORIES in 1937, and Heinlein wasn't the first sf writer to publish in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, but he and Bradbury were the first to publish there whose careers has begun in the sf magazines...such other sf writers as Philip Wylie had been hitting SEP for years.

  2. And while Campbell did publish a little of Clarke's work, there was something that never quite clicked between them, and Clarke mostly published in the States in nearly every other sf magazine ahead of ASTOUNDING or ANALOG while JWC was alive...Clarke even had stories in such ephemeral magazines as 10 STORY FANTASY almost as often as he did in ASTOUNDING...