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Robert A. Heinlein

Portrait of Robert A. Heinlein

(photo by Dd-b, taken at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, MO, USA, at which Heinlein was the guest of honor. Courtesy Wikipedia.)

Robert A. Heinlein, born in 1907, had attempted two careers before he took up writing fiction. He joined the Navy first, but due to health issues he was forced to choose something else. He tried politics, but after a failed campaign that left him broke, he came across a contest notice from the magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories asking for new and unpublished writers. Heinlein was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. Badly in need of an income, he decided to try his luck.

He felt that the story he wrote in the days that followed, “Life-Line,” was too good for a writing contest. So he took a risk and targeted a stronger magazine: Astounding Science Fiction. It was 1939, and John W. Campbell, the famed editor of Astounding, picked it up. It was a breakthrough, and Heinlein continued writing and submitting to Astounding and other magazines with increasing success. Over the next few years he was published with A. E. van Vogt, Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp, Clifford D. Simak, L. Ron Hubbard, Isaac Asimov, and the seasoned father of “space opera,” E. E. “Doc” Smith. His new career had been established, and it skyrocketed. He and his fellow authors launched what is now known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Wrapping his stories around the experience of his first two careers and indoctrinating them with social commentary in the style of H. G. Wells but in his own political voice, he found a niche that suited him and his readers. He became the first to win the award of Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1975, having written the critically acclaimed novels Farmer in the Sky, Double Star, Have Space Suit—Will Travel, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, Glory Road, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and Time Enough for Love, all of which were nominated for, or won, a Hugo Award (some retroactively).

Heinlein participated in writing the movie Destination Moon in 1950, loosely based on his young adult novel Rocketship Galileo. Heinlein was also a technical consultant on the movie. Destination Moon became a science fiction classic, and under Heinlein’s scrutiny raised the bar for technical effects, helping to win the movie an Academy Award for Visual Effects.

By the time of his death in 1988 he became known as one of the “Big Three” in the Golden Age of Science Fiction, along with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, the latter about whom Heinlein once said, “There is a writer with the real stuff.” *

* From a letter dated 31 March 1941 to Frederik Pohl about Asimov’s short story “Heredity” published in Astonishing Stories magazine, alongside Heinlein’s short story “Beyond Doubt.” —CSH

The following letters introduce the novella Lost Legacy and other stories when Robert A. Heinlein worked with Frederik Pohl, his editor, toward publication. I found these letters in the special collections at the Syracuse University Library and mailed them to Pohl asking permission to publish them in 2004. Pohl thoroughly enjoyed the nostalgia, as it had been sixty-four years since he had had these discussions! Pohl remarked, in response to re-reading the letters, “I was astonished to find that Bob Heinlein once told me I could make editorial changes in his work myself. He changed his mind about that, all right.”

I could find no formal synopses or outlines, but Heinlein’s stories were summarized in these letters. They are mildly abridged. The author and his editor also discussed payments, revisions, and a pseudonym, most of which I edited out as it was irrelevant to this book, though it made for an interesting read. But it’s worthy to note that Heinlein chose to submit Lost Legacy and a few other works under the pen name of Lyle Monroe. Pohl wanted to use the Heinlein name which had already been nicely established by late 1940, but Heinlein wanted more money for that, and Pohl chose not to afford it.

Lost Legacy was first published in Super Science Stories as Lost Legion by Lyle Monroe. It appeared subsequently in several collections, including Assignment in Eternity, and would later in fact bear the Heinlein name. “Beyond Doubt” by Lyle Monroe and Elma Wentz was first published in Astonishing Stories in April, 1941, and would later be republished in Isaac Asimov’s anthology, Election Day 2084: Science Fiction Stories About the Future of Politics. Patterns of Possibility was first published as Elsewhen in Astounding Science Fiction in September, 1941 and also would get collected into Assignment in Eternity. “Pied Piper” by Lyle Monroe was first published in Astonishing Stories in March 1942 and would not be republished until 2005 in Off the Main Sequence: The Other Science Fiction Stories of Robert A. Heinlein. “My Object All Sublime” by Lyle Monroe was first published in Future Combined with Science Fiction Stories in 1942, also collected into the Off the Main Sequence anthology.


