Science Fiction Studies

#24 = Volume 8, Part 2 = July 1981

R.D. Mullen

The OUP Series: Franklin on Heinlein, McConnell on Wells

H. Bruce Franklin. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. Frank McConnell. The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells. Science Fiction Writers Series. NY: Oxford University Press. 1980; 1981. xiv + 232p.; xiv + 235p. Each volume: $l8.95 cloth, $4.95 paper.

Nothing could be a surer sign that SF has come into its own in the academic world than this initiation by the Oxford University Press of a Science Fiction Writers Series under the general editorship of so distinguished a scholar as Robert Scholes, who writes:

In each volume we will include a general view of the author's life and work, critical interpretations of his or her major contributions to the field of science fiction, and a biographical and bibliographical apparatus that will make these volumes useful as a reference tool. The format of each book will thus be similar. But because the writers to be considered have had careers of different shapes, and because our critics are all individuals who have earned the right to their own interpretative emphases, each book will take its own shape within the limits of the general format. Above all, each book will express the critical view of its author rather than some predetermined party line. (p. viii of each volume)

Before exploring the question of how well each of these books fulfills this promise, let us grant that in series of this general kind the books are intended to provide comparatively brief introductory surveys rather than extensive critiques of individual works or full-scale assemblages of the facts uncovered by scholarship.

By my count Heinlein has published 27 novels and 54 shorter stories that can be considered SF or fantasy. Professor Franklin's primary bibliography is complete, with the stories listed in order of first appearance and with a supplementary list of short-story collections and omnibus volumes; and in his text proper Professor Franklin deals at adequate length with each and every one. For Wells the figures are somewhat smaller. Professor McConnell's primary bibliography is simply a chronological list of Wells's books, with no distinction between fiction and non-fiction and thus with none between mundane fiction and SF or fantasy, and in his text he deals with only 15 of the 19 SF-or-fantasy novels and only 8 of the 42 SF-or-fantasy shorter stories. If such omissions are justified by Professor Scholes, "major contributions to the field of science fiction," the criteria for selection and emphasis are still subject to question and debate.

In a 1921 preface Wells noted that The War in the Air, When the Sleeper Wakes, and The World Set Free belonged to a series of his stories which were "usually spoken of as 'scientific romances' or 'futurist romances,' but which it would be far better to call "fantasias of possibility,"' for they "take some developing possibility in human affairs and work it out so as to develop the broad consequences of that possibility."1 In the preface to a 1933 UK volume, The Scientific Romances of H. G. Wells, he stressed the differences between the "anticipatory inventions" of Jules Verne and "these stories of mine collected here," which "do not pretend to deal with possible things," being "exercises of the imagination in a quite different field."2 In 1934 this collection, with one of the eight "romances" omitted and the preface minimally amended to acknowledge that omission, was published in the US as Seven Famous Novels of H. G. Wells.

Professor McConnell has based the organization of his book on the 1934 US volume, for, he says, "Wells wrote for the collection a preface implicitly acknowledging that these were the main body of his work as a science-fiction writer (he suggested adding only Men Like Gods, 1923, as the last of his scientific romances)" (p. 185). Evidently unfamiliar with Wells's distinction between "scientific romances" and "fantasias of possibility," and unaware of the relationship of the UK and US volumes, Professor McConnell seems not to have considered the possibility that the Seven Famous Novels might have been chosen on the basis of genre rather than as the author's major works in what we today call SF.

After two introductory chapters, Professor McConnell devotes Chapter 3 to The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau as "Evolutionary Fables" and Chapter 4 to The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds as the work of a great "Realist of the Fantastic." So far, so good. These four romances, together with The First Men in the Moon, have always been the most widely and intensely admired of Wells's SF novels. Each of the five is comparatively short, rich in imagery, and so highly concentrated that what remains most vivid in the memory is a single object, horrible or wondrous in itself, and so richly symbolic that it illuminates all that precedes or follows its revelation: the Eloi-Morlock community, Moreau's House of Pain, Griffin's invisibility, the ruthless power and destructiveness of the Martians, the Selenite community. Professor McConnell is excellent on the literary qualities and satisfactory on the intellectual content of the first four novels, and does well enough in Chapter 5 with the literary qualities of The First Men in the Moon. But the case is different when he treats the fantasias of possibility and the later romances as somewhat inferior novels of essentially the same kind, for these are discursive rather than concentrated, comic rather than lyric, and literal or allegorical rather than symbolic.

