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WILLIAM H. PATTERSON, Jr.
Out-and-out fantasy—stories of ghaisties and ghoulies and magical rings—did not have much appeal for Heinlein as a writer, but, then, neither did much of science fiction in the 1930’s, which was widely regarded as children’s literature—and for emotionally retarded (excuse me, challenged) children at that. What Heinlein wrote, as he was later at pains to tell us explicitly, was speculative fiction, that might sometimes look like fantasy—and a lot of the time looked like science fiction. “Coventry,” he remarked to his editor John Campbell in 1940 “was not a science fiction story, except by misdirection!” A few months later he was concerned that the readers of Astounding might not accept “Methuselah’s Children” as science fiction because it had space ships, but not a single space battle (this was not an unreasonable concern at the time, as readers had rejected the new pulp book, Thrilling Wonder Stories, four years earlier because of its high concentration on exotic adventure romances that had space ships but no space battles). But “modern science fiction” was in its infancy, flowing out of Robert Heinlein’s typewriter. Even as he was establishing his street [and Smith] creds with the earliest of the Future History stories, Heinlein made time to write two stories important for their philosophical content rather than for science speculation—for values of “philosophical” that involved speculative metaphysics and speculative anthropology. “Elsewhen” in fact was one of his very earliest stories—Opus 5—and “Lost Legacy”—Opus 10—was written even before 1939 was out.
The new type of fantasy being defined just then in Astounding’s sister magazine Unknown did appeal to Heinlein, with its requirement to treat a fantasy premise by the strict rules of science fictional “extrapolation,” thus allowing him to treat the fantasy worlds as an alterity—a Possible World (as it has come to be known in the branch of Modal Logic developed to deal with such things) of speculative (philosophical) thought. And in fact, in 1953, the year that science fiction put itself out in hardcovers in a big way, Heinlein’s original title for this collection was Possible Answers: Four Long Science Fiction Stories.
Two of the three stories Heinlein wrote for Unknown are definitive examples of the genre, and in fact Heinlein’s first proposal (in 1947) for the book that would become Assignment in Eternity included both “They” and “Magic, Inc.,” as well as the third story, “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” (a haunting collision between Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and Thorne Smith’s—well, anything by Thorne Smith—with bits of James Branch Cabell thrown in for good measure) is probably not mainstream enough even within this oddball subgenre of fantasy to be considered a defining classic.
The bulk of Heinlein’s fantasies are speculative science stories in masquerade, which I call the “ambiguous fantasy.” The speculation that they might take place in many alternative universes, each with its own physical laws, was philosophy when Heinlein was born but became “grandfathered” into physics as theoretical physicists debated the nature of time during his youth and into the 1930’s. “Elsewhen” gives us a picture of that transition from speculative philosophy to speculative physics. Thirty years later, Wheeler and Everett’s “Many Worlds” theory integrated it with Quantum Mechanics, and the theory of alternative realities became physics entirely—speculative physics (at least until someone figures out how to test M Theory), but science enough to be grist for legitimate science fiction (and even “sci-fi,” as the television show Fringe tells us again and again, every week). “Elsewhen,” however, may remain in the realm of fantasy, because the apparition of an angel remains beyond the pale of even the most speculative of physics. Nevertheless, “Elsewhen” was an important idea, and Heinlein revisited its underlying ideas forty years later in the World As Myth books (1980 - 1987).
In fact, Heinlein regarded all of the stories collected in Assignment in Eternity as exceptionally important at the time of their initial publication, and he revisited all of them later in life, making of them his last and in some ways greatest literary achievement, the World as Myth super-novel. The contribution of the ideascape of “Lost Legacy,” it is true, went mainly to Heinlein’s great masterwork, Stranger In a Strange Land (the description of the adept’s artforms in “Lost Legacy” is in all essentials the same as that given for Martian art in general, for example)—but, then again, Jubal Harshaw shows up as a principal player in the World As Myth, so it comes to the same thing in the end. The “plasto-biology” of “Jerry Was a Man” (another Martian invention) is the basis of the medical science of the Future History, and it is also how Marjorie “Friday” Baldwin is assembled out of the genetic material of 23 donor-parents including “Joe” and Gail “Greene” of “Gulf.” Even Kettle Belly Baldwin makes an appearance, much aged—another bridge from “Gulf” (1948) to Friday (1982)—and he has apparently adopted Friday.
Heinlein thought well of the intellectual carrying capacity of speculative fiction, and, indeed, it is this quality perhaps more than any other that made Heinlein a leader in developing modern science fiction, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable for children’s literature in the 1930’s. His boy’s books for Scribner pushed beyond what was acceptable for children’s literature of the 1950’s (he called The Star Beast a fantasy “in the mood of Dean Swift” but he had “disguised it as science fiction for commercial reasons”), and then he pushed beyond the boundaries of even “adult” science fiction of the 1980’s. A reviewer for the New York Times Review of Books called Heinlein’s late works “books that bear only the most superficial relation to either science fiction or the conventional novel.”
These early stories collected together in Assignment in Eternity marked out the intellectual pathway Heinlein was to follow once his great commercial success finally outran even his enormous medical expenses and he was finally freed from the need to observe the boundaries of genre at all.
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