October 23, 1940

Dear Mr. Pohl,

I have delayed ten days in answering your letter because I was engaged in finishing a novelette, and wished to give your letter a careful, thorough answer when I did so. I find it very [difficult] to write letters when I have a story on the fire.

Now to business—I was a bit surprised at the controversy started by “Let There Be Light.” It contained controversial matters, but the objection seemed to be entirely to the language used by the characters. Apparently some readers believe that scientists are different from ordinary vulgar human beings. Well—I know that they aren’t.

I am sorry to say that I am unable to offer manuscripts under my own name at the cent-a-word rate. Sheer economic determinism, you will understand. For the same reason I would be unable to undertake to write stories by arrangement with you under pen names and at a lower rate.

However I have five stories which for one reason or another did not sell when they were written. You may have any of those under the name of Lyle Monroe for half a cent per word.

Let me make one point quite clear: Stories written under the name Lyle Monroe will receive every bit as careful attention from me as stories written under my own name. I will not be offering shoddy hack work for a lower rate. “Let There Be Light” was one of my favorite stories, written honestly and carefully. I will continue to be just as jealous of the reputation of Lyle Monroe as I am of the name with the higher rate.

Now as to these five stories—each of them will probably need rewriting and I am willing to do any necessary amount of rewriting in order to get them in shape for market. In a way that will cost me money, for I am now selling every word that I write at a higher rate than they will bring and have been doing so for a year. But I am anxious to see these published for my own morale. These five manuscripts are the only things I have ever written which were not immediately sold. They sit here and shame me. You will appreciate, I believe, that I would labor mightily to dispose of them.

It seems best to me that you see them unrevised, with all the mistakes I made while learning still in them. If I were to rewrite them without waiting for your advice I might greatly improve them, since I believe I know more about writing now than I did a year ago when they were written. But I think it would help a lot for you to indicate how you wish them changed. You may want more adventure, less adventure, more science, less science, a love interest introduced, or taken out, a grim treatment, or addition of humor. In fact I can do with a story almost anything that you want done, with the exception that the social evaluations expressed in a story must be my own.

What I am trying to say is this: Where the writer speaks through the mouth of a protagonist, or speaks in the third person by a straight exposition, the views expressed must be my views, not the views of the publisher. For example, I believe that I could have sold “Let There Be Light” at a higher rate than I received from you had I dropped from it the attack on privately owned public utilities. I left it in.

I do not anticipate that you would ask me to express a different viewpoint from my own; I simply wished to make my position explicit.

The stories—”Patterns of Possibility”, 10,051 words. Time travel story, containing a new time theory with five-dimensional continua. Adventure story with love interest. Too verbose and not well knit, but could be a good story.

“Beyond Doubt,” 4,309 words. Fantastic satire on politics, laid in ancient Mu. I think it’s funny; my usual publisher didn’t.

“Lost Legacy,” 35,000 words. This one is my pet. I would rather see this published than any story I have ever written. It needs some work done it, the opening speeded up and the ending expanded with perhaps 5,000 words of additional action. For your purposes you may want more action and less exposition throughout—we’ll see. It is a story which contends that the present human race are the degenerate descendants of a great race. Nothing new in that perhaps, but I did extensive research on this story and believe that I have made the theme credible.

“Pied Piper,” 5,053 words. You have seen this once and may recall it. It might be very timely just now, and I will revise it to suit your needs. It is a story of a ware which is won by the “great scientist” who then uses his temporary advantage to insure a permanent peace. Satire on the Versailles treaty. It probably needs more action and less talk.

