Science Fiction Studies

#46 = Volume 15, Part 3 = November 1988


Robert Anson Heinlein, 1907-88

In the newspaper Tuesday morning, May 10th, I read that Robert A. Heinlein had died Monday in his sleep from heart ailments and emphysema. He was 80 years old, and had lived a long, rich, and creative life. Death was merciful to him. And yet I had difficulty believing he was really dead. After all, the single theme of his work, over all those years, is the quest for material life at all costs. Once pushed into this life, you fought for all you're worth to keep going on. A powerful theme, and one which in Heinlein's case seemed to admit no defeat. Yet here were the facts.                

During that Tuesday, I tried to sift out what Heinlein meant to me. First people called me from newspapers, to get some quick information about this "acclaimed SF writer." Journalistic memory went back to the hippies and Stranger and Manson. There were the inevitable questions. "Was Heinlein really a good writer?" "If I liked him, why?" I found myself saying things like: he put me on the Moon, he let me live in Luna City, he put me on a spaceship with the real Rolling Stones. Not the sort of "literary" things they wanted to hear.                

Then friends called, and we talked about all the stories and novels we had read. And then I was alone with my experience. I had been a Heinlein fan since a young boy, and had never stopped reading him. I don't believe I ever read him with pleasure (as one reads a novel like Great Expectations), but rather with a mixture of fascination and irritation. Heinlein says things I don't like, but writes about problems that need urgent tending to. I never heard a word about Heinlein in graduate school. In fact, there I was taught a method for attacking "writers of this sort." Where is the stylistic complexity, the intricate web of symbols and ambiguities? The touchstones were Flaubert, Joyce—in America, Stevens. But Heinlein's prose does not live on the metaphysical streets of a physical town. It is in fact, for the academic, a real stone, the one we must kick once in a while to see if we live in literary reality. And so it was for me. Heinlein taught me to see the real American tradition: Whitman, Jeffers, Twain. To look beyond "imperfections" of style to their mythic power. And Heinlein taught me to see that SF is not a debased avatar, but a true avenue—the continuation of our native myth.                

Thinking of these things, I suddenly realized that this mythic Heinlein did not belong to the past, or to the past tense. Writers die when their works become "texts." But Heinlein is a voice. And a voice that is still heard with pleasure. It is a voice that runs through five decades of novels and stories. And still found entertaining and relevant by students, many of whom had not been born when Heinlein put his words to paper. This ability to be heard is the mark of a great storyteller, and Heinlein is one. I regularly teach novels like The Star Beast alongside Fielding, Cervantes, Balzac—great voices—and they stand the comparison.                

I have quarreled with Heinlein, with his seemingly strange linkage between individuality and immortality. I found his anti-Sisyphean vision of perpetual motion, which reads like a modern version of Cronos devouring his progeny, terrifying. But only to realize that all this is not necessarily a "nightside" to our culture.

I saw, instead, that Heinlein's dream stirs deep within that culture: in Thoreau's experience at Walden Pond, in Emerson's "undulatory" process. It was by struggling with Heinlein that I came to understand what American culture at least wants to be: dynamic and perpetually adolescent—a motion-machine that is not a circle but a spiral. If a true and vital flow passes from writers like Poe and Melville directly to Heinlein, then the academic distinction between SF and "mainstream" is a patent absurdity. For SF today, in Heinlein and in his literary progeny, best represents Emerson's legacy, where form has become a genuine function of power.                

Heinlein has, in works from "Lifeline" to The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, dealt with the same problem over and over—the individual's fascination with, and struggle against, material limits. Heinlein is dead now, matter and destiny have claimed their part. But it seems as if only a part has fallen and fallen only in order that a corresponding power, the voice or "spirit" of the man, is freer to rise. I cannot think of Heinlein without hearing these lines of his Northern California neighbor, Robinson Jeffers: "What/Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried/Fear at its rising/Before it was quite unsheathed from reality." -- George Slusser, University of California, Riverside                                                                                                                                                                                   

More on "Moxon's Master"

I have read Franz Rottensteiner's modification of my interpretation of Bierce's "Moxon's Master" with some admiration for Rottensteiner's ingenuity. However, I would not accept his thesis. While the story is elliptical and open to various interpretations, as I indicated in my article in Extrapolation, Rottensteiner's interpretation not only is against what we know of Bierce's personality and literary purposes, but does not fit the text very well. It ignores the intricacy and profundity that render the story memorable. It also undermines the task that Bierce set himself: cutting out and then bridging the chasm between perception and reality.                

Even though it is sometimes easier to set up theories than to refute them, I would like to evaluate the important differences between Rottensteiner's interpretation and mine.                