The case is also different with respect to the intellectual content of the novels yet to be dealt with. At least part of the trouble rises from the organization of Chapter 5, "Dreams of the Future." The introduction discusses the rise of Edwardian optimism, Wells's turning to sociological essays in Anticipations, and When the Sleeper Wakes. The three sections of the chapter are then devoted to the remaining "major works" (The First Men in the Moon, The Food of the Gods, and In the Days of the Comet), with no indication that Anticipations was written after the first and before the second. If Professor McConnell had understood the importance of Anticipations not just to the expression but to the development of Wells's thought, if he had studied Anticipations and Mankind in the Making, he would perhaps have realized that Sleeper and First Men belong to the visionary universe of the pre-Anticipations period, whereas The Food of the Gods and its successors belong to a quite different vision, one in which the purposes and rhetoric of the author have undergone a significant change.

One of the most persistent themes in Wells's fiction is that of the conflict between love and honor; or, to use the terms of his times, between aestheticism and priggishness or, if you will, simply the desire to escape from the troubles of this dreary world, and especially from responsibility in great affairs. In Wells this theme has its first notable expression in "A Dream of Armageddon," which he once called "obviously a by-product of the manufacture" of When the Sleeper Wakes,3 but which was not published until 1901 and so may have been written at the same time as or even after Anticipations; that is, at a time when Wells had turned from the aestheticism of literature to an earnest wrestling with the details of the politics and economics of the actual world in which he lived. Be that as it may, it was in The Sea Lady (1902) that he first treated the theme at book length, and in "The Door in the Wall" (1906) that he gave it perhaps its most perfect expression. The three stories cited here are among those unmentioned by Professor McConnell, who has nothing at all to say about the relevance of any such theme to In the Days of the Comet or about its importance in virtually all the novels and romances that follow, including most of those he discusses as well as those he passes over.

The sixth and final chapter, "Outlines for History," runs rapidly through most of the remaining SF novels from The War in the Air to Star Begotten. There are also brief treatments of Tono-Bungay and The Outline of History, and a paragraph on the books associated with the Open Conspiracy, but nothing at all on the The Holy Terror, the SF novel on the way in which the Open Conspiracy might reach its goals through the politics of British discontent. Since The Shape of Things to Come is the book treated at greatest length in this chapter, I feel bound to point out that Professor McConnell is perpetuating an absurd error--one that presumably arose from the film based on the book-- when he writes that "The war to come is awful beyond all man's imagining" (p. 207; cf. p. 27); for this 1933 novel is a "fantasia of possibility" in which the "developing possibility in human affairs" is not the destructiveness of war but the spreading and deepening of the Great Depression, which brings about the disintegration of the US and the enfeeblement of the governments of Europe to such a degree that when war does come they have no resources with which to wage it in other than a very limited and desultory fashion.

There is similar careless reading and perpetuation of critical error in the statement that the "once-meager finances" of the sleeping Graham "have accumulated interest to the point where his immense wealth is the (untouched and untouchable) cornerstone of the world's economy" (pp. 151-52).4 When I first read When the Sleeper Wakes, in the Winter 1928 issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly, I was infinitely puzzled by an illustration for which I could find no scene in the story, and this puzzle continued to bother me until 1967, when I consulted the 1899 volume of Harper's Weekly and there found both the illustration and the scene--a scene omitted from the revised version of the story published the same year in book form and reprinted in Amazing 30 years later. Professor McConnell, who is seldom so pedantic as to specify his text, seems also to have read the story in the Weekly,5 for he tells us that "Graham dies in a final airplane duel against Ostrog (who also dies), and his mangled body is discovered by a simple shepherd, an heir to the immemorial cycles of pastoral life, who understands nothing of the great struggle that has been waged in a city he has never seen" and that "the love of the good things of the earth" is "symbolized by the shepherd," who is "one of Wells's most important characters" (p. 153). In the book Ostrog escapes to fight another day, and the shepherd does not appear at all: this is the scene that worried me for 40 years. As for immemorial cycles and the good things of the earth, Professor McConnell should not have written about pastoralism in When the Sleeper Wakes without first reading its companion piece, "A Story of the Days to Come."

