Monday, 1 October 2012

The Heinlein Maneuver

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In 1962, as he gave his Guest of Honor speech at the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon delivered the following anecdote about writer's block and fellow novelist, Robert Heinlein:
"I went into a horrible dry spell one time. It was a desperate dry spell and an awful lot depended on me getting writing again. Finally, I wrote to Bob Heinlein. I told him my troubles; that I couldn't write—perhaps it was that I had no ideas in my head that would strike a story. By return airmail—I don't know how he did it—I got back 26 story ideas. Some of them ran for a page and a half; one or two of them were a line or two. I mean, there were story ideas that some writers would give their left ear for. Some of them were merely suggestions; just little hints, things that will spark a writer like, 'Ghost of a little cat patting around eternity looking for a familiar lap to sit in.'

This mechanical, chrome-plated Heinlein has a great deal of heart. I had told him my writing troubles, but I hadn't told him of any other troubles; however, clipped to the stack of story ideas was a check for a hundred dollars with a little scribbled note, 'I have a suspicion your credit is bent.'

It is very difficult for words like 'thank you' to handle a man that can do a thing like that."
The incredibly generous letter in question — sent by Heinlein just two days after being asked for help and directly responsible for two of Sturgeon's subsequent stories ("And Now the News" and "The Other Man") — can be read, in full, below.

(Source: Speech excerpt via And Now the News, letter via 'New York Review of Science Fiction No. 84'; Image: Robert Heinlein in 1976, via Wikipedia.)

Broadmoor
Colorado Springs, Colorado

11 Feb 1955

Dear Ted,

What this job really calls for is a meeting of the defunct MaƱana Literary Society. Almost all writers need cross-pollenation—myself most certainly! (I am at present stuck on p.148 of the best set-up for a novel I ever had in my life and I cannot get the Goddam thing to gel!) The M.L.S. used to give ideas such a kicking around that a man went out of there with notes enough for three months; when Jack Williams, Anthony Boucher, Cleve Cartmill, Mick McComas, and several others all got to snarling over the same bone, something had to give.

My only regret at living in this idyllic ivory tower surrounded by snow-covered mountains, deer, Chinese pheasants, tall pine trees, and silence is that while a writer needs a lot of silence, he also needs stimulating talk.

But I will do the best I can at this distance. I must say that I am flattered at the request. To have the incomparable and always scintillating Sturgeon ask for ideas is like having the Pacific Ocean ask one to pee in it. By the way, did I tell you that I bought a copy of MORE THAN HUMAN in Singapore? Or that I didn't get home with it because a Dutch ship's captain borrowed it from me? If you happen to have a spare around you might send it to us, inscribed.

Mmm...Sturgeonish ideas—Well, here's one that might be Campbellish: a society where there are no criminal offences, just civil offences, i.e., there is a price on everything, you can look it up in the catalog and pay the price. You want to shoot your neighbor? Go ahead and shoot the bastard. He has a definite economic rating; deposit the money with the local clearing house within 24 hrs.; they will pay the widow. Morality would consist in not trying to get away with anything without paying for it. Good manners would consist in so behaving that no one would be willing to pay your listed price to kill you. Of course if your valuation is low and your manners are crude, your survival probabilities are low, too. Down in Paraguay murder is a private matter, the government figuring that either his friends and relatives will avenge the deceased, or he was a nogoodnick and who cares? There is another culture in which if a man kills another man, accidentally or on purpose, he must replace the other man, even to taking his wife and his name. Obviously our own pattern is not the only way of looking at crime; maybe we are prejudiced.

This idea, developed, should appeal to JWC. He hates all government, all authority, even though he is not fully aware of it—and he thinks money can do no wrong.

Here is another Campbell-type culture: why should government enforce private contracts at all? At present you can go into court and sue—and (sometimes) force another man to conform to his contract or wrest damages from him. Is there good reason for this to be a function of government? Should it not be a case of let the contractor beware? Why should society as a whole give a hoot whether or not the private, civil promises between two men are kept?

