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Tuesday 1 March 2005

Surprising Sci-Fi Soul Brothers:
Robert A. Heinlein and Philip K. Dick

by Gary Westfahl

Since I have previously explored (with David Pringle) the surprising similarities between Jules Verne and J.G. Ballard, allow me to consider another pair of unlikely kinsmen — Robert A. Heinlein and Philip K. Dick.

Of course, one can readily epitomize the ways in which these authors are significantly different. Certainly, the characters that most interest them stand at opposite ends of the social spectrum. In a 2003 speech, I contrasted the celebrated Heinlein Hero, a self-defined superior man, with Clifford D. Simak's typical protagonist, the Simak Hero, a self-defined ordinary man. To cover all classes of future society, one could add to the picture the less uniform but still distinguishable Dick Hero, a self-defined less-than-ordinary man. As Karl Marx would sum things up, Heinlein identifies with the aristocracy, Simak with the bourgeoisie, and Dick with the proletariat. More prosaically, the Heinlein Hero owns the office building; the Simak Hero runs a nice little shop on its ground level; and the Dick Hero sweeps his floors every night.

On a personal note, if the Heinlein Hero, as I discussed, represented what I wanted to be, and the Simak Hero represented what I probably really was, the Dick Hero represented what I was desperately afraid of someday becoming — weak, uninformed, powerless, utterly at the mercy of everyone and everything around him. And this explains why, as a youth, I read Heinlein and Simak voraciously, but relatively little Dick. After all, a young man might find it stimulating to spend some time with his personal dreams, and he might find it reassuring to also spend some time with his personal reality, but why would he want to spend some time with his personal nightmares?

Further, given their sympathies with those at opposite ends of the social spectrum, it is not surprising that the polarizing changes in America during the 1960s moved Heinlein and Dick to opposite ends of the political spectrum. Heinlein, horrified by the counterculture and everything it represented, hardened into a bitter reactionary, eventually endorsing (in To Sail Beyond the Sunset) a longed-for President Patton's policy of shooting drug dealers on sight. Dick embraced the counterculture, freely experimented with drugs, and announced a fervent admiration for young Americans and their liberal, liberating philosophies. For that reason, when commentators discuss the time when Heinlein happily purchased a new typewriter for a temporarily down-and-out Dick, this is presented as evidence of Heinlein's amazingly generous spirit, his willingness to help individuals in need even if they were people he otherwise had reason to abhor.

I respectfully disagree. I think that Heinlein gave Dick a typewriter because he could recognize a soul brother when he saw one. And I would argue that, when one considers the qualities that made those writers great, the qualities that distinguish the wondrous novels and stories written in the first two decades of their careers, one must conclude that they are, in fundamental ways, exactly the same sort of writer.

First, Heinlein and Dick are both adventurous writers. In their classic years (for Heinlein, the 1940s and 1950s; for Dick, the 1950s and 1960s), both writers were perfectly willing to begin writing a story without knowing how it would end — or, if they did have some plan for how it would proceed, they were perfectly willing to abandon or alter those plans if writing the story led to unanticipated dead ends or intriguing new possibilities. Inevitably, this is a risky policy, like walking on a tightrope, that may well lead to spectacular disasters like Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky and Dick's The Crack in Space; but the same policy also allowed them to generate masterpieces like Heinlein's Double Star and Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Second, Heinlein and Dick are both impatient writers. Not knowing while they were writing exactly where their stories were going, they were just as eager as their readers to find out how the stories were going to turn out. One detects in their novels a palpable aura of nervous energy, a strong desire to avoid wasting time, to keep things moving, to get somewhere, anywhere, as fast as possible. Not surprisingly, their novels are often shorter than the norm, as Heinlein and Dick found themselves careening into a conclusion a bit earlier than they had expected. I estimate, for example, that two other outstanding works, Heinlein's The Door into Summer and Dick's Galactic Pot-Healer, each barely exceed 60,000 words in length. Again, this attitude is not without perils — both Heinlein's Methuselah's Children and Dick's Eye in the Sky seem to move faster and faster, to less and less effect, until they abruptly collapse and die — but even such lesser novels have their fair share of memorable moments.

Third, Heinlein and Dick are both confident writers. They may not know where they are going, and they may be proceeding with reckless haste, but they are absolutely sure that, wherever their stories may go and whatever they may happen to feel like saying, their readers will always be entertained by the results. These writers are not afraid to interrupt their narratives with, say, a detailed technical description of a spacesuit (as in Heinlein's Have Space Suit — Will Travel) or a lengthy philosophical discussion about the human condition (as in Dick's Galactic Pot-Healer), because they correctly believe that, due to their reliably adroit writing, readers will find such passages just as involving as fistfights or dramatic escapes. Despite their occasional difficulties in attempting to venture beyond the genre, Heinlein and Dick woke up every morning knowing that they were consistently capable of selling material to science fiction markets and were consistently capable of pleasing a wide range of science fiction readers.