I have said that Professor McConnell is excellent on the literary qualities of Wells's five best-loved romances. Let me now add that he is eminently fair and reasonable when dealing with Wells's political thought, whether or not he understands it very well. He gives Wells the benefit of the doubt; he does not toss around words like "elitist" or "fascist" or (God save the mark!) "naive," so that the student or instructor who reads this book as an introduction to Wells will not come away, as he or she well might after reading certain other books or articles, with the feeling that Wells really had nothing worthwhile to say about the way the world was going in the first half of our dreadful century.

When Professor Franklin was asked to write his book for this series, he hesitated for fear that he could not be fair to Heinlein, but having thought it over he decided that Heinlein was to be understood as "a very representative American," one who "embodies the contradictions that have been developing in our society ever since the Depression flowed into World War II" (pp. 5-6). America and Heinlein, however democratic and progressive they may have been when the US and the USSR were allied against the menace of Nazism, both went wrong between 1947 and 1949, for

By the middle of 1949 the United States had committed itself to a global crusade against Communism. Loyalty checks and loyalty dossiers were now a characteristic feature of American life. The unions, the media, and the schools were being systematically purged of Communist sympathizers. On September 21, 1949, the People's Republic of China was proclaimed in Peking. Two days later, President Truman announced that the Soviet Union had set off an atomic explosion, thus ending the U.S. nuclear monopoly. In November and December 1949 Robert Heinlein published in Astounding the novella "Gulf," an anti-communist diatribe arguing the need of a master race of supermen to settle the problems of our time and the future. (p. 94)

Since 1949, according to Professor Franklin, a wicked America has done everything in its power to establish and maintain capitalist oppression throughout the world: and Heinlein, though sometimes pessimistic about the survival of freedom and decency in the capitalist world, has steadfastly opposed the spread of that communism through which the heroic peoples of the Third World are leading humanity into a beautiful future in which there will be no imperialism, no elitism, no hierarchies.

Although I consider its account of 20th-century history (set forth in many passages like the one just quoted) simplistic and one-sided, and its politics absurd, my main objection to Professor Franklin's book is that it analyzes Heinlein's fictions as if they were essays. Since "Gulf" is a superman story on the order of Star Begotten, Odd John, or Slan, its analysis must begin with the acceptance (for the sake of the argument) of its SF données. Now I happen to believe, and I suppose you would agree, that the differences in human intelligence form a continuum that could be graded, if we had some accurate way of measuring intelligence, on a scale, say, of one to ten. But suppose it were discovered that one person in ten thousand is an exception, standing to the brightest of the other 9.999 not as to to 9.999 but as 100 to 10, and suppose that you and I discovered that we belonged to this superhuman ten-thousandth of the species. What should we do? In Heinlein's story the superhumans keep their existence secret, secretly organize themselves, secretly see to it that world government is organized along liberal democratic lines, secretly keep watch over human affairs, intervening now and then, but only now and then, to make sure humanity does not destroy iself, and secretly begin an endogamic breeding program that will increase their numbers and perhaps after a thousand years allow Homo novas to supersede Homo sapiens. Since the real Heinlein does not believe in the real existence of such superhumans in the real world, Professor Franklin is flatly wrong to say that "'Gulf' unequivocally advocates creating an elite not just as a social class, but, as the title suggests, as a new superhuman species, clearly marked off from our doomed race of `homo sap'" (p. 95). The most that Heinlein can be charged with is suggesting that if such superhumans did exist they might well behave more or less like the superhumans of "Gulf" rather than, say, those of Odd John.