What are the minimum, indispensable functions of government? What functions are present in all human societies? Is it possible to name anything which obtains in one society which is not differently just the reverse in another? Or not done at all? Has there ever been a truly anarchistic society? The Eskimos, perhaps? We have an anarchist running a newspaper in this town, who is opposed to public roads, public schools, public anything—he maintains that it is not ethical for a majority to do anything collectively which each individual did not already have the right to do as an individual. This is an explosive notion; a corollary is that all taxation is wrong, all zoning laws are wrong, all compulsory education is wrong, all punishment by courts is wrong. In the mean time he lives in a well-policed society, his own considerable wealth protected by all these things he deplores. But one thing is sure: many of the things we take for granted are not necessary to a stable society, but we take them for granted. You could get a Campbell-style story out of doubting the most sacred of sacred cows—except big business, of course; John does not tolerate outright heresy.

We know very little about multiple personality, despite the many case records. Suppose a hypnoanalyst makes a deep investigation into a schizoid...and comes up with with the fact that it is a separate and non-crazy personality in the body, distinct from the nominal one, and that this new personality is a refugee from (say) 2100 A.D., when conditions are so intolerable that escape into another body and another time (even this period) is to be preferred, even at the expense of living more or less helplessly in another man's body.

Or do it this way: hypnoanalyst hypnotizes patient; second personality emerges and refuses to go away. Original-owner personality is a nogood, a bastard, a public enemy, a wifebeater, etc.; new personality is a real hero-type, good, smart, hardworking, etc. What is the ethical situation? Should the analyst try his damnedest to suppress and wipe out the false personality and give the body back to its owner? Or should he accept that the world is improved by the change? This could be made quite critical.

What is a personality? A memory track? A set of evaluations? A set of habit patterns? What happens to a soul in a transorbital lobotomy? Is it murder to kill a man's personality, sick though it may be, in order to make his body a bit more tractable for ward nurses and relatives?

The central problem of philosophy, of religion, of all psychology is one so pervasive and so hard to come to grips with that it is largely ignored, just as fish ignore water. The solipsists deal with it and so did you in ULTIMATE EGOTIST (and so did I, quite differently, in THEY). It is the problem of the individual ego, the awareness of "I." There you sit, inside your skull. How long have you been there? Always. How long will you be there? Always. Environment changes—even your body, even your penis and balls, are nothing but environment. The "I" remains, the one unchangeable thing...and a thing utterly unaccounted for in all philosophy, all religion. Of, the double-talk on the subject has endless, but but that is what is has been: double-talk. Until we know how consciousness hooks onto matter and why and where it comes from, we don't know anything. And we don't. But the problem permits infinite variation in fiction.

I have had a dirty suspicion since I was about six that all consciousness is one and that all the actors I see around me (including my enemies) are myself, at different points in the record's grooves. I once partly explored this in a story called BY HIS BOOTSTRAPS. I say "partly" because I touched on one point only—and the story was mistaken by the readers (most of them) for a time-travel paradox story...whereas I was investigating whether "the wine we thought we swallered could make us dream of all that follered...but we was only simple seamen so of course we couldn't know."

But it still is no solution of the problem of ego to discover (as we may, or may not) that the snake eternally eats its own tail. We still haven't accounted for the snake. Korzybski has pointed out that a fact needs no "why." This gives rational adjustment to the world we are in...but it does not solve philosophical problems.

Nor does it do any good to dive into your own belly button, like JWC and Ron Hubbard. It is sane to state the questions; it is not good to kid yourself about the answers. Incidentally, all of the respectable religions these days are founded on point: that it is virtuous and obligatory to kid oneself about the answers, i.e., you must have "faith."

Merde!—squared and cubed. The answers are not to be found by singing hymn number forty-six, with the Young Men's Bible Class coming in on the chorus. Not yet by the battles with straw men that the formal theologians indulge in. How did I get inside my skull?

You could have a hell of a hassle in a society in which there were a group, large or small, of illuminati who really do know what happens after death (as compared with the fakers we now have) and who in consequence have different motivations and different purposes from the others who are the way we are now. Just for a touch, they might try a man in absentia for suiciding to avoid his obligations...then maybe have some one else suicide to go after him and carry out the sentence. (But hell, Bill, I don't have to tell you—just some of your usual hoke that Dick Burbage can get his teeth into. We start rehearsals Wednesday. Quote and unquote).

Science explains nothing. It merely formulates observed data.

