TT: Is He In There?

JANE: Okay, Alan.  We’ve expanded our agreeing to disagree about whether readers should “see” a character as “being” the author.  I can’t say I’m persuaded to your point of view, but I will agree that sometimes authors deliberately put themselves in their books.

Did He Sell the Moon?

You said you had a Famous SF Author in mind who regularly put himself into his stories.  Who would that be?

ALAN: That would be Robert Heinlein, without whom there would be no such thing as science fiction as we know it today. He put a lot of his own personality, experience and beliefs into his fiction.  I’m quite sure that time after time you can catch glimpses of Heinlein himself peering out at you from the pages of his stories.

JANE: Ah…  But is this the readers’ opinion or the author’s opinion?

ALAN: It’s certainly not the author’s opinion. Heinlein was a very private individual who refused to engage in that kind of public speculation. I think he preferred to let the story speak for itself – and I certainly can’t criticise him for that. As far as I can tell, the most he ever said about his own work was in an introduction he wrote to Revolt in 2100: “They are just stories, meant to amuse, and written to buy groceries.”

JANE: Well, if he said that, then why do you feel so strongly otherwise?

Are there obvious clues?  A name and description, like Roger Zelazny provided in The Hand of Oberon or an “in-joke” such as Kingsley Amis’s provided with One Fat Englishman?

ALAN: Yes, there are a lot of clues. In 1968 Alexei Panshin published Heinlein in Dimension, a very detailed critical analysis of all Heinlein’s stories. In it he identifies someone he calls “the Heinlein Individual” who he defines as: “…a single personality that appears in three different stages and is repeated in every Heinlein book in one form or another.”

Here is how Panshin describes the Heinlein Individual:

The earliest stage is that of the competent  but naïve youngster. The hero of almost any Heinlein juvenile will serve as an example … The second stage is the competent man in full glory, the man who knows how things work. Examples of this are Zeb Jones of If This Goes On–, the secret agent narrator of The Puppet Masters, and Sergei Greenberg of The Star Beast. The last stage is the wise old man who not only know how things work, but why they work too. Jubal Harshaw of Stranger in a Strange Land is an example, and Baslim of Citizen of the Galaxy and Colonel Dubois of Starship Troopers. However these three stages as I have given them are simply the equivalents of frames cut from a movie film to serve as illustrations – the Heinlein Individual forms a continuum covering all points between youngster and wise old man.

Panshin goes on to defend this thesis in great and convincing detail.

JANE: So?  Actually, these are pretty classic tropes.  Even boring ones, to be honest.  Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys fit the first just as easily as any Heinlein youngster.  Just about every spy thriller, Western – heck, just about any action adventure tale – has the second. And the Wise Old Man has been around since the first myth where the hero seeks guidance.

By the way, before readers think I don’t like Heinlein’s work, I do.  We’ve discussed it in detail here and here.   I’d certainly consider myself a fan, rather than otherwise.

ALAN: Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of whether or not the Heinlein Individual is actually Robert Heinlein himself, we can at least be certain that the characteristics of the Heinlein Individual are very important to Heinlein the writer. Why else would he use the character in story after story after story? It’s also worth saying that the Heinlein Individual is often the only character who is completely defined and well-rounded in the story. Other characters tend to be thinly drawn, barely (if at all) described and sometimes little more than set piece caricatures.

JANE: How his using them because these sort of standard characters do exactly what Heinlein claimed he was doing: Buy the groceries. They don’t challenge expectations.  They provide comfort reads.  Someone is In Charge and will Save the Day, no matter how complicated the problem.

I’m going to need more convincing to see these as Heinlein.  In fact, right now, what I’m seeing are readers who need to identify Heinlein with his characters as a sort of security blanket that carries the fictional “comfort food” into reality.

ALAN: If that’s all there was to it, I’d be inclined to agree with you. But let’s swim out into deeper waters…

The Heinlein Individual is always very competent. Heinlein himself was supremely competent and egotistically convinced of his own competence. When he first sold a story to John Campbell at Astounding he told Campell that he would continue to submit stories to him but that, if Campbell ever rejected one of them, that would be the end of the relationship. Clearly Heinlein was firmly convinced that he was more than capable of writing stories that Campbell would want to publish.

JANE: This sounds cocky, not competent.

ALAN: It worked though…

When Heinlein decided that he wanted a rockery and water feature for his garden, he designed and built it himself with no outside help – and he claimed that carrying rocks around was a great way to lose weight!

JANE: Uh…  I’ve done that, up to and including carrying rocks.  Does that make me Heinlein?

ALAN: No – but it shows that you share some degree of competence with him in at least one area.

In his novel Space Cadet, the hero is given a problem in orbital mechanics to solve. One day, just for fun, I decided to tackle that problem. It turned out to be a lot harder than I’d anticipated (if I’d known how hard it would be, I probably wouldn’t have started it in the first place) but I got there in the end and discovered to my delight that the solution Heinlein presented in the book was correct. Clearly he had done the same calculation himself.

There’s no question about it – Heinlein was very competent in a lot of fields.

JANE: Or he had a friend who was…  You’d be amazed at the number of hard SF writers who use outside resources.  There’s no shame in that.  In fact, it’s good science – and great science fiction.  Honestly, any writer who doesn’t make sure something like that orbital mechanics problem is correct would be an idiot.

ALAN: It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that he might use a friend. Maybe that makes me naïve, but I just assumed that Heinlein did everything himself because his self-reliance seemed such a fundamental part of his personality.

JANE: I actually have personal experience of having an error in one of my published works – but let’s talk about that next time…

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3 Responses to “TT: Is He In There?”

  1. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    I love this conversation subject! I do know of an author that definitely put themself in their fiction and I’m curious to see if you will talk about it. Great posts!!! 💖

  2. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    Stephen King in Song Of Susannah & The Dark Tower the 6th & 7th (or 7th & 8th) books of The Dark Tower series.

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