The extent to which Professor Franklin's critical method can distort a concept may be illustrated by his treatment of the Twenty Universes of Glory Road. The empress, he writes, "is the ultimate philosopher-king, genetically selected to rule and then filled with the 7000 years of accumulated experience of all past rulers" and this is [set forth as] the most rational form of government" (p. 149). Professor Franklin to the contrary, the emperors or empresses of the Twenty Universes do not rule, and their "empire" is not a government. If you insist that Heinlein's fantasy of 20 universes must have some relevance to the politics of our one-planet world (my feeling is that it has none whatever), that relevance might be best expressed in this way: if superhumans of godlike omniscience and benevolence actually exist in outer space or other dimensions, it would be well if one of them would consent to serve Earth as Supreme Arbiter of International Disputes; he would not interfere in the internal affairs of any country ("Local affairs are local. Infanticide?--they're your babies": chapter 17), and like the World Court of our real world he would have no power to enforce his judgments--such power being unnecessary since we would know that his godly decrees proceeded from godly wisdom. All which, of course, is too absurd to be taken seriously as the serious thought of the author.

As for the ignoring of context, let us consider the treatment of a passage in which Scar Gordon, our hero, is lectured by Rufo, our wise old man:

'Democracy can't work. Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, that's all there is--so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work. Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group.

'But a democratic form of government is okay, as long as it doesn't work. Any social organization does well enough if it isn't rigid. The framework doesn't matter as long as there is enough looseness to permit that one man in a multitude to display his genius. Most so-called social scientists seem to think that organization is everything. It is almost nothing--except when it is a straight jacket. It is the incidence of heroes that counts, not the pattern of zeros.'

He added, 'Your country [the USA of 1963] has a system free enough to let its heroes work at their trade. It should last a long time--unless its looseness is destroyed from inside.' (chapter 20)

Having quoted only the first of these three paragraphs, Professor Franklin writes as follows:

No wonder the poor hero had been so dissatisfied with the realities of his own world, a fictive universe that mirrors this confusion about wisdom and government. So the fictional hero can interact with the real peasants of the twentieth-century world only by killing as many of them as possible in Vietnam, for how could be possibly understand the peasants' belief that the interests of the peasants are best understood and protected not by the Empress of the Twenty Universes but by the peasants themselves. (pp. 149-50)

The absurdity in all this is that Rufo and the Empress would agree that "the interests of the peasants are best understood and protected by... themselves," as would our hero when he returns to the Glory Road in the last sentence of the novel, "Got any dragons you need killed?" A Supreme Arbiter would be appealed to only if the peasants were involved in an international dispute, and our hero, as a knight errant, would intervene only if retained by the peasants to do so--or by their enemies, who might also have a case. The man who led the Vietnamese in their war against the French and then in their struggle to unite Vietnam on Marxist-Leninist principles was not a peasant but a middle-class intellectual trained in Paris, Moscow and Canton in the heroic art of slaying capitalist dragons.

The governments of the future societies depicted by Heinlein are almost always of a liberal democratic type, more or less efficient, more or less corrupt, and more or less oppressive. Such governments are always more or less subject to manipulation by administrators or political bosses, and Heinlein delights in portraying heroes who cut corners or perform illegal acts in order to benefit an ignorant populace. In the history of democratic government it has always been assumed that although there are some questions that should be put to the entire electorate and some that should be decided by the legislature, there are also matters (matters often not formulatable as questions) that can be handled only by the executive. When characters in Heinlein make scornful remarks about democracy, the referent seems always to be not such governments as have actually existed in the real world, but that imaginary type of government in which all questions are put to the entire electorate--"It would be pleasant to discuss each problem, take a vote, then repeal it later if the collective judgment proved faulty"--and the context seems always to be a "life-and-death emergency" (Star Beast, chapter 15). In sum, the "democracy" that Heinleinian heroes reject with scorn seems to be a mere straw man and the statements of rejection mere obiter dicta. Professor Franklin, in taking these banalities seriously, seems to be arguing that even life-and-death emergencies should be debated, formulated as questions, and put to the entire electorate before any action is taken.