A statistician in the Department of Commerce is fiddling with the new digital computer, running some data from the last census. No doubt about it; the machine says that there are more red-headed babies than there ought to be. Must be some mistake in the data; the machine can't be wrong. The enrollments in dental schools are down, too. And appendectomies have decreased. Should the reports of parthenogenesis be rejected as impossible? Why so many of them?

"June 28—The new bull calf looks better all the time. Met a leprechaun today. Nice little guy. I'm going to have to drain the south forty."

This character is absent-minded. When he day dreams his reveries are very real. He is especially likely to do this in public transportation; he can be riding a bus, catch a glimpse of a house which reminds him of one he knew in another city. Trouble is that when he gets off the bus he is like as not, if he is still absent-minded, to get off in the city he has been day-dreaming about, instead of the one he was in. When he was a kid and had not been anywhere, this simply got him scolded and he had a reputation for being too dopy to notice that streetcar he was getting into. But now that he is grown and knows many cities (instead of just neighborhoods in one city) it is downright embarrassing, as he is likely to get on a bus in Cincinnati and wind up three-quarters of an hour later in Seattle with one dollar and thirty-seven cents in his pocket.

One day his ability to recapture other places moves him not only to another city but back to the Taft administration. Well, maybe it is all for the best.

The bloke sells dreams, in pills. Euphoria, along with your fantasy, is guaranteed. The pills are not toxic, nor are they harmful the way narcotics are, but they are habit-forming as the euphoria dreams are much better than reality. Can the Pure Foods & Drugs people act?

This guy sells soap and cosmetics, door to door like the Fuller Brush man. She tries their beauty soap; she becomes beautiful. So she tries their vanishing cream...

A little cat ghost, padding patiently around in limbo, trying to find that familiar, friendly lap...

Story about two countries fighting not with men, not with robots, but with mutated-animal soldiers. Fighter-pilot cats (all the gadgetry automatic, but the piloting done by the supercat), Rhino tanks, ape paratroopers, sea lion "frogmen" etc.

Fundamentalist congregation, convinced that faith can move mountains, concentrates on Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills—and the greatest neo-Egyptian sculpture ever carved disappears, mountain and all. Should the Public Works Administration sue the church? Or is that suing God? Or should they ask them to pray it back? Or should they systematize this into a new form of theo-engineering? If so, civil engineers will have to have divinity degrees as well in the future. What is faith without (public) works?

A Hollywood stunt man kills himself getting a really fine effect. They cut it out of the picture. Will he haunt the producer?

A man is troubled by gophers in his garden. He digs into their burrow, finds a nest with baby gophers in it, kills them. The gophers really move in on him now, undermine his house, flood it, wreck it completely, while he tries to save it.

A seeing-eye dog growing too old to do his work...

There is something important other than rest in the notion of sleep. In sleep we almost catch the secret, almost understand what it is all about. It might be possible to abolish sleep; we might develop a race of able, smart, hard, efficient people who never need to sleep. Only they wouldn't have any souls.

Once there was a man who could not stand it. First he lost the power to read and then the headlines did not bother him any longer. Then he lost the power to understand speech and then the radio could not bother him. He became quite happy and the wrinkles smoothed out of his face and he quit being tense and he painted and modelled in clay and danced and listened to music and enjoyed life.

Then a clever psychiatrist penetrated his fugue and made him sane again. Now he could read and listen to the radio and he became aware again of the Cold War and juvenile delinquency and rapes and rapacity and et cetera ad nauseam.

He still couldn't stand it. He killed quite a number of people before they got him.

There was this man Flammonde who came to our town and grandly borrowed what he needed. Edward Arlington Robinson has dealt well and fully with Flammonde in verse but he has not been described in prose. The power that Flammonde had was to make everyone around him happier, richer in experience, greater in his own self-esteem. Naturally a man like that would not have to work. It is a neat trick.

What exact knowledge of how human beings work can enable a man always to make other people happier simply by his own presence?

Cats have made a racket and a good thing out of this knowledge for seven thousand years without even bothering to flatter the recipient of the pleasure.

Ted, I have about run dry and Ginny has just announced dinner. We hope to take a freighter for Constantinople about the first of May. We don't know whether we will be sailing from New York or from New Orleans; we have applied both ways and have no firm booking as yet. One way we might see you soon; the other way we would not. But let us hear from you when pressure permits; it has been too long and the short visit in New York last spring merely whetted my appetite.

Best to you, your wife, and kids—

Bob