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Robert A. Heinlein: More Fantasy than Meets the Eye

Robert A. HeinleinRobert A. Heinlein is known as the dean of science fiction, and was the first Grand Master of the genre. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke are collectively known as the ‘Big Three’ of science fiction. Just the other day, I saw someone mention in a blog that they had read a science fiction story by Heinlein, and then they mused that the comment was redundant, since all stories by RAH are science fiction stories.

But the fact is, Robert Heinlein actually does have some fantasy in his literary portfolio; more than you might think, and some that you will probably recognize.

It may, however, be helpful to revisit the terminology. In a nutshell, science fiction is speculative fiction that has some sort of speculative element that can be explained as falling within the laws of nature, which may or may not be understood in our current scientific framework. Think robots, space travel, aliens. Fantasy, on the other hand, includes speculative elements that are supernatural. Magic and magical creatures, gods, demons and so on. Yes, there are gray areas, and yes, there are exceptions, and yes, there are stories that blend and bend the genres. But for the purposes of this piece, these are the general guidelines that we’ll be using. (For scholarly and in-depth discussion of the terminology, I humbly point you toward the works of James Gunn, a Grand Master of science fiction in his own right, and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction.)

It makes sense to look at the fantasy stories of Heinlein in chronological order, so let’s begin with Magic, Inc. This novella was published in the September 1940 issue of the magazine Unknown Fantasy Fiction, under the title of The Devil Makes the Law. It’s a nice little story about commerce and corruption in a world where magic is commonplace. You could almost think of it as a precursor to the contemporary ‘urban fantasy’ genre.

Waldo in Astounding Magazine“Waldo” comes next, a short story that was published in Astounding Magazine in August of 1942, under one of his most frequent pen names, Anson MacDonald. “Waldo” has the initial trappings of science fiction, but we, along with the title character, soon find that “Magic is loose in the world!” And although this story does fall within the parameters of the fantasy label, it is notable for two bits of science: Although he didn’t ever patent his idea, Heinlein is acknowledged as having come up with designs for the modern concept of the waterbed, and this is one of the stories in which it is mentioned. The title character of this tale also develops mechanical robotic hands, and they are dubbed ‘waldoes,’ a term used in the real world today for similar remote manipulators, in honor of Heinlein’s story.

In October of that same year, a Heinlein novella was published in Unknown Worlds magazine under the pen name of John Riverside. The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag is not particularly one of my favorite Heinlein stories, not even one of my favorite Heinlein fantasies. The plot runs along the lines that our world is just a pale shade of the true reality, and when that reality bleeds into our lives, terror ensues. It’s not a bad story, and if you’re a Heinlein fan, it’s worth reading…once. But as far as I’m concerned, Roger Zelazny refined and defined this theme, and not even Heinlein can top the Chronicles of Amber, at least in this subject.

Our Fair City in Weird TalesOn the other hand, “Our Fair City,” a short that ran in January 1949 issue of Weird Tales, is one of my favorite Heinlein fantasies. Drawing on his firsthand knowledge of both journalism and local politics, this is a fun tale about a sentient whirlwind. The language, setting and characters are classic Heinlein. If you haven’t read it yet, do put it on your list.

Nearly ten years later, his next fantasy story came out in a 1957 issue of Saturn Magazine. Knowing that it is a Heinlein story, I can recognize the writing in “The Man Who Traveled in Elephants” – the homespun, Mid-Western Americana – but if I had picked this one up and read it blind, I wouldn’t have pegged RAH as the author. In a way, it almost reminds me of some of Stephen King’s more sentimental short stories (his earlier ones when he was just finding his stride, and his later ones, when he came back to shorts after a successful career with his ginormously-long novels). And perhaps it’s not all that surprising; Heinlein had to have had some sort of impact on King’s writing given that King considered him to be “not only America’s premier writer of speculative fiction, but the greatest writer of such fiction in the world.”

Of the stories listed above, “Waldo” and “Magic, Inc.” have been collected together and published in 1950 as a book under the title, oddly enough, Waldo & Magic, Inc. The others – The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, “Our Fair City,” and “The Man Who Traveled in Elephants” – were collected together in book form, along with three other stories, under the title The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, in 1959. This collection was later re-issued as 6 x H.

The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein (cover)In 1999, Tor collected the contents of these two books, eight short stories in all, and published them as The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein, although I would debate whether the label of fantasy is appropriate for the three stories in the collection that I am not covering – “All You Zombies”, “They,” and “And He Built a Crooked House”.

In addition to these short stories, I would also say that three of his novels are more fantasy than they are science fiction. His 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land is perhaps his most famous book, at least to the world at large. And it certainly comes across as a science fiction piece, with Michael Valentine having been orphaned on Mars and raised to adulthood by the non-human natives of that planet. But read the whole thing through and pay attention to the end. If you still think that it’s a science fiction story, I’ll respect your opinion…I just won’t agree with it.

In 1963, Glory Road was serialized in Fantasy & Science Fiction and published as a novel. This is another one that I wouldn’t immediately think of as being a Heinlein story, and another one that isn’t a particular favorite of mine. One might argue that it is science fiction, set on some far-off planet where life just happens to resemble some of the aspects of fantasy. That’s how Heinlein presents it. But when you’ve got sword-fighting and ghosts and a golem and a quest, I call it a fantasy. Just not an exceptionally good fantasy.

Job - A Comedy of Justice (cover)Finally, we’ve got Job: A Comedy of Justice in 1984. This one is pretty unambiguously a fantasy. The protagonist is shunted through parallel worlds, but the driving force behind the shifts is supernatural rather than scientific. Alexander Hergensheimer is dealing with God and the Devil…or gods and devils. Either way, this is not a science-based plot.

I don’t expect that everyone, or even anyone, will agree with me as to my fantasy vs. science fiction division of Heinlein’s work. Some may feel that I’ve been stingy, and that stories such as “They,” The Number of the Beast, and “Lost Legacy” should be on the fantasy list. Others may feel that I’ve been too liberal with the fantasy label, and that stories such as “Waldo” and Stranger in a Strange Land are in reality science fiction tales. As I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, there are gray areas, and there are exceptions. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that Robert Heinlein wrote more fantasy stories than most people realize. And whether science fiction, or fantasy, or the broader speculative fiction (a term that Heinlein helped to popularize, by the way), his writing does what Grand Master James Gunn tells us is a function of science fiction. Heinlein’s writing does indeed “enlighten and inspire.”

Title image by James Warhola.

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3 Comments

  1. S. C. Flynn says:

    Very good overview; thanks!

  2. D. M. Almond says:

    Wow. I completely forgot about Job! What an awesome book. You just gave me a massive flashback. Great article on Heinlein!

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