As I list these three basic qualities, it will be noted that I am making no effort to describe or defend what happened to Heinlein in the 1960s, or what happened to Dick in the 1970s. Generally speaking, while retaining their sense of self-confidence, I would suggest that they grew a little less adventurous, and that they entirely lost their youthful sense of impatience. Instead, they became more and more willing to ramble on at length about whatever topics they were interested in at the moment, resulting in Heinlein's tedious pontifications about every issue in sight and Dick's extensive philosophical and theological musings, material found in ponderous works that surely will not age as well as their earlier novels.

I will also confess that I am not precisely sure how to document that this is the way that Heinlein and Dick approached their writing, and I am aware of certain after-the-fact discussions by the authors that might support a rather different picture of their writing strategies — not that I necessarily trust what writers say about their own writing. Still, signs of a more deliberate writing style in some cases do seem to exist: it has been announced, for instance, that Spider Robinson has been hired to write what will be touted as a “new Heinlein novel,” based on Heinlein's purportedly detailed outline for a novel he never wrote. This is less than exciting news; for even if such a detailed outline exists, I cannot believe that it truly represents, or will allow Robinson to recapture, the genius of Heinlein typing away every morning, churning out his daily quota of words, hurrying his story along. I am finally not precisely sure what specific features in a text one could point to as clear evidence of authorial adventurousness, impatience, and confidence, or how one might train young scholars to identify those features in the works of various writers.

All I can say is that, when I am reading science fiction, I can somehow recognize these features, and I can somehow recognize the absence of those features. And this explains why I am not always fond of certain contemporary science fiction writers, even when they are the widely extolled winners of numerous awards.

Consider, as one example, Dan Simmons. I will freely concede that, if one prepared a list of the characteristics of superior writers, and carefully applied those criteria to Heinlein, Dick, and Simmons, inevitably Simmons would qualify as the best writer of the three. I further acknowledge that, on two previous occasions, I found myself contractually obliged to praise Simmons, and that I contrived to find a way to do so without lapsing into blatant insincerity. Still, despite his impressive and indisputable writing skills, I am generally bored by Simmons's works, and I will never again pick up one of his novels unless there is money to be made by doing so.

Why is this true? The answer lies in the list. In the first place, Simmons is a supremely unadventurous writer. It is obvious that every one of his novels has been carefully planned, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, and that Simmons always adheres to the script he has previously prepared. Second, Simmons is an infinitely patient writer. He will linger on each moment of his narrative for as long as it takes to provide every evocative detail and wring every conceivable idea and emotion out of it before plodding on to do the same with the next moment. Finally, Simmons is a desperately insecure writer. Every aspect of his novels seems designed to please this or that segment of the science fiction audience. One gets the feeling that Simmons is not writing the kind of story he really wants to write, sure that readers will like the results, but rather is writing the kind of story that he fervently hopes (but does not really know) will make all his readers happy. When I read Simmons, I find myself paying attention not to each new development in his story, but to the wheels that turned in Simmons's brain as he planned each new development. Let's see, he thinks as he prepares his chapter outline: some sophisticated readers like literary references, so I will toss in a bunch of them here; next, for the more plebeian readers, I will provide a thrilling space battle; then, for the more romantically inclined, I will put in a tender love scene; and so on and so on — everything meticulously calculated, painstakingly and skillfully rendered, and utterly lacking in genuine passion or conviction.

Sorry, but instead of a new Simmons novel, I would rather reread Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky or Dick's Clans of the Alphane Moon. Both have any number of rough edges and missteps along the way, but they are living, breathing stories, bubbling with enthusiasm and excitement, and they stand in sharp contrast to the polished, sterile artifacts crafted by Simmons.

Others might articulate their fondness for Heinlein and Dick in other ways, but one other similarity between the authors is inarguable: both writers enjoyed success during their lifetimes, and even greater success after their deaths. Virtually all of their novels and collections have remained in print, and their unpublished manuscripts have all been unearthed and brought to the marketplace (except, in Heinlein's case, when he chose to expressly forbid the publication of certain materials). Their papers have found permanent homes in respectable university libraries — the Heinlein Archives are at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Dick's materials are at California State University, Fullerton. Hollywood executives, belatedly recognizing the unique talents of these writers, have optioned dozens of Heinlein and Dick stories, and several have already made their way to the screen. Although scholars have displayed much more interest in Dick than in Heinlein — probably because of the unpalatable politics of Heinlein's later years — both authors retain their prominent positions in the syllabuses of science fiction classes and the articles published in science fiction journals. And whenever science fiction writers venture into unknown regions of space, or probe deeply into the human psyche and its tenuous relationship to reality, they reflect the powerful influence of Robert A. Heinlein and Philip K. Dick in the visible substance of their works if not in the less visible methods of their composition. Still, as with any performers who walked on a tightrope, theirs is a hard act to follow.

— Gary Westfahl

Gary Westfahl has recently completed two projects: the three-volume The Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, forthcoming from Greenwood Press, and Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits, forthcoming from Yale University Press in November, 2005.

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