First, the conversation between Moxon and the narrator, and what it reveals beyond words. A close reading of the give-and-take between the two men reveals very subtle dynamisms, persistent misunderstandings, and deliberate deceptions. A shifting irony gradually gives hints of what lies beyond the young man's gullibility and misinterpretations. (Rottensteiner ignores most of this.) The text also reveals an internal change within the young man: his social restraints drop away; his physical coordination becomes impaired; and after leaving Moxon's cabin, he erupts into a wild and irrational enthusiasm.                

When I wrote the article, I saw three reasonable explanations for the young man's gradual deterioration and collapse. First, mental disturbance; that the young man simply had a psychotic episode. This, I think, can be ruled out. Second, hallucinogens, perhaps opium smoking (certainly not impossible in the Bay area), opium derivatives (morphine), hashish, or even nitrous oxide. Unfortunately, they do not fit the young man's symptoms very well. Third, alcohol, which would account for the young man's progressive mental changes, his motor difficulties, and his enthusiastic celebration of nonsense. Alcohol also fits the story-context best.                

It is quite true that Bierce does not mention drinking. But this is part of the technique of the story. Nothing is stated in terms of causation; only speech, small actions, and the young man's subjective mental state are recorded. The reader must bridge the gap between limited, erroneous perception and reality, and must infer not only what has happened, but why.                

Rottensteiner explains matters differently by postulating that the young man was in a sexual frenzy focussed on Moxon. I can only say that in my opinion this cannot be supported by the text. Or life. The young man's deterioration certainly does not suggest the rising of sexual desire; to make incidents jibe Rottensteiner must discard social context. Nor do the narrator's ravings about cosmology amount to a statement of love. They do, however, very nicely fit the situation of a young man with too much to drink, who is gradually losing control of himself and is overpowered by a burst of maudlin enthusiasm. Alcohol also fits the cultural context of the anaesthetic revelation.                

Second: the scratches on Moxon's face. Rottensteiner suggests that interpreting such scratches (along with verbal suggestions) as evidence of an attack by a woman, rather than by a man, is unwarranted, perhaps sexist. In the absolute I might not disagree, but in a turn-of-the-century American context a woman would certainly be favored. It was culturally assumed that men punched, women scratched or pulled hair. True or untrue, it would be what Sumner at that time would have called a folkway.                

Third, reading the symbolism of Moxon's quasi-philosophical soliloquies. Rottensteiner's interpretation destroys the fine linkages that Bierce established with the occult and popular metaphysical systems of the day. He also misses the obvious point that the clever Moxon is having fun with the serious young man. Though I must admit that with a little ingenuity one can distort Moxon's harangues into almost anything, especially if one rips them out of context. A good example is Rottensteiner's comment: "'Soldiers in formation' suggests the image of homosexuality...and as a soldier of long service in the American Civil War, Bierce can hardly have been unfamiliar with male homosexuality" (p. 109). I would suggest the contrary. Bierce would not have been "hardly unfamiliar" (whatever that means) with homosexuality in the Civil War. Male homosexuality, until recently, was severely punished in the armed forces (10 or 20 years if I remember correctly from World War II), and the cultural bent would have been even more hostile in the 1860s. Undoubtedly male homosexuality existed, but it would have been very, very closet. There is no hint of it in Bierce's Civil War fiction, and from what we know of fierce, reactionary old "Major" Bierce, he would have been violently hostile. To set up a primary association of soldiers and homosexuality would be against everything we know of Bierce.                

Fourth, Haley's behavior after Moxon's death. Rottensteiner believes that Haley was the murderer. Let us go along with this for a moment, for the sake of argument—even though the note of sustained maniacal rage that anticipates and pervades the death scene has nothing in common with the quiet, restrained behavior of Haley in the hospital. Would Haley, having just committed a murder in uncontrollable frenzy, save the life of the only witness to the crime? Would he stay around to have the young man accuse him when he awoke? And what would Haley have done if the young man had loudly denounced him in the hospital? No, the situation is incredible. (I hope that Rottensteiner doesn't extend his position by postulating that Haley is a split personality and has fugues.) But if Haley, too, was only a witness and is concerned with shielding a third party, his actions make a certain amount of sense.

Fifth, Rottensteiner finds in my interpretation of the story an unacceptable element of coincidence in Haley's arrival at the right moment to rescue the young man. But how can we evaluate the probability of this? Bierce does not reveal where Haley lived; it is entirely possible that Haley lived in the next house and would have been immediately aware of a fire in Moxon's cabin. We cannot judge. Or what if we conclude as Rottensteiner does, that there is an element of coincidence? What of it? It can be justified in story logic. Like life, fiction, good and bad, is filled with coincidences. Hamlet did wander in at the time of Ophelia's funeral; Crusoe did come along when Friday was being readied; Micawber did take a job with Uriah Heep; Mrs Yeobright did disturb an adder after Eustacia failed to hear her at the door; and so on. Or, on a slightly different level, Dejah Thoris was always saved from rape, and La's sacrificial knife was always prevented from descending.                