There are times indeed when Heinlein's obiter dicta are either morally appalling or intellectually absurd. Sentimental clichés have their inverse in cynical banalities, and though such cynicisms may strike unsophisticated readers as delightfully shocking and daringly iconoclastic, they are just as much a part of the popular culture as the sentimentalities. In Heinlein the most appalling instance is perhaps a statement made by the hero of The Puppet Masters, "I felt warm and relaxed, as if I had just killed a man or had a woman" (chapter 9), which I take to be not a characterization of the hero but an expression of Heinlein's view of human nature, a view also expressed with some frequency in the eagerness of Heinleinian heroes to enjoy the personal satisfaction they believe to be found in the killing of wicked villains--the wickeder the villain, the greater the satisfaction. As for intellectual absurdities, my personal favorites in Heinlein have to do with a man Heinlein would surely admire if he were at all familiar with his life and work. In an address to the Brigade of Midshipmen at Annapolis, Heinlein quoted "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" and then refuted this supposed slur on patriotism by describing Dr. Johnson as a "fat, gluttonous slob who was pursued all his life by a pathological fear of death" and as a "fat poltroon."6And in The Number of the Beast, one of the heroes tells us that "Johnson was a fat, pompous, gluttonous, dirty old fool who would have faded into the obscurity he so richly deserved had he not been followed around by a spit-licking sycophant" (chapter 34).

But more often the obiter dicta are merely quixotic. The adult hero of The Star Beast is the United Nations Permanent Undersecretary for Spatial Affairs, who is nominally subject to a political appointee, the Secretary. For some years or decades, we gather, the Secretaries have been mere figureheads, routinely approving any action taken by Under Secretary. But in the crisis that arises in the story, the Secretary and Under Secretary disagree on what should be done. When the Secretary attempts to dismiss the Under Secretary and take control himself, he finds that the political strengths of the Under Secretary are greater than his own, so that it is he who is forced to resign. This story could of course have been told in the opposite way (as Heinlein has sometimes done), with the official superior a competent politician and the official subordinate a presumptuous and foolish bureaucrat. Whichever way it was told, it would probably have passed unnoticed by Professor Franklin if our hero had not seized the opportunity for philosophizing on the impossibility of "real democracy." Professor Franklin misinterprets both this philosophizing and the events of the story when he writes, "Since the people are merely foolish passengers [on the ship of state], we discover through the course of events that it is the duty of the government to deceive and manipulate us for our own good" (p. 86), for there is no deception or manipulation of the people on the part of the Under Secretary, and the philosophizing is indulged in simply to assuage the guilt he feels over going beyond his authority in a life-and-death emergency that could not possibly have been formulated as a question and submitted to either the electorate or the legislature.

If we can say that tendentious misinterpretation is a vice of criticism rather than scholarship, then we can and must also say that from the standpoint of scholarship, or even pedantry. Professor Franklin cannot be seriously faulted. We have already noted that his primary bibliography is complete and well organized, and the same thing can be said of his secondary bibliography. He journeyed to Butler and Kansas City to learn what he could of the social environment in which Heinlein passed his childhood and youth; he sought and obtained an interview with Heinlein, and submitted his manuscript to him for comment. In dealing with the early fiction he uses the original magazine texts but does not fail to consider the revisions made for book publication. Since Heinlein's career falls rather neatly into periods (1939-42, the Future History and Anson MacDonald stories; 1947-59, the juvenile novels and other New Frontier stories; 1961-66, Stranger in a Strange Land and other "adult" novels; 1970-73, I Will Fear No Evil and Time Enough for Love; 1980, The Number of the Beast), the organization of the book into chapters apparently presents no problems. Even so, there is one point in this periodization that might be debated.

Although the careers of Wells and Heinlein are vastly different, there is one curious parallel in the shapes of those careers. Just as Wells, after achieving fame and fortune in literary work, turned to the serious study of social and political problems, so Heinlein, after success in the pulps and concurrent with success in more profitable literary fields, attempted to make himself a force in public opinion through articles "intended to shed light on the post-Hiroshima age." But whereas Wells was successful both with the public and (more important) in the organization of his knowledge and opinions into a coherent philosophy that would sustain all his subsequent work, Heinlein failed completely to find a market for his articles and also (if I may judge) failed to achieve a world-view sufficiently detailed and coherent to allow him to respond to public events on anything other than a virtually ad hoc basis. The climax to his endeavor evidently came in 1958, during the controversy over the testing of nuclear weapons, when "the rug was jerked out from under us; by executive order Mr Eisenhower cancelled all testing without requiring mutual inspection." "Stunned by the president's action," he abandoned non-literary attempts to influence public opinion, and turned to the writing of Starship Troopers.7

So I think that Starship Troopers should be said to mark not the end of Heinlein's second period but the beginning of his third--or rather that it marks the beginning of the second half of his career. The stories and novels published before 1959 are generally consonant with the prevailing liberal ideology; those published since have not only subjected that ideology to withering attack but have also been generally different from the earlier work in rhetoric and purpose: discursive, didactic, anarchistic, solipsistic, with the solipsism apparently no longer a mere reductio ad absurdum for the purposes of ingenious story-telling but instead the very basis of his world view.