“My Object All Sublime,” 7,715 words. You have seen this also. It is a slap-happy yarn about a little professor who conducts a crusade against reckless driving with synthetic skunk juice. The ending is not particularly novel and may need to be changed. Perhaps the whole story should be shortened.

You made no comment on either of the above stories when you returned them before. Possibly, in view of the fact that I am willing to rewrite to order, you may see in them possibilities.

If you wish me to do so, I will send all or any of these stories to you for your consideration and suggestions as to revisions. It seems to me that, if you will work with me on these stories, giving me a clear picture of what it is that you want, the name Lyle Monroe can be quite as useful in attracting the cash customers as my own name. I am honestly interested in improving these stories and in seeing them published, just as a matter of personal satisfaction in having a clean sweep of 100% sales, even though—believe it, or not—it will cost me money to do so.

I hope to hear your wishes in the near future.

Kindest regards,

Robert A. Heinlein

23 October 1940

Dear Mr. Heinlein:

Thanks for your long and explicit letter. While I’d prefer using your real name on your stories, Lyle Monroe is a fairly good substitute now, and ought to prove to be a very good one.

Your terms are perfectly satisfactory to me. 1/2¢ per word, to be published under the pseudonym. And you can trust me not to alter “the social evaluations expressed in your stories.” Particularly so in your own case, since I agree wholeheartedly with most of what you said in “Let There Be Light”, to name the story with which I’m most familiar.

I recall “My Object All Sublime” pretty well, and don’t think it will be necessary for you to let me see it again. I didn’t like it. “Pied Piper” I recall only vaguely, but I suggest that you let it wait for a while. I am most interested in the other three you mention, particularly “Lost Legacy”. I’m instituting a change in Super Science Stories, so that in future it will publish at least one fairly long story—up to 40,000 words—in each issue. I plan to make the standard rather high. Much higher, certainly, than would ordinarily be expected at a cut-rate magazine. I’ve got two very good novels already on hand; I hope yours will make a third.

Therefore, please let me see “Lost Legacy”, as well as “Patterns of Possibility” and “Beyond Doubt”, as soon as possible. Each of them, according to the brief synopses you gave, should be a good story; I’m sure that I hope they are in fact.


Frederik Pohl

November 1, 1940

Dear Mr. Pohl,

I refer you at this time to my letter of October 23. Then, assuming that you have that letter at hand, I will add a little to the remarks there in:

“Lost Legacy.” This story will undoubtedly need some revision. It needs speeding up in spots and amplifying in others. On the other hand it is not and can not be the adventure story with pseudo-science background which most of the contemporary long stories in the science fiction field are. I can’t turn it into a cops-and-robbers of the usual interplanetary type, nor the usual war story type. The field of the story is psychology and metapsychology and does not lend itself readily to violent action. Still—I think the ideas expressed are interesting in themselves to reasonably mature readers. Incident can be added; the hook can be speeded up; the ending can be changed.

I suggest that you read it, then go over it with editorial pencil in hand, noting on the face of the manuscript exposition or discussion which you wish to cut down, incidents which you want added, etc. Or, if you prefer, take it as it is and make your own changes.

I would like to see this story published. It was an attempt on my part, only partially successful, to do something as “Odd John”. To my way of thinking, science-fictionists have become gadget crazy, and are perfectly willing to accept any improbability as long as the author postulates some sketchily-explained “invention” in the sphere of physics. (I’ve done it myself!) Here is a story with no gadgets, in which the author has hooked together a lot of the erratic data which orthodox theory rejects, and tried to fit it into a single comprehensive philosophy and history.

By the way, as I did the research for this story (the data cited pp. 15-26 and circa p. 49 are all factual) I became convinced that, although my story was fiction, the basic idea, or something very like it, was true. Or, at least, closer to the truth than orthodox theory. In particular I came to believe that modern anthropology and modern psychology were mutually contradictory—irreconcilable.

“Patterns of Possibility”. I suggest that you mark this one up in the same fashion as “Lost Legacy”. It is probably too long, especially in some of the discussions between Frost and Howard Jenkins. The episode about the “angel” might be cut entirely, although personally I think it is needed to round out the theory.

“Beyond Doubt”. This manuscript is in the hands of Julius Schwartz. I could write to him and ask him to send it to me, then forward it to you, but it seems simpler to leave him in the status of agent. May I ask that you telephone him, FO 5-0965, and say that I said for him to give it to you, that we had agreed on terms, and that, if you take it, he will receive the usual commission.

This story is hardly science-fiction at all in a serious sense. Rather, it is intended as a double satire on politics and on dogmatic science. I think the prologue and epilogue are a bit heavy-handed and should be shortened, or eliminated. This story is intended simply to amuse. It amused me to write it; if it amuses you—fine; the readers will probably be amused likewise. If it does not amuse you, let’s forget it.

It probably bears the names of Caleb Saunders and Elma Wentz. That should be changed to Lyle Monroe and Elma Wentz. I own the story, but the double credit line is necessary.

You will find herewith a stamped, self-addressed envelope for return of these manuscripts. That will be necessary in any case, for revision—unless you prefer to make your own revisions.

Kindest regards,

Robert A. Heinlein

19 November 1940

Dear Mr. Heinlein:

Enclosed herewith are your two manuscripts, “Patterns of Possibility” and “Lost Legacy”.

Julie Schwartz has given me “Beyond Doubt”, which I have read, and am accepting as it stands. I shall have the check for it in about a week, and shall give it to Julie.

“Patterns of Possibility” I did not much like, and I will not devote much space to it, as I am considerably more interested in “Lost Legacy”. The story was inconclusive, and I don’t think any amount of rewriting could correct that, unless the whole present plot and setting were discarded, and a new story built around the time theory.

As for “Lost Legacy”, I should like you to rewrite it according to the following suggestions:

Chapters I-V. From a literary and dramatic point of view, these are satisfactory as is. However, they do not definitely enough set the period of the story—which is hinted to be in the future, at some time between this year and a dozen years from now. I would like you to definitely “date” it at, say, 1950; to show what material changes have taken place in the life of the nation in the way of new means of transportation, communications, amusements, and so forth. This would mean bringing in some of the “gadgets” which you appear to have intentionally eliminated. I think, though, that it will improve the story; certainly it will make it more palatable to a science fiction audience.

The hook, as you say, could well be speeded up, but the manner of speeding it can be left up to you.

Chapter VI, I think, should be excised entirely, if you can present the story told in it in any other way. Under any circumstances, it should be told as briefly as possible—and should not be in diary form. Chapters VII and VIII, being principally exposition, should be cut drastically also.

What I said of Chapters I to IV applies also to IX and X. Chapter XI need not be changed at all.

The two final chapters, XII and XIII, need considerable more action and development. This is particularly true of the fight with Brinckley. In the preceding sections of the story, you have hinted at a wide-spread conspiracy of people of Brinckley’s type; would it not have been necessary for Huxley and the others to fight the others, as well as Brinckley?

My error—I confused Chapter XIII with the latter half of Chapter XII. Only chapter XII requires rewriting; the other makes a very good ending as it stands.

I hope that the rather condensed suggestions above will be sufficient for you to work on. It seems unwise to be more explicit, though, since a full exposition of my opinions for improving the story could scarcely be achieved by correspondence and a fragmentary one would be sure to be misleading. About all I can do is to give directives as broad as those above, and trust to your ability as an author to fill in the missing detail.

If you have or encounter in the course of the rewriting any specific questions which you think I might be able to answer, I of course will be glad to try to clear them up.

Although I should like to see your revised version of “Lost Legacy” as soon as possible, my schedule on long novels is full up to the July issue. I’ll be wanting copy for that around the end of February; that gives you more than three months in which to complete the job.