Sixth, Moxon's "master." When I questioned the meaning of the word "master" in the title, my analysis was, as should have been obvious, in part a rhetorical preparation for what I considered the answer: master equals mistress, or spelled out a little, taking a mistress is really taking a (would-be?) master. Such a twist would fit Bierce, who was a notorious womanizer and a difficult person; it is also a nice piece of irony, typical of Bierce's cynicism and very much in the vein of The Devil's Dictionary. Rottensteiner's interpretation (apart from other weaknesses) loses this irony and verbal play. His attempt to bring mastery back into the story by calling Haley a master workman and thereby Moxon's master is at best unidiomatic. A purist like Bierce would never have used master in this sense.                

Seventh, Occam's Razor, which really should not be flourished like the razor in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." I don't see what William of Occam has to do with either the story or Rottensteiner's methodology. Rottensteiner invokes Occam as support for his theoretical position that a scenario with one less character than mine is automatically superior. I don't think that Occam, who analyzed causality fairly rigorously for his day, would have gone along. Occam's application of "parsimony" in arguing against the Thomists and Scotists on the relationship between universals and individuals meant that extraneous entities should not be added to a situation, not that the simplest explanation is automatically best. The logician Charles Saunders Peirce brought this point out in a discussion of Occam's Razor and simplicity for its own sake. If one wants philosophical clichés, sozein phainomena is still best.                

Finally, a note about certainty of knowledge, without reference to the Scholastics. I frankly admit that I am not completely certain how to interpret all aspects of "Moxon's Master"; but I do not feel embarrassed about this. Bierce obviously intended uncertainty by leaving so much for the reader either to imagine or reconstruct. I would be more embarrassed to be dogmatic about what is obviously an open-sided story like "The Turn of the Screw." This does not mean, however, that far-out interpretations must be accepted.                

A postscript. I certainly don't object if Rottensteiner disagrees with me. But I could wish that he had distinguished a little more clearly in his summaries between my analysis and his. A reader who has not read my article might draw wrong conclusions. -- Everett F. Bleiler, Ridgewood, NJ

Of course, I have quite deliberately "usurped" Mr Bleiler's selection of quotations and "perverted" them a little, to show that they can be interpreted in quite other ways. But I am in full agreement with Mr Bleiler about Bierce's literary methods of "very subtle dynamisms, persistent misunderstandings, and deliberate deceptions." Only I think that they go deeper than Mr Bleiler suspects. Whether Moxon was homosexual or not: Can't a homosexual have his fun with the young man (even if he wants to seduce him)? I think that he also has his fun with him about a non-existent woman. And can't Bierce have his fun with the reader, even about a socially ostracized subject? My interpretation adds a new level to what Mr Bleiler said; it doesn't take away anything from the existing ambiguities; on the contrary, it shows the story to be richer, more ironical, more deceptive, with quite new meanings added.                

I'll restrict myself to a few points in my reply to the reply. I have not said that the interpretation of the scratches in Moxon's face (and the related remarks of the narrator), as pointing to a woman, is "unwarranted" or "sexist." On the contrary: while Mr Bleiler seems to think that the inference of a woman is some subtle discovery, I think it is so obviously what Bierce wants us to believe, so right on the surface, that it must be part of his narrative strategy of deception—i.e., a "red herring." The evidence for an automaton is stronger than the evidence for a woman; but if the automaton (who has at least been seen by the narrator) is a "red herring" (and I believe this to be Mr Bleiler's invaluable discovery, and certainly this is what set me thinking at all about the story), there is even less reason to think a woman is anything other than a red herring.                

Bleiler's interpretation of the narrator's behavior is too materialistic; people fall in love and/or are converted to pseudo-scientific beliefs all the time, without any alcohol. What Bierce does is to describe a process of conversion in psychologically credible terms. To my mind, additional causes like mental aberration, opium, alcohol, insomnia, or whatever are extraneous. And certainly there was no "sexual frenzy" involved; the gullible young narrator experiences a sea-change, a falling in love, without quite realizing himself what really happens to him.                

I should also like to point out that I wish to make no guesses at all about Bierce's own sexual leanings, preferences, or horrors; but I do think that he was worldly-wise enough to play with sexual materials. And certainly individual beings (including characters in stories) can behave quite differently from what the social cliché expects of them. I also see no contradiction between what happens during murders of passion (which are usually committed by otherwise quite normal people) and the usual behavior of such people. Mr Haley's behavior was not extraordinary at all, if he was the murderer.                