We must now return to Professor McConnell's bibliography. With no reference whatever to the splendid 1929 volume by Geoffrey H. Wells, or to its updating in 1977 by J.R. Hammond, or to my own SF-oriented "Chronological Survey" of 1973, Professor McConnell informs his readers that the Wells Society bibliography of 1968 is "the best guide through the undergrowth" of Wells's work (p. 221). His "Select List of Works about H.G. Wells" includes only 27 titles: 17 books with the name Wells plainly in the title, 5 books on SF (Aldiss, Amis, Clarke, Gunn, and Scholes-Rabkin), and 5 general works (Caudwell, Chesterton, Hynes, Pritchett, West). Two of the books are essay-collections, but there is no listing of or annotations for the individual essays. In nearly all the books cited Wells's SF is treated in a merely summary fashion, so that this "select list" is almost entirely a guide to more of the same kind of introductory material rather than a guide to such extensive critiques of individual works as would deepen and broaden the student's understanding of Wells's SF.

Although Professor Franklin's secondary bibliography is not deficient in these ways, the point I am leading up to applies to his book as well as Profesor McConnell's. There are those teachers who believe that above all things the student should not be confused and that the best way to keep her or him unconfused is to tell the uncomplicated truth about what the author has to say: critics may differ, but we won't bother ourselves with their differences. Professors Franklin and McConnell seldom pause to indicate that other critics have seen this story or that in a quite different way, and on the few occasions they do so pause they never actually engage the other critics in argument. The concluding sentence in Professor Scholes's editorial statement promises that "each book will express the critical view of its author rather than some predetermined party line." That promise, for what it's worth, has been kept. But wouldn't it be better if the author did not attempt simply to impose his or her own line on the reader? Would it not be best if the books were written in a way that acknowledged scholarship and criticism as an ongoing dialogue in which the reader has a part to play--a part that can be adequately played only if the reader hears the other side of the argument?


1. H.G. Wells. The War in the Air (NY: Macmillan, 1927),p.5. Similar prefaces are to found in certain reprints of The World Set Free and The Sleeper Awakes.

2. For the text of the 1933 preface, annotated for changes made for the 1934 US volume, see Patrick Parrinder and Robert M. Philmus, H. G. Wells's Literary Criticism Sussex & NJ: Harvester & Barnes & Noble, 1980), pp.240-45.

3. The Works of H.G. Wells, Atlantic Edition. 3[1924]: x.

4. Although several SF stories have been written about the miracles of compound interest, Wells was not so ignorant as to imagine that the growth of a sum of money through interest could be out of all proportion to the growth of the economy in which it functioned. For the details of how the great Company based on Graham's fortune came to dominate the world, see Chapter 11 in either When the Sleeper Wakes or The Sleeper Awakes and/or Chapter 14 in the former. In the 1960 still-in-print Dover volume, Three Prophetic Novels of H.G. Wells, the pertinent page numbers are 73-74 and 99-101.

5. Or perhaps the Graphic, which also serialized the story, for on page 33 Professor McConnell writes: "As Graham...dies he pronounces a single grim judgment on the men of the future struggling for their freedom: `Weak men.'" Graham, as his broken aeropile is falling to earth, begins to imagine that he is dreaming, but that at least Helen was real, and that surely he will wake and meet her. The book ends with, "he was suddenly aware that the earth was very near." In the serial, the shepherd standing over Graham's broken body can make out only five words. "`Helen'... meet'...`Wake and meet'" (Harpers Weekly, 43)[1899], 452-53). I can account for Professor McConnell's version, with Graham thinking about politics rather than feeling that his life in A.D. 2100 has been only a dream only on the assumption that the text he read differs radically from those I've read.

6. Robert A. Heinlein, "Expanded Universe." Destinies, Summer 1980, pp. 131 and 135-36.

7. Ibid., pp. 46-49.

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