Heinlein was not a hero to me when I read him as a youth, just one of many science fiction writers that filled up my head with stories. We are talking about the sixties, but I was reading old library books that went back to the thirties and forties, so there was a lot to choose from. For ideas, I went to Clarke – who else? For adventure, Andre Norton every time. Reading Heinlein was like listening to stories told by one of my uncles.
Clarke’s people lived in cities and on spaceships. Norton’s lived in the wilderness – alien, but still wilderness. Heinlein’s people all carried Missouri in their blood, and Missouri was only forty miles away from where I lived. Heinlein’s characters were like goofy, distant members of the family.
I see Heinlein’s star fading, and I think his down-home characters won’t stand him in good stead in the future. He’s going out of style in the squeaky clean, politically correct present. It’s too bad; I liked his people, warts and all.
Of all Heinlein’s work I read when I was young, the story that took my breath away was his novella Lost Legacy. I see that Heinlein had three novellas in the running for this year’s retro Hugo for 1941. Lost Legacy should have been one of them.
If you are a writer, or want to be, seek out Lost Legacy, because Heinlein puts on a clinic in how things ought to be done. It begins with badinage between a surgeon (Coburn) and a psychologist (Huxley) is the local club. Using his favorite schtick, joking conversation between competent professionals, Heinlein gives a a thumbnail introduction to para-psychology. Then comes a phone call, and Coburn has to rush off to tend to an accident victim. He invites Huxley to watch. The description of the prep and surgery is spot on for the era, and rises to poetry near the end.
The accident victim was one of the psychologist’s subjects, a man who could “see around corners”. After Coburn has to excise part of his brain, his clairvoyance is gone. Huxley feels that esp must reside in that part of the brain and sets out, with his girlfriend, to prove his hypothesis.
Incidentally, to enjoy Lost Legacy, you have to keep reminding yourself that in 1941 the functions of various parts of the brain were unknown and that our relatively full complement of pre-human ancestors had not yet been dug up. You also have to resist a too-easy accusation of sexism. The teasing is sexist – or, by 1941 standards, normal – but Joan Freeman is fully a part of the team.
Once they have mastered clairvoyance, their difficulties really start. No one believes them, they are fired from their respective jobs, they set off to think things over, and they fall into the company of a group of adepts. They discover that they are part of a multi-millennial war for the soul of man, and fight in its last battle.
That’s seventy five pages squeezed into three sentences, and it’s all I’m going to give you. Read the original. Copies of Assignment in Eternity, which contains it, are not hard to find in used bookstores.
Okay, fair warning! If you aren’t a word nerd, or a fan of both Heinlein and E. E. Smith, you may want to stop reading right now. From here on, it gets pretty obscure, pretty fast.
Near the end of Lost Legacy, Moulton says, “We come.” This is present tense, actually used to mean the present moment, something it almost never means in ordinary speech. “Present tense” means usually, or habitually, or from time to time. It never really means now. “I go to the market” doesn’t mean right now, this moment, as we speak. It would be used something like, “I go to the market every Tuesday.” If we meant right now, this moment, we would say, “I’m going to the market right now.” Note the addition of am.
When I read Lost Legacy, in high school, during the sixties, I had never seen present tense used to actually mean present tense. It jumped off the page at me, a little, polished gem of wordcraft that I never forgot. I didn’t see anything like it again for a decade, until I read Children of the Lens, where E. E. Smith put the words, “I come, at speed,” into the mouth of one of his characters.
Pardon a digression. Past tense isn’t about the past. We don’t write historical novels in past tense, contemporary romances in present tense, and science fiction in future tense. Past tense is story tense. It says to the reader, “The events in this story, the sequencing, the cause and effect, are of this story only. They do not relate to your world. When you enter here, you become a part of the story’s space-time. If it is four o’clock on page nine when you read this as a child, it will still be four o’clock on page nine when you read it again as an old man.”
The ubiquitous use of present tense as story tense in modern writing offends me. It is clumsy, ugly, and there is no longer any novelty in it.
More decades passed before I discovered that Heinlein and E. E. Smith were close friends. I would love to know more about how much they bounced ideas back and forth.
The original magazine version of Smith’s Lensman series was published between 1937 and 1948. Lost Legacy was published in 1941. It seems like half the characters in Heinlein’s universe were named Smith, although that could as well be an “everyman” reference. There is no question that Lensman Ted Smith who has a cameo in The Number of the Beast is a shout-out to Heinlein’s old friend.
I would love to have been a fly on the wall of Doc Smith’s kitchen when the Heinlein’s came to visit.
Now, reading Lost Legacy again after many years, I am struck by its similarity to Smith’s work. It seems to capture the whole mojo of the Lensman series in seventy-five pages.