Cordially yours,

Frederik Pohl

November 25, 1940

Dear Mr. Pohl,

Thank you for your courteous and detailed letter of November 19th.

I am very pleased that you decided to take “Beyond Doubt”, not so much on my own account as for my collaborator. It is going to do her good to see her name in print. I agree with you on “Patterns of Possibility”. I was learning to write at the time; it is not well plotted. Perhaps someday I will make better use of that time theory.

I am glad that you are able to give me a little more time in revising “Lost Legacy” than I had anticipated. I could turn it out as a rush job right now; since you are in no pressing hurry for it, I shall wait about a month, completing work that I have on hand, then tackle it slowly and leisurely, giving it the loving care that I want to give it.

I find myself in complete agreement with you on most points as to how to make it take hold properly. In the few cases where your opinions and mine do not agree exactly there is so little difference of opinion that I shall have no trouble in following your wishes. For example I don’t think the story needs gadgets from a dramatic standpoint, but they won’t hurt the story, so gadgets there shall be. As you know from my other work, I can think of gadgets if I need to. Anyhow the readers expect them.

Let me say that you are the kind of an editor I like to work with—and there are some in the business for whom I can not say that! Not being financially dependent on writing I can permit myself the luxury of having nothing to do with editors whose manner in dealing with writers I do not like. I appreciate very much the serious effort and good taste that you bring to the task of working on a story with a writer.

Cordially yours,

Robert A. Heinlein

January 11th, 1941

Dear Mr. Pohl,

Herewith is the baby—”Lost Legacy”.

I think you will find that I have complied with your editorial instructions as to re-writing it to the letter. However, I am getting it in at this early date in order that additional changes may be made, if you wish them. I wish to turn out an entirely satisfactory piece of work. I have not enclosed postage for return as there is no need to send the manuscript back for such additional changes as may be needed. I can work from the carbon copy, and your instructions.

The manuscript is not very pretty now; many of the changes were made on the face of the original manuscript. I had two reasons for that. In the first place I wanted you to be able to see how much had been cut from the overly verbose and tedious chapters, and to see what had been added in the way of action, plot complication, dialogue—and gadgets. I added all the gadgets I thought the story would stand from a literary standpoint, but I can add them indefinitely, if you still want more of them.

The second reason is that I am a slow typist. Re-copying simply to improve the appearance of an untidy but perfectly legible script is tedious and rather expensive in time wasted.

Chapter VI, the dream, has been shifted from diary to third person, and has been cut at least half. Inasmuch as the key to the rest of the story and all the basic ideas are contained in that chapter I do not believe that it can be cut much more without destroying some of the force and literary value of the story. But you’re the doctor—let me know. Chapters VII & VIII have been greatly trimmed as well, and I believe that they are now satisfactorily fast story.

Chapter XIII, the fight with Brinckley et seq., has been greatly expanded in accordance with your instructions. I added about the amount of action and dialogue to this chapter that I had struck out of exposition in earlier chapters (leaving the total length of the story about the same). This action could be spun out for any desired additional number of words, but I don’t favor doing so. It is packed with implied action now as well as a great deal of additional explicit action, which gives the story a fast pace in its conclusion which I think is desirable in any story and which can be lost through too detailed treatment. I think the story should rush pell-mell to a conclusion once Huxley makes the decision to fight Brinckley personally.

In any case, here it is—with time left to chew over any remaining details.

I enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope. The airmail stamp is a gentle hint—I am always anxious to hear editorial reaction at the earliest convenient date.

Cordially yours,

Robert A. Heinlein

17 January 1941

Dear Heinlein:

“Lost Legacy” arrived okay, and I decided to scan it hastily—and read it attentively. Which is another way of saying that no additional changes will be necessary. I’ll take it as it stands.…


Frederik Pohl

From the Frederik Pohl Correspondence collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries at Syracuse University.


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