There was little chance that he would be accused of the murder by the narrator. It might even be argued that Haley, if he was the murderer, had to let the narrator live, else there would have been nobody left to tell the extraordinary story of a robot murdering its creator—which carries, incredible as it sounds, much more weight coming as it does from a neutral observer (as it were) than if it had been told by the actual builder of the mechanism, Haley. And had both Moxon and the narrator been killed, and foul play suspected, who would have been the prime suspect? Haley, of course. Thus the narrator (who has, as the story clearly shows, seen nothing of Haley on the scene of the crime) is actually a witness for Haley, testifying that it was a machine that killed Moxon.               

If the narrator had said, "Thou Art the Man," we would simply be in another story, one offering no mysteries. A story that would be quite banal, without the puzzling ambiguities that make "Moxon's Master" great; and Mr Bleiler suggests himself that "Moxon's Master" has found scant attention because it was thought to be a simple robot story.                

But if there really was a mistress/murderess, there remains a question that Mr Bleiler should have asked in his analysis and to which there can be, I think, no answer that would not be wholly arbitrary and thus unsatisfactory: What is then the nature of the relationship between Moxon's mistress and Haley? If Haley is not the murderer, he must know (either as an eye-witness or as the builder of the automaton) what really happened (i.e., that the automaton couldn't have killed Moxon of its own volition). Thus, what reason can he have to protect a murderess that killed his employer and lost him his job? Which would make him an accessory to murder! (There are only two logical possibilities: either Haley is the murderer himself or else he is an accessory to murder, by keeping his silence.)                

I say Haley must be the murderer because that way the story is much more tightly and elegantly constructed than it appears at first glance, and two apparent accidents are explained as logical necessity. No doubt, accidents do happen, but it is aesthetically more pleasing if a story does not rely so much on mere accidents.                

In my interpretation, it doesn't matter where Haley lived, because he didn't arrive at all; and there also was no accidental lightning (for which we have only the suggestion of a man who has good reason to lie about it) to set aflame Moxon's premises.                

From the point of view of finding out the truth, the fire was unfortunate, for it destroyed vital evidence; from the point of view of story construction, it was essential, for it ensures the insoluble ambiguity of the story, the doubt about what really happened; and from the point of view of Haley the murderer, the fire was also a logical necessity to destroy the crucial evidence against him. Thus it is more logical to assume that the fire did not break out by mere chance but was laid. Bierce's story is much more clever, more ambiguous, and more logical if Haley is the murderer and not a woman. A woman as "master" is rather "an den Schamhaaren herbeigezogen," as one could put it in German, in the case of this story; and otherwise it is just a popular cliché. -- Franz Rottensteiner, Vienna            


The Upcoming Eaton Conference

Under the rubric "Styles of Creation: Aesthetic Technique and the Creation of  Fictional Worlds," the 11th Annual J. Lloyd Eaton Conference on Fantasy and Science Fiction will focus on matters of style, language, and narrative and descriptive technique in fantastic and speculative fiction and art in general. We invite papers of 10-15 pages (20 to 30 minutes for oral delivery) from scholars taking all approaches to the subject. We are, as always, open to papers considering works from all branches of fantastic literature. In addition, this year we are especially eager to have submissions from students of aesthetic technique who have not before concentrated extensively on works from these genres. We hope to encourage a broad and fresh examination of these continually interesting subjects. Papers may concentrate on single works, deal with groups of works, or argue theoretical positions.                

The Conference will take place in Riverside, April 14-16, 1989. The deadline for papers is Dec. 15, 1988. For further information contact me c/o Eaton Collection/PO Box 5900/University Library/University of California/Riverside, CA 92517. -- George Slusser, University of California, Riverside  


For SFRA Members Only

If the interval between your renewing your SFRA membership and your receiving SFS seemed unconscionably long this year, that was through none of our doing. The lag had solely to do with the SFRA officers responsible for communicating membership information to us.                

Should you be perusing this message in your library's copy of SFS (because you have gotten no issues from us thus far in 1988), we recommend that you write to Charlotte Donsky and/or Elizabeth Hull.—RMP


New Publications

Paul Brians of Washington State University and Jean Kittrell from Southern Illinois have begun putting out Nuclear Texts & Contexts. Appearing at irregular intervals, this newsletter will offer bibliographical information about primary as well as secondary works in the field of nuclear war literature, reviews of critical books, and various pertinent news items. If you wish to receive NT&C, simply send your name and address to Professor Brians/English Dept./Washington State University/ Pullman, WA 99064. This publication is available gratis, but presumably no donations will be refused.

A sample number of a monthly calling itself The New York Review of Science Fiction appeared this August. About  half of its 18 pages are devoted to reviews of fiction, with the other half given over to casual essays (i.e., their authors mostly aim to amuse, not to furrow your brow—at least, not in thought. Typically, one of the essays is titled "I was a Teenaged Crud Fan...")               

To subscribe, remit US$24.00 to Dragon Press/PO Box 78/Pleasantville, NY